SXSW has been the best event I have participated in this year, and I have already talked about it in various articles (e.g. this post about the event, and this other one with some reviews). Looking at the backlog of my posts to write, I noticed that I had still some reviews from there I had to publish, so since today I have a bit of time to do that, let me finally close the topic by telling you about the last three interesting XR experiences I have tried there: Gondwana, Green Planet Experience, and Gumball Dreams.
Gondwana has been one of the best VR experiences I had at SXSW. It’s an ambitious project that tries to raise awareness for biodiversity and climate change by putting you inside the Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia. But it’s not the usual experience that puts you inside a forest and gives you some info about the plants there, it is much more original.
The Gondwana experience lasts one whole day. But of course, you don’t need to be trapped in a VR headset the whole time, don’t worry. The forest lives in a server, and it starts as it is in 2022 at the beginning of the day of the experience, and it evolves during the day, ending 24 hours later showing how it should be in the year 2090. The evolution of the forest is computed using climate data projections, and of course, they don’t pose well for its ecosystem: given the global warming, the forest is condemned to lose much of its biodiversity.
There is only one hope for it: people. Every time someone wears the VR headset and launches the Gondwana VR experience, it connects to the current status of the forest on the servers. The user can stay inside as much as he wants, and the more he stays inside and interacts with the environment, the more the forest becomes resilient to external conditions. I guess this is a symbol of the fact that only if we, as humans, become aware of the climate problem and actively do something about it, we can save the rainforests of the world. This is quite fascinating. As it is fascinating the fact that given these premises, every Gondwana 24-hours run is different from the others: depending on how many people have visited the forest and which interactions they had, the forest will evolve differently, with a different outcome every time. Every run of Gondwana is so unique.
I loved how Gondwana has been designed. The team needed to work for four years to make this project a reality and I think that the quality of the project made it worth it.
I tried Gondwana for like 15 minutes. When I put the headset on, I found myself in this thick Rainforest, and I could navigate around in smooth locomotion with the controllers of my headset. The dominant colors were of course the brown and green of the trees, but sometimes I could see some noticeable white trees. They represented the species that were endangered or already extinct at that point of the simulation. The contrast of the white color made you immediately notice how many species in the forest were already immediately lost because of the climate situation.
The forest was alive around me: since it had to simulate 70 years in 24 hours, I could see the evolution of the forest happening fast around me, with trees growing and dying, and the various seasons changing the appearance of the trees. There was also the possibility of meeting the other users, but the forest was so big that I never met anyone. The creator told me about a special interaction that let me use my hands to cast a special energy fireball that could preserve a tree for the whole duration of the simulation… another way for me as a human to save the forest.
I’ve found the experience very relaxing: being in a forest, and just strolling around, was very calming. I also loved the fact that the forest was alive, evolving around me. But the white trees made me sad because I could do nothing to recover them: once we have killed a species, there’s no way to turn it back. This meant that the experience was reaching its goal of making me think about climate change. From the size of the forest, and the many things happening, I could feel the big work behind the development of this experience.
Maybe a needed improvement is having more interactions with the environment: because after 15-20 minutes it becomes a bit monotonous to just stay in the forest and wander around. But apart from this, I appreciated Gondwana a lot.
Green Planet Experience
When I interviewed NVIDIA about its cloud streaming technology, I was suggested to go trying in London the Green Planet Experience, developed by Factory42 in collaboration with NVIDIA, EE, and BBC. Unluckily I have no plans to go to London this year, so I thought I had no way to try it, until, with much of my surprise, I saw that there was a booth showcasing it at SXSW.
To try this experience, I have been given a mobile phone on a holder and I was instructed to navigate around the booth and follow the instructions. As soon as I entered the dedicated area of the app, I could see on the phone in AR David Attenborough (the one and only) in front of me speaking with me about “the secret kingdom of plants”. The whole experience was guided: there was an AR “magic sphere” telling me every time where I had to point the phone, and when I pointed it to the right point, I could see plants and trees in augmented reality popping up in that point, with David telling me something about them. For instance, at a certain point in the experience, I had to blow a dandelion and see its seed become a mature plant. It was nice.
