I'm racing through time with a stranger. We met just moments before we each ducked into separate cubicles at the IMAX VR Experience Centre on Fairfax and reconvened in a virtual space where billions of years of evolution are condensed into less than eight minutes of fast-paced animation. The stranger and I can talk to each other, but mostly I'm trying to figure out what I am, how I should move and where I'm heading. We swim and fly and run as creatures and people, ultimately landing in a future-world dance party where arm movements leave glowstick-like trails.
Life of Us is the latest virtual reality project from L.A.-based company Within. The experience, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, is a wild ride through evolution made for two or more people. It's a chance to play in a virtual reality space, but it's not exactly a game. There's no questlike object and there are no winners or losers. There is a narrative aspect to it, but you're participating in this story in a way that you can't do while watching film or television.
"It seems obvious that virtual reality technology will be great for video games and gaming experiences, but what is the opportunity beyond that if you think of it more from a storytelling perspective?" asks Aaron Koblin, co-founder and CTO of Within, during a recent phone call. Koblin and filmmaker Chris Milk formed Within to explore what can be done in virtual reality. The two had been collaborating for years and had previously created internet art projects and museum installations. As Within, they've worked on 360-degree music projects for artists ranging from U2 to Squarepusher, as well as other collaborations like the Mr. Robot virtual reality experience.
With Life of Us, they had a question to answer. "Is there something that is not a film and not a game that could kind of be really what virtual reality is capable of being, kind of being its own medium in its own right?" Koblin asks. "That was what we were trying to experiment with and play around with."
In Life of Us, a massive time span becomes succinct. "It is an ambitious goal," Koblin says of squeezing a trip from the very distant past to a potential distant future into 7½ minutes. "Really, I think that was part of the fun, challenging ourselves. What's the biggest story that we could tell with this? Part of what's great about that story is that it's a story of evolution and transformation, so it has all these chapters to it where you can figure out what it feels like to be in virtual reality as a single-cell organism or simple creature and then slowly evolve and get more complicated, along with your friends."
Through evolution, Life of Us demonstrates how to use virtual reality. "One of the things that we realized early on was that the idea of embodying another creature was something very unique and something that is different in virtual reality, something you can't experience otherwise," Koblin explains. "We wanted to play with that. … It's this process of learning, and just as soon as you've learned it, you're on to the next things and there's a new thing you learn and grow into."
The experience, Koblin says, can change depending on who is sharing it with you. They've seen people meet, and then go on to date, through the experience. Koblin also shares a story of a father and his autistic son, who were able to bond through the experience. By building an experience for more than one person to enjoy, they're tackling one of the common criticisms of virtual reality.
"We kind of felt like there has been, somewhat rightly so, some criticism of these technologies as being anti-social because you're putting on a headset and going into your own world," Koblin explains. "It's accurate, probably, to say the same things about books and film to a certain degree, but this is maybe one more level removed when you're going into a headset."
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But, for Within, VR presents an opportunity to better connect people. "I think that the opportunity that we were thinking about is that this could be the most connected medium that has ever existed because you're actually going into this experience and living it firsthand, but with internet technologies, you can be tapped in with each other or to each other in really interesting ways." Koblin adds that he and Milk understood the connection when they entered VR demos together while in different cities once they heard each other's voices. "You could see the humanity pouring out of this thing despite the fact that this wasn't photorealistic at all. You knew, that's Chris and now we're in this weird world together."
Koblin notes that Life of Us, which features music from Pharrell and composer McKenzie Stubbert, is "just a first attempt" at bringing together people in this new medium. He says, "There's so much more that can be done." It's also an early experiment in how virtual reality can and will take shape.
"There's the video game side and the film side. I think we really do see it as right down the middle," Koblin says. "I'm at least not trying to let it crystalize too prematurely and figure out what it could be before we're sure this could be more a game or more a movie."
Life of Us is available to play at IMAX VR Centre, 157 S. Fairfax Ave., Beverly Grove. imaxvr.imax.com/locations/los-angeles.