The hybrid 360 documentary and real-time game engine experience Awavena, directed by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Lynette Wallworth and making successive debuts at the Sundance 2018 New Frontier showcase and the World Economic Forum in Davos, is all about breaking barriers – both narratively and technically.
It portrays the hardships of Brazil’s Yawanawá tribe that, after years of abuse by rubber-tappers and missionaries, built a peaceful co-existence with Western cultures. It follows the tribe’s first ever female shaman, Hushahu, who set a precedent of gender equality in a long-patriarchal society.
With the help of the ZED mini, the film itself breaks barriers between the real and virtual.
Most of Awavena is entirely VR, done with a combination of 360° video, photogrammetry and 3D LiDAR scanning that allows the user to interact with key sequences with six degrees of freedom. Sequences in Awavena dive as deep as the shamans’ visions during their training with psychedelic medicines.
But the experience starts grounded in the real world. When it begins, the user sees through the headset into their real surroundings via the ZED mini attached to the front. They can walk around the furniture and see their own hands as they touch the real-life walls of the Park City basement venue.
Viewers could see their hands and the rest of their surroundings in Awavena.
Only one thing is different: Wherever the user would see darkness, such as in the corners of the ceiling or their own shadow, they instead see a star-speckled night sky – an image that sets the spiritual tone that permeates the rest of the experience.
That’s when a woman’s voice chimes in. “I want you to open the book.” She means a real paper book on a stand in the corner. The user’s last moments of reality come as they pull back the cover, and a marker on the first page triggers a virtual cloud of smoke and teleports them to the entirely VR experience set in the Brazilian Amazon.
According to Brian Frager, Awavena’s technical producer, “Being suddenly teleported to another place when putting on a VR headset can be a jarring experience for the uninitiated. Rather than catapulting our user into the Amazon, we gracefully brought the Amazon to them through both video and 3D scanning techniques to reveal its awe-inspiring hidden layers.”
A 3D point cloud of the Amazon represents the spiritual visions of the tribe’s shamans.
Almost everyone who tried the experience was new to VR. Many had never worn a VR headset before, let alone one with pass-through AR built in. The users consistently reported that it felt natural and comfortable to look at the real world as presented via the ZED Mini.
The most notable guest of all was Sundance founder and legendary actor Robert Redford. He loved Awavena, praising the piece for its clever use of new immersive technologies to bring us closer to nature, whereas most remove us from it.
Robert Redford trying pass-through augmented reality via ZED mini. Image courtesy of Brian Frager/Technicolor.
With top artists embracing the link between virtual and augmented reality, the floodgates are open for mind-blowing experiences that feature the best of both worlds.
“Approaching mixed reality as a fluid spectrum freed us to incorporate physical elements, such as a real leather-bound book, that make the experience feel more concrete and real in people’s minds,” Frager says.
“This heightens the surreality of the journey that follows. Real world elements captured photo-realistically, merged with interactive elements through the ZED Mini, give the user a sense of agency and open up boundless possibilities for immersive media.”