Sundance: Immersive Theater Piece Scarecrow Had Me Hugging A Live Actor In VR

K’ART’s one-on-one VR theater experience steals the show at Sundance 2020.

I’m standing at the center of a massive gray field surrounded by hundreds of equally-uncolorful scarecrows cursed with an eternity of guardianship. As I scan my surroundings, one of the stoic scarecrows bursts to life with a colorful personality. And although my new straw-filled friend is unable to speak, his body language speaks volumes. 

After a couple of rounds of limbo and a quick art lesson, the fairytale-style music comes to a screeching halt as a massive flock of firebirds comes diving down on our position. Using my right hand, which has now transformed into a giant red catchers mitt, I shield my scarecrow friend from the terrifying creatures. The weird thing: I can actually feel his hands grasping my shoulders in fear…

Image Credit: VRScout

Described by its creator, Sngmoo Lee, as “location-based arts,” Scarecrow is a one-of-a-kind immersive theater experience that combines live actors, temperature effects, and motion capture technology to offer one of the most ambitious interactive VR experiences in recent memory. Here’s the deal: unrelenting attacks from hundreds of terrifying firebirds have made a once jovial town of clowns, artists, and magicians completely forget they have hearts; that is for one especially upbeat scarecrow that just refuses to quit. Your job is to show the little guy enough love and compassion that he and the rest of the suppressed town-folk are able to break free of their eternal curse. 

Before I could begin my journey of helping these fine townsfolk regain their love and compassion, however, I first had to be properly outfitted with a variety of haptic accessories that would bring the experience to life. First, my face was scanned with a 3D depth camera in order to capture a range of emotions that would come into play later in the experience. I was then equipped with two hand-mounted Vive Trackers as well as a third hand-mounted device that offered various temperature effects before donning an HTC Vive Pro headset. This is where things got interesting.

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute, K’ART

Dropped in the center of an open field, a majority of Scarecrow had me interacting with an expressive scarecrow as we went about playing various games, painting 3D art, and performing a handful of magic tricks. Some of these interactions even featured temperature effects, which were made possible thanks to the previously-mentioned device strapped to my right hand. In one portion of the experience, I found myself face-to-face with a snowman roughly the size of a tree. Upon reaching out and touching the base of the towering structure, I could feel the cold of the snow on the palm of my hand. It’s a technique I’ve seen done numerous times in past experiences, but an effective one none-the-less. 

“We wanted to bring you into a world you’ve never before and interact with the characters in a way that never could be achieved in any other form of storytelling,” said Lee during an interview with VRScout. “You can really feel the story rather than being told; you make the story together with the character.”

“I want you to make you the one who make the story happen so that every user will have a slightly different or hugely different story at the end. Some people had a very emotional attachment to the characters. Some people just become a spectator and enjoyed the show. “

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute, K’ART

The real backbone of Scarecrow, however, is the live performance element. Unlike most VR experiences in which characters are brought to life using pre-recorded animations, the primary character featured in Scarecrow is controlled in real-time by a real human being wearing a motion capture suit and equipped with facial tracking technology.

This opens up a wide range of possibilities that would be impossible to replicate using modern technology. As previously stated, Scarecrow features zero dialogue; in order to beckon me over to a specific position or instruct me on a specific task, the actor had to communicate physically using their hands, posture, and body language. It’s a risky move, but one that pays off by allowing you to develop a closer relationship to the character while also leaving plenty of room for the experiences Dreamworks-esque music.

We’ve seen live actors play a part in VR experiences before (see The Under Presents). Scarecrow takes this concept to the next level by offering an extensive amount of physical interactions between the live actor and user.

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute, K’ART

It began with small interactions, like the actor physically plucking a flower from the palm of my hand. Once the birds began their attack however, these light touches became much more aggressive as the character sought shelter behind my back and clutched my shoulders in fear. As wave after wave of firebirds rained down on us from multiple directions, the scarecrow served as my spotter, physically redirecting me towards incoming attacks. 

The best interaction by far came at the end when after defeating the firebirds and restoring peace to the land, the scarecrow and I celebrated with a hug; a truly surreal action to perform in VR. The ending also made use of the 3D photos taken of my face prior to the experience, but I won’t ruin the surprise here by telling you exactly how they’re incorporated; rest assured, it’s pretty hilarious. Once I removed the headset, I was greeted by the live actor, who then bowed and thanked me for accompanying him on this journey. It was honestly one of the most impactful moments I’ve ever had in a VR headset, and I say that with zero exaggeration.

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute, K’ART

With the line between VR and motion capture technology continuing to blur, Scarecrow is just the start of a whole new wave of immersive theater experiences that are connecting live actors with virtual audiences. Still, it’s going to be some time before we begin to see mainstream immersive entertainment providers employing the same level of physicality as is featured in Scarecrow; the project is simply ahead of its time.

If you’re fortunate enough to be attending Sundance this weekend, drop what you’re doing and go check out this one-of-a-kind emotional rollercoaster. Scarecrow is located at the New Frontier Central location at 950 Iron Horse Dr, Park City, UT. For more information on the project visit here.

Feature Image Credit: Sundance Institute, K’ART

About the Scout

Former Writer (Kyle Melnick)

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