Category Archives: Film

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge: A “Real” Virtual Reality Experience

The Force was with me! During my recent trip to California for the DelliVR conference, I had the opportunity to visit Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Park in Anaheim. Although this website is devoted to immersive technology (including virtual reality), I thought it would be interesting to cover an immersive entertainment experience that’s more “real” than “virtual.”

Although Galaxy’s Edge offers minimal use of virtual reality in a traditional sense, it’s main attraction does incorporate some VR elements (more on this below). Much like the rest of Disneyland, and theme parks in general,  the entire environment is a “real” experience in which elaborate sets, props, and “cast members” are all working together to convey the illusion that you have traveled to another time and place: the planet Batuu, on the outskirts of the galaxy.

Disney and Universal are undoubtedly experts at creating immersive experiences in highly themed environments. Galaxy’s Edge is no exception, and at this point in time it serves as the  pinnacle of theme park experiences available anywhere.

No headset required

20190617_082035When Walt Disney created Disneyland in 1955, he invented a brand new category of entertainment. For the first time, visitors could enter worlds of fantasy and adventure, or travel into the past and future, simply by passing through the gates of his new theme park. This was “virtual reality” long before computer simulations were invented. The objective of Disneyland was to immerse visitors in environments that transported them to other times and places. Through the use of elaborate set design, special effects, and costumed cast members, Disneyland managed to create virtual worlds out of brick and mortar.

From 1955 until today, Disney and Universal have evolved the theme park experience to include much more detail, immersion, and interactivity in the various “lands” of their parks. Notable examples of such immersive environments include Cars Land (Disney California Adventure), The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Universal Orlando/Hollywood), and Pandora, the World of Avatar (Disney’s Animal Kingdom). As each of these attractions have launched over the years since 2010, they have truly raised the bar for theme park design by both companies.

20190617_092411Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is comparable to Universal’s Wizarding World, as far as the high degree of immersion and interactivity provided. However, Galaxy’s Edge has gone the extra mile in creating back stories for its cast members, in order to truly bring life to the world of Batuu. Guests can interact with cast members and learn various greetings, such as “Bright Suns” (good day), or “Rising Moons” (good evening). Cast members are trained to remain in character when interacting with guests, to avoid spoiling the illusion.

Various shops and eateries are present, all themed in the world of Star Wars. There’s even a cantina that serves Blue Milk, one of the other-worldly beverages depicted in the films. Opportunities to build your own lightsaber or astromech droid are also present, for those who wish to spend the credits. Iconic characters like Chewbacca, Rey, Kylo Ren and stormtroopers make appearances throughout the day, interacting with guests in authentic encounters which outperform the typical “meet and greet” experiences found in the rest of Disneyland.

The main attraction

20190617_095857Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run is currently the only “ride” available in Galaxy’s Edge. A second attraction (Rise of the Resistance) will be launched at Disneyland in January 2020.

Smuggler’s Run is probably the most authentic recreation of a movie experience ever presented in a theme park attraction. A great example of immersive storytelling, this attraction fully engages guests via visual, tactile, and auditory features that combine to create the illusion that you are actually piloting the Millennium Falcon. The use of elaborate architecture, vehicle/set design, props, sound effects, and CGI video all contribute to the effectiveness of this experience.IMG_0188

To compare it to a typical VR experience, Smuggler’s Run surpasses anything currently available in VR today. The ride is experienced in a life-size cockpit (exactly as depicted in the Star Wars films) which serves as a motion simulator. This enables the physical sensations of traveling through space, by making quick dives and turns through various planetary and space environments. The experience is also enhanced with interactive elements, where each of the six crew members can participate by pressing various buttons or levers to perform specific tasks.

Lessons in VR design

20190617_080211Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge has raised the bar for location based entertainment. While the LBVR industry is also thriving with venues such as The VOID and Dreamscape, they simply cannot replicate the tactile, visual, and physical elements offered at Galaxy’s Edge. Although Disneyland’s new themed area has a limited number of attractions and activities, it has effectively created a sense of reality unmatched by VR.

