The Wildest VR & AR Experiences From SXSW 2023
XR creators brought their A-game to this year’s festivities.
Last year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) event was an absolute party. This year, the Austin-based festival felt noticeably more focused, with a number of amazing technologies being showcased. Not to say we didn’t attend our fair share of parties, which we certainly did.
SXSW 2023 was stacked with some truly incredible immersive experiences, both creatively and innovatively. Together, we review the top picks from the curated XR Experiences Program created by the festival’s own Blake Kammerdiener.
Bobby: Thomas Villepoux’s Jailbirds VR is an incredible animated story about two prisoners who are tormented by a cruel warden. Attendees at SXSW got to experience all three chapters of truly stellar storytelling using immersive technology.
The dark tones and 360 soundscapes pulled you into a stunning experience that explores how justice is different for everyone.
Darragh: This deeply disturbing and mystical plot line had me invested, but also perturbed. Our tortured and trapped protagonists are victims of a purgatory prison, put away for what might be understood as more than a mortal eternity. With Grimm-like elements of dark magic and manipulation, this piece is certainly for a 13+ audience despite its animation style.
Aside from clever soaring sky tricks, I didn’t see a tremendously compelling case for this work to be set in VR, yet Jailbirds VR gets a shout-out from me as a clear narrative that built on itself and had me curious to know what happened next once I had seen all three episodes.
Bobby: Symbiosis was the most visually stunning experience at SXSW. Creator Polymorf looked beyond VR to incorporate various other immersive elements, including the audience. As a spectator, this was a wonderful experience that went beyond the gawker screen that you’d normally see in a VR installation.
The creatives behind Symbiosis put people into these canvas suits that looked like a cocoon and had these cables attached to them that used bursts of air to create haptic feedback on your body. Some suits required you to be connected to someone else as you were transported into this fantastic world where you were transformed into an insect.
Darragh: I found the physical appearance, onboarding, and haptic experience of the aforementioned cocoon-like straight jackets more compelling than the VR experience itself.
With a sense of discomfort tolerated for the sake of novelty and reporting that came with effectively being tied up in a public place and attached to other participants through a series of eggshell white leather doublets with pulsing cables, glass vials, and other accouterments, I found myself more focused on my physical state than transported into a virtual world.
Together, my fellow attached participants and I traversed the sea together as a multi-headed being. I conversed with a pleasant Wired reporter I was tied inches away from while we strained to twist our bodies to look around in-headset. I was told I’d feel a connection as a common body, but the interactivity in the VR itself made no nod to being in a multi-user experience. I felt the build-up left too much to the expectation. Poetic and reflective? Sure, but I was weighed down by the gear and the abstraction a bit too much.
This piece gets a shout-out from me for having one of the most detailed and involved installations of the countless XR works I’ve experienced. There was clearly a great deal of time put into designing what the experience was meant to be from start to finish physically.
FROM THE MAIN SQUARE
Darragh: From the Main Square was as beautifully rendered as it was compelling. The seemingly hand-drawn 360 experience showed the rise and fall of civilization. With no clear direction to look, I had to constantly spin myself around to see the chaos blossoming constantly around me.
In turn, this piece gave me a palpable feeling of anxiety and grief, which I count as a win as a reviewer knowing that any deep feeling a work leaves me with makes it worth noting and exploring.
The minor controller-led interactivity did feel like an afterthought to the piece and was ultimately distracting rather than involving. I think this piece has legs to stand on its own as a purely observational/passive user experience, rather than one that needs user engagement.
Darragh: Hands down, this game by German Heller is one of the best, if not the number one headset-based augmented reality (AR) experiences I’ve ever played. While there were some hiccups at the start, it was easy and fun and exciting to engage with and even checked the box of nostalgic Sega and Nintedo-like experiences for me. I’m very excited to see this one come out in full.
STAY ALIVE, MY SON
Darragh: In one concurrent sit, Stay Alive, My Son was the longest I have been in a headset to watch a piece of VR content straight through. Victoria Bousis’ game-like interactive documentary visualizing an interview with Yathay Pin, a Cambodian who lost his family to genocide, was an emotionally intense and unfortunately nausea-inducing experience for me.
I was struck by the incredible production level and experiment in storytelling by placing the viewer truly in the stylized memories of a main subject with gameplay interactivity. Despite dizziness by the end and an onslaught of terrifying imagery throughout, this XR work left me compelled to learn more.
Bobby: Directed by Chloé Rochereuil, this six-chapter VR documentary features the last living witnesses, as well as investigators and journalists who were present during the investigations to tell the story of the JFK assassination.
Through the use of archive footage and 3D technology, users can step into a virtual time machine and explore the events that happened 60 years ago. The film was created through a collaboration between the Sixth Floor Museum and Meta Immersive Learning and shows how important and powerful immersive technology is when it comes to history and storytelling.
THE DISTRICT VR
Bobby: The District VR is a 3D music-driven environment that features various virtual events and games. You can explore a virtual version of Berlin, which has numerous event spaces that can be used to create music.
When we look at how music has evolved over the years from guitars to synths, music samples, and even AI, having music embrace immersive technology doesn’t make it technical. Music is simply music. No matter what the instrument is.
ONCE A GLACIER
Bobby: Glaciers are known to communicate with past memories through song, and the climate crisis is a frightening thought that comes before our eyes. Through this experience directed by Jiabao Li, you learn about the life journey of a girl and the changing effects climate change is having on our planet. The film also shows how the effects of climate change are already happening in our lifetimes.
FRESH MEMORIES: THE LOOK
Bobby: The conflict in Ukraine has destroyed thousands of homes and other structures. In this experience, you explore the city of Kharkiv, which was one of the areas that were hit severely during the war. Through this virtual experience, you get a deeper understanding of what the people who lost their homes are feeling.
It’s a powerful showcase of how VR technology is changing the way we see the world.
*Disclaimer: Bobby and Darragh served on the XR Pitch Advisory Board for SXSW 2023.*
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