Oculus' new experience 'Ka' takes VR to a different plane

The 13-minute Cirque du Soleil film feels like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" wore drag to a Thunderdome battle on an aircraft carrier slowly going over Niagara Falls.

Ryan Miller, Getty Images

Imagine dropping into a trippy, Cirque du Soleil universe, where everything seems tilted on its side. Literally.

On Thursday, Oculus touted a new narrative-style virtual-reality experience, "Ka: The Battle Within," during a keynote at its Oculus Connect 3 developers conference in San Jose, California. The 13-minute short puts viewers in the middle of a gymnastic Cirque du Soleil martial-arts battle, including a climax on a large platform that slowly tilts the viewer to a nearly 90-degree angle, acrobatic performers flinging themselves around and behind you.

"The experience marks a step forward in the sense that you are in constant motion," said Felix Lajeunesse, one of the founders of Felix & Paul Studios, in an interview. His virtual-reality content company spearheaded the "Ka" experience. "You are moving through the space, embracing it in a zero-gravity way."

Virtual reality, an immersive technology that puts a viewer in the middle of the action, is an entirely new entertainment format. For filmmakers, that offers new opportunities to transport their audience into their stories and let them play a role. But it also raises challenges: How do you shoot a film when there's no "off-screen" area to put the lights and the crew? How do you get the viewer to look in the right direction where all the action is taking place?

Most importantly for "Ka," how do you tilt the viewer on a gigantic moving platform without making them feel sick?

Lajeunesse said Felix & Paul and its co-director François Blouin built the experience to begin with smooth, linear movements constantly through the film. It begins with tracking shots that move the camera -- and the viewer -- forward, left-to-right and down-to-up.

"You get used to it as a viewer, your mind gets trained to...the physical changes," Lajeunesse said. "Then we go for the very epic moments of transporting the viewer through space. It wouldn't have worked if we had started the experience that way."

It's the second collaboration between Cirque du Soleil and Felix & Paul. The companies previously produced a project, "Inside the Box of Kurios" that an Emmy for interactive media.

The project is available to watch on Samsung Gear VR, a headset powered by Facebook's Oculus virtual-reality technology.

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