Because of its ability to efficiently manage multiple guests at a time, Galaxy’s Edge succeeds as a social, multi-player immersive environment. A microcosm of real-world role playing, it includes many elements that would be right at home in a multi-user VR game. Comparing it to current social VR platforms like VRChat, Disneyland’s new Star Wars land provides many features that could potentially enhance those platforms by introducing more organized activities and structured gameplay.

Final thoughts

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is a truly amazing achievement. As a life-long fan of the films (ever since I was a ten-year-old in 1977), I felt like I was exploring the biggest Star Wars playset ever created. Disney has created an immersive environment that captures the feeling of being present in those films, using physical and tactile elements that simply cannot be reproduced in VR.

The unfortunate “reality” is that such environments are few and far between, and can only be produced with exorbitant amounts of money. The good news is that VR has the potential to enable the creation of comparable experiences without spending billions of dollars. Let’s hope for the continued passion and hard work of talented artists, designers, and technologists collaborating to create the virtual worlds of our dreams.

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Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite AR Game now available in Australia and New Zealand

Augmented Reality company Niantic has announced the beta launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite in Australia and New Zealand. In development since 2017, this new AR game offers gameplay similar to Niantic’s other games Pokémon GO and Ingress. According to the developer:

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite combines content and characters you know and love from both the original Harry Potter series and the Fantastic Beasts films in a unique Wizarding World experience. It’s up to you to ready your wand, prepare your potions, brush up your spells and help prevent The Calamity from exposing the secrets of the wizarding world.

As you step outside and explore the world, the Map will reveal Traces of magic, highlighting the location of magical Foundables. While these Traces can be found all around you, certain Foundables may be more likely to appear at various types of real-world locations including parks, banks, municipal buildings, college campuses, libraries, monuments, zoos, art galleries, and more. Cast a variety of spells to overcome the Confoundable magic, keep the magical Foundables safe, and send them back to the wizarding world. By returning Foundables, you’ll earn unique rewards that can be tracked in the game Registry.

More information and signups are available at the website.

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Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

 

VR Review: Vader Immortal on Oculus Quest

When the original launch titles were announced for the new Oculus Quest VR headset, I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of Vader Immortal. As a lifetime Star Wars fan, the idea of entering the Star Wars universe in virtual reality is extremely appealing to me. Having played countless video games in George Lucas’s universe, it’s only natural to want to have a Star Wars experience in VR.

Last year, I was fortunate to have tried Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire at The VOID in Orlando, Florida. That was my first experience of Star Wars in multi-player VR, and I was not disappointed (see my review).

Vader Immortal is a single-player game, which takes plays in the same setting as Secrets of the Empire. Set mainly at Vader’s home base on the planet Mustafar, this is an episodic story (currently Episode One is the only chapter available), in which you play a smuggler who gets captured by the Empire. Brought to Vader initially as a prisoner, you are  eventually revealed as having inherent abilities which are key to the story.

Interactive Story

I will not spoil the plot here, but I will say that this initial episode hits on many of the iconic moments and experiences that fans have always wanted to participate in. Be the captain of a smuggler ship? (Check.) Use a lightsaber? (Check.) Escape from a detention cell? (Check.) Meet Darth Vader up-close? (Check.) There are more moments like this in the hour-long experience, some of them surprising and unexpected. Suffice to say this is a very satisfying experience of “living a Star Wars story” that you could not have in any other medium (books, films, or non-VR games). If you are a Star Wars fan and have not experienced virtual reality, Vader Immortal is the best way to do it.

The new Oculus Quest has been reviewed elsewhere, but I will say that the graphical quality and performance of Vader Immortal are fantastic. I experienced no glitches or technical problems, and the gameplay was easy enough to be enjoyable but not overly challenging. In fact, the main story mode had little if any gameplay elements, but mostly involved interacting with objects in the environment in order to advance the story. This was perfectly fine for me, as I embraced the experience more as an adventure rather than a challenge. (I also want to mention that the voice actor playing Vader gives an amazing impression of James Earl Jones. I really thought it was him, until I watched the credits.)

