Top Photo by Christopher Demelo
VR has come and it’s here for the long term. At E3, Sony promised 50 different VR games by the end of 2016, while Ubisoft impressed with Star Trek: Bridge Crew and Capcom brought back Resident Evil for a seventh incarnation with a playable VR demo.
Here in Toronto, VR is taking a different form at POP, a three-part event in which the TIFF Digital Studio is showing off some of the alternatives to triple-A Virtual Reality.
“We bundled the summer into three different collections,” said Jodie Sugrue, the Director of TIFF Digital Studio. “We have amazing art, we have documentaries, we have experimental cinema. So we have a range of things to choose from. Most of our showcases are usually done with the industry in mind and TIFF wanted to do something different.”
POP 01, the first event in the series, ran from June 24-26 and showcased impressive experiences like Marshmallow Laser Feast’s In The Eyes Of The Animals, which is set in Grizedale forest, a real forest in the UK that was 3D scanned for the project. You put on a headset that looks like an oblong bowling ball that developer Ersin Han Ersin argues is a better fit for the rustic experience.
“There’s a tumblr called white man wearing Oculus Rift. I’m not even kidding. It’s real. It is full of pictures of men wearing an Oculus Rift with their mouths open. It doesn’t feel right if you take a piece of technology and hang it from a tree,” said Ersin.
Once inside the headset, I saw the forest from the perspective of a frog, an owl, a mosquito, and a dragonfly. Each animal had a different way of viewing the world. The mosquito saw the carbon dioxide in the air, the invisible gas making the forest visible as I buzzed from tree to tree. The dragonfly can see 12 different wavelengths of colour while humans can only see three, and the brightness of the forest along with the perfect hover movement of the dragonfly was fascinating. The owl’s peripheral vision had out of focus blotches of colour that squeezed together in elaborate detail.
“[Owls] have conical eyeballs so their peripheral vision is bad and they can’t move their eyeballs. They have to move their full head,” said Ersin. “That is why we are forcing you to behave like an owl by moving your head to look around.”
Another installation that was more experience than game was Light Spirit, which is the result of a collaboration between New Tropics (Toronto) and Friends With You (LA). The character in Light Spirit is a cute little tube with a face that you can interact with via controller. Petting it causes it to radiate rainbow colours and fly across the stage like a falling star. At one point I bopped it on the head and it flew away scared of me. I immediately apologized and lowered my hands so it would know I was sorry (it’s what the developer told me to do). It came back and I was relieved not to have lost the trust of the fictional tube of smiles.
“The initial idea was what would [it] be like to receive a hug in VR,” said Adam Robezzoli, a developer with New Tropics. “Game feel is a huge part of VR. This creature doesn’t really exist but I feel like he does because I’m getting haptic feedback and that feedback feels analog with how close I am to it.”
“What works in VR? As a company we have very specific ideas, short experiences that have interactivity that don’t follow any video game conventions,” added Henry Faber, a Co-Founder at New Tropics. “We can do things like Light Spirit, which is accessible, engaging, and you can do other experiences. We took out the violent sort of things.”
Kokoromi’s Superhypercube is a more traditional gaming experience. You start out controlling a cube and pass it through a cutout wall in the distance. The cube gains additional cubes as you rotate it to fit into the outline, and it ups the difficulty by rotating that outline at the same time. It’s an intense and obsessive experience that’s equal parts Tetris and Lumines.
Playthings, by Always and Forever Computer Entertainment, was equally exciting, and had me manipulating digital gummi bears and burgers to make music. At first it was charming but lacked depth. Then I entered a mode in which the foods flew at me while connected by a thin line. Tapping them in the air caused a musical ensemble and replicated the experience of something like Rock Band. It was a simple yet awesome experience that has done more for VR than any other game I’ve played.
POP 01 also featured a music video in VR with Surge, which was created by animator and musician Arjan Van Meerten. The music video, which is reminiscent of something Tool would produce, added a backpack with a built in speaker unit that drove home the sound design. (In The Eyes of the Animals also had a bass backpack setup.)
That’s only a sampling of the things I saw at POP 01. The 35 hundred square foot space is open throughout the summer for more VR experiences. According to Sugrue, the first POP focused on music and art. POP 02 will run from July 15-17 and will to be more about empathy and verbal storytelling. POP 03 (August 19-21) will look at experimental cinema and showcase “filmmakers who have embraced the medium and doing really cool and exciting things.”