Democratizing Virtual Reality: Robot Remix VR

Screencap from Gloomy Eyes

Nested in a hot pink and yellow room decorated with abstract yet cozy design, the Robot Remix Immersive XR transports viewers into cutting-edge cinematic and experiential worlds of virtual reality. The exhibition premiered on Saturday 6th at the sp[a]ce gallery at Ayzenberg in Los Angeles, offering the general public an intimate space to get individually immersed in VR content. The first phase of Robot Remix VR, which runs until July 28th, features six pieces including award-winning Gloomy Eyes, Your Hands are Feet and Virtual Virtual Reality. 

Curated by the Sundance’s New Frontier and Tribeca International Film Festival insiders, Milo Talwani and Paisley Smith, the exhibition is on a mission to bring traditionally inaccessible experiences to everyone. 

As theaters chase the next premium offer for their moviegoers, investing in VR becomes increasingly interesting. Theaters can play a big role in making these experiences accessible, and a handful of exhibitors have already begun investing in VR for their high-tech patrons. Boxoffice spoke to the duo of creators about their plan to democratize VR and the role of the movie theater in that mission. 

Can you tell us a little about the origins of the project?

Milo Talwani: We wanted to create a space where you can show up, you can pay a small amount of money and you can see high-quality experiences in a very relaxed, friendly environment where you’re not fighting in a raucous over a set of headsets or struggling to figure out how to work the technology. Creating events in general is the main focus for us. With this one, the gallery was curating the show with a lot of physical, robot related art. With that we were focusing on robots, remix culture, creating warping worlds but eventually we also wanted to include fun, pop, family friendly things.

Paisley Smith: These are really good experiences in getting an understanding of the different ways you can experience VR. Here you have some cinematic pieces, like Gloomy Eyes. Your Hands are Feet and Virtual Virtual Reality are more experimental and experiential, Virtual Virtual Reality falls more under a game umbrella and then Unceded Territory, the piece that I created is more like video art or an experiential performance mixed with a little bit of cinematic history.

Milo and I met working at the Sundance Institute for different departments of the New Frontiers Lab. Milo comes from a creative technology and music background and I come from film production. We’re both really interested in getting more diverse creators into the space and for us one of the most important things we can do is to show work. Because the hardest thing in VR is that people still don’t know what that is.

Milo Talwani: That’s something that comes up in conversations with VR creators constantly. Probably the most successful piece of VR in the world right now is by Jess Engel. We were talking the other day and she was saying “my mom still hasn’t seen that piece”. Her mom lives in Los Angeles, a major city, her daughter made the most prominent piece of VR in the world and she’s never seen it because in the end, it’s not easy and accessible. So, we’re working really hard to try to change that.

Paisley Smith: One of the things that Milo and I wanted to do with this was create an atmosphere where if you weren’t familiar with the technology, you could come in and there would be a docent who would be approachable and friendly to help you. Also, the projects themselves are super fun. Most of the projects are around six minutes. You’re not in there for a very long time. It’s very bite-sized content that’s approachable. My project is pretty political, but I think it’s important to have a range of what’s possible. You can create new imaginative worlds or fantasy, but you can also have pieces that would reflect our real world and make an impact.

There is a wide range of pieces here but what they all have in common is that they’re very thought provoking.

Paisley Smith: Your Hands are Feet is made by a pair of amazing artists, Amelia Winger-Bearskin and Sarah Rothberg. And they’re both incredible artists but they’re first of all advocates for getting diverse creators into tech. Amelia is First Nations and also started the “Stupid Hackathon” which is basically a creative space for people to come in with their craziest, wackiest ideas with a sense of playfulness and rebellion. That kind of tongue-in-cheek approach is obvious in Your Hands Are Feet to me. It’s absurd. It’s showing you a part of the world that you don’t get to access every day.

What are some of the barriers that prevent people from accessing VR?

Paisley Smith: First, the cost of it. Hopefully, eventually these will be accessible in places like cinemas and libraries, places where they can be maintained, and you don’t need to worry about the problem of upkeep. Access to technology is the biggest hurdle. If we can have places like this where it’s accessible, I think more people would try it. That would lead to more people liking it, which would lead to more spaces for it and then have more content because more creators would be trying it out and be more excited about it.

Milo Talwani: We’re sort of in the phase of VR like when you wanted to watch a movie in film and you needed a projector and a projectionist. There are a number of developments that have pushed that forward in the last couple of months, like the Oculus Quest which is doing great things for democratizing. To get a really high-quality experience it still requires a multi-thousand-dollar computer. If you’re making a piece that requires that, it’s only going to be accessible by people who can afford that unless people create event structures that allow that to be shared with everyone. High-quality VR will not be seen by anyone unless there are democratic structures.

Paisley Smith: And not even from a cost basis, just emotionally, isolating yourself in that space can be daunting. So, for me a big thing is having docents giving explanations and context for what you’re consuming so that when you’re in there you feel safe and free to explore. It’s like you’re going in outer space! You need to have the context of where you are and how to move through the space.

Several theaters have attempted to invest in VR like IMAX until recently or Cinemark. Do you think that there will be more VR experiences in theaters in the future, contributing to that democratization?

