The Sundance 2020 New Frontier program offered an amazing selection of VR experiences. One of the highlights this year was Metamorphic, an exploration of movement and play in VR. Designed by Lead Artists Matthew Niederhauser, Wesley Allsbrook, Elie Zananiri, and John Fitzgerald, it’s a remarkably compelling multiplayer experience.
Here’s the quick description from Unity’s blog.
In this social VR experience, the body becomes a vehicle for expression within majestically drawn worlds. Participants explore the radical possibility of effortless transformation as movement and play alter appearances and surroundings.
It’s set in a beautiful world created by Wesley Allsbrook. In entering the experience, you discover that you’ve been transformed into a different being, a flowing form, almost like a living plant. The space around you seems to slowly move and breathe as if it is responding to your presence. We both kept reaching out to touch and interact with parts of it, fully expecting to feel something real.
Soon you realize the other participant is also in the space with you. It’s simply magical, and you feel free of your preconceptions about yourself and others. It’s as if you’ve become a vehicle for expression and creativity.
Here’s the trailer on Vimeo for the experience.
We’ve seen VR experiences where you step into a painting. In Metamorphic, you feel like you’ve become part of the artwork itself.
Exploring Movement and Play in VR
In some respects, Metamorphic reminded us of Maria Guta’s amazing VR experience, Interlooped, in last year’s Sundance VR program. Interlooped was a volumetric-capture installation in which you and performance artist Maria Guta are captured in multiple video loops. You became an avatar engaging with other avatars, unable to break free of your virtual space. Or, as the Sundance 2019 program described it, “a kind of reverse Schrödinger’s cat box.”
As an experience of movement and play in VR, Metamorphic is fundamentally different. You’re not an avatar but an artistic form, flowing through an ever-changing environment. An avatar seems superfluous when you’ve merged with your environment.
Social VR is More Than Being Social
One of the clear trends at Sundance this year was a focus on multiuser immersive experiences. It’s striking how rapidly the field is moving beyond the early years when you put on an HMD and were isolated from everyone else.
But Metamorphic is more than just a social VR experience. The experimental studio that produced the experience, Sensorium, describes it as follows:
The mechanics and experiential arc of Metamorphic are designed to create an environment where participants can interact with each other with no initial point of reference and then playfully amend their world through interactivity.
It’s about your engagement with other human beings and your surroundings. And there are lessons here – not obvious, in-your-face lessons, but powerful ones. Lessons on how we treat others and how we relate to our environment.
Shari Frilot, the senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, has spoken about the challenge of curating the New Frontier program of immersive experiences.
The field is always changing . . . Anything you thought you knew last year has been surpassed.
Metamorphic is an unforgettable experience that reveals the creative power of virtual reality to impact our sense of self and the world around us.
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.