Interactive Film in 360 Degrees

Many fans of VR associate 360-degree film most strongly with one thing: watching instead of participating. Satisfying a role this may be –  the more time I spent in the goggles, the greater the wish becomes to be part of the story. I start catching myself exhibiting little ticks: nodding, tiptoeing around, laughing, speaking, gesticulating into an empty room; only to realize: “Oh right, that doesn’t work here.” Quite frustrating, actually; and I was not the only one to feel this, as they are amongst us: interactive films in 360 degrees, of which I have compiled some particularly striking examples in this article (including my favorite of 2017!).

VR experiences are not simply interactive or non-interactive, nor are they distinguished as simply linear or non-linear. A large gray expanse spans the space between black and white – an exciting area where a lot of things have been happening lately, especially in regards to storytelling! An important guiding principle: the more the interactivity, the more active the users must be! At times, only a little button needs pressing, while at other times, the user commands unlimited power in open world games such as Fallout 4 VR. Go for it.

Putting games aside for a moment; instead focusing on the world of interactive VR film, two new distinctions arise: film in the “real,” virtual world (article in German) and interactive film in 360 degrees. On a side note, most interactive filmic experiments have been produced for mobile VR.

If you’re interested in the specific differences between an interactive film and a game in regards to narrative techniques, have a look at my article covering the topic, which delves a bit deeper into the theory.

360-Degree Film With Interactive Elements

Compared to VR film, 360-degree film gives its viewers less freedom. Other than the restricted movement, these films usually contain a relatively modest amount of interactive elements.

Let’s be honest, though: a thoroughly gripping story will not lose its immersive grasp just because roaming around in it is not an option. Classic film, lacking any trace of VR whatsoever, proves this irrefutably. This becomes a different story regarding the possibilities of interaction, which can certainly heighten immersion, as long the right interaction pairs with the right situation. What this might look like? See for yourself:

Asteroids!

What’s it about?

Asteroids! is Baobab Studios’ second animated VR film following Invasion! – itself a delightful short film that garnered them much attention. In its sequel, Asteroids!, the viewer reencounters the two five-legged extraterrestrials, Mac and Cheez, and promptly joins them on a space mission. There, they and their little robot dog named Peas do battle with all sorts of troubles, one of which is – spoiler alert! – an asteroid. Very funny and designed with love.

Where can I experience it?

The non-interactive Cardboard version can be found in the Baobab app for Android and iOS. As of now, the full, interactive version has only been released to the Samsung Gear and Daydream (I played it on the Gear and can recommend wholeheartedly).

What are the interactive elements?

The viewer slips into the shoes of – not the dog, no – a robot. Interaction ensues via highlighted surfaces the viewer must fix with their gaze while using the Gear’s control surface (or using the external controller). For example, the beginning has the viewer letting the little dog out of its cage. As a general rule, any interaction is based on the film’s characters asking the viewer to help – there is no obligation to do so. This means one can help out or sit there, stubbornly doing nothing.

The developers comment on this:

„Instead of passing control of the story to the viewer – something that could result in variable pacing and branching narratives – the viewer has the option, but not the requirement, to participate in the story.“ Source: Variety

Evidently, they consciously chose to avoid a branching story. This, in my opinion, is exactly where the approach unravels. Although I had great fun interacting and the experience did feel markedly more immersive than an animation sans interactivity: ultimately, the viewer’s action (or inaction) carries no significance whatsoever. The characters react the same way, the story remains unchanged.

David Liu explains this decision:

„So instead of branching storylines, we are dealing with branching emotions – both in terms of how the character relates to the viewer emotionally as well as how the viewer might feel based on the choices she has made.“ Source: see above

This notion didn’t quite work on me – I developed a devilish appetite for sweet idleness, just to see what would happen if I did nothing… The experience remains an obvious recommendation nonetheless. Take the tour of the spaceship. You’ll die laughing.

The Turning Forest

This short film might be an old one, but it’s a goodie worth experiencing. In 2016, one of the most renowned media houses, the BBC, dared to venture into the unknown. Similar to the previous example, The Turning Forest is entirely computer generated and an interactive 360-degree experience.

What’s it about?

The story revolves around the childhood memories of a young boy. Within a forest, he encounters a curious creature and soon he embarks upon a mysterious journey.

Where can I experience it?

You can watch the experience in the broadcaster’s own app, though it is only available on the Google Play Store. I watched it on my Samsung Gear, which also carries the app in its store.

What’s interesting about it?

The film focuses undeniably on the auditive level, appearing more as an audio book than a film. Spatial sound surrounds the viewer with sound just like in real life, with every sound coming from different directions. A growl comes from behind, and one turns to see an animal standing there. Audio enthusiasts can discover more about the sound and its creation via this link.

What are the interactive elements?

The beauty of The Turning Forest lies in its interactive elements’ playful workings and avoidance of any long explanations. The mechanics are simple: interactions are controlled by the viewer’s gaze, just like in Asteroids! and Notes on Blindness (see below). Wherever one looks, a small white dot appears, dragging a trail of flying pages in tow and aiding the viewer’s orientation. One does not need touch a button in order to activate anything. Instead, the viewer can play with their environment directly and without any “mechanical” interference. This playfulness revolves around music – the viewer creates music with nature. Birds flutter away with a “ping”; dolphins jump into the air, playing a musical trio. Teeth turn into a xylophone.

As pretty and tender these pastimes may be, they do not alter the course of the story. Granted, the user is afforded enough time to explore the mechanics in the beginning. However, they tend to distract from the actual narrative during the experience. Sometimes one catches themselves wishing for a short break to play with the dolphins, birds and the monster for just a while longer.

