Along with demos of traditional video games and virtual reality video games, there were many immersive VR experiences to interact with at Games For Change Festival 2018. One such immersive experience was Into the Now, which took “players” deep underwater to swim with sharks.

Into the Now is “a stereoscopic VR documentary focused on marine life and ocean conservation told through the internal journey of the director, Michael Muller.” Muller’s journey started with describing his fear of sharks–yet, despite that fear, he is fascinated by sharks and both cage and free dives with them. He appears to be dedicated to their preservation. He wanted to explore how he could hold such seemingly conflicting feelings about sharks.

This experience ran for about ten minutes, and the “player” was privy to boat rides, dives in different oceans to see not only lemon, hammerhead, great white, and whale sharks, but also alligators, dolphins, and marine iguanas. There are also some moments above the water when Muller is interacting with his family.

Everything is shot from real life, not animated, and the illusion is convincing. In dirty water, I would wave my hand in front of my goggles without thinking to clear debris. I jumped when sharks seemed to try to mouth my arm (in real life, mouthing the camera), and edged away from alligators. Gestures and behavior from the humans in the video had me responding just as naturally as a person’s actions in real life would have me respond.

The illusion wasn’t totally perfect, of course. When underwater, the camera was often on a telescoping pole, and the camera couldn’t see the part of the pole underneath itself. The pole simply faded off into nothing. Still, it’s a small detail that’s easy to overlook because, you know, you’re in the ocean with an apex predator. I was thinking about this until the diver holding the camera’s pole shook his free hand at something behind me and I turned to see a shark seemingly inspecting my arm.

I also had some trouble with a slight double image, no matter how I adjusted my headset, which fixed it with the other VR games and experiences. I wondered if that had to do with my eyesight. I have poor distance vision and didn’t “play” with my glasses on. Maybe the real footage was more affected by that than the other experiences because they were cartoonish? Nonetheless, the double image didn’t really cut into the realism or my response to what I saw.

Into the Now promotional image of a Great White Shark
Some of the more incredible moments of footage showed impossibly huge great whites swimming through “baitballs”–schools of fish trying to protect themselves by swarming tightly. Photo Courtesy of Into the Now VR.

The sound was also great in this one. Unlike all of the other VR experiences I took part in during the course of the Festival, there were no headphones involved. Yet the sound was just as immersive and outside noises barely intruded. This also made this rig one of the more comfortable ones I wore.

I was immediately taken in by the story behind this one as well. I’m also scared of sharks–yet I signed up for the experience without a second thought when I saw its poster which clearly shows a diver swimming with a gigantic shark. I was a little relieved when Muller started with his fear of sharks because I knew that I was doing a very silly thing, signing up knowing I’d be scared. Of course, being virtual, I didn’t have the same fear that I’d have at the beach if I saw a shark or even the same nerves I get seeing sharks at an aquarium–though you wouldn’t have been able to tell if you were watching me react to what I saw!

The ultimate message ended up being uplifting as well. Muller realized that he was attracted to interactions with the sharks because those were the only moments when he felt as if he was truly in the present, and those experiences helped him appreciate moments with his family more, instead of focusing on the future.

Into the Now is a part of a partnership with Stanford University’s Neurology department that seeks to study the benefits of VR for people with PTSD, anxiety, and other stress disorders. It premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film FestivalInto the Now also helped moved VR technology along; Muller helped invent a nine-large format camera to capture all of the footage around him in 4K stereoscopic 3D.

The informational portfolio available at Into the Now‘s booth also suggested that this idea would be ripe for a whole series featuring other parts of the world that Muller and his team visited, with those areas’ local flora and fauna. The eventual goal, should it get picked up, would be to open up an effective conversation about ocean conservation. As with many of the other VR experiences discussed over the course of the Festival, this could open up greater opportunities for dissemination of information and accessibility for that information than ever before.

For more information on Into the Now, please check out the potential series’ page here.

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