Virtual Reality Innovations Again Turned Heads at SXSW

Crowds flocked to see what’s next in this emerging medium.

During her Convergence Keynote talk at SXSW 2018, immersive journalism pioneer Nonny de la Peña described how a witness to the fatal beating of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas’ by U.S. Border Patrol officers in 2010 came into de la Peña studio to be part of a piece based on video and audio that she and another witness had captured on the scene.

“I also brought her into a motion capture suit, so that she could reenact what she did that night with her body — ‘I was walking along, I was looking over the thing, I was filming, I was recording,’ ” de la Peña said, demonstrating each action physically herself. “She was there telling her story with her body as much as her words.”

De la Peña founded the Emblematic Group and has been called the godmother of virtual reality. Emblematic’s immersive journalism has taken viewers to Greenland to witness the drastic effects of climate change, into solitary cells, and to Guantanamo Bay. An overflow crowd came to see her describe the work behind their productions and talk about how immersive journalism gives the viewer — literally — a whole new point of view.

 
Nonny de la Peña. Photo by Mike Jordan/Getty Images for SXSW

Nonny de la Peña. Photo by Mike Jordan/Getty Images for SXSW

 

Using the body as much as audio or visuals was a thread that ran through much of the VR/AR programming at SXSW 2018, be it in journalism, immersive experiences, or the Virtual Cinema exhibition. As production methods get more sophisticated in their ability to capture the volume of a space and equipment that can deliver physical sensations becomes more common, producers are looking across disciplines to find ways to figure out what works best. If “show, don’t tell” is the rule of traditional storytelling, “touch, don’t just show” is becoming one of VR creation.

“It’s true future tech but the timeline to mass adoption is less clear. It will change everything, like the smartphone in the early ’00s did.”

This year’s Virtual Cinema, located in the JW Marriott, showcased more than two dozen experiences. Some of them featured artistic collaborations, like Terrence Malick’s VR debut Together, a short 360 dance film made with Facebook and the activist dance group Movement Art Is. Others required full participation from the audience, like Meow Wolf’s highly popular mixed reality art installation The Atrium, which put participants on a 13-foot haptic platform resting on air-filled pillows.

Much ongoing VR haptic technology development has focused on creating equipment that users can stand on or wear to experience input from the outside. But the fact that our senses can be “tricked” means there are ways to generate sensations from the inside out, and even to experience the physiology of other people.

 

Sanctuaries of Silence at Virtual Cinema. Photo by Abigail Craig

 

Microsoft researchers Daniel McDuff and Christopher C. Berger’s conference session, titled “Augmented Minds – VR That Pushes Perceptual Limits,” was one of those that warranted an encore due to audience interest. McDuff and Berger showed their audience how illusions created in VR can alter the user’s physical perception, and how the use of haptic technologies can extend the sensation of touch outside the body.

“We proposed the panel because we wanted to expose people to new concepts from scientific research they might not have been familiar with and show how they could be applied in VR,” says McDuff. “Neither Chris nor I are primarily VR/AR researchers, but we use these technologies as a tool to help in scientific research.”

The audience participated in demos of two applications: With Touch in VR, users wear a headset and hold controllers that can create the sensation of touch between them, while CardioLens allows users to see a person’s heart rate just by looking at them, showing a heart rate and pulse graph overlay on the subject’s face. The potential applications of that kind of feedback could extend a VR experience from a visual and spatial point of view to a very literal biological one, in which it’s possible to feel another person’s heartbeat, as well as the increase or decrease different emotional states induce.

As long as the cost and processing requirements of VR mean that it is still relatively tethered to its infrastructure, it will continue to gain ground incrementally until its as-yet-undetermined big technological leap pushes it forward. “Once wearable AR tech — or MR tech, really — catches up and becomes more readily available to the public at affordable pricing, it will be the next tech to go wide and change the way we interact with the world,” says SXSW VR programmer Blake Kammerdiener. “It’s true future tech but the timeline to mass adoption is less clear. It will change everything, like the smartphone in the early ’00s did.”

If that mass adoption tracks with de la Peña’s efforts to induce empathy, perhaps her hopes will be granted. “We’re also living in this very dark, intense time in the way that we treat each other,” she told her audience. “I don’t believe we’re meant to be this way. I think kindness can prevail.”

 
Beethoven's Fifth at Virtual Cinema. Photo by Ann Alva Wielding

Beethoven's Fifth at Virtual Cinema. Photo by Ann Alva Wielding

 
 
 

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