Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier Pushes Forward In 2017

by Ian Hamilton • January 22nd, 2017

The Sundance Film Festival is this weekend and next in Utah, giving new mixed reality projects a moment in the spotlight.

New VR productions at the festival show an enormous leap in quality from its first real appearance there in 2012. That’s when Sundance became the pioneering event to host Nonny de la Peña from USC showing her VR project Hunger In Los Angeles. She was accompanied at the event by none other than Palmer Luckey, who worked at USC before formally founding Oculus.

Now VR projects are spread across multiple venues at Sundance on different consumer headsets, with a wide range of content competing for eyeballs, and ultimately dollars, with varying artistic and technical approaches attempting to push the new medium forward.

I spoke by phone with Shari Frilot, Director and Curator of the New Frontier portion of the festival about what’s different compared to previous years. Among the experiences she explained the festival this year might enable, is the ability for people at two different venues to meet one another for the first time in a shared virtual experience — then to follow up and meet in real life.

“This is technology that affects storytelling in a really profound way,” Frilot said. “It is one thing to meet people in real life…it is also something to meet someone in text, but it is a…another thing to meet someone in VR.”

Life of Us from Chris Milk is a shared VR journey that “tells the complete story of the evolution of life on Earth.” It is one of several premieres from groundbreaking VR creators at the event. Another is Miyubi, a 40-minute endearing comedy project from Felix & Paul, the talented studio behind a variety of VR work including those showcasing Cirque Du Soleil performances. Miyubi lets you look into the life of a family from the 1980s from the perspective of a Japanese toy robot. There have been some previous attempts at lengthier VR projects before, Frilot said, but “they’ve all failed miserably.”

“Except for this one,” she said. “They’ve managed to create something that has….breadth and emotional gravity that maintains your interest for 40 minutes…it’s an important effort.”

asteroids

The New Frontier portion of the festival includes 20 VR experiences and 11 installations across three venues. Tear-jerking project Dear Angelica from Oculus Story Studio had its premiere there, and ASTEROIDS! from Baobab is being shown too, which continues the story of the aliens we saw in the startup’s initial project INVASION!. Meta is showing Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine on its Meta 2 mixed reality glasses and the Synesthesia Suit which lets you feel the game is there too. Acting and motion capture app Mindshow is there at the event as well showcasing its intuitive method of creating animated projects in VR. That’s just a sampling of some of the VR projects available at Sundance this year. Much of the content being shown and talked about there is likely to make it to headsets in the next few years, though some projects might fail to resonate and disappear from the public eye.

“The one thing I can say is nobody knows” what will catch on, Frilot said. “You just have to sit and watch it unfold.”

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