Virtual Reality at the Centre of Sundance’s Experimental New Frontier
By Joseph Volpe for Engadget
Virtual reality found itself front and center of Utah’s wintery celebrity village earlier this year, virtually dominating the conversation around this past Sundance Film Festival. The technology, a burgeoning new medium for artists, game developers, filmmakers, and journalists alike, had reached a cultural tipping point, with the Park City fest playing host to the announcement of a dedicated VR animation studio from Facebook-owned Oculus VR and ten VR projects that stole the headlines from Sundance’s edgy, experimental New Frontier showcase.
“Last year was one of those historic moments where it was like the perfect storm,” says Shari Frilot, chief curator of New Frontier’s VR-heavy 2015 showcase. “Not only were there significant developments in the technology and a commitment by storytellers, content creators, filmmakers and journalists to grasp onto it, [but] there was also this ramping up of industry — manufacturing, as well as kind of peaking of interest in more mainstream content creators. That all converged at the festival in a way that was really explosive. … That’s sort of the unicorn that came out of New Frontier.
That New Frontier, now celebrating its tenth year, served as VR’s mainstream coming out party is no surprise to Frilot. But despite the buzz and fanfare around last year’s deliberately VR-focused exhibit, Frilot maintains the spirit of New Frontier hasn’t changed and that it’s not solely a showcase for that emerging tech.
The Leviathan Project, based on the science fiction novels by Scott Westerfeld, is one such meta media lab project that melds VR and AR tech. Participants wearing VR headsets are placed inside a virtual lab situated in the belly of “massive flying whale” and, using positional tracking, are able to interact with surrounding virtual objects. Then, once they’ve exited the VR headset experience, they can watch as the AR-whale flies off screen and into the physical New Frontier space.
As for ILMxLab’s The Holo-Cinema, which is structured similarly to The Leviathan, Frilot says the content of that experience hasn’t quite been locked down — she plans to visit with the team soon to cherry pick which of the lab’s many projects will be shown.
New Frontier’s current lineup features a mix of expected independent artists, journalists and filmmakers alongside corporate heavyweights, the presence of which may initially seem odd for the fringe exhibition. But Frilot contends this is all evidence of a “kind of equalizing moment” in time, where “everybody’s doing the same exploratory work.”