The Golden Key, winner of the XR Jury Award at SXSW, which concluded March 16, is one of those things that makes you go “Wow!”

Although its presentation on three big screens felt immersive in a way, the original intent was a four-walled projection, which would enclose the audience. A local version of Stable Diffusion text-to-image generator running at light speed was automatically prompted to create themed images based on a series of unrelated short fairy tales. I’m told that the Fairmont Hotel had to bring in extra power at great expense to get the servers to run and the air conditioning to cool them.

Guests could add their own prompts to see how they manifested in the stories being generated and projected in real time. Even on three screens, it was immersive, but the original four-walled concept must be incredible. A lightning-fast version of Stable Diffusion generated images from fairy tales, and guests could even add their own twists to the evolving narrative.

It felt like a new medium was unfolding before our eyes. Marc Da Costa, and Matthew Niederhauser directed the piece. The Golden Key was a revelation. An entirely new experience, a new medium. Finding something like this is the reason I come back to SXSW year after year.

Da Costa and Niederhauser also presented Tulpamancer, which was also at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. Sitting down at a retro computer terminal, participants first encounter the tulpa through a series of questions about their own lives. After typing out their responses, they are then invited to meet in a world prepared uniquely for them. Participants put on a VR headset and are led on a journey by their tulpa through a series of uniquely generated virtual scenes that invoke and question the memories of their own past and their potential fates.

There were some other notable projects in the XR experience area. A Special Jury Award went to Soul Paint, written by Sarah Ticho, directed by Sarah Ticho and Niki Smit, and produced by Anna Firbank. Two other pieces in the XR exhibition that made a real impression on me were Eliza McNitt’s new experience, Astra, set in space like her previous award-winning XR experience, Spheres, and a preview of Impulse, which shared the stories of those experiencing ADHD. It was characterized as a work-in-progress but felt very finished to me. Both experiences take advantage of Mixed Reality, which uses outward facing HD cameras and mixes the real with the digital.

In partnership with Meta, co-creators Julie Cavaliere and Michaela Ternasky-Holland bring to life Reimagined Volume III: Young Thang, the newest installation in a VR animation series. The Reimagined series is co-created by Julie and Michaela, but Young Thang, the episode shown at SXSW, was directed by Melissa Joyner, Julie Cavaliere & Michaela Ternasky-Holland. This female led, directed, and produced anthology series takes us into a new kind of storybook by showcasing lesser-known fables, mythology, and folklore. Another Venice selection, Shadowtime, is a poetic contemplation of escapism and real-world threats, like Climate Change.

Also worth an honorable mention was Detachment, a satiric VR experience from Ristband, best known for its live, multidimensional mixed reality concerts. Detachment is a cinematic journey that follows a voice-over actor trying to figure out the programming of the script.

SXSW 2024 marked Ristband’s 3rd year back at the festival with their SXSW Official Future x Music event, this year featuring an ambisonic A/V installation (music and visuals by Venice Bleach, spatial audio by Sphere of Sound, violins by Alexander Parsons, scent by Timothy Han), their critically acclaimed mixed reality concert performed by the band Pivots, and performances from 5 international artists (Glasser, Pivots, Moritz Simon Geist, Minimal Schlager, and Kikuo). Blending game design, cinema, virtual reality and live performance, and generative AI visuals with ambisonic audio, Ristband’s Future x Music event demonstrates the new ways artists are leveraging new technology to tap into artist potential presented by merging technologies of music, video and games.

Chris Madsen, Senior Sales Engineer for venerable VR Metaverse, Engage, described the event as a “transformative, immersive journey between the physical and the digital.” Pico Neo 4E mixed reality headsets, many provided by MACE Virtual Labs, was the conduit by which attendees embarked on a journey moving them back and forth between physical reality, as seen through the passthrough cameras, into a series of fully immersive virtual dreamscapes that shifted consciousness away from the physical surroundings to the fantastical.

“The experience was a series of cycles in which the physical world faded, replaced by artfully crafted, otherworldly environments, transporting participants into a collective dream in which flight is controlled by the direction of one’s head, soaring at will over the varied landscapes and geometry,” Madsen said. “With each reality landing, smiles, nods, laughter, and fistbumps acknowledged and celebrated the collective dream just experienced together. Each transition back into immersive virtual reality was marked by communal oh’s, ah’s as attendees, now 3D symbols within a digital flock, careened together through the imaginative landscapes.”

“The seamless integration of music, narrative, and the visual spectacle was controlled live from the stage, underscoring the concert’s partially dynamic nature. Behind the scenes, the logistical ballet of charging, distributing, and onboarding a fleet of 20 headsets over approximately 12 showings by Ristband and MACE VL, highlighted their expertise in delivering innovative experiences,” said Madsen.

“Each year at SXSW we put on our Future x Music showcase to offer a window into what the future may hold,” said Ristband co-founder and CEO Anne McKinnon. “We love bringing people together to experience new technology and new experiences in a fun night out with friends and live music. We had people from the film side of the festival trying VR for the first time before running to a film premiere, lots of XR industry folks from all over the world experiencing their first-ever live XR concert, folks from the music festival out for their first night at SXSW and stumbling across something entirely new, and also folks representing brands looking for the next big thing. It was great to bring everyone together under one roof.”

Charlie Fink is the author of the AR-enabled books “Metaverse,” (2017) and “Convergence” (2019). In the early 90s, Fink was EVP & COO of VR pioneer Virtual World Entertainment. He teaches at Chapman University in Orange, CA. Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn, and check out his website or other work.

More from AR Insider…