FIVARS Festival of Virtual Reality Stories Celebrates 5th Anniversary

A Festival Powered by VR

“5 years in VR, is like dog years,” says FIVARS festival founder Keram Malicki-Sanchez, not a trace of irony in his expression. The international festival of virtual and augmented reality stories he launched in 2015 has run every year against the Toronto International Film Festival – the world’s largest film festival.

Why run a tiny independent festival for a fledgling technology against the sprawling red carpets, Oscar-winning celebs and paparazzi?

“FIVARS is designed to showcase the finest new immersive content from around the world, and I loved how TIFF had exposed me to so many films I would never see anywhere else – the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I wanted to bring that to the foreground for immersive media and keep it there. Culture is at the centre of our show.”

FIVARS has always been heavily focused on UX for audiences, using Cleanbox machines to sterilize headsets, using their RipTix system invented by Joseph Ellsworth, to manage queue times, and privacy and discretion while maintaining the fun of social experience in the way that the layout of the event is setup. After five years the festival has learned a lot of lessons and tricks.

In year 5, the show features over 35 pieces from over 12 countries.

Adventures in Six Degrees of Freedom

Some highlights include “Memoria: Stories of La Garma” – a powerful 6DoF experience from the Rafael Pavon about early cave dwellers and the rich culture they left behind through artefacts, paintings and bones. Rafael Pavon started as creative director at the legendary studio Future Lighthouse where he worked in projects like Ray, Melita, Campfire Creepers and Snatch VR. In 2018, he leads the creative department at the Disney-backed immersive studio Jaunt and then became creative director at the award-winning studio AtlasV.


The show also features “Deep Connection” by Marilene Oliver – an incredibly ambitious experience featuring coroplast sculptures with body sensors and laser scanners that enable you to experience full-body MRI scans. Users can walk around the life-sized body, and real-life motion-tracked sculptures, dive inside it to see its inner workings, as well as ‘animate’ the body by holding its hand to make the heartbeat and lungs breathe.

Deep Connection VR experience by Marilene Oliver

Deep Connection VR experience by Marilene Oliver

Screensavers” from Ben Vance/FLOAT lets you dive into the world of 1980’s screensavers in VR. I mean…how can it get any cooler than that? “What began as a utilitarian application became less of a tool to keep static pixels from burning the screens of CRT’s and more a canvas for us to project our imaginations. Stop staring at your screen—dive in and save virtual reality!”

These and many more wonders await.

FIVARS runs its 5th annual festival in Toronto September 13th-15th at the Toronto Media Arts Centre – learn more at

Full disclosure: this blog is owned by Constant Change Media Group, Inc. who also operates the FIVARS festival.

Interactive Cinematic Augmented Reality Experience “City of Ghosts” to Premiere at FIVARS Festival

On September 7th, 2017, CieAR announced that its interactive, Augmented Reality “film” experience, City of Ghosts, will premiere as an official selection of the FIVARS Festival of International Virtual and Augmented Reality Stories in Toronto, September 15-17 at the House of VR. FIVARS focuses on curating the best immersive story-driven content from around the world with the aim of exploring and nurturing this platform for new narrative forms. This year, FIVARS received 250 entries for its festival. Established in 2015, it was the first independent festival of its kind and openly challenges content creators to showcase and develop ideas that defy and transcend the status quo, with bonus points for exhibiting a unique mechanic.

Necropolis-ENVIRONMENT_STILLS_GEN2B_TheaterStillaAnderson_LR_LongCrop copy

City of Ghosts is an interactive, mobile Augmented Reality cinematic experience directed by Olivier Asselin that allows users ̶to interact freely in real space with life-sized, motion-captured 3D virtual characters using nothing more than a smart phone, tablet or AR glasses, all within a 20×20 foot area or even across several real world locations.

In City of Ghosts, participants begin at the beginning of the 20th century in the middle of a criminal investigation. Their spectroscope (mobile device) helps them solve the mystery and the circumstances around the death of La Stilla, one of the most famous sopranos of the Belle Époque.

The spectroscope is a ‘magical device’ that will give visitors special powers and help them be an active participant in City of Ghosts – a story of love, death, ghosts and technology. When sufficiently “magnetized”, their spectroscope allows them to see haunted places, ghosts and the aura of objects, to resuscitate the past, interact within scenes, unlock hidden auras and see things that nobody else can see. During the experience, players of all ages are invited to discover your city and explore different real venues such as theaters, museums, historical and cultural locations and other places of interest.

