A SXSW to remember with who’s-who in XR creative technology showing face at the fest for the first time in two years.
SXSW was back in full force last week. Masked or otherwise (Texas is pretty lax), a frenzy of wild-eyed art, music, film, and XR-hungry visitors flooded into Austin for a week of back-to-back programming. From discussions around virtual land ownership to cloth made from washable circuit boards to NFT galleries and off-site multi-player audio adventures, SXSW delighted and demanded full attention this year.
In this best-of-round-up, we’ll try to capture the essence of the festival by highlighting groundbreaking XR experiences that were too novel, important, or strange to miss.
RADIO GHOST (INTERACTIVE – AUDIO)
Darragh: I was not sure what to expect from this experience. Mystified, I signed up for what turned out to be a whirlwind of being whisked off the premises of SXSW’s main block downtown to a mall several miles away. Along with five other participants, I was dropped off at the location (in broad daylight) and told to saddle up with headsets and smartphones for this interactive audio adventure. What followed was a tantalizing trip through a warped and distorted broadcast of 1980s music during which a melodic voice had me questioning my existence. I won’t give away the end, but the “ghost hunting” I was tasked with from the start, assigned by the smooth-talking British woman crooning through the static airwaves, taught me a few lessons in capitalism, to say the least.
EINRIDE (XR – TRANSPORTATION INDUSTRY)
Bobby: The Swedish-based transportation company Eidride brought their XR, AI, LIDAR powered autonomous pods to give SXSW attendees a preview of how the transportation industry plans on being more sustainable with their battery-powered vehicles. The company also showcased new technology that will help guide these next-gen vehicles help drive them through our streets and highways. Controlled by a CDL-certified operator, each Einride Pod features a cockpit-style workstation complete with three screens and a dashboard of controls to monitor the vehicle’s movements. XR technology plays a big role in providing the operator with information and data, while LIDAR and AI keep the vehicle on the road. The operator can also switch over to driver mode if the vehicle needs assistance. During a demo, I was able to drive an Einride Pod vehicle that was located in Sweden while I was in Austin, TX by moving a small lever to make the pod move forward or stop. I could also honk the horn and even turn on windshield wipers if I wanted to. All in real-time with zero latency.
COMPOSITION (INTERACTIVE – AUDIO & PROJECTION)
Darragh: This minimalistic interactive sculpture was presented alongside several VR works. A complicated joy of spontaneous collaboration between two participants and the technology itself, I was excited to find myself playing and questioning like a child. In moving small, etched wood blocks, one is transported into a sense of wonder and awe as the magic of Vincent Morisset’s musical instrument comes alive, as if from the ether. I saw a different future for live performance for the six minutes I had with this creation.
Bobby: This 25-minute VR documentary directed by Barry Gene Murphy and May Abdalla features the voice of Tilda Swindon as she walks you through a story about a young orphaned child diagnosed with schizophrenia. You experience the story from the mind of the child, as you watch everything unfold, unable to interfere. Throughout the experience you use your own voice to help bring thoughts to life. Goliath is incredibly colorful with images that immerse you deep in the struggles of mental illness. Goliath is a powerful example of how VR can be used for good.
MINIMUM MASS (VR)
Darragh: Directors Raqi Syed and Areito Echevarria balance mystery and humanity in this beautifully-crafted VR film. To watch this work is to witness a beautiful burden. I viewed the story of two lovers as if I were a small god capable of spying in every room, effortlessly twisting the world in front of me around on an X-axis, but with no power to aid or disrupt. I saw their experiences unfold and gradually realized that I played an integral part in their plot. Eventually, I was witnessed back by the characters and was left with a pang of connection.
WEIRD TIMES (VR)
Bobby: Weird Times is a VR series that takes a look at the life of a teenager and all of the unique challenges they face in today’s technology and social media-heavy world. Unlike a one-off VR experience, Weird Times approaches storytelling through multiple episodes with each episode digging deeper into each character. Directed by Ryan Hartsell and Ruby Wang, the series doesn’t hold back on tackling difficult but relevant subject matters. Things such as depression, body shaming, and identity are explored through animation and art. A solid cast of talented actors brings the characters to life with episodes running about 10 minutes. Watching an episode in VR was eye-opening and powerful. I would recommend this experience to anyone who has a teenager in their life.
BREONNA’S GARDEN (VR)
Darragh: I experienced the original iteration of this project by Lady Phoenix in 2021 at the Tribeca Film Festival as a humbling AR (augmented reality) experience. Since that premiere, it has been transformed into a virtual world featuring tributes from Breonna Taylor’s mother, fiancé, and sister, all volumetrically captured and life-size, speaking to the viewer from a place of pain and remembrance. I floated through a garden of flowers, pausing to hear the voices of Breonna’s loved ones as they reflected on her life and their loss. Breonna’s Garden is a touching tribute and ever-appropriate as a reminder that grief, when treated with care, can blossom creation.
GUMBALL DREAMS (LIVE VR THEATER)
Bobby: The Ferryman Collective brought its latest live VR theater show Gumball Dreams to SXSW and much like their other productions, it was a hit. In Gumball Dreams, you are tasked with traveling to a faraway planet by an alien creator named Onyx where you must help Onyx and others transition from one reality to another. Before you can, however, the weight of your own spirit must be assessed before doing so. Are you worthy? If so, are you prepared for the journey ahead? Written and Directed by Deirdre Lyons and Christopher Lane Davis, Gumball Dreams is a great example of how VR should be used with live storytelling.
Darragh: This three-part VR work, a stylized documentary about the 38 minutes of desperation Hawai’i experienced before a nuclear attack that never happened, effortlessly connected the stories of strung-out lives preparing to meet their end. Brought to the virtual screen by Atlas V and Archer’s Mark, this foreboding story of a false announcement for the very real threat of nuclear war made its point through interviews with those who were there and took me, as the viewer, into the chaos of lives that almost perished.
FUTURE RITES (VR)
Bobby: Future Rites is a collaborative VR experience from choreographer Alexander Whitley and director Sandra Rodriguez that immersed you in a world filled with animation, AI, and dance. Based on the ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’, you find yourself at the intersection of art and technology as your surroundings come to life. You can join in on the performance if you’d like, or sit back and watch. The more you move and participate, however, the more your environment will come to life. Your curiosity and movement can be an incredibly powerful part of this experience.
*Editor’s Note — Darragh was a speaker at SXSW this year, and both she and Bobby were judges for SXSW Pitch.*
Image Credit: SXSW 2022