Sundance’ New Frontier Previews A Future That’s Already Here

by Ian Hamilton • January 22nd, 2018
The Sundance Film Festival and its New Frontier program preview VR's future just two months before the release Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One.

Each year CES kicks off January with an enormous conference in Las Vegas where the tech industry shows its upcoming wares. This year was no different, with a good look offered at upcoming VR headsets. In recent years in the weeks after CES, the Sundance Film Festival in Utah highlights what people will get to see in these future VR headsets.

Much like CES, many of the creators who come to Sundance are looking to build buzz for their projects that can bring on additional partners or investment. Unlike CES, though, which is largely a hardware showcase, Sundance is more focused on software and stories. New companies like Fable emerge to display their cutting edge work in this regard, and others, like Haptx, show how stories might be enhanced with new abilities, like stimulating a person’s sense of touch. Much of the VR and AR at Sundance is brought to the event by Shari Frilot, who has organized the New Frontier section of the event for more than a decade.

This year, Sundance and New Frontier sit at an interesting crossroads. The event is held just two months before the release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on the book by Ernest Cline. When the book released in 2011 it was a work of complete science fiction, imagining a time decades in the future when everyone owned reality-replacing goggles. With the release of the Ready Player One movie, the world’s most famous filmmaker is taking a long look at the allure and risk of such a technology and he’ll present his view on it to a global audience. And as people leave the theater, they’ll realize some of the technology in the film is actually available for purchase.

“It could make you reach for the future,” Frilot said. “What do we do with our dreams, our desires, our interests, our fantasies of the future when they are actually available right now?”

VR_I at the 2018 Sundance Institute, Photos by Tiffany Roohani

With Sundance, though, the creators drawn there who are building VR and AR experiences face a major challenge. Even though the promise of VR headsets is about to be crystallized for so many people heading out to the theater, the number of headsets on the market is still quite small. Frilot, for instance, said she’s “sensed a stepping back” on the part of some investors as they try to figure out how they’re going to get a return on their investment. Nonetheless, there are “more creators coming to this medium than ever before,” Frilot said.

2018 is shaping up to be a critical year for the emergence of immersive computing. VR arcades around the world are installing what are effectively Holodecks, putting VR within reach for so many more people. Not to mention, compelling headsets are poised to become wireless self-contained systems for the first time. So the world’s biggest companies and its farthest reaching artists are poised to compete for the attention of a world that’s learning just how soon we’ll encounter this seismic shift toward spatial computing. Will the masses find themsleves surprised, or disappointed, when they see the current state of the technology?

“Its a very exciting technology — it’s almost magical,” Frilot said. “But it’s still in development. It’s a brand new medium.”

Here’s a list of the VR and AR projects at New Frontier 2018.

