Whatever problems virtual reality had in 2016, the industry also laid important groundwork, and it’s starting to pay off — particularly at the experimental New Frontier showcase of this week’s Sundance Film Festival. Last year, VR took over a New Frontier that felt somewhat ill-prepared for it, leading to crowded rooms of people awkwardly crowding onto couches with mobile headsets. This year, New Frontier feels like a distinct part of the festival, and the pieces themselves are more mature. While there’s still plenty of experimental work that will interest enthusiasts more than newcomers, the winners in each category below are thematically innovative, technically impressive, and artistically compelling.
Where last year’s virtual reality took place almost entirely through Google Cardboard, Gear VR, and HTC Vive, this year saw an influx of Oculus Rift headsets. Oculus itself brought five experiences to the show, three of which are on the list below. HTC appeared with its own mini-slate of projects, as did VR cinema companies Jaunt and Condition One. There were also independent projects from veteran Sundance contributors Nonny de la Peña and Rose Troche, both of which touch on the consequences of homophobia: Troche’s If Not Love follows a fictionalized mass shooting by a conflicted gay fundamentalist, and de la Peña’s Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story covers the issue of homeless and disowned LGBT youth.
Unlike last year, Sundance isn’t pushing as hard to make these VR experiences widely available, especially since so many of them require high-end headsets. But we’ve done our best to indicate where and when you might be able to check out our favorite pieces.
BEST CINEMATIC VIRTUAL REALITY
Cinematic VR isn’t just 360-degree video, although there was plenty of that at Sundance. It’s any virtual reality that’s about observing an experience rather than interacting with it. It’s also some of the most accessible VR, since much of it can be viewed on mobile headsets like the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream.
WINNER: DEAR ANGELICA
Dear Angelica is a gorgeous reflection on the power of art and fiction, as well as a technical achievement. The third project from Oculus Story Studio, it was drawn entirely inside VR by illustrator Wesley Allsbrook using an art program called Quill, and has a distinctly different feel from the studio’s previous work. The piece was teased last Sundance, where I called it one of the first projects that didn’t feel like a translation from games or film. The final product bears that out: it’s like a moving, walkable painting, telling the bittersweet story of a daughter remembering her film star mother’s many roles. The only thing I want from Dear Angelica is more of it — it’s still a very short piece, with room for deeper character development. If you happen to have an Oculus Rift, though, there’s no excuse for not checking it out; it was released the day of its Sundance premiere for free.
RUNNERS-UP: MIYUBI AND OUT OF EXILE
Miyubi is one of the first scripted projects from influential virtual reality studio Felix & Paul, as well as one of the longest VR films ever made, at 40 minutes. It’s also a pretty funny — if occasionally corny — ‘80s comedy-drama written in partnership with Funny or Die. The story, told as a series of vignettes through the eyes of a toy robot, touches on family drama as well as fears about automation and obsolescence. And there’s a Jeff Goldblum cameo, if you can figure out how to unlock it. While Miyubi isn’t a first-party Oculus project, it’s one of the five films the company helped fund at Sundance, and will be released on Rift and Gear VR later this spring.
OUT OF EXILE: DANIEL’S STORY
Nonny de la Peña brought the first virtual reality piece to Sundance in 2012, and since then, she’s established a distinctive style. She uses audio recordings from the scene of real social conflict to recreate the moment as a virtual reality scene. This year at Sundance, she premiered Out of Exile, which dramatizes a young gay man coming out to his homophobic family. It’s a remarkable recording rendered theatrically by slightly inhuman virtual figures, with a coda discussing the plight of homeless LGBT youth. Despite the heartbreaking subject matter, this last part offers a hint of hope that’s often absent from de la Peña’s work. If Out of Exile is like previous pieces, it will appear on a variety of platforms and headsets sometime this year.
BEST INTERACTIVE VIRTUAL REALITY
Interactive VR can be a lot of things, from video games to experimental art to software tools. It’s usually found on high-end platforms like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, since these headsets let users walk around, freely move their heads, and interact via controllers.
This isn’t our first time seeing Mindshow. We wrote about the project last year, and I tried it at CES earlier this month. (One of its co-founders, Cosmo Scharf, was also a Verge intern in 2013.) It’s more ambitious than most of the work at Sundance. It’s a kind of VR theater where participants record each character’s words and movements, then loop them together into a coherent story, which can be shared with friends who might want to remix and rerecord their own parts.
Mindshow is less an art object than a piece of prototype editing software, although for now, you can only act out limited scenes with a couple of characters. Like some of the best VR applications, it blurs the line between consuming and producing media, and it was consistently a favorite among the VR creators I spoke to at Sundance. We just hope it can make the next step toward wide release soon— it’s currently taking early access applications for a limited beta.
