Judging SXSW 2023 XR Experiences
I served on the South by Southwest (SXSW) XR Experience jury this year, an honor shared by director Jessica Brillhart and Amy Dotson, Director of the Portland Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow. There were thirty five experiences in the exhibition, with the sixteen world premieres in competition. In all, I had 25 experiences in two and a half days. Even as a judge you just can’t see them all. Many of the XR experiences in the competition are bespoke works of art that may be seen at festivals and in museums but are unlikely to show up on Steam or in the Meta Quest store. They all deserved recognition for innovation, ambition, and relevance.
The Best in XR Experience competition went to Consensus Gentium, from writer and director Karen Palmer. While it uses eye tracking, the film isn’t an XR experience per se. It is a compelling new way to tell a story in way that is native to our most intimate screen: the smartphone. In this branching narrative, you’re asked to choose different story modes. I chose to be a dissident, but users can choose to be “compliant,” or “most compliant,” which earns rewards. The dissident, having up to this moment shunned the government surveillance app, now needs to download it in order to travel to attend to mother. There were a few moments when I thought the messages I was reading on my smartphone were for me.
A Special Jury Award went to Body of Mine from Cameron Kostopoulos, which enables a man to inhabit a woman’s body, making a profound case for VR as an empathy machine.
Rockets by Pillow, from Lucas Rizzotto, was presented in a sea of identical beds on the exhibition hall floor. He and his attendants were in pajamas. It was the first time I’ve laid down on a bed, or anything, with a VR headset on. It feels completely natural. I wondered why no one had done it before. The only lay-down experience available in Pillow was “Rocket,” an enjoyable game where you shoot rockets to planets to terraform them. Rizzotto, the artist behind Where Thoughts Go, one of the two or three bona fide works on art in the Quest store (imho), assured me future Pillow content will explore dreams, and will even have a social aspect.
Delicate paper cuts and mobile AR combined to create the extraordinary, The Invited, which tells a touching Victorian Vampire love story.
The beautifully conceived and animated VR film, Jailbirds, a three part story of a pair of eccentric prisoners victimized by a sadistic warden, by Thomas Villepoux.This is one we’re sure to see on Steam and in the Quest store. I am a sucker for a good story, well told, and these immersive experiences delivered.
From the Main Square by Pedro Harres is an interactive VR experience that invites the viewer to witness the rise and fall of a divided society. A civilization blossoms, with all its contradictions, only to become a danger to itself.
These animated pieces captured my attention. The problem with being a judge is that we needed more categories.
The most attention-getting installation was Symbiosis, which recently closed a four month residence at Portland Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow. Beautiful pneumatics power this profound haptic experience, in which humans metamorphose into insects. Users are wrapped in canvas cocoons which are actually haptic suits manipulated by pockets for air from the external air compressors.
Two other experiences in competition treated historical subjects, JFK Memento which chronicles the events of November 22, 1963 and the investigation that followed. Archive photos and films come to life, re-mastered in 3D and re-projected onto the historic sites as they were back in 1963. Produced in collaboration with the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and with the support of Meta Immersive Learning.
MLK: Now Is The Time, Through first-person stories and interactions, “MLK: Now Is The Time” drops you into a thoroughly modern interpretation of a contemporary March on Washington that will inform and inspire a new generation of activists. These should be available to the public soon.
There were two experiences that spoke directly to the victims of the war in Ukraine. Fresh Memories, in competition and, You Destroy, We Create, which shows the resilience of Ukrainian artists in a time of war.
An MR experience about terrified little eggs struggling to stay alive in a world full of enemies, Eggscape, from writer, producer, director, software developer German Heller, is one of the five VR experiences I didn’t see. Users engage in the irreverent universe of Eggscape by controlling their egg through different scenarios, such as a city alley and a Vegas-like world of excess. ,
As I say in this companion SXSW story. You have FOMO even if you attend SXSW. The limited throughput of these location-based VR experiences in Festivals means that no badge holder can see more than a handful every day. SXSW Sr. Mgr, Film & TV, XR Programming, Blake Kammerdiener said, “This year’s SXSW XR Experience was filled with a group of creators who really pushed the envelope of creativity with their diverse work. It brought together an audience from around the world to discover this exciting immersive art. We could not be more thrilled with the XR class of SXSW 2023.”