At FIVARS, participants will have the opportunity to interact with the film and meet City of Ghosts director Olivier Asselin.

Get tickets for FIVARS now – running September 15-17th at the House of VR in Toronto, Canada.

Review: The Solus Project – HTC Vive Version

The Solus Project – RoomScale VR Review

The Solus Project is a beautifully designed science fiction story from the same publisher that released the Aztec adventure title The Ball almost a decade ago. In fact it is marketed as “The Spiritual Successor” to The Ball. The premise is a Robinson Crusoe like affair wherein your ship crashlands on a remote, lushly verdant planet, with little hope of rescue and frigid nightly temperatures against which you must protect yourself.

The lush imagery of The Solus Project

The lush imagery of The Solus Project

I am a sucker for survival simulators – something about the mechanic of exploration, discovery, mixing and matching items and producing new tools with which to power up, forms the almost ideal combination for long-play satisfaction. And The Solus Project, as a game, does this well. So certainly I was excited – to put it lightly – to try this out on my HTC Vive: a rich graphical, near-AAA looking title on a remote planet where I could experience – first hand – the challenge of staying alive against all odds.

Loco Motion

The first thing that is clearly VR-based is the movement in the roomscale port: rather than use WASD to float around, here you use the now-established VR method of pointing at the ground and clicking your D-Pad to define a destination circle to which you then teleport. There is also the option to glide along the ground, and fortunately it doesn’t accelerate or decelerate or bounce; it merely gets you moving at a constant speed so as to allay motion sickness.

The 360 view from within the HMD is nice, with not lag or jutter and the detailed sound design helps to enliven the sense of immersion. The sound designer – Jonas Kjellberg – also happens to be the composer, whose lively orchestral MIDI score lends a mysterious and hypnotic undertone and, appropriately enough is peppered with sound effects and textures that roil in its currents. When things get foreboding, huge fat modular synth leads combine with mechanical cacophony to induce dread and urgency.

This is where most good things end for VR enthusiasts, unfortunately.

The inventory and combining/crafting system is a fidgety mess. There is an attempt at a UI but it is inconsistent and unintuitive. I could never quite master the dropping, versus selecting, let along combining actions. I would so much rather reach behind my shoulder to open my backpack, point and select what I want, pick it up and drop it onto a target, than this obtuse, after-the-fact system. You also toggle so that one of your hands turns into a tricorder that offers bio and environmental feedback. I found this extra step cumbersome and would prefer to see this as an augmented reality overlay in an in-world HUD.

Check out your handy tricorder where your hands should be

Check out your handy tricorder where your hands should be

Interacting with things in the environment is equally tedious. I was supposed to find things, sometimes in a certain order, and never quite got the hang of it. Right off the bat, I am supposed to get hints from pieces of paper strewn along the path I am travelling. Graphically, they were a little too backgroundy, but also, it took me some backtracking to figure out how to actually pick them up and look at them.

Now, I do appreciate that the text is handled within the world, rather than as an interface component, it just was not the most helpful system, especially given that these strewn pages contain important information about how to do things in this brave new world.

I found that the combination of time challenges (having to find shelter, heat or food before nightfall), having to manage the fidgety inventory system wherein the illogical crafting system works against you and the complexity of the craftables in relationship to your chances for survival prevent this, in its current stage of development, from providing a viable, long-term VR experience.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Desolate Planets

The company did provide an ad-hoc user guide for HTC, but much of it has already become obsolete with no new updates as of this writing. Furthermore, as user maxsmoke points out on that very guide, “the game appears to be setup for the Oculus Rift.” All told, I felt I could anything available to be done in VR, sitting down. There is nothing that takes advantage of the 6 pound IR-sensing thing strapped to my head, let alone the two lighthouses filling up the corners of my meatverse room.

HTC / Oculus views for The Solus Project

HTC / Oculus views for The Solus Project

There is talk of a sequel to The Solus Project, and I hope that the dev teams at Hourences and Grip Games work from the ground up to bring a refined VR experience. As it is now, TSP may be a great game for standard PCs, but the posthumous Roomscale port leaves a lot to be desired.