Milo Talwani: A cinema is a comfortable place where people can go with their friends to see amazing art that talented people have worked on. There’s this whole ritual: you go to get popcorn and your drinks, you get your ticket and it’s like you’re sliding into this space and you watch a movie that people spent hundreds of dollars to make. It’s not quite what we’re doing here but almost. This is a comfortable space to be with your friends. This is like a cinema in function, not in form. This is a social space to watch content.

Paisley Smith: Snacks is an issue though. Because you can’t eat and use hand controllers… That’s why bite-sized content is useful. Because you can take a break, take a sip of your Coca-Cola and get back into it. I think the idea for a theater also is the shared experience of watching content and that is something that has been experimented in the VR space. Like there have been opportunities for people to sync their headsets and watch projects together.

Milo Talwani: One of my proudest achievements is that I wrote a piece of software at Sundance. We had a cinema with 40 different VR sets and the program, when you press that button, launched the same VR experiences for all the headsets. A room full of people watching the same thing. It doesn’t quite work with pieces like this because if you’re in a room full of people and you’re playing Virtual Virtual Reality and you’re running around freely, you’re going to whack someone.

E-gaming in cinemas is becoming a very big trend. Do you think that’s where VR could come in in theaters?

Milo Talwani:  They’re going to have to build new structures for that but yes, eventually all those chains are going to invest heavily in VR because that’s where some of the story tellers are going. Some stories are going to have to be told using headsets and trackers responding to your movements. It’s a given.

The line-up until July 28th includes:

Micro Giants

Directed by Yifu Zhou

Micro Giants is a computer-generated VR experience that gives an unprecedented and highly engaging perspective of insect life. Depicting true-to-life insect behavior within a jungle setting, Micro Giants is visual storytelling at its best. It combines educational content and immersive entertainment to share the laws of the insect kingdom.

Your Hands are Feet

Created by Amelia Winger-Bearskin and Sarah Rothberg  

Your Hands Are Feet is a VR experience that simulates new metaphors for yet-unnamed feelings. Co-directed by Amelia Winger-Bearskin, modeling and concept art by Niv Bavarsky, modeling by Jordan Speer, animation by Lily Feng. Programming by Aaron Meyers, Reese Donohue, David Lobser.  Debuted at the 2017 Engadget Experience.

Invasion!

Created by Baobab Studios

Eric Darnell, Chief Creative Officer, first had the idea for the bunnies facing off against the aliens after watching the 1953 film, War of the Worlds. In the film, despite all their incredible weaponry and technology, the invading aliens are ultimately defeated by the Earth’s microbes. It struck Eric that some of the most unassuming organisms on the planet were the downfall of such “advanced” aliens. In INVASION! Eric took that concept to the humorous extreme by pitting the aliens against two of Earth’s meekest creatures — fluffy little bunnies. Combining the concept of these heroic bunnies with the slapstick Laurel and Hardy antics of the two aliens, INVASION! highlights the bumbling nature of invaders who fail to account for the least among us when drawing up their attack plans. 

Gloomy Eyes

Created by Jorge Tereso and Fernando Maldonado

Narrated by Colin Farrell

Logline: When the sun got tired of the humans it decided to hide and never rise again. The darkness awoke the dead from their graves. A zombie kid called Gloomy and a mortal girl called Nena fall in love and immerse in a deep connection that not even the most powerful man in town can destroy.  

The multiple award-winning narrative premiered at Sundance and has been recognized by SXSW Festival, The Webby Awards, and many more.

Virtual Virtual Reality

Developed by Tender Claws

Virtual Virtual Reality is a game about VR, A.I. and our shared sci-fi fever dreams. Put on VR headsets in VR to escape your manager and explore deeper realities in this two hour game. In the near future, most human jobs are automated. What is the purpose of humanity? Activitude, the Virtual Labor System, is here to help. Your artisanal human companionship is still highly sought by our A.I. clients. Strap on your headset. Find your calling . . . Pssst. . . Sure, you could function like a therapy dog to an A.I. in Bismarck and watch your work ratings climb, but don’t you yearn for something more: adventure, conflict, purpose? Escape behind the scenes of Activitude by putting on VR headsets in VR to jump between realities, or vacuum up the world around you with your Activitude Brand Poly Cleanup Tool! Outrun Chaz, your manager, as he attempts to boot you out PERMANENTLY. Along the way, uncover the story of Activitude’s evolution from VR start-up to the “human purpose provider” it is today.

Unceded Territories

Created by Paisley Smith and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun

Unceded Territories is an interactive VR experience where the audience creates a colourful natural world made up of acclaimed First Nations artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s icona pop surrealist art style. Through infectious interaction, the participant creates a beautiful, natural paradise. They experience freedom and joy and the satisfaction of control over this land. A Tribe Called Red provides the powerful music for the piece. Spirit Bear warns the participant of their parlous role in this new world. But it is too late. They are performing colonialism, draining the world of its resources. As the pulse of this world beats faster, they are increasingly faced with their lack of control. The wheel of environmental destruction has been set in motion. Evil Colonial Snake emerges, leaving a trail of bones behind him, and devours the audience in one gulp. Inside the psychedelic belly of Colonialist Snake the participant is faced to see the environmental chaos they have created.


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