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After Facebook acquired Oculus VR for US$2-billion last year, it was to be expected that virtual reality experiences would be a key feature at this year’s SXSW Interactive festival.
One of the most publicised virtual reality experiences was brought to Austin by Paramount Pictures as a way of promoting the digital and Blu-Ray release of Interstellar. On an open field next to an iHop and across a building site, stood what looked like a deserted white dome. Inside three La-Z-Boys were ready to give you the feeling of entering the Endurance, the spaceship that took Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway into the abyss and beyond. “Crew members” were on hand to strap you into a virtual reality experience that takes you into a 3-D animated version of the spaceship. Nothing happens during this endeavour, you just sit back and slowly float through a zero-gravity space with notebooks and pens floating around. There’s nobody else in the spaceship either so it’s not like you’d suddenly be attacked by TARS (a prop of which is also on display).
— Interstellar (@Interstellar) March 15, 2015
Despite all the hype about the experience, I was pretty unimpressed even though I received a special badge following the VR tour officiating my status as virtual astronaut. That is because what I was most impressed by from all the VR experiences happening in Austin last week, came from an unassuming piece of cardboard.
Over at Google’s official space during SXSW, you had the opportunity to play a video game running off supercomputers in a distant data centre rather than a console. The processing power and the possibilities are something incredible. Next to that was a Birdly flight simulator which allowed you to control a machine that would make you believe you’re a bird. As the company describes it:
Unlike a common flight simulator, you do not control a machine — you embody a bird, the Red Kite. To evoke this embodiment we mainly rely on the sensory-motor coupling. The participant can control the simulator with his hands and arms, which directly correlates to the wings and the primary feathers of the bird. Those inputs are reflected in the flight model of the bird and displayed physically by the simulator through nick, roll and heave movements.
Yes, that was a cool experience in itself, better than the one over at Paramount Pictures. But what got me even more giddy was hiding in the opposite corner of the room: Google Cardboard. Doesn’t sound impressive? Oh believe me it is.
Google created a fold-out cardboard mount that has a slot for your smartphone running the new VRSE app (available on iOS and Android). As part of the mount, lenses with a 40-mm focal distance from your smartphone help to convince your eyes that the image you’re looking at seem three-dimensional. The beauty of the device is its low-tech elements: a magnet that through your phone’s magnetometer is used as a control to select options on the screen you’re looking at, and a rubber band to keep the mount in place.
Once you’ve figured out how to build your own mount (the easiest option if you’re not living in an area where Google can ship it to you), you can have different experiences on either the VRSE app or make use of the default Cardboard app that allows a brand new way to experience (among other things) YouTube.
But I have to say the experience that should blow you away comes from VRSE and was created especially as part of NBC’s celebration of 40 years of Saturday Night Live. Filmmaker Chris Milk and the virtual reality production company VRSE.works recorded the entire episode from various points of view inside the Rockefeller Center’s legendary Studio 8H where SNL is taped weekly.
The company will be releasing parts of what they shot over the coming months, but have already made the first part of what they filmed available. Ahead of the start of the special 40-year episode, comedian Jerry Seinfeld took the stage to warm up an audience of celebrities. While doing this, a virtual reality camera was mounted on the top of “Camera One”, the main camera into which hosts of SNL look while performing their opening monologue to the show.
As you’re watching Seinfeld making jokes from atop that camera (the one shooting what you see in this video above), you can look down to the cue cards held up for him to read; turn around to see the camera man look up at you; turn towards the audience and find Jimmy Fallon and Michael Douglas in the audience. It’s an experience like no other that makes you realise virtual reality holds far greater potential than what we’ve mostly experienced in cinemas and gaming up to now. Imagine watching your favourite TV show in virtual reality or witnessing news events like this. The possibilities are truly endless.
Click here to build your own Google Cardboard or follow these links to download the VRSE app (Android or iOS).