January 19, 2017
Sundance 2017

Why Sundance 2017 is Poised to be a Breakthrough Year for VR

“VR has exploded in the last year since the 2016 festival.”

In the course of the last year, you've probably seen a few commercials and billboards featuring virtual reality goggles. What's the big deal? That's the question creative virtual reality filmmakers have been trying to explain to the people for the last few years. Could 2017 finally be the year of an audience breakthrough for VR at Sundance?

Senior Programmer and Chief Curator of New Frontier Shari Frilot thinks it could be, given some exciting changes in both the programming and the festival attendee experience. “We make it a mandate to create a New Frontier each year that doesn't look like anything that was ever done before, so it's always new,” Frilot told No Film School. “VR has exploded in the last year since the 2016 festival. There's a whole industry and set of expectations and very specific interest in the medium.”

So what’s new and exciting this year in the Sundance program where cutting edge technology is harnessed by the world's most innovative artists? Frilot sat down with No Film School to give us a sneak peak of some highlights, and it looks like the 2017 New Frontier program is poised to be a big one.

The VR Palace

An image from 'Voyager' by Jeffrey Travis, an official selection of the New Frontier VR Experiences program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Gil Cope.

One thing that distinguishes this year's New Frontier from last year is the VR Palace, a ticketed venue for experiencing the 2017 VR lineup. Says Frilot, “We’re ticketing it because we wanted to created an experience that didn't involve long lines. Last year, we showed upwards of 35 works, and this year we've pared it down to some of the most innovative VR being made right now independently.”

Pushing the Limits of Narrative VR

Ted Sutherland, Tatum Kensington Bailey, Richard Riehle, Emily Bergl, Owen Vaccaro and P.J. Byrne appear in 'Miyubi' by Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, an official selection of the New Frontier VR Experiences program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Felix & Paul Studios.
Miyubi is a 40-minute VR piece from Felix & Paul studios done in partnership with Funny or Die. It's a comedy where you are in the position of a family robot from the '80s. "You go through the experience as a robot part of the family," Frilot says. "No one's ever done this before, something that's 40 minutes and at this level, with professional actors and with an established studio.”

An image from 'Life of Us' by Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin and Pharrell Williams, an official selection of the New Frontier Art program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In Life of Us by Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin, Pharrell Williams, and Megan Ellison, you and three other people in different locations experience a story as avatars about the evolution of life on Earth. "We've never seen this kind of thing done on this level before," Frilot explains. "Now, you inhabit some of the avatars, the characters, in this story, and you're able to talk to the other people inside of the experience. You're able to to meet people through the avatars for the first time.”

In addition to experiencing the story as avatars, Frilot mentioned that on Monday night of the festival, January 23, there will be a meet-up where people can come to the party and try to meet the people they met as avatars, IRL. "When you meet somebody inside of a VR experience in the avatars and then you meet somebody in real life, it's a profound experience. When you meet someone as an avatar, you leave the vulnerability of your body, and also the unconscious bias towards others. You act differently and your conversation is different. Then when you meet them in real life, you actually start from that point, as opposed to sizing people up immediately and figuring out what you want to talk about.”

An image from 'NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism' by Ashley Baccus-Clark, Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ece Tankal and Nitzan Bartov, an official selection of the New Frontier Art program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | image by Hyphen Labs.

Another piece stretching the cutting edge of technology is NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminismNeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is a beauty salon from the future where you can see speculative products like head wraps that can protect you from surveillance, or transcranial extensions to expand your neuro-plasticity. Frilot explains, “Afterwards, you participate in a neuroscience study where the artists are tracking to see whether or not this artistic journey they've created actually helps you think in a way that's different than upon entering the installation.”

Documentary Filmmakers Going Beyond the Frame

A still from 'Melting Ice' by Danfung Dennis, an official selection of the New Frontier VR Experience program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Danfung Dennis.

This year, documentary filmmakers are adding VR companions to their feature-length work and finding real success, such as with An Inconvenient Sequel's VR piece called Melting Ice and Chasing Coral's piece by the same name. It may well be a taste of what's to come in the rest of the documentary world. As Frilot told No Film School, the trend of companion VR films this year is demonstrating why doc filmmakers are a natural fit for virtual reality: “The concept of reality is something that documentary filmmakers are intrigued with. What is reality and what is real? What's the truth?”

The Rise of Augmented Reality

According to Frilot, augmented reality is starting to find a new shape and form this year: “We're going beyond what we've seen with Pokemon Go, augmented reality that you can actually use your phone with. We’ve got headsets you put on, not unlike the VR headsets, but these headsets enable you to see holograms that integrate with the real world that you see in front of you. It's really fantastic, almost game-changing technology, and we've got a number of artists who are dealing with this work."

If you are heading to Park City this week, be sure to join No Film School in checking out all the hubbub for yourself in the complete New Frontier lineup!


For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.      

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