On the technical side, the experience was very cool because it showed the magic of cloud rendering. The app featured complex and detailed 3D environments, volumetric videos, particle effects (e.g. raining) in augmented reality around me… and all of this couldn’t run on a mobile phone alone. It was rendered on a server and streamed with NVIDIA cloud rendering to the phones. The fact it was a streaming was barely noticeable, there was just a small lag between my movements of the phone and when the visuals reacted to them, but since this was a phone AR app, it was not a big deal (because there was no associated motion sickness). Speaking with the creators, I’ve learned that the lag was given by the simplified setup they had to use at SXSW and that in the London experience it is much shorter than the one I tried.
The experience lasted around 10-15 minutes, out of the 40-60 of the whole experience. It was a nice educational experience, in my opinion, and it was also interesting for me because it let me try cloud-rendered augmented reality.
Gumball Dreams by the Ferryman Collective is an immersive theater experience in VRChat. It’s one of those experiences where you enter into an adventure with live actors performing around you, like in Meta Movie: Alien Rescue or Finding Pandora X. I tried it at SXSW together with Maud Clavier and Samurai Lawyer, since it was a journey to be made in a group of three people.
(I won’t spoil you much of the experience, but of course, there will be mild spoilers in this commentary… you have been warned!)
The plot of the experience can be summarized by its official description:
You have been called by an alien creature named Onyx to a mythical planet on which they are living out their final days. You, and two others, are asked to help them transition from this reality to the next.
But before Onyx can lay infinite wisdom at your feet, the weight of your spirit must be assessed. If found ready, you shall embark upon the journey of a lifetime, skipping among the stars, floating above the spheres, and remembering who you are.
The first thing I noticed when I entered the world of Gumball Dreams is that it was very colored and trippy. It was cool being in that world, and it was also huge: throughout the whole experience, we traveled across different environments, seeing many different animations. Since I work in the VRChat events field myself with VRrOOm, I know much work that should have been required, and I was impressed by what Ferryman Collective did. The experience was very rich on this side, and I loved to discover every new environment that came after the one I was in. Ah, and if you are curious why the name “Gumball Dreams”, it is because some of the environments are heavily inspired by gumballs, so sometimes you are in a gumball dispenser, and other times you are in a building all made of gumballs and so on. I won’t spoil why it is this way, but I can tell you that it contributes to making everything even more colorful and trippier.
I think that in Gumball Dreams the whole setting was cool, and also the fact that you have to live this experience in a group with other two people is absolutely fun. I love this kind of collaborative journeys because you can have fun with other people, and create a bond by joking all the time. I have great memories of the laughs I had with Maud and the Samurai during this experience at SXSW.
Anyway, I think this experience had also its downsides. First of all, the main puzzle to do during the experience was pretty frustrating in VR. And then, I haven’t liked too much the cut they gave to the story. The story and the dialogues were a bit philosophical and psychological, with a touch of new age, and this was not something that suited my tastes. For instance, at a certain point, I was left speaking along with the alien Onyx and he started making psychological questions to me. He asked me “When was the first time in your life you felt proud of yourself?” and I wanted to answer something like “I have no f***ing clue! I mean, it is not that the first time I felt proud in my life I screamed – Oh wow, finally I felt proud! – I mean, feeling proud the first time is not like the first time that you have sex… that after that you go launching fireworks in the sky singing the songs of the Lonely Island for the happiness. It’s not something I remember the moment… I mean… who does? Unless the first time that you feel proud coincides with the first moment you have sex…”. Of course I have not said this and answered some random stuff to dodge the question…. But then the alien asked me: “And what do you feel when you feel pride?” and I was like “ehm… pride?”. I spent various minutes this way… with a dialogue that was slow, a bit boring, and with this forced psychological stuff that made it a bit too heavy. But that’s my taste: if you are someone that likes to express your emotions and have philosophical dialogues, then you may like also this side of the experience.
All in all, it was a good experience to try. And I also appreciated the fact that the team developing it is made by very nice and fun people… and at the end of the experience, they also gifted to me a real gumball 😉
And that’s it, sorry for the delay in publishing it, but with this post, I finally close my stream of thoughts about SXSW. I mean, at least for this year… I liked the event so much that I hope to be there next year, too!
Disclaimer: this blog contains advertisement and affiliate links to sustain itself. If you click on an affiliate link, I’ll be very happy because I’ll earn a small commission on your purchase. You can find my boring full disclosure here.
This article was originally published on skarredghost.com