There are an estimated 10 million VR headsets in the wild. Compare that with the number of people who have Netflix (139 million), or Hulu (25 million), or who watch YouTube (1.6 billion), and it's clear that the VR market is inherently limited. However, what the medium lacks in audience it more than makes up for in raw immersive power.
The Atomic Tree is an ideal example of a story built for VR, audience size be damned. It follows the history of a 400-year-old Japanese White Pine bonsai that survived the United States' nuclear attack on Hiroshima in 1945, even though it was just two miles from the blast's epicenter.
"We're interested in the media of VR not because of the reach it could give but because of the experience it could offer," The Atomic Tree director Adam Loften told Engadget at SXSW. "A story like this, I think, would be a lot drier and historical and one-dimensional if we told it using the same techniques you're seeing here -- you've got a narrator, you've got documentary footage, you've got recreation scenes, and some animations -- those are kind of very standard documentary tools. But in VR you can make them transportive, and meditative, and truly immersive in a way you can't [traditionally]."
The Atomic Tree is a 10-minute dive into the life of a single pine tree that blossomed in a secluded Buddhist temple high in the cedar forests of Japan. The bonsai was then lovingly cared for, for five generations, by the Yamaki family. A high wall in the family's home protected the tree from the atomic blast on August 6, 1945, which obliterated the surrounding landscape, poisoning it with radiation and filling the air with death.
The tree survived, and its story, nuclear blast and all, was stored in its rings. Eventually, the tree was given to the US as a bicentennial gift from Japan in 1976, though its trial of atomic survival didn't surface until 2004, when Yamaki family members visited and mentioned its history.
"It's a very quiet practice," said David Haskell, the Pulitzer-nominated author behind The Forest Unseen and The Songs of the Trees, the latter of which served as the source material for The Atomic Tree. "You are working with this tree, and particularly this particular tree, over 400 years. Quiet, contemplative work, listening to the tree, deciding when to be still, when to clip a little needle -- it comes down to how each little needle is carefully sculpted and so forth. In not seeking out a lot of publicity, I think some of the spirit of bonsai comes out through that."
The Atomic Tree, which launches on Within on March 22nd, approaches VR with an incredibly effective eye. It begins with the tree as it stands today, and then reverts to recreations of its initial years in a serene, mossy monastery, before showing it in the Yamaki home. Between these scenes, viewers are thrust directly into the tree, soaring through its rings in Coraline-esque, celestial tunnels that drive home the beauty and importance of the information stored within the spiraling wood. At the Yamaki house, family members trim the tree, the narrator's deep voice ringing over the scene, when suddenly, the screen is consumed by white. The bomb has fallen.