Notes on Blindness

Almost a “classic” in VR business – at least in Europe; as Notes on Blindness saw a dizzying festival career in these parts in 2016.

What’s it about?

In the 1980s, author and theologist John Hull had to face slowly losing his sight. He recorded his experiences and perceptions in an audio diary, upon which the VR experience and an eponymous film are based. Six scenes in total attempt to answer the question: what does it feel like to go blind?

Where can I experience it?

You can download the app on pretty much any smartphone and watch it using Cardboard. You can also find the experience on the Arte360 app. I don’t know whether it was due to my Cardboard goggles or my phone, or whether I just had an outdated version loaded – I was unable to use any of the interactive elements, in any case. The whole thing works noticeably smoother and in a higher quality on the Samsung Gear or Oculus. Then, things get magical.

What’s interesting about it?

Pretty much everything. The entire experience is computer generated. Similarly to The Turning Forest and Asteroids!, this is a 360-degree experience with interactive elements. Plus, just like The Turning Forest, Notes on Blindness directs the attention towards the auditive level. However, the experience runs considerably longer.

What are the interactive elements?

Of the six chapters – or scenes – in total, three feature interactivity. One particular chapter allows the user to generate gusts of wind using their gaze and the Gear’s controller. It all feels very intuitive – and the interactive elements tie into the story more naturally than is the case in The Turning Forest, for instance. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the voiceover only continues speaking when the user participates, which is not as patronizing as it might sound. In fact, this mechanic empowers the user to explore the scene in peace and progress at their own speed. While the interactive elements may not alter each scene’s course, the whole experience is laid out scenically – one can move through the scenes in order or define a different order.

Miyubi

Here it is, my VR highlight of 2017. Produced by one of the biggest players in the field of VR film: the adventurous Felix & Paul Studios from Canada.

Where can I see it?

Running about 40 minutes long, Miyubi is the longest VR film I know. Brilliant in principle, but not without its issues. I tried watching the film on the Samsung Gear in the summer of 2017 and found myself growing ever more desperate. The app can be found directly in the Gear store – no problem. However, the film’s length, comes with a correspondingly hefty file size, which – even if enough space is available and the download succeeds – overworks the Gear. The longest stretch I made was 15 minutes, after which my phone promptly let me know that it was overheated and needed a breather. And that’s how it went for the remainder of the film… All for the better now, that Miyubi is available for the Oculus Rift. Hallelujah! So, buy one, borrow one, pressure a friend that has one… it’s worth it!

What’s it about?

The film eschews animation, instead opting for a meticulously shot production with wonderful actors. The story takes place in the U.S. sometime during the eighties. There, we meet a wacky but otherwise completely ordinary family, comprising of the father, the mother, three kids and the rather confused grandfather – in the midst of which is Miyubi, a robot the father brought from Japan as a surprise for the kids. The viewer is placed in the robot’s body, which explains the confined movement found in 360-degree film quite reasonably. Peering through the robot’s eyes, the viewer can observe the daily family madness and quickly get to know what is going wrong.

What are the interactive elements?

There are only four elements – all of which are well hidden. By finding three clues, (which the user fixates with their gaze to collect) an additional scene is unlocked. There, further unlockable bonus scenes are hinted at. I will not reveal how to get there in detail – though I can tell you it is no longer the gaze, but the head movement that matters. This allows you to catapult yourself into the bonus scene at any time, irrespective of your progression through the film.

What’s interesting about it?

Aside from the stellar acting and touching story: definitely the idea to keep additional scenes on hand and integrate these into the story. The underlying technology is able to discern the viewer’s orientation and activate corresponding parts of the story. Miyubi may be a 360-degree film – however, it resolutely demonstrates what lies in store for future, “true” VR film.

VR Noir

Yet another example of what will be possible in the future – this coming from the year 2016; virtually half a lifetime in the world of VR.

What’s it about?

Former police officer Veronica Coltrane has started working as a private investigator. Short on money, she takes on a case that strikes her as strange from the very beginning. The viewer plays as Veronica, trying to solve the case.

Where can I experience it?

Ideally, on the app in the Samsung Gear where it is the most fun. Those wishing just to give it a try will still be more than satisfied using a Cardboard and the app from the Google Play store and App Store.

What are the interactive elements?

For the largest part, the detective and her surroundings are real. The viewer can participate using their gaze or the controls – collecting evidence, inspecting a newspaper clipping on the wall, or observing the windows of the house opposite to theirs using binoculars. One specific dialogue even allows the user to choose between multiple responses and “speak,” so to say.

What’s interesting about it?

Different scenes are unlocked depending on the user’s responses! This means the user is empowered to actually alter the course of the story – something none of the other experiences have been able to offer yet. Admittedly, this tentative foray into nonlinearity remains brief: the end waits up with the same scene no matter what. One cannot help but wonder what would happen if this mechanic were taken further… Otherwise, VR Noir is heavily influenced by classic, “flat” film: the narrative jumps between first- and third-person perspectives, and cutscenes made of layered 2D videos are scattered throughout the film. Interestingly enough, this does not hinder the feeling of immersion at all. The author discusses his approach in detail in this interview.

Much to my regret, the film is really just the first episode of a project initially conceived as a six-part series. Currently, this is the only episode. Upon my inquiry, the production company Start VR said they are hoping to be able to produce further episodes in future.

Fingers crossed!

Translated as always by the great Jan Mc Greal

Published by Pola Weiß

#Psychologist #FilmFanatic #CineBinger #TVandOnlineEditor ## Well told stories have always captivated me, no matter where they came from. I happened upon the incredible world of virtual reality while working in the bustling media sector (including SWR and ARTE). I finally launched VR Geschichten in 2017 and have since been discovering the unending depths of VR from my base in Berlin.

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