A visitor looks through a VR gear installed on a new Samsung Galaxy S9 mobile phone. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)ASSOCIATED PRESS.
As always, Sundance Film Festival is a sheer flurry of various activities, and this year is certainly no exception. A stand-out hallmark of the Festival continues to be it's New Frontier section which champions filmmakers and artists who are at the cutting-edge of film, art and technology. This is about VR, AR, AI and MR (mixed reality) in the hands of some very, very capable creators. As the Festival starts to wind down in the next few days, three key trends are beginning to emerge which pose direction and opportunity for the year ahead in this specific area of storytelling.
This year as last, New Frontier programming encompasses two venues entitled New Frontier at The Ray and New Frontier Central, each of which plays host to a wide variety of media installations, a VR Cinema and panel discussions. While innovative efforts such as Interlooped, an interactive, volumetric LBE installation coupled with a live performance all developed by a Swiss 3D graphics company were skillfully crafted, there seems to a distinct leaning of leveraging VR in a social commentary/empathy and wellness direction.
There is the marked maturation of usage of such platforms from the quirky novelties of animated, dancing cats in VR films just a couple of years ago to tackling full-on themes of race or offering practical application exercise on an immersive, fantastic level. This is about using the technology for either a cultural collective benefit or personal benefit that both entertains and educates. This is now about a more profound genre of purpose.
Such a direction is exhibited in a yoga film-of-sorts entitled Embody that uses sensors with VR to help one realize the body's forgotten potential. Embody was created in partnership with Lululemon and MAP Design Labs and is as much a form or exercise as it is an experience.
4 Feet: Blind Date is a look at an 18-year-old in wheelchair as she explores sexuality. This is the story of what ensues when she agrees to a blind date but does not tell the guy that she has a disability. Biennale College which produced the project offers us the opportunity to not just view a world that is different from most of us but feel a world that is different, thereby, giving us the ability to become wider, deeper and more compassionate versions of ourselves.
John Legend arrives at the 24th annual Critics' Choice Awards on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)JORDAN STRAUSS/INVISION/AP
Similarly, Ashe '68 is a VR project that takes us in the world of race relations and sports. Executive produced by singer-songwriter John Legend, Ashe ‘68 is an is a brief chronicle of the legendary Arthur Ashe, the first black athlete to win the US Open who dealt with the hardship of breaking racial barriers at the beginning of his career and ended up addressing social injustice throughout his entire lifetime. The VR format is actually a companion piece to an upcoming documentary in traditional format that is currently in production.
"My personal interest is how we can put VR's experiential, immersive qualities to work in dismantling bias and building empathy. That’s at the heart of the story and approach to Ashe '68. In terms of the future, that’s an area where I see the future to be very promising — applied VR ," Ashe '68 director, Brad Lichtenstein told me.
Traveling While Black is another strong VR project at Sundance that echoes such sentiment. The film confronts the manner in which we understand and talk about race in America today, a true and current hot-button. This virtual reality documentary immerses the viewer in the long history of restriction of movement for Black Americans allowing one to literally step into such parameters.
"I chose to do this to tell this story through VR because I felt this was a fresh way to have a profound conversation about race in America through a genuinely immersive lens," explains Roger Ross Williams, director. "In the