  • HaptX brings realistic touch to virtual reality for the first time. The innovative technology lets VR users feel the shape, movement, texture and temperature of digital objects. By providing advanced haptic feedback and natural interaction, HaptX enables unprecedented levels of realism in virtual experiences.
  • Awavena The Yawanawa, an indigenous Amazonian people, see immersive technologies as tools they can co-opt to share their connected worldview. Inviting artist Lynette Wallworth to their community, the Yawanawa share the visions of Hushahu, their first woman Shaman, and our technology renders visible the luminous world they have always known.
  • TendAR A humorous and provocative installation that combines interactive storytelling, AR and emotion/face recognition technology to promote discussion about current topics in biometric data and artificial intelligence. Your guide: a fish-like creature who amusingly analyzes the partners collaborating in the experience, their emotions and the world around them.
  • Zikr: A Sufi Revival This interactive social VR experience uses song and dance to transport four participants into ecstatic Sufi rituals, while also exploring the motivations behind followers of this mystical Islamic tradition, still observed by millions around the world.
  • Elastic Time A mixed reality interactive documentary about space-time, narrated by astronomer Tony Stark (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics). A real-time hologram of your body is integrated into the observatory room; using the controllers, you bend space and time to your will, creating black holes, wormholes and time portals. Cast: Tony Stark.
  • Hero An immersive, large-scale installation that explores humanity in our modern era of civilian warfare. In this vérité VR experience with multi-sensory engagement, participants embark upon their own primal journey. When everyday life is disrupted by profound crisis only human connection can inspire hope.
  • VR_I  Blending art with technology, VR_I resulted from the encounter between Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin and the founders of Artanim, Caecilia Charbonnier and Sylvain Chagué. In this contemplative virtual dance piece, five spectators, immersed together and in real time, use avatars to investigate a performance among surprising effects of scale.
  • BattleScar When Lupe, a Puerto Rican-American teen, meets fellow runaway Debbie, the Bowery’s punk scene and the Lower East Side are their playground. This coming-of-age narrative explores identity through animation and immersive environments as Lupe’s handwritten journals guide users through her year.
  • DICKGIRL 3D(X) is the non-binary version of EVA v3.0, an avatar purchased online and appropriated by the artist. Through DICKGIRL 3D(X), the viewer becomes a post-human pleasure-seeker in an encounter with a submissive clay-like sculpture.
  • SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime Dive into the heart of a black hole and uncover the hidden songs of the cosmos. In this interactive VR experience, the breakthrough discovery of gravitational waves transforms how we see the Universe. Fall into the darkness, and you will find the light.
  • Wolves in the Walls (Chapter 1 ) All is not as it seems when 8-year-old Lucy’s imagination proves to be reality. Help her discover what’s hiding inside the walls of her house in this immersive fable, based on the work by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, and choreographed by acclaimed immersive-theater company, Third Rail.
  • Chorus Crystals, lasers, monsters, heroines. Transform into fantastical female warriors in this social virtual reality experience. Six people can band together to battle evil in this epic journey of empowerment, all orchestrated to the song “Chorus” by Justice.
  • Dinner Party A short virtual reality thriller that dramatizes the incredible story of Betty and Barney Hill, who in the 1960’s reported the first nationally known UFO abduction case in America.
  • Dispatch A small-town police dispatcher faces the greatest challenge of his career during an all-night crime spree.
  • Eyes in the Red Wind Friends and family members gather to throw a ‘soul scooping’ ritual, to pacify the soul of a drowned man. When a possessed shaman reveals the murderous truth behind the death on the table, lust and secrets come to the fore.
  • Masters of the Sun In 1983, Los Angeles was spared from utter destruction driven by an ancient evil. The ghetto became ground zero for drug epidemic that transformed citizens into soul-sucking zombies through Z-Drops, until a ragtag crew used one weapon to take their city back: hip-hop.
  • Micro Giants A computer-generated VR experience that gives an unprecedented and highly engaging perspective of insect life. When participants enter into the micro world, tiny flowers and insects in normal life now become mighty trees and beasts.
  • On My Way In a Tesla, multiple Yung Jakes rap about money, cars, drugs and things of that nature, among interactive elements.
  • Space Explorers: A New Dawn Experience the journey of NASA astronauts as they navigate the trials and sacrifices of their training and missions. An immersive VR experience that shines a light on mankind’s most ambitious endeavor to understand our planet, our universe and our origins.
  • The Sun Ladies VR An in-depth look at the personal journey of Xate Singali: from her roots as a famous singer in Kurdistan, through ISIS sex slavery, and to her new life as a soldier on the front lines as she starts a female-only Iraqi fighting unit called the Sun Ladies.
  • The Summation of Force In a moonlit suburban yard, two brothers battle one another in a mythic game of cricket. A study of the motion, physics and psychology of elite sport; a cosmic, dreamlike and darkly beautiful metaphor for life.
  • Your Spiritual Temple Sucks Mr. Chang arrives to his “Spiritual Temple,” a place that represents one’s destiny. To solve his marital crisis and financial problems, he summons his guardian – The Thunder God. They attempt to tidy his life, which turns out to be a big mistake…with hilarious consequences.

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