The Solus Project is a magical release for PC lovers of survival games, let alone in space, but those looking for a richly detailed, transportive roomscale VR experience should look elsewhere.

Title: The Solus Project
Release Date: June 7th, 2016
Developer: Hourences, Grip Games
Genre: Adventure, Simulation

‘The Key’ VIVE Experience Premieres at FIVARS Festival of VR & AR Stories

The Festival of International Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories (phew), also known as the much easier to say “FIVARS” returns for its second year to its native Toronto, Ontario, smack dab in the middle of Toronto International Film Festival hubbub.

The three-day virtual reality and augmented reality festival is not limited to merely 360 degree immersive videos (of which it is showcase the largest collection in the world with over 30 official selections in 2016 including the world premieres of Lilian Mehrel‘s “Invisible,” Michealla Vu‘s glitch-art inspired “Neural Path” and others) but also includes an audio-only virtual reality audio chamber designed by David McKevy and Cinehackers‘ experimental experience for the HTC Vive “The Key.”

Cinehackers is the VR label for the work of director/producer Elli Raynai, best known in VR-land for his groundbreaking Oculus short story “I Am You.” In an interview with RoomScalist, he explained the design thinking behind the creation of his latest work:

“The Key is a narrative cinematic VR experience that allows the viewer to inhabit the perspective of the protagonist in order to explore a traumatic memory in their past. Through the narrative the viewer not only has ability to observer the memory, but must follow an alternative path that fundamentally changes what happened and as a result brings the protagonist to a healing moment.”

The experience is a blend of elements – using photogrammetry to build environments and Depthkit to capture real performances that are then composited in the experience, which fundamentally results in a uniquely styled interactive narrative. Raynai went to Berlin where he spent a month putting his ambitious idea together on an independent budget and sheer force of will. He returned to Toronto in September where he presented the production process to the Toronto VR community.

“This was the first time I attempted a room scale experience for the VIVE and it was very challenging,” Raynai says. “I’m talking specifically about how you tailor the story, which interactive elements feel intuitive to the viewer, but also not very obvious. I almost made the experience very fast, so, a lot of the feedback I get will influence the way I make narrative experiences in the future. This is the importance of demoing your experience and watching closely how your users react.”

The experience will be available to all festival wristband carriers, as opposed to the timed programme, so that a discussion may form about the new design concepts presented in Raynai’s evolving work.

“FIVARS is about experimentation and novel mechanics,” says FIVARS festival director Keram Malicki-Sanchez. “The Key represents the FIVARS mission to explore new possibilities and push the various technologies to their current limits in search of new forms for storytelling.”

The Key makes its public exhibition world premiere at FIVARS September 16-18th 2016 in Toronto, Ontario Canada.

For more information visit the official FIVARS site.

Astroderps – Review for HTC Vive Version

In Astroderps, you are tasked with guiding your derpy little space denizens from a starting point to an exit. Very much like the deceptively spartan design of reverse tower-defense “Cubemen,” wherein you are not tasked with preventing the bad guys from marching to your defended zones, but instead, clearing a path for them, Astroderps will have you deftly manipulating physics-based obstacle courses to clear a safe path for your crew.

Anyone who has used VR understands quite quickly that a sense of scale distinguishes it from other media. Astroderps takes advantage of this by emphasizing the Lilliputian nature of the levels, making you feel like an over-sized 6 year old playing with Star WarsTM action figures.

Besides this charming effect, the game doesn’t truly make use of the opportunities in room-scale; you generally stand in position and look down at a 45 degree angle. You can, technically, walk around to get a better view, buy nothing you could’t manage from a seated position.

A brief tutorial demonstrates that you can use the trackpad menu to reset your ‘derps or speed them through the level. Pulling triggers allows you to move and manipulate the objects on the board. It’s plain and simple and without much fanfare. There is no story or context to speak of, unlike tower defense titles like Defense Grid.

Astroderps also features a scoreboard so you can check your time scores against others.

With clever multi-layered puzzles, an adorable aesthetic and solid implementation, with smooth progression though its increasingly challenging puzzles and makes a great introduction to room-scale VR. It is a short game though, and at the time of this review, the asking price of US$17 feels a bit steep.

Title: Astroderps
Release Date: June 17th, 2016
Developer: Chronos VR
Genre: Puzzle, Strategy