The most buzzworthy feature of 2015’s Sundance Film Festival isn’t a film at all, but pair of virtual reality goggles you strap to your head. Three years after VR made its debut at Sundance, the technology has fully established itself. An entire section of the festival is now devoted to VR experiences, many of them more interactive than what we’ve seen to date. Talk to filmmakers and they’ll tell you they can’t remember being so excited: some say it’s like they’re present at the dawn of a new medium.
Take Birdly, a full-body VR experiment that turns you into a bird flying above the streets of San Francisco, soaring higher with every flap of your arms. Or Project Syria, which throws the viewer in the middle of a harrowing rocket attack. Or, perhaps most darkly, Perspective; Chapter I: The Party, which lets you see the world through the eyes of a man, and then a woman, as an encounter at a college party turns into sexual assault. All are on display at New Frontier, Sundance’s annual showcase for works at the intersection of art and technology. And they’ve quickly become the talk of the festival.
FILMMAKERS SAY THEY CAN’T REMEMBER BEING SO EXCITED
Virtual reality debuted at Sundance in 2012 with Nonny de la Peña’s Hunger in Los Angeles, which used an early head-mounted display to place viewers in the middle of a food line outside a church. That project was developed by then-19-year-old Palmer Luckey, and the success of Hunger spurred him on to build a consumer version of his VR headset. He called it Oculus Rift, and launched it successfully on Kickstarter; last year, Facebook bought his company for $2 billion.
In the wake of Oculus’ success, and under the direction of curator Shari Frilot, VR dominates New Frontier this year. “I think what’s behind the explosion is the marketplace embracing it,” Frilot says. Of the 14 projects in the showcase, 11 are enhanced by virtual reality. Most are independent art projects, but not all: Fox Searchlight is also here with Wild — The Experience, putting users in between actresses Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in a scene inspired by the recent movie of the same name.