NFB “Crashes” VR Party at Sundance

InteractiveProduction

Nobody is really sure where Virtual Reality is going — but it’s sure going there fast. What was a futuristic novelty only a few short years ago is now poised to enter the consumer market in a major way. Google has already sold millions of its low-cost VR headset, and a growing range of more sophisticated immersive systems are also available.

The New Frontier Program at this year’s Sundance Festival was hailed by Variety as VR’s “coming-out party” — and Vincent McCurley’s Cardboard Crash, an acclaimed experimental project from the NFB VR lab, was among 30 immersive multimedia debutantes invited to the ball.

“The initial goal was to create a basic technical experiment as a way of understanding the VR production process and how VR storytelling techniques differ from film conventions,” says McCurley, who works as a Creative Technologist in the NFB Digital Studio. “But the NFB is about storytelling, so narrative elements naturally emerged, responding to both the limitations and strengths of the technology.”

Crash babyStriking a deceptively light-hearted tone, Cardboard Crash immerses audiences in a playful world crafted entirely from virtual cardboard, where they find themselves in a self-driving car — complete with cardboard kid in cardboard car seat. But no sooner has the fun begun than users find themselves colliding with a dilemma — and plunged into the ethics of artificial intelligence.

“We’re now at a point where we’re asked to trust AI to make decisions for us,“ says McCurley, “and that raises all kinds of fascinating questions. Artificial intelligence is ultimately programmed by humans. But who gets to design those algorithms? And what values and priorities come into play?”

McCurley has been test-driving Cardboard Crash on the international festival circuit for several months now, and earlier incarnations of the project were showcased at the 2015 editions of SIGGRAPH, VIFF and IDFA.  “As part of the iterative design approach we’re taking with the project, we’re constantly using audience feedback that we get at events like Sundance to make improvements and better understand how storytelling can happen in a VR environment,” says McCurley.

A pair of VR productions from the NFB’s French-language Interactive Studio were also among the projects showcased in this year’s New Frontier Program – Loïc Suty’s The Unknown Photographer, inspired by WWI photography and co-produced with Montreal’s Turbulent Studios; and The Enemy, created by photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, and co-produced with Camera Lucida, francetv nouvelles écritures, and Emissive et Department.

Cardboard Crash was created and produced in-house by Vincent McCurley and the NFB’s Digital Studio.  The Sundance edition is currently available as a free app for iPhone and Android, for use with the Google Cardboard v2 viewer.

View the trailer below. The final edition will be released later this year.