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New Frontiers at Sundance ’15

Last week I attended the Sundance Film Festival. It was my first time there and I was surprised and excited to see that they have an active New Frontier program exploring the future of storytelling. They hosted the New Frontier Exhibition — a really interesting collection of new media projects.

The work shown this year features a lot of virtual reality experiences — apparently a shift from previous years where projects were more screen-based. I talked with several of the artists and there was a real sense that VR technology (especially with Oculus Rift) has advanced far enough to make the medium useful for more than just technology demos.

It’s really exciting to see Sundance, which has such a rich history of supporting artists, exploring the boundaries of technology and storytelling with these creative experiments.

As always, there’s never enough time to see everything at an exhibit like this (and besides, there’s all the “regular” Sundance stuff to see, too!) — but I had a chance to get through a lot. And wanted to share some of my experiences….

Way To Go

Way To Go

Way to Go (link), by Vincent Morisset, was a kind of VR walk through the woods. You’re limited to a single path, but able to adjust your speed, to look around, and even fly as you progress. Like several of the projects, your path was fixed — but it was a beautiful, almost dreamy, experience. It was an interesting contrast to some of the other projects which had more emphasis on narrative. Instead, this let you move at your own pace — a have simple walk in the woods. The project will be available online soon at www.a-way-to-go.com

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Project Syria

Project Syria (link), by Noony de la Neña, placed you in the middle of the street in Syria. With the VR headset you could walk around the intersection and, just as you approached a group of people talking, a rocket hits! Suddenly you’re in the midst of debris and chaos. The project immersed you in the city, and then later in a refugee camp. It was a fantastic way to communicate a topical situation. Unlike infographics or news-games, the immediacy of experience, and feeling of agency as you walked around the environments, you got a real feeling for the situation.

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1979 Revoloution Game

1979 Revoloution Game (link), by Navid Khonsari & Vassiliki Khonsari, had a similar intent of letting players experience situations (and make moral choices) in contexts that seem far away. It was great to see a mainstream company like Rockstar Games allow artists to use their platform (used for the Grand Theft Auto titles) used for exploring new ways of storytelling. But, for me, the animated characters felt too scripted, and the game-like play got in the way way of feeling like I was really there or had any real way to engage in the unfolding situations.

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Perspective Chapter 1: The Party

Perspective Chapter 1: The Party (link), by Rose Troche & Morris May, was an incredible VR piece that takes place at a college party. It gives two perspectives, each about a five minutes long. The first is from a young man talking with a young woman at the party — the second is from the woman. As the piece evolves you see how different their two points of view are. While it could have had a more critical or emotional narrative, it was a remarkable experience — especially after seeing the Sundance premier of the film The Hunting Ground, about the crisis of sexual assault on college campuses.

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Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard (link) — while most of the VR projects at the festival relied on high end technology, it was nice to see a totally low-tech approach from Google. By designing a simple viewer that holds a smartphone, they’ve created a simple path for almost anyone to experience VR. Google was giving out Cardboard kits and headsets — and several of the Sundance projects are available to download. There are also other apps and, for developers, an SDK. It’s an exciting way to liberate VR into the world — I’m really looking forward to seeing the new things people create with it.

That’s me, experiencing Birdly

Birdly (link), by Max Rheiner, may have had the least story, but was by far the most immersive. After climbing face-down onto a motorized platform, spreading your arms onto the extended panels, and strapping on the VR headset, you’re suddenly a bird flying over San Francisco! And it was an amazingly experience! You flap your wings to rise higher, sway and turn to change direction, or dive down and fly between the buildings. The fan blowing wind at you, and the way in which the platform tilts and pivots, come together to create something that feels so real that, when you finish, you’re feel like you’ve lost a sense you had before. It’s definitely not going mainstream any time soon, but it’s a great experiment at getting the “viewer” into impossible (or, non-human?) contexts. I’d love to see how it could be used for storytelling.

Birdly

Birdly

Sometimes it’s hard, in the hustle of the exhibition, to have the quiet, distraction-free experience that would benefit many of these pieces. Hopefully we’ll soon be seeing ways to bring these pieces out of exhibits and museums, and into our more daily existences.

In the end, I had a blast at Sundance. And the New Frontier work excited me about new media in a way haven’t felt in a while. Maybe it was the disruptive feeling that the work had in the context of Sundance. Or the way in which artists were pushing and testing the technology. But it all made sense for it had a sense of optimism and artist-lead creativity that’s at the heart of Sundance.

(For more information on the exhibition and projects, check out these articles from Wired and The Verge.)