HIFF40 Recap: XR and Engaging the Space Around Us

Extended reality or  XR encompasses various modes of immersive media not limited to virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. Virtual reality blanks out the real world, placing users in an artificial 3D space, augmented reality uses the real world as a backdrop with virtual items implanted throughout, while mixed reality enables users to manipulate virtual items planted within the real world. 
HIFF XR presented eight immersive experiences for festival attendees to experience online. Previously recognized as the HIFF VR Lounge, an indoor event held at SALT Kakaʻako, HIFF shifted to an online accessible XR format in the wake of social distancing and contactless forms of entertainment. 
This year’s HIFF XR lineup was curated by Sue Ding, an award winning film and immersive media director whose short-doc THE CLAUDIA KISHI CLUB, is currently streaming on Netflix. Ding, who has written numerous articles on XR, touched on the functionality of XR in relation to the space around us. 
XR has a unique ability to immerse us in virtual worlds, and the idea of escaping the physical limitations of our present moment was enormously appealing—as was the potential for reflecting on our relationships to the spaces around us, which in many cases have shifted dramatically due to the year’s upheavals,” Ding said. 
Continuing this conversation on a sense of space was DETENTION director John Hsu whose VR experiences GREAT HOAX: THE MOON LANDING and YOUR SPIRITUAL TEMPLE SUCKS were both included in this year’s XR lineup. While a large part of traditional cinematography revolves around the use of establishing shots meant to gradually ease or haphazardly throw the viewer into a place in time, Hsu realized that this “sense of space” was already an inherent characteristic of VR. 
An avid gamer since age five, Hsu was inspired to create a film adaptation of the hit Taiwanese psychological horror video game DETENTION after he was brought to tears by the game’s ending sequence, and overall story-line. His two VR experiences GREAT HOAX: THE MOON LANDING and YOUR SPIRITUAL TEMPLE SUCKS, are light-hearted comedies, with one challenging users to stage a fake moon landing and the other poking fun at a Daoist ritual. 
In experimenting with spatial relationships, Ding along with co-creator Halsey Burgund invites users to freely navigate the virtual soundscape of ONE SQUARE MILE 10,000 VOICES, a digital map modeled after Manzanar, the World War 2 Japanese-American incarceration camp in California’s Owens Valley. As listeners traverse the map, they discover voice recordings of stories related to each specific location, creating a sense of groundedness to the horrors encountered on our very soil. 

“In our project, each participant’s experience is unique, depending on what parts of the (virtual) landscape they are drawn to and which stories they choose to listen to,” Ding said. “Participants can also record their own reflections to add to the project, contributing to a constantly evolving soundscape.”
In an alternative mode of experiencing the WW2 Japanese-American incarceration camps, Renee Tajima-Peña’s BUILDING HISTORY 3.0 allows users to virtually navigate the incarceration camps through the video-game Minecraft. Her project also provides teachers with classroom resources and short documentaries geared toward K-12 students. 

In an unexpected departure from the other XR formats, STARCAST WITH VIBRATION GROUP came through with a fun, imaginative live performance portraying a group of space travelers escaping the societal dreads of global warming, violence, and relationships gone wrong.
Bringing us back to Earth, REQUIEM FOR LOST PLANTS is an online environment set in urban Los Angeles, created by Alice Yuan Zhang and Alexander Kaye. Also available to Los Angeles locals as an AR experience, REQUIEM FOR LOST PLANTS allows users to hear the testimonials of “plant elders” as they share stories of coping with urbanization.  
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER is an interactive online experience that features an undelivered Richard Nixon speech prepared in the event of a failed Apollo 11 moon landing. The experience tests users’ abilities to recognize the presence of deep-fake technology, which manipulates facial movements in videos in an attempt to deceive viewers.
As exemplified by this year’s XR lineup, the genre is limitless in its range of possibilities. When asked what is recommended for XR novices, Ding encouraged all to simply keep an open mind.
“XR encompasses so many different types of experiences: virtual reality action adventures, collaborative puzzle-solving in digital worlds, installations that ask you to meditate or dance or record a story of your own,” Ding said. “There’s something for everyone, from horror fans to documentary lovers to young children—and film festivals are a great opportunity to explore a wide range of XR projects.”

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