Lightsaber Dojo

Fortunately for those who are looking for more of a challenge, Vader Immortal also includes a wave-based game mode called “Lightsaber Dojo.” This mini-game involves lightsaber combat with training remotes (the floating drones which Luke Skywalker used on the Millennium Falcon). Highly replayable and offering rewards for completing different challenges, this mode provides more than an hour of additional gameplay. My only complaint would be that there is no combat versus other characters (only robotic opponents). Hopefully this will be included in a future update, or in an entirely new game.

For the price of only $9.99, Vader Immortal offers one of the best VR experiences currently available on the Oculus Quest (if not the best). I’m really looking forward to future episodes of the story!

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Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

 

Gymnasia VR Review: Unique and Creepy Stop-Motion Puppetry

Gymnasia, the latest project from Felix & Paul Studios, recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It’s also available for viewing at home on Oculus VR headsets, for the price of $4.99.

Clocking in at around six minutes, this short film is strange but engaging, presented in a gothic style that is creepy but not scary. Fans of Tim Burton will definitely enjoy the experience, but it’s worth seeing by anyone interested in cinematic VR and/or animated films.

Although there is not much of a plot, this VR experience is very atmospheric and effective. Set in an abandoned school gymnasium, creepy music plays while children’s shadows appear on the walls around you. Soon a basketball starts bouncing on its own, followed by many more of them, as their sounds reverberate from the walls. Eventually, you are introduced to a pair of animated dolls dressed in gothic outfits, who engage in a bizarre musical performance.

Gymnasia

As with any stop-motion projects, it’s clear that a lot of time and creative energy was spent on this project. The attention to detail of the miniatures is remarkable, and VR enables a close-up view of the artistry at work. I only wish it was longer, with more of a story. Hopefully there will be more to come in the future.

Here is a behind the scenes look at the making of this project:

More information is available at the Oculus Store:

Step into the stillness of an abandoned school and enter GYMNASIA, a place where the ghostly ephemera of a lost childhood await you. Recall the particular sights and sounds of a child’s world through the echoes of ball games, school lessons and choir recitals. GYMNASIA reanimates the memories of those forgotten days.

This ground-breaking, cinematic VR experience is the first collaboration between the National Film Board of Canada, Felix & Paul Studios and Clyde Henry Productions. Blending 3D 360-degree video, stop-motion, miniatures and CGI, GYMNASIA pushes the art of puppet animation into uncharted territory. The first VR experience to induce the elusive anxiety that occurs when the lines between what’s real and unreal are blurred beyond belief, GYMNASIA is a dark dream–unsettling and weirdly wonderful. Duration: 6 minutes 29 seconds.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

 

Best of Sundance AR and VR Experiences

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival is over, but there were plenty of high quality virtual reality and augmented reality experiences. The Verge has published their list of the best AR and VR from the festival. Among their top selections:

BEST AUGMENTED REALITY: A JESTER’S TALE, created by: Asad J. Malik

BEST 360-DEGREE VIDEO: 4 FEET: BLIND DATEcreated by: María Belén Poncio, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, Damián Turkieh, Ezequiel Lenardón

BEST VR ANIMATION: GLOOMY EYEScreated by: Jorge Tereso, Fernando Maldonado

BEST SOCIAL EXPERIENCE: MECHANICAL SOULScreated by: Gaëlle Mourre, L.P. Lee

BEST INTERACTIVE MECHANIC: THE DIALcreated by: Peter Flaherty, Jesse Garrison

BEST WRITING: DIRTSCRAPERcreated by: Peter Burr, Porpentine Charity Heartscape

BEST INSTALLATION: SWEET DREAMScreated by: Robin McNicholas, Ersin Han Ersin, Barnaby Steel, Nell Whitley

The complete article with full reviews can be found here.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

 

 

How to Train Your Dragon VR Skydiving Experience!

