During South by Southwest Film, 27 projects took over an exhibition room at JW Marriott, showcasing new works with novel approaches to storytelling. Virtual reality (VR) took center stage at this year’s festival, with advances in the technology opening the door for more unique and engrossing ways to captivate an audience.

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-22.7°C. Made by Jan Kounen, Molécule and Amaury La Burthe

-22.7°C is a project produced by Zorba with Arte, DV and Novelab, which puts the audience in the shoes of music producer Molécule, who ventures off to Greenland to capture audio bites from the Arctic to incorporate into his compositions. Guided by audio rather than visuals, the experience opens with the cracking sounds of an iceberg and deliberately deviates from a traditional narrative.

While VR has traditionally been visually-driven, this piece explores VR as a multisensory storytelling medium, engaging the audience through sound and touch in addition to sight. Participants are fully immersed in the Arctic adventure with a 360-degree view of the landscape, which is enhanced by tactile activations like a backpack that vibrates as an iceberg cracks. The experience culminates with a composition of the sounds captured throughout the journey.

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-22.7°C in action

“I think the mistake we made at the beginning of VR is we tried to apply too much of a film approach, where we would have a descriptive scenario and a strict narrative,” Amaury La Burthe, founder and creative director at Novelab, tells JWT intelligence. “Now we’re shifting towards building worlds where the narration and the emotions comes from [the user’s] interaction with the world.”

The non-linear narrative offers a sense of psychological liberation despite the physical confinements of the headset and space. “If you construct a world where you have a bit more freedom and it’s reacting nicely to what you’re doing, then you forget about the headset and you get this freedom,” says La Burthe. “You’re no longer watching something. You are part of it.”

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Intel Studios also taps into the freedom elicited through VR storytelling with an interactive dance experience featuring a virtual Reggie Watts. Runnin’ starts off in a small record store and then transports the user onto a dance floor. The exhibition space quickly falls away; the virtual environment combined with the music creates an absorbing experience – so much so that users often begin dancing with abandon, transported from the busy conference hall and lost to the virtual world around them.

Eleven Eleven
Eleven Eleven

NBCUniversal’s launch of Eleven Eleven, presented by Syfy, also goes against the narrative grain. Designed for both augmented reality (AR) and VR, the experience allows the user to follow the story from the perspective of 11 different characters, freely switching between them and even guiding them to some extent. “With Eleven Eleven, we are pioneering an innovative scripted format for science fiction content that blends the best of theatre, gaming and cinema to create unique VR and AR experiences,” said Steve Patscheck, executive VP of global programming at NBCUniversal International Networks. “By creating an original piece of IP, Syfy was able to design specifically for VR and AR, all the while exploring how immersive technologies could heighten the thrill of storytelling.”

These technologies are evolving storytelling, creating a space where artists can challenge regimented narratives and truly immerse the audience in the story. “If I watch a movie, I watch it,” says La Burthe. “If I’m in VR then I’m part of it.”

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