RUNNERS-UP: CHOCOLATE AND THE SKY IS A GAP
Former Double Fine animator Tyler Hurd made our “Best of Tribeca” list last year with his virtual reality music video Old Friend, and the followup he directed is a pleasantly bizarre work that builds on the colorful surrealism of musical VR experiences like Playthings and Fabulous Wonderland. Nothing explains Chocolate better than the bare synopsis: you’re a chrome robot shooting big-eyed neon cats from your hands into a crowd of dancing worshippers, in order to call forth a single giant cat idol that showers the world with champagne. There’s no release date, but expect to see it on high-end headsets like the HTC Vive.
THE SKY IS A GAP
The Sky is a Gap is more of a work in progress than other New Frontier pieces. You’re dropped into scenes of destruction where your physical motion moves time forward and backwards, like an expanded version of the mechanics from Superhot. Seemingly mundane environments explode and put themselves back together as you walk around a space, while a player in another VR headset can join the experience with you. Ultimately, creator Rachel Rossin hopes to make the spaces bigger and more social, until dozens of people are walking around an entire virtual house, changing each other’s perception of time and space as they go.
BEST VIRTUAL REALITY INSTALLATION
Not everything can be enjoyed purely from inside a headset. Some of the pieces at Sundance work because of their physical components, which add context, weight, and new possibilities to the VR experiences they accompany. Don’t expect these to show up in your home anytime soon, but consider checking for them at film festivals and museums.
WINNER: LIFE OF US
Life of Us is the latest work from Within, the studio behind VR films like The Displaced and the Mr. Robot VR tie-in. It’s one of the most creative, playful things they’ve ever done. The piece is cooperative, experienced by two or four people at a time. Together, they evolve from single-celled organisms to post-human robots, variously becoming creatures that swim, fly, run, and float. While it’s not a game per se, the experience gives people little opportunities to interact with each other and the environment, like blowing bubbles, throwing monkeys, and flinging papers into the wind. Participants can talk to each other through the HTC Vive’s microphone, with their voices digitally altered to fit each scene, from the childlike squeak of an amoeba to the deep grunt of a gorilla. Once they’re done, they can take off the headset and see their experience projected onto a wall outside, around a three-dimensional glowing egg.
RUNNERS-UP: NEUROSPECULATIVE AFROFEMINISM AND TREE
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is part virtual reality experience, part art installation. It features speculative technology created by and for women of color, while presenting a possible future that’s both weird and — right now — markedly hopeful. On the physical side, the creators at Hyphen-Labs worked with outside artists to design products like earrings that can record police altercations or clothing that thwarts facial recognition. On the virtual, they presented the first chapter of a science fiction story about a “neurocosmetology lab” that looks like a beauty salon, where instead of ordinary braids, customers are fitted with transcranial electrodes that allow access to a surreal digital temple.
Tree takes the concept of virtual reality empathy to (literally) new heights, letting participants become a rainforest tree as it goes from its growth as a seedling to its death in a slash-and-burn farming operation. Besides the rich soundscape, it’s fascinating how the piece melds VR with physicality: before each person starts the experience, they’re asked to actually take a seed and place it in soil behind them, symbolizing their virtual avatar’s creation. Tree is the second New Frontier VR piece from Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, following last year’s dramatic war experience Giant. They’re currently planning a third work in this trilogy, which Zec says will be more hopeful. “Not everything is desperate,” she told me. “But we need to deal with the tough topics first.”
AUGMENTED REALITY: THE FIRST STEPS
We’re not doing a “best of augmented reality” category this year, because the technology is still relatively low-profile at Sundance. But we wanted to highlight two pieces based on the cutting-edge Meta 2 and Microsoft HoloLens headsets — since, if the medium takes off, we could be seeing a lot more in years to come.
Heroes (another Oculus-supported piece) is fundamentally a dance sequence set to the David Bowie song of the same name, presented across two formats: first a 360-degree Gear VR video, then a Microsoft HoloLens experience. The former gives you a full view of the stage and dancers, and the second lets you walk through a series of scenes that seem to appear in mid-air, controlled by speaking words that are scattered on physical cards around the room. All the while, the headset is tracking your movements, leaving a bright streamer behind to mark your path. HoloLens is still too uncomfortable and limited for this to consistently live up to its full potential, but when it does click, it’s magical.
THE JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE NATURAL MACHINE
This piece from augmented reality company Meta is a good reminder of the fine line between utopian and dystopian techno-futurist visions. For Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine, the company worked with the creators of creepy short sci-fi film Sight, which presents AR as a way to deceive and manipulate people. Here, though, it’s a clever way to learn about the parts of the brain — the title’s “natural machine.” Sitting across from each other, two participants wearing Meta 2 headsets take turns pushing holographic lobes into place, while directed speakers describe their purpose. Meta 2 still has technical limitations, but the piece does a good job of showing the potential for collaborating through imaginary objects.