London’s famous Oxo Tower, with its spectacular view of the city skyline, provided an impressive backdrop for the 2018 Raindance Gallery of Immersive Stories and Interactive Worlds. But I wasn’t there to watch the sunset over the river, I was at the Raindance VR launch party to leave the real world behind and be immersed in bold and evocative stories. These are some of my highlights from this year’s Raindance selection, curated by Mária Rakušanov.
I was absolutely blown away by The Apple, which made its World Premiere at Raindance. The multi-user experience takes people on a poetic journey through the different stages of life with animation inspired by the colours of Buddhist mandalas and music so enchanting that, when I took off my headset, I felt blissfully relaxed. Chinese director Bin Gu, of Yue Cheng
Media, said he used the principles of Chan Buddhism to convey the message that “honesty and love is a door to open everything”.
At Raindance, The Apple was set up as a 40sqm room-scale experience, using HTC Vive Pros and backpacks, which allowed two people to freely explore the magical world. With more space, up to four people can experience The Apple together. Raindance VR curator, Mária Rakušanov says this year’s festival included more multi-user experiences than ever before. “Creators are becoming much more ambitious, and that means we have to grow with them” she said.
I had high hopes for Chorus, created by Tyler Hurd in association with Chris Milk’s studio WITHIN, and the psychedelic sci-fi spectacular did not disappoint. The real world quickly melted away as I was transformed into a fantastical female warrior and set off on an epic journey to battle weird and treacherous monsters. The soundtrack by French dance duo Justice really got my blood pumping and, perhaps because I was aided by a glass of prosecco, I was soon waving my arms through the air to shoot glittering laser beams at giant space creatures.
Chorus is easy to love because it’s a really fun experience, but beyond that it’s also a story about female empowerment and in this current political climate that really resonated with me. Up to six people can experience Chorus together, as Hurd follows the trend towards social VR experiences, although at Raindance it was unfortunately presented as a single user experience.
Is Anna Ok?
I’ve spent the past decade working as a journalist so I am always interested to see how news organization are utilizing VR. Is Anna Ok? from BBC Stories is an incredibly moving two-person experience, telling the true story of twin sisters Anna and Lauren whose lives are changed following a serious car accident. The experience is split into two parts so users take on the role of either Anna or Lauren and hear their side of the story. Anna’s story revolves around her recovery from a traumatic brain injury, while Lauren’s focuses on being plunged into the role of caregiver for her sister.
The experience is told in the twins’ own words, based on months of interviews conducted by BBC reporter Camila Ruz. Users are able to interact with objects in the VR world, which transport them through the twins’ memories. I have twin sisters so found it particularly fascinating to view the world through the eyes of Anna and Lauren. But even without such a personal connection Is Anna Ok? does a great job of showing how there are two sides to every story. It’s also an excellent example of how interactive VR has a place in non-fiction storytelling.
Grenfell: Our Home
Grenfell: Our Home, by independent production company Parable, for Channel 4, is VR documentary storytelling at its absolute best. The film goes behind the news headlines and offers a a really unique and intimate perspective on what the Grenfell community was like before tragedy struck.
The way it combining 360 stereoscopic testimonies from survivors with animated sequences evoking life in Grenfell before the fire is bold, innovative and highly evocative. I consider myself to be a pretty thick-skinned hack, but Grenfell: Our Home had me tearing up in my Oculus Go. As seen in my previous top picks, I am drawn towards social and interactive experiences because I think this is where the most exciting potential for VR storytelling lies, but Grenfell: Our Home has set a new benchmark for 360 films and is a reminder that there are still boundaries to be pushed in this medium.