A year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with widespread availability of vaccines and a return to some semblance of normalcy in sight, film festivals and tech conferences are embracing virtual reality more than ever. At Sundance, we jumped into a custom VR platform to chat with other moviegoers and explore mixed media art projects. Microsoft’s recent Ignite conference featured an immersive keynote address on virtual reality, as well as Mesh debut, the company’s new platform that could fuel our future AR / VR meetings.
But as I stood in a Austin’s Congress Avenue VR recreation, the main drag of the iconic SXSW festival, I felt a wave of emotion wash over me. It’s the best virtual rendition of a conference I’ve ever seen, but it also felt like an apocalyptic wasteland, inhabited mostly by digital trash and brand sponsorships. Virtual reality can be a good stopgap when we can’t meet in person, but it’s by no means a replacement.
Gallery: SXSW 2021 in VR | 11 photos
Gallery: SXSW 2021 in VR | 11 photos
Maybe I was just feeling the effects of my pandemic lockdown birthday. But as I explored SXSW’s VR playground, which allowed visitors to go karting, hopping on drones, and traversing a variety of locations, I found myself missing the lack of human contact. This may be due in part to the cultural variety of SXSW; it is a film festival, a music festival, an art exhibition and a celebration of technology (often in an authoritarian manner). SXSW is a mashup of everything I love in one place: you can go chatting with the filmmakers you admire, hearing, bumping into your favorite comedians in a crowded bar. In virtual reality, the magic of the SXSW disappears as soon as you take off your headset and find yourself at home.
Social mixed reality company VRrOOm built the SXSW virtual experience on VRChat, a massively multiplayer game for virtual worlds. Like AltSpaceVR and similar offerings, it lets you customize an avatar (I chose a nude gray alien) and jump around a variety of places. After befriending a few VR administrators at the festival, I pressed a button and was transported straight to them on Virtual Congress Avenue. At first glance, it looked like Austin passing through Disney World. I could see the city’s iconic spots like the Paramount Theater and the Mohawk Bar, but it all filtered through the aesthetic of a neon theme park. Visiting these places was particularly confusing. The VR Paramount Theater was so accurate that I was able to make my way to my usual balcony seat for the midnight screening.
I’m not going to hit the aesthetic choice, and I think the SXSW team deserves to be commended for creating a truly immersive VR experience. But the large size of the virtual card may have worked against them. During my visits, I’ve only ever seen a handful of other VR participants. They rarely stopped to chat. Instead, everyone just wanted to run around and take some VR selfies with VRChat’s built-in camera. (In this regard, I guess it’s not too much different from the real SXSW, which is overloaded with social media influencers trying to meet up with cute photos.)
I imagine SXSW VR would have been more fun if I was hanging out with friends. Then it wouldn’t just be about driving a go-kart or visiting a spooky crypto-art museum on your own. SXSW’s size and reach seems a bit isolating even in a normal year, but like many geeky pop culture events, it’s not that hard to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger while you’re stuck in. a line together for hours. To be honest, the pandemic has broken me so badly that I’m even waiting in these endless lines. (In 2019, the Engadget team spent over two hours waiting to attend the premiere of Jordan Peele’s We, to be refused only when the Paramount has reached its maximum capacity. It was frustrating back then, but it really was a bonding experience!)