Six Significant Virtual Reality Works from Sundance’s New Frontier Line-Up

World premieres, works from the "Godmother of VR," an entry from an Academy Award-winning director and more

In its 34th year, the Sundance Film Festival continues to carve paths for its curatorial magnitude. Many of last year’s selections went on to theatrical and streaming success. Four of the five films in the Best Documentary Feature category at this year’s Oscars premiered at Sundance. And last year’s shocking seven-figure sale of Eliza McNitt’s three-part VR project SPHERES (now at NYC’s Rockefeller Center) was anchored by its presence in the film festival’s virtual, augmented and mixed reality outlet, New Frontier2019’s line-up for this dynamic program of exhibitions and experiences is reason enough to trek to Park City. Our six selections below highlight the range of technology, subject matter and storytelling direction—from animation to documentary, moments of character development to unexpected plot advancements.

Still image from Traveling While Black, courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios

Traveling While Black

In 1958, Ben and Virginia Ali’s restaurant, Ben’s Chili Bowl joined a list of safe places for African American travelers, in a guide known as The Green Book. Academy Award-winner Roger Ross Williams and Ayesha Nadarajah have co-directed a 20-minute, 360-degree virtual reality recreation of the restaurant, called Traveling While Black, where visitors hear stories of black travelers who sought refuge during segregation. This world premiere was made in collaboration with Emmy-award winning filmmakers Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël of Felix & Paul Studios and in association with New York Times Op-Docs. The experience will release on Oculus and NYT Op-Docs on 25 January.

Still image from REACH, courtesy of Sundance Institute

REACH

REACH represents a new advancement in VR technology. Employing the 3D volumetric capture toolset, Depthkit (Scatter‘s first product), this experience allows anyone to be captured—in full motion and depth—and dropped into any 3D environment of their choice. This interactive installation can then be shared online, kind of like a “VR photo booth.” Nonny de la Peña (the “Godmother of VR,” also involved with Last Whispers: An Immersive Oratorio in New Frontier), CEO and founder of Emblematic Group, directed the experience—collaborating with technologist Chaitanya Shah, Hannah Eaves, and Cedric Gamelin.

(antiquated) Augmented Reality

Shown as part of two double-feature screenings at the iconic Egyptian Theater, (antiquated) Augmented Reality marries live performance with technology of old. Artist Christine Marie asks attendees to don red-and-cyan 3D glasses for a performance of dancers and their exaggerated dancing shadows. Marie’s work reminds all visitors of the power in exploring all manners of reality modification.

Gloomy Eyes

An eight-minute animated adventure, Gloomy Eyes transports participants to a cold night in 1983. In the fictional Woodland City, a friendly zombie named Gloomy tries to avoid zombie hunters and those of his own kind. This playful world premiere, by directors and lead artists Fernando Maldonado and Jorge Tereso (of 3dar), is the first in a three-part series produced by ATLAS V (the Paris-based VR production house behind Spheres).

Emergence

Another world premiere, artist Matt Pyke’s Emergence tests the agoraphobic in a new, fascinating way. In questioning the relationship between individual and crowd, Pyke places a participant in an open-world environment and surrounds their avatar with a crowd of thousands of moving individuals. A shaft of light acts as a guide. Directed by Universal Everything and presented by Within, in collaboration with Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, the VR experience purports to show more than 5,000 intelligent human behaviors. It’s immersive to say the least.

Mica

We first heard the term “mixed reality” with regard to Mica. Developed by Google-backed Magic Leap—and for use with their Magic Leap One AR hardware—this experience aims to introduce users to an AI that’s been referred to as almost human. John Monos, director of the digital human-research group at Magic Leap One, and Alice Wroe, creative director and founder of Herstory, imagined this experience, which is driven by gestural command and digs quite deep into the ideas of existence and reality as a whole.

Emergence hero image courtesy of Matt Pyke