It is now possible to fly with dragons in virtual reality! At iFLY Indoor Skydiving locations, there is a new How to Train Your Dragon VR experience.

Using the latest VR advances along with their patented wind tunnel technology, iFLY provides several immersive skydiving experiences at over 50 locations worldwide. At iFLY you can “float atop a rush of air and be completely immersed in footage from an actual skydive or atop a dragon, while wearing our state-of-the-art VR helmet and headset.”

How to Train Your Dragon VR allows you to experience the movie in a whole new way:

This fully immersive, highly exhilarating experience takes flyers inside the mythical Viking world of Berk.

  • Spread your wings with two new virtual reality flights, choosing from either Hiccup or Astrid and soar like a dragon alongside Toothless.
  • Wearing a VR equipped helmet, flyers are guided by instructors through a breathtaking journey!

The new VR experience is currently available, launching in conjunction with DreamWorks’ latest animated feature How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

Check out a preview below:

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

Experience Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in Virtual Reality

You can experience a modern performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet today in virtual reality. Currently available for free at the WGBH YouTube channel, the new 360-degree video performance is called Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit.

Best experienced in a VR headset (such as Oculus Go or Google Daydream View), this one-hour experience provides an intimate first-person perspective of the performance. The New York Times has provided an in-depth article about the performance, excerpted below:

The film plays out in a single location, at the center of a large, run-down hall with a stage to one side. It is a cavernous room outfitted with lamps, a collection of shabby and ornate furniture, a patchwork of rugs and an old car.

Actors moves around the room, encouraging viewers to explore the space. Sometimes a sound that seems to come from over your shoulder is a prompt to turn around.

The 360-video can also be viewed in a standard web browser:

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

Disney Working on a Secret VR Project

According to CNET, the Walt Disney company has greenlit a new “top secret” virtual reality project. Little is known about this new project, other than it will be produced by Jeff Gipson, the director of Cycles (the latest VR short film from Disney Animation Studios).

“What Cycles is proving is VR is something the studio wants to explore,” said Nicholas Russell, one of Cycles’ producers and the head of the Disney professional development program that created it in four months. “The fact that they greenlit another one this quickly is proof that they might not know exactly what tomorrow looks like for Disney and VR, but we’re going to keep exploring.”

Since Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014, virtual reality has been struggling to achieve mainstream adoption. Despite promising developments in location-based VR such as the VOID, and new standalone headsets such as Oculus Quest, there is much doubt about whether VR will ultimately be successful. It’s critical that major media companies like Disney continue to create content in VR, to ensure the future of this promising technology.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

The Limit VR Review

The Limit is a new virtual reality film, directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Michelle Rodriguez and Norman Reedus. A short film in stereoscopic 180-degree format, this is a high-octane action film, putting you in the role of a bionic-enhanced human on a fast-paced quest to find another cyborg. Told in a no-holds-barred series of quick cuts and action snippets, you barely have time to breathe as you move from bar-fight to car-chase to jumping-out-of-an-airplane.

Despite director Rodriguez’s established film credentials (From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City, and Spy Kids), in VR his technique leaves something to be desired. Although the high production values are evident, the overall experience was too fast and furious to be enjoyable. I have nothing against action films, but this production makes clear that extreme close-ups and quick cutaways are not conducive to a pleasant experience in VR.

Most of the story is told from a first person perspective, with you as the protagonist. However, at multiple points in the film we switch to an objective POV which can be disorienting and intrusive. It would have been much more effective and immersive if the original POV was retained throughout.

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At best, The Limit is an interesting VR experiment from a high-profile filmmaker. Unfortunately, the cinematography employed is not appropriate to the medium at hand. Let’s hope that other filmmakers can figure out how to utilize top name talent in an effective VR production.

