The Surrogate review: an intriguing short VR movie

Two weeks ago, I’ve read an article on Upload VR about a “Black Mirror-style” experience called The Surrogate and this got my attention. I’ve put that name on my to-do list and today I found some time to test it and enjoy this original storytelling experience.

The Surrogate is a short VR movie made by VR Playhouse. To be more precise: it is the trailer for an upcoming series by the same company, that should make us all curious about it. The plot is very strange and original: in a future where AR and VR are all parts of our life, a girl named Juliana Bach starts having mental disorders because of the abuse of these technologies. She starts getting crazy and sometimes also has to wear a straitjacket.

the surrogate virtual reality review
The beginning of the experience, where you start discovering the plot. You’ll discover more details later on while watching it (Image by VR Playhouse)

Thanks to a psychologist, she finds that the only way for her to stay in peace is living alone inside some special corridors of her own house. I mean, there are some narrow corridors inside her house that snake around all the rooms of the house and she stays locked in there. The only contact she can have with her original environment are some circular portholes that are on the walls of these corridors. Thanks to these portholes she can see all the rooms of her house without being seen, since, from the other side, each porthole appears as a mirror.

Juliana has a husband, that obviously she can’t see anymore, so the couple decides to take another woman, that will substitute Juliana in the role of the wife, that will become the new Juliana, doing exactly all the same things that Juliana does (dressing as Juliana, eating as Juliana, etc…) … all of this while Juliana can watch the couple from the secret corridors. I know, that’s damn 奇怪 (strange).

The movie revolves around the husband and the surrogate wife trying to stay together while the viewer, that impersonates Juliana, watches them. Of course, this new domestic partnership is far from being easy: the new wife feels uncomfortable of doing all of this, while she knows that there is the real wife watching them. The experience is of course not a funny one: it is a drama, it is sad and complicated. Because of the theme and the cut, it somewhat reminded me Rose Colored, the film regarding a dystopian AR future. So, if you want to watch something entertaining, this movie is not for you.

the surrogate virtual reality review
You, watching the surrogate Juliana through a porthole (Image by VR Playhouse)

The movie lasts less than 15 minutes, so it is a short one, like most of VR productions: this is not Miyubi, that lasted 45 minutes. And another difference with the movie of the Japanese robot regards the quality: while Miyubi was a high-quality production with a high budget (they even hired Jeff Goldblum!), this is an indie experience, so it is far more simple and also the production quality is inferior. Another problem that all the reviews highlight is in the final scene, that has been shot very bad. First of all, while in the whole experience you embody Juliana, in the last scene you just find yourself being a camera floating in the air (???), creating an incoherent situation; then, when Juliana enters the scene, it is very hard noticing her, since all the attention is drawn by the other girl, so in the end you don’t get what is really happening. This and some other bugs (at the beginning the controllers didn’t work well; sometimes I could notice when the various photos transformed themselves into videos, etc…) surely ruin the experience, that for this reason has only 3 stars on the Oculus Store.

But of course, I wouldn’t write an article about something, if there were not something worth talking about. Well, first of all, the story and the idea of a surrogate wife is intriguing. And it becomes even better since you, the viewer, take part of the scene as Juliana, so you look through this portholes and see another girl that pretends to be you with your husband… and you can’t do anything but stay behind the walls. And the strange thing is that Juliana, that is you, also tries to “help” the new couple giving some pieces of advice to the man… and this makes everything even stranger, making you feel mixed sensations. You feel her as an impostor, but you also want that the new couple is happy, because that girl is you and you want to make your husband happy.

Then I loved the reference to the “rubber hand illusion”, an experiment that we all VR enthusiasts know well and like.

There is this parallelism between the rubber hand illusion and the surrogate wife substituting the real one. That’s cool.

But the most innovative thing is the mix of 360 videos and CG environments. As Juliana, you can move within the corridors using your Oculus touch controllers (the thumbsticks, to be precise) and all these environments are made in Unity, it is just a 3D game. Then, as soon as you look through a porthole, on the other side you can see the 360 video representing the room, where the actors play the drama. So, you start by moving inside the corridors and looking through all the portholes until you find one where there are the actors playing their scene (in the other ones there are just 360 photos of empty rooms) and then you try to follow them through all the portholes to see the plot unfolding. Of course, the application waits for you, so until you start watching through the right porthole, it just shows only 360 photos… and then plays the video only where you are close enough to see it. So, the storytelling experience mixes interactive CG with 360 videos in a very original way. And this little interactivity makes you even more immersed, even more embodied with Juliana (even if, I have to say that it is a pity that you can’t see the body of Juliana under your head).

the surrogate virtual reality review
Your husband with your surrogate copy. In this moment the husband is talking with you and this increments the sense of presence (Image by VR Playhouse)

Of course, since all these mechanisms are far from obvious, there is an initial tutorial that explains you how you have to use the experience. The tutorial is a video rendered in front of you and is very effective. Kudos to the devs for having added it.

In the end, I have to say that in my opinion, The Surrogate is worth a shot. Ok, it is not the most entertaining movie you’ve watched in VR; ok, its quality is not top-notch and the final scene is completely wrong. But it has original ideas both for the plot and for how the experience is crafted and for this reason, I think that it is worth 10 minutes of your life. It is one of those movies that maybe you’re a little bored while you watch it, but that in the end leave you something inside your head… and in my opinion, this is the most important thing. I also watched it two times to understand it better. If I’ve convinced you, download it now from the Oculus store.

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AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I'm not giving up: I've started an AR/VR agency called New Technology Walkers with which help you in realizing your XR dreams with our consultancies (Contact us if you need a project done!)

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