Some of the most critically lauded virtual reality is the stuff that takes on pressing global problems, like the plight of refugees or the threat of climate change. But Tyler Hurd’s Old Friend, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last week, is the opposite of serious. Based on Future Islands’ bouncy pop song of the same name, it uses the HTC Vive headset to transport participants to a cheery, pastel planet inhabited by muppets and a tiny, endearingly grumpy-looking drum major. As they all break into a three-minute dance sequence, the Vive’s motion controllers turn your arms into wiggly noodles, and the Vive’s positional tracking helps a pair of virtual feet keep pace with your real-world movement, shimmying in time to the music. At a particularly VR-heavy Tribeca, it was one of the best things at the show.
A longtime artist and animator at Double Fine, Hurd worked on games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend before departing in 2012. But he’s probably better known for Butts: The VR Experience, which he started as a weird and whimsical flatscreen short film about “love, trust, and learning what it means to be truly free,” then turned into an early piece of virtual reality cinema. VR has evolved a lot since since Butts was released last year — multiple headsets have been released, and entire new styles of interaction have been created. And everything is still rough around the edges.
Hurd made Old Friend with the help of VR studio Wevr, which has also worked on experiences like Reggie Watts’ Waves and the Gear VR suspense series Gone.
When I visited Wevr’s rented office space in Soho for a demo, it was equipped with a Vive, a gaming PC, and a bunch of “I [heart] VR” T-shirts on the wall. “It’s not because we’re trying to sell shirts,” admitted Wevr co-founder Anthony Batt. “It’s because there’s a big mirror there, and it reflects and makes tracking bad.”
Hurd’s Tribeca entry, though, is anything but rough. After trying it, I talked to him about the importance of physical presence, the promise of VR music videos, and the joy of discovering a new medium.
Adi Robertson: How did you come up with Old Friend?
Tyler Hurd: The song sparked the idea — and originally not a VR one. But as soon as I started doing Butts in VR, and started seeing how exciting that was, I already had this idea in mind, and I was like, "Oh, this would be perfect for VR."
What was the original idea?
At that time, it was a normal short film. It was flat. And in my brain it was like, this world that was always rotating, and I really wanted the marching element — the marching band and synchronized dance moves and choreographed production of crazy moves. I wanted to incorporate the stuff I had in Butts that worked: the bright colors, the happy, crazy animation with the wiggles and stuff.
Of course, when I first started it, I didn’t have the hands or anything in mind, because I didn’t have the tech. And as soon as I got the tech, I just freaked out.
I got this Vive in the mail, and I woke up in the morning and the first thing I did was set it up. When I got in there, it was like everything I wanted it to be, but it was way more exciting than I thought it could be. I went through [Old Friend] like three or four times on my own when I first got in there, and I had tears coming down my face. I was so excited. And I took the headset off, and I was back in my bedroom, and I wasn’t wearing any clothes, and I’m just — what is this? Reality sucks!
The Vive part was an afterthought, but it works so well - the noodle arms make you want to dance, and it kind of builds this emotion.
You’ve mentioned that physical presence was this thing you needed, but that you had never realized you needed.
There’s something that happens to your brain when you’re grounded — like, everything that happens when you switch it from "I’m just a floating head in the space looking at stuff" into "I am actually in the space." Having your feet planted and having your hands in the space, it’s like, your brain just switches something else on. I feel like it allows you to let go a lot more, and really feel like you’re somewhere else. If you take the hands out of it, it completely changes it.
I had some trouble trying to include the hands without encouraging lots of interactivity, because I didn’t want people to be figuring out mechanics. It’s like a three minute experience, I want people to feel like they’re there and dance and enjoy themselves, but not "What can I do with him? What can I do with him? How does this work? What’s this up here?" And not watching this animation that I slaved over! Animation’s really hard!
Part of it also is that I worked in video games for a long time, and I got a little exhausted with working with interactive stuff. I worked on this game at Double Fine called Happy Action Theater. It was for the Kinect, and the idea was you just put it in front of a group of people, anyone can come and go as they want. There’s no fail state, and it was just fun. And so I’ve incorporated a lot of that stuff in my work now, a lot of the ideals we had — like no fail states, let people do whatever they want and encourage that.
There’s something cool about taking music videos, which tend to be small-screen, not particularly immersive, and making them encompass your entire world.
My excitement around music videos is about all the creativity that goes into them, and the craft of it, and people doing these new techniques with visual effects and editing and all that stuff. And to be able to do all that stuff in VR is really exciting. I was always extremely inspired by music videos, like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, and all the "Directors Series" stuff. I’m hoping that this becomes a new art form now, that it’ll breathe new life into music videos. Because the emotional response from these things, or at least from VR, means you can experience stuff in a whole new way.
I’ve seen VR music videos, but I’m curious why I haven’t seen even more. It’s weird to me that they don’t just seem totally standard now.
I think it’s a symptom of accessibility. All the artists that I’ve talked to, they always have a manager and a label and all these people that are really concerned with how will it be seen and how will it be a promotion for the artist. And because there’s so few headsets and so many people are still new to VR, I think that’s kind of a barrier right now. Once it gets more accessible there will definitely be more people dumping money into these things and hopefully really exciting stuff being made.
And this isn’t being made for mobile VR, right?
You know, I started doing that, and once I saw this, I was like, I don’t want people to think… People are like, "Oh yeah, I’ve seen VR, I tried a Cardboard," and it’s like — no, no you have not. I don’t want people to see the mobile version of this and think that they’ve experienced it completely. I want to keep it as a room-scale experience at least for now. Possibly in the future, I’ll make a more accessible version.
What’s your feeling on how people will eventually end up experiencing room-scale VR?
I think right now it’s early adopters and enthusiasts and people who are really excited and actually have the money and the effort to put into it. There’s also places like The Void in Salt Lake City, and that’s crazy.
That stuff’s super exciting, and I think will be good. You know, the more people experience that, the more they’re going to be like, VR is amazing.