Creator: Philipp Maas, Dominik Stockhausen, and Alexander Mass
Platform: Samsung Gear VR
Sonar is an ominous story set in the caverns of a foreign planet. It was created for Gear VR at the Filmakademie Braden Württemberg under the direction of Philipp Maas. Although the experience is not interactive, Maas successfully immerses the viewer through four techniques: 1) providing consistent audio and visual depth 2) cutting only when non-invasive solutions were feasible 3) introducing music to expedite emotional presence and 4) supplanting a viewer’s instinct to move in a 3D environment with constant ‘magic carpet’ movement.
Sonar relied on a simple storyline as the backbone for a rich virtual reality experience. The viewers have boarded a spaceship. It is at once technological advanced, full of screens and controls, and nonetheless bare – there are no seats, the walls are all grey, there are few windows. The design harkens to the Matrix’s Nebuchadnezzar hovercraft. The bareness of the ship, and the loneliness of the viewer/participant when within the ship, matches that of the environment outside the ship. The viewer descends into dark caves and learns from the screens at the fore that there is a mission at hand. The spaceship is headed towards the deepest point to discover an important object.
As the viewer and the ship head towards this point, Maas feels no obligation to maintain a coherent sense of perspective. That is to say, sometimes we are the first person ship-driver and sometimes we are an ominous observer who moves externally to the ship. This flexibility of perspective allows Sonar to exhibit the majesty of its CGI world more efficiently. But this approach to the story is also only made possible because the narrative commitments are so few. There are no relationships in this story and the character of the viewer is unimportant. Visual and auditory perspective can respond more to the director’s goal of creating an eerie VR experience than to the demands of developing characters and points of view that exist in narrative film.
All in all, I was deeply moved by and never removed from the Sonar VR experience. I was moved by the profound sense of place that Maas developed. In this world of blacks and whites, mysterious abysses, variable gravity, spotlights, sharp shrieks and strings, forgotten bones, and a protective ship, all the wonder of science fiction came to life. I was in The Left Hand of Darkness, The Matrix, Dune, any number of the most fantastic visions of possible being outside of the present. I was never removed from the VR experience because Maas was tactful in using black holes within the scenes as the basis for elegant cuts, because he committed to a strong correspondence between visual and auditory physicality, and because movement was steady and slow.
While Sonar certainly dodged some of the biggest challenges in fiction in this short piece, and I would be curious to see how Maas would solve them, Sonar is no less impressive as an emotionally and physically immersive virtual reality piece.