The Limit is available on all major VR platforms including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Windows VR, PSVR, Gear VR, Oculus Go, and Google Daydream.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

 

Age of Sail Review: A Fantastic Voyage in Virtual Reality

The immersive animated VR film Age of Sail is now available for viewing at home. Google Spotlight Stories released the film on November 14th, on multiple platforms. It’s an astonishing and emotional adventure between a young girl and a seasoned captain, who meet unexpectedly at sea.

Set in the early 1900’s, Age of Sail is one of the best examples of how to use virtual reality to tell a story effectively. Although Google has released a number of Spotlight Stories over the past few years, this one is different. Approaching the artistic level of a Pixar short film, the film takes viewers (travellers is a better word) on a journey with captain William Avery. Avery is a grizzled sailboat captain who resents the fact that steamships are beginning to replace his beloved sailing vessels. He sets forth on a journey alone, but unexpectedly encounters a spirited young girl named Lara, who manages to rescue him from his sullen demeanor. Short but very moving and effective, the story is one of adventure, companionship, and determination.

Directed by Oscar-winning animator John Kahrs, the film stars Ian McShane as the captain and Cathy Ang as Lara Conrad. Age of Sail originally premiered at a number of film festivals earlier this year. A traditional “flat” version of the film was created after the VR version was produced, and is currently available on YouTube.

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The VR experience

Because it’s available in both traditional and VR versions, Age of Sail provides a perfect case study for comparing the differences in watching a standard film vs. an immersive VR production. It’s also possible to experience different levels of immersion and interaction, depending on the type of VR headset used.

I was able to experience the film in three different ways:

  1. The “flat” version on YouTube
  2. The limited VR version on Google Daydream (which provides three degrees of freedom)
  3. The full VR experience on Lenovo Explorer (a Windows Mixed Reality headset which offers six degrees of freedom).

The filmmakers made conscious decisions in how the various versions were presented, in order to take advantage of the medium at hand. In the traditional “flat” version, the film uses long, medium, and close-up camera shots to tell the story in a traditional way. The viewer is limited to only what the director wants you to see.

In the VR version, we become a more direct participant on the journey, although we cannot affect the story in any way. The perspective feels like we are a passenger on the boat; a passive observer, yet always close to the action.

3DoF vs. 6DoF

It’s important to note that the best way to experience Age of Sail is on a VR device that provides six degrees of freedom (6DoF). Although the viewing perspective is essentially the same as in 3DoF, a 6DoF headset allowed me to lean forward, stand up or sit down, and even walk up to the characters. I could look closely at their faces, or inspect the props they were holding (a photograph, for example).

In the limited 3DoF experience on Google Daydream, it was possible to look around in 360 degrees, but my position was locked to a fixed point in space. I could not lean forward or get closer to any part of the scene. The experience was still enjoyable, but limited because I naturally wanted to move around within the scene.

Is VR the future of film?

In a word, no. The traditional motion picture art form will live on for the foreseeable future. Virtual reality will not take anything away from the work of current filmmakers who continue to create “flat” films.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that the introduction of VR into the filmmaker’s lexicon will be disruptive in the way that CGI technology impacted stop-motion special effects. When Jurassic Park arrived in 1993, it effectively ended the need for stop-motion photography (made famous by artists like Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Phil Tippett). The stop-motion art form lives on in the works of Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and others, but CGI has largely replaced its use in live-action films.

However, virtual reality gives us a new perspective and a new approach to film-making. As a viewer, I naturally want to get closer to the action, and VR affords me that possibility. When the story is told effectively, and I am given a choice to look where I want in a scene, I become a participant rather than merely a viewer.

The challenge for VR filmmakers is to avoid giving viewers too many choices, or granting them too much autonomy in what they can do on their own. That being said, Age of Sail provides a perfect balance between freedom and restriction, allowing viewers to feel like they are really on board a sailing ship, in the midst of an unforgettable story.

Age of Sail is available for free on Steam, YouTube and via Google Spotlight Story’s iOS and Android apps.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

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