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The virtual reality of Sundance, Day 3: blissed out

Weird VR is here to stay

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One of the oddest moments of this year's Sundance VR track is when a man wearing a sober black-framed version of Spider Jerusalem's glasses hands me a VR headset and asks if I want to try something French.

"It's 12 minutes long," he says. "I'll understand if you're upset and need to take it off early."

Oh God, I think as the headset goes on and I see a tangle of white plastic and what looks like bedsheets. This is going to be some kind of horror thing. About serial killers. Or date rape. I remind myself that it at least probably won't be the most upsetting thing I see this week. Until, that is, I realize that it's the experience fellow VR reporter Kent Bye tweeted about a couple of days ago:

This is a fair description of Viens!, but it doesn't capture how well the piece can win you over, if you let it. It's a combination of languorous and joyful that, unlike most actual VR pornography, isn't invested in either hyperrealism or titillation. When I get out, its creator apologizes for springing an orgy on me without warning, and we laugh about how this will never, ever make it onto a Sundance Google Cardboard app. Despite the explicit sex and nudity, it feels like one of the most wholesome moments I've had all week.

Weird, blissful VR isn't the kind of VR I usually look for — my favorite Oculus Rift demo is the closest thing you can find to that elevator shootout scene in The Matrix. But it's one of the genres that I'm happiest exists, and I'm glad it seems to be out in force at Sundance.

It's like a slice of some hidden world where everything is beautiful and our senses don't work the same

When I say this, I'm not just talking about any VR experience that could vaguely be described as "trippy." I'm talking about projects that feel like they belong in the idealistic '90s-Deadhead period of virtual reality, when The Wall Street Journal and Mondo 2000 alike would interview Jaron Lanier about being a psychedelic lobster and creating an "oriental carpet" that reoriented itself in physically impossible ways. Things that offer a little slice of some hidden world where everything is beautiful and our senses don't work quite the same.

Consider, say, Irrational Exuberancean HTC Vive-based extraterrestrial excursion by game developer Ben Vance. The closest I can come to describing Irrational Exuberance is that you start out inside a giant metal egg where gravity doesn't exist, levitating a pair of glowing crystal balls. The most natural thing to do is reach for one of the low-poly rocks floating in around you. When you touch it, it shatters with a little shudder of the Vive's haptic feedback system — I very briefly thought I'd poked something in real life. Breaking the pieces down into glistening dust is fun for a while, until you realize that you can shatter the walls of the egg in the same way. Chunk by chunk, they fall away, and the vastness of space folds out ahead of you, meteors soaring over your head.

Viens VR

Or take a look at one of my favorite pieces at the show, In the Eyes of the Animal. Created by experimental art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, the installation's original home was the middle of a forest, which may be the only context where it truly makes sense. In the Eyes of the Animal uses a quartet of Oculus DK2 headsets that have been encased in large black spheres with faux greenery where a face should be, like velvet diving helmets designed for a species of humanoid plants.

As its name suggests, the installation lets viewers inhabit four animals through both the visuals of the headset and a haptic harness, creating an impressionistic rendering of what being another creature might feel like. As an insect, your body vibrates and buzzes as the ground jitters below you. As an owl — or what I've been told was an owl — every quick turn of your head reduces everything to a blur of amoebic splotches. It's only when you stop and look closely that they condense into a pointillist representation of the trees around you.

VR just makes us want to be psychedelic animals

The strangest thing about In the Eyes of the Animal is that it unintentionally reincarnates an earlier virtual reality art project: Placeholder, created in the early 1990s by a team that included VR pioneer and human-computer interaction expert Brenda Laurel. Explored by two people at a time, Placeholder was a shared virtual landscape based on the Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Participants could inhabit one of four animals based on indigenous mythology, changing the way they moved, spoke, and saw the environment. It even had its own quasi-naturalistic headset accessories: two large stone circles that delineated where participants could move.

I asked, and the creators of In the Eyes of the Animal had never heard of Placeholder. There's just something about VR that invites us to inhabit other beings in completely surreal ways.

These are not the things that will sell VR as a major consumer technology. Some of them are easily available, as long as you have a headset; Irrational Exuberance started on the Oculus Rift development kit, for example. But VR art erotica and giant headset helmets have yet to find their distribution niche. Besides, some things feel like they wouldn't work from the comfort of your home. They require a pilgrimage — not to Sundance, maybe, but somewhere that feels alien enough to let you get lost in another world.