Notes from SXSW: Day 5
Joshua Sikora | On Mar 17, 2016
Virtual reality dominated the conference once again. On day five, we look at the promising future of VR and the wondrous uses people have already found for it. Learn how VR is making our world a better place in these highlights from South by Southwest…
A Conversation with John Gaeta and Ana Serrano
John Gaeta is the brilliant visual effects pioneer who crafted the “bullet time” effects in The Matrix and other groundbreaking VFX approaches. He is now the lead Creative Director for Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB — an experimental studio developing interactive VR experiences based in familiar cinematic worlds like Star Wars. Gaeta was interviewed by Ana Serrano, the founder of CFC Media Lab, a world-renowned institute for interactive storytelling.
Gaeta explained that, “There are a lot of people who are in VR right now because they have the keys to the car.” He looks forward to when it can become a “frictionless” creative process that allows for more creatives to take part in building VR experiences. “We need the thinkers, the artists, the moment-makers,” he pleaded. He drew the comparison to Stanley Kubrick, who was both undeniably creative and a strong technician. Gaeta is looking for who will be the Kubrick’s of VR, who can master the technology while crafting great experiences.
In order to move forward, Gaeta believes we need a language and a grammar to work in virtual reality. This is difficult though because the technology keeps changing. We’re developing rules for 360º video, yet that is soon to be eclipsed by volumetric cinema — videogrammetry, which will allow us to walk through and even interact with a filmed scene. ILMxLAB is exploring this kind of virtual reality through a variety of different Star Wars experiences.
One of the simplest reasons ILMxLAB is leaning on established franchises for their experiments is because there isn’t enough time for exposition in VR. People don’t stay immersed in an experience as long as they might sit for a film, so there’s not as much room for narrative storytelling. The most efficient way to establish a VR world is to offer something familiar, connecting to a context that is already established for the viewer.
Gaeta predicts that two things will help VR experiences gain traction. First, he’s pushing for serialized stories that can grow organically and build context over time. Gaeta wants to see short content developed, but then iterated out into an expansive world and narrative. The other major shift that is needed is that VR needs to become a social experience rather than an isolating experience. This is what a lot of companies are working towards and it will be “the X-factor between doing something for a few minutes versus getting immersed for hours.”
Gaeta is confident that the technology will become more approachable over the next decade, “It can’t be unhuman, so it’s inevitable that the technology has to shrink and become ubiquitous.” Many predict that the future will be some combination of virtual reality and augmented reality through the same device. “There is a convergence that is going to happen over the next ten years,” Gaeta explained, “where the AR stuff and the VR stuff which looks silly, will get mashed together into one ubiquitous device that plays everything.” These VR/AR devices, sometimes called mixed reality, will be able to have lenses with total transparency where the virtual elements are AR visualizations drawn on top of the real world and then with the same headset, we’ll be able to dial into total immersion, blocking out the rest of the world and leaving us wholly in a VR space.
As to the future of cinema, Gaeta doesn’t see traditional filmmaking going away anytime soon. “We love going to the movies to see people we can identify with. I don’t see the artistry that is mastered in film is going to go anywhere soon.” Ultimately, film and gaming cultures never meshed as well as one might expect, so Gaeta theorized that VR/AR might form a bridge between these two mediums.
Using Virtual Reality to Create Compassion / Virtual Reality: Is it the Ultimate Brain Hack?
VR is often described as an empathy machine and filmmakers are already seeing tangible changes in behavior resulting from this empathy. Whether it’s an increase in donations or a greater understanding of issues, VR documentarians are seeing impressive results from even their rough first attempts in this new medium.
There are fascinating uses being explored with VR. In one example, law enforcement are putting abusive husbands through an experience that places them in their spouse’s point-of-view to see how traumatizing their verbal or physical brutality is. Remarkably, these VR experiences have apparently dramatically reduced repeat offenses.
Others are using VR to help people get over fears and phobias — everything from a fear of public speaking to vertigo are being treated through experiences that are retraining people’s brains. Early VR — dating back to the nineties — has even been used to successfully treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Doctors have found that when changing bandages on burn victims that a cold, snowy VR experience actually is more effective than morphine in managing pain. Stroke victims are benefitting from a VR simulation that exaggerates the motion of their appendages, which is helping retrain their brain out of paralysis. Autistic children are being taught how to safely cross the street in VR and have seen a 70% improvement in learning through VR.
Even athletes are benefitting from virtual training. Football quarterbacks are learning how to read the field faster, find receivers and complete passes more accurately using VR. With motion tracking, coaches can capture a player’s performance and then within VR show in three-dimensions exactly how to improve.
“We do have to be vigilant,” warned Gabo Arora, a VR director for the United Nations. Arora worries that technology often develops unchecked and we embrace tools that may be useful, but also harmful to us, before understanding all of the ramifications. Nonny de la Peña, one of the pioneers of VR, noted that studies are showing that children who have been in VR have trouble distinguishing the memories of a virtual experience from real life.
Given how powerful VR has proven to be in affecting our brains, there are concerns that this power could just as easily be used to harm. Dr. Walter Greenleaf, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, pointed out that if we can use virtual reality to cure a phobia, we could also use it to create new fears in people. Panelists expressed the concern of VR generating false memories in people and they all worried about how some might use VR to torture others.
Despite these concerns, the potential for good continues to inspire these pioneers to keep exploring this new frontier. They’re committed to laying a strong foundation by creating experiences that challenge viewers to think, to act, and to grow. Neuroscientists continue to study the implications of this technology and they suggest that with every risk also come new ways for VR to improve our health and wellbeing.
Easily the worst film I’ve seen at the festival was a confounding wilderness drama, The Alchemist Cookbook. The film follows a mentally disturbed young hermit who apparently descends into madness as his experiments with alchemy and chemistry turn towards black magic. The film was barely comprehensible, attempting perhaps to be edgy or subversive, but ultimately just quite boring. It flirts with trying to be a horror film, but utterly fails to offer even the briefest of scares.
Thankfully, the next film was breath of fresh air. I Am Belfast is the latest work from filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins, whose brilliant Story of Film series is one of the best overviews of world cinema history I’ve ever seen. In his new film, he turns his lens on his home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Told expressionistically through the eyes of an aging woman who personifies the city, the documentary film beautifully captures this special place. Cousins weaves the history of Belfast in with fragments of his own narrative and gives voice to a plethora of locals as well. If you’ve seen The Story of Film, you’ll be well-accustomed to Cousins’ even-toned Irish brogue, which is balanced nicely in this film by Helena Bereen’s poignant narration. While lacking some of the technical polish of similar documentaries, Cousins’ latest effort is — like the city it portrays — “a sweet and salty delight.”