One of the more amazing virtual reality experiences at the Sundance Film Festival this week is SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime. Directed by Eliza McNitt, it transports you into a black hole in VR.
It’s a virtual experience of one of the deepest mysteries of our cosmos. As the first of a three-part VR series, you find yourself in the darkest corner of the Universe and reflecting on your connection to it.
In the VR experience, you’re drawn closer and closer to a black hole until you are finally sucked into and torn apart. Actually, that’s not quite correct. Black holes are so powerful that you are literally turned into strands of light – what astrophysicists like to call “spaghettification”.
Language struggles with these concepts. You’re compressed into a long, thin strand of light when you enter a very strong non-homogeneous gravitational field. It’s not easy to describe. But virtual reality is the perfect platform to visualize it, to (in a way) experience it.
And as you experience a black hole in VR, it takes an unexpected turn. Sucked into the depth of nothingness, you become it and begin destroying other stars around you.
It’s a deeply creative work of immersive storytelling where you start out as the victim only to become the protagonist.
A black hole in VR
Eliza McNitt brought together a range of creative talent (including astronauts and astrophysicists) to create the VR experience. The music is by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (from S U R V I V E); you know them for the music in Stranger Things. The work is narrated by Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, The Tree of Life), and the executive producers are Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel.
This is only the first part of Eliza McNitt’s VR series and her first work at the Sundance Film Festival. Last year, she did the Fistful of Stars VR experience, which premiered in Austin, Texas at SXSW.
[Update 01/24/2017: The news just broke in Variety that “Spheres,” produced by Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures, will be acquired by CityLights in the first seven-figure deal for VR at a film festival. According to Spheres producer Jess Engel in Wired: “This is a historic moment for the VR industry; it signifies that a viable storytelling medium has emerged. Deals like this establish VR as its own marketplace for independent creators, producers, and investors.”]
VR, AR and the impact on immersive storytelling
There’s an excellent interview with Eliza McNitt on the Oculus Blog. Here’s her answer to the question of immersive storytelling:
How do you think VR and AR will affect the art of storytelling moving forward?
I think the rules are yet to be written, and that’s what’s so exciting. We are the pioneers of the language of virtual reality, and we are the ones creating these experiences, telling these stories, and defining people’s expectations. With interactive storytelling, what I find most compelling is that this isn’t a video game, it’s not a documentary, it’s not necessarily a traditional narrative as well. We’re creating interactive experiences that define their own genre and their own unique recipe that can’t just be defined by our traditional labels for the kinds of stories we’re used to experiencing. I very much see SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime as a character-driven story where you’re sent on a journey and you experience change. Defining that through the lens of this new medium is what I find so exciting.
If you’re working in the field, you’re writing the rules for an entirely new form of storytelling. It will transform not only the way we understand the mysteries of the universe but who we are within it. And it will shake both education and entertainment to their roots.
VR experiences like Wolves in the Walls and Eliza McNitt’s work at Sundance are breaking new ground – see them as soon as you can.
Emory Craig is a writer, speaker, and VR consultant with extensive experience in art, new media, and higher education. He speaks at global conferences on innovation, education, and ethical technology in the future. He has published widely and worked with the US Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Living at the intersection of learning, games, and immersive storytelling, he is fascinated by AI-based avatars, digital twins, and the ethical implications of blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual.