I was in a freefall high above Congress Avenue, or some acid-dream version of it, in Austin, (definitely not) Texas, with the “street” below me rapidly coming into view. I’d made the decision just moments before to relinquish control of the handheld drone that had been helicoptering me about the city’s mesmerizing limits. I had to let go. It was the only way to take a screenshot and I figured the vertigo was worth it. Back down on the street level, without any other press nearby, I took advantage of my momentary solitude to marvel at the surrounding virtual world that was made possible, in part, by a global pandemic.
This was SXSW 2021. Or, to be exact, SXSW Online XR — a partial, virtual reality recreation of the familiar streets and venues that typically play host to the annual celebration of interactive, film, and art worlds. And it was alive inside of VRChat, the popular and scrappy social platform.
“We got canceled in March, like a week before SXSW 2020,” says Blake Kammerdiener, XR and film programmer for SXSW, of the initial decision to build a virtual Austin for attendees. “And that weekend — literally that weekend, this massive community of XR [cross reality] industry professionals came together and they were like, ‘OK, this is real. We have to figure out what we can do for immersive events. How can we apply XR?'”
Those conversations continued throughout the year, with Kammerdiener finally locking onto the idea of bringing to life a “physical-ish version” of SXSW’s classic sites like Red River Street, as well as venues like The Paramount and Mohawk for attendees to mingle, enjoy live music, and view films in competition.
“We’re always looking for new and innovative ways to showcase the work from our wonderful community. So it wasn’t like a hard sell,” says Kammerdiener of getting the official greenlight for Online XR.
But it wasn’t until October of 2020 when he would reconnect with a familiar face from the global film festival circuit — one who’d been on his case for years about transporting SXSW into VR. That someone was Louis Cacciuttolo, founder of VRrOOm, a French company that specializes in live social VR events.
“I’ve always been courting him,” says Cacciuttolo, laughing. “Literally, because I’m such a fan of South by Southwest … literally asking him to work with us for three years. And this year, he said yes. I was like, ‘Oh, cool. Finally!'”
The partnership between the two quickly sped into high gear, with the project officially kicking off around Christmas time. According to Cacciuttolo, it took just two and a half months for a dedicated VRrOOm team of about five to six people to build the streetscapes and venues that will host (and, hopefully, delight) virtual attendees.
“We had to redesign the Austin main venues that all the festival-goers actually know well,” says Cacciuttolo. “But in a nice way…in an artistic way, and in a gamified way because that’s what makes the experience in social VR — the interaction. The fact that you can actually interact with objects, interact with the environment, and of course, with the people. The people are literally 50 percent of the success of the social VR experience.”
And so far, “the people” seem to be very pleased with the Online XR experience.
“We just had a wonderful little party for virtual cinema competition filmmakers,” says Kammerdiener. “A little gathering with them. And it was a real party where we all got together at The Paramount, took pictures on the red carpet, and had some fun just chatting…it felt like going to a real meetup.”
That social aspect isn’t the only lure of Online XR. To make full use of the VRChat platform for SXSW, Cacciuttolo’s team programmed certain game-like surprises for attendees to happily stumble upon as they teleport between worlds. There’s an axe-throwing game at the Mohawk, go-karts at the start of Congress Avenue, “playable” arcade cabinets with Neo Geo titles, and, of course, beer pong. And that’s just the low-brow VR bells and whistles. Attendees milling about a certain “outdoor” space will be treated to a motion-captured jazz performance by tuba player Theon Cross, as well as a floating crystal art sculpture they can enter.
Cacciuttolo also brought along French electronic composer, Jean-Michel Jarre, for two limited-time Online XR events: a one-night only replay of his Notre Dame New Year’s Eve rave, and an exclusive NFT gallery. “It’s a virtual gallery pre-selling crypto art in a social VR space…it’s a preview, basically,” he says.
VRrOOm had previously worked with Jarre to create that New Year’s Eve performance within VRChat last December, so it’s something of a homecoming for the pair. But it’s also further confirmation of Cacciuttolo’s fascination with and appreciation of VRChat. So it’s easy to see why he selected the burgeoning social VR platform to host SXSW Online XR, as opposed to more “professional” rivals like Microsoft’s AltspaceVR.
“We can do the same in Altspace. We can do the same in Sansar. We can do the same in Engage, or in NeosVR, or in any other [social VR] platform. VRChat is my personal favorite. It’s not because the other platforms are not so good. Actually, each platform has its pros and cons, really. There is no better platform. It doesn’t exist.”
“…the social interaction and the vibe we have in VRChat. It feels very free. It feels very social.”
“VRChat is not better than other platforms. But to me, what I prefer is the social interaction and the vibe we have in VRChat. It feels very free. It feels very social. I think this is the most social platform I know in terms of natural interactions…I think people inside VRChat tend to be more laidback because the world is so fun,” says Cacciuttolo.
Though it may seem like all this effort building out a convincing and engaging virtual SXSW experience would guarantee Online XR’s return in 2022, it’s not a given. For now, Kammerdiener is just trying to enjoy the massive feat he, Cacciuttolo, and their respective teams, have pulled off.
“You never can tell till you get there,” he says. “But I think that, so far, it’s been a wonderful addition.”
To experience SXSW Online XR during the festival’s March 16–20 run, attendees will need to register a VRChat account with their profile, and have a compatible desktop PC, Oculus Quest, or PCVR headset, like the Valve Index or HP Reverb G2.