8th Annual Lumiere Awards honor the best in VR Entertainment

On February 13th, the 8th Annual Lumiere Awards were handed out by the Advanced Imaging Society and the VR Society.  These groups “were founded as a non-profit organization by major Hollywood studios and top technology companies to advance the arts and technologies of 3D, HDR, VR, AR and 360-degree content for professionals active in entertainment, media and marketing.”  So, they make visual entertainment look cooler, which is great news for millions around the world as visual content becomes ever more accessible on a variety of devices.

Although I did not attend the awards themselves (nominees and winners can be found here), I was able to attend the Preview of a variety of the nominated Virtual Reality (VR) projects.  I had experienced VR a few times before, on a variety of devices.  After playing some simple games, stepping onto the sets of blockbuster movies, and just enjoying some great scenery, I thought I had a handle on what VR could offer.  Despite already being a fan, this preview showed me that VR is just getting started, and the potential exists to do so much more than I knew.

The VR Experiences

First I watched the short film “My Brother’s Keeper,” produced by PBS Digital Studios, about two brothers that reunite on a Civil War battlefield.  It is now available to the public on virtually every VR platform, plus it’s on Youtube with 360-degree video.  It’s a good story that puts you in the middle of a battle, yet it knows how to keep your focus on what’s needed.  The slow-motion was impressive, and it was also the first time I saw something that seems so simple in hindsight–the VR camera does not have to stay vertical.  All my previous experiences with live-action VR had the camera remaining upright, just as the person wearing the headset is.  This, though, was a shot with the camera sideways, which led to some cognitive dissonance as my brain was seeing images that didn’t match what gravity was doing to my body.  It didn’t take long to adjust and opened my eyes to a ton of possibility for VR applications.  Another short film was “Perspective Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor.”  Already having won awards at the Sundance and Telluride Film Festivals, this story about a police officer arresting a young black man is shot from 4 points of view–the officer, the young man, his friend, and the officer’s partner/backup.  Although audio problems reduced the full impact, the story was powerful and realistically utilized some restrictive camera placement, where I couldn’t see what I wanted to because the characters I was inhabiting also couldn’t.

Another kind of live action short was The Challenge, made by brigantine films. This one made you into a character in the story.  You couldn’t speak, but you are very much a part of what is going on, and it provides an intense experience that shows not all VR puts you in situations that you’d necessarily want to happen in real life.

I followed that with a “room-scale music video” called Grace.  It was essentially a female cyborg pole-dancing in a forest at night.  The visuals were impressive, and it was the first time that day where I had virtual hands to use.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything to do with them.  The creator told me I could touch the pole-dancing cyborg, and I did once–the virtual hands provided some haptic feedback, which was neat.  After that, it just felt a bit creepy, so I wandered around admiring the visual until the song was done.

Gaming

My favorite demonstration was Gnomes & Goblins. Created by Jon Favreau, who received a special award at the ceremony, this was a preview of an entirely created world–no live action footage here. The world was amazingly interactive.  Set in a magical forest, you can pick up candles, throw acorns, open doors built into the trunks of trees, and meet a small gnome whom I assume will be your friend/guide to the world.  The demonstration is not very long since the game is not complete, but it ends with a fun hook/twist that made me want to keep playing for as long as I could.  The sense of being in this other place is so thorough that at one point I was down on my knees trying to look under a tree root–and succeeded! The only drawback was that this game requires a space large enough to move around.  Due to the small quarters of the preview area, there were times that I tried to reach for items only to bump into the walls of the booth.  This detracted from the immersion, but in the correct environment, this wouldn’t be an issue.  I can’t wait to see more of this one.

Showing off equipment and video, but unfortunately (and understandably) not doing demos, was The Void. This company currently has a Ghostbusters experience open in New York, where you strap on a proton pack, grab a gun, and go bust some ghosts.  Even bigger than room-scale, the Ghostbusters attraction is built in a large enough space to have walls and hallways, so you actually walk around wearing the VR gear, and are not just confined to a 9×9 square.  The video made this look like a ton of fun, and that makes 2 must-see attractions to do if I ever get to New York soon (the first being Sleep No More).

Then I got to go to space!  Home: A VR Spacewalk was a simulation of what astronauts on the International Space Station might have to do if something goes horribly wrong.  Like the movie “Gravity” but shorter.  I hooked myself to the structure of the station, pulled myself along by the handholds, rode a space elevator, got blown off by debris into a dizzying head-over-heels tumble, and finally made it back to the airlock with short bursts of compressed air.  It was a rush and vaguely educational too! The technology here could be used just as much for a real simulation as for an entertaining disaster experience, at a fraction of the cost of using actual equipment.

Creativity

Finally was one of the simplest concepts, yet most amazing experiences of the day–Google Tilt Brush.  When I heard about it, I thought, “Oh, so it’s basically just MS Paint in VR? Boring.”  I was so wrong.  The number of options is amazing, from the types of brushes, to the types of medium altogether (you can paint with fire, bubbles, electricity…), to the colors and special effects available.  And although it should be obvious in VR, it wasn’t to me, but you can paint in 3D! You can extend the paintbrush far from your body to paint a background, then move the brush closer to you to paint on an entirely separate layer of reality–you’re not just painting over what you’ve already done before, you’re painting in front of it.  You can put a sky above you, and a tornado around you, and then you can walk 2 steps away and turn around and see what you’ve created from an entirely new point of view. By the time I was figuring out some of these features, I had to stop or I knew I would have wanted to spend all day in there–and I’m not even an artist!  I’d love to see what someone with talent could do with this.

It was a fascinating morning and I could have spent much longer seeing more demonstrations and further exploring the ones I only got to glimpse.  The main takeaway for me is that Virtual Reality is going to be successful.  It’s simply so much fun that I know people will be willing to pay for it.  The big question now is, how do ordinary people get to experience it?  There is a market for home usage, but some of the more elaborate programs need a bigger environment.  For those, maybe a standalone commercial space, like the Void’s Ghostbusters location, is the answer.  Or maybe it’s time for arcades to come back, only instead of paying quarters into a machine, you’re paying several dollars for 15 minutes with a headset, and you’ve got a menu of dozens of choices.  I don’t have a headset at home, and I’m not likely to get one while I live in a condo, but as of now, I will actively seek out new VR experiences that are open to the public.  I anticipate a slow start, but steady growth each year as the delivery methods become more prevalent.  Keep your eyes peeled for VR in your area, folks.  This is the future.

Ryan S. Davis

I love board games, thrill rides and travel. I'm happy to watch and review all kinds of movies, from mainstream blockbusters to art house indies. As a Warner Bros. employee, I'm privileged with a glimpse of Hollywood many don't see, but my opinions here are my own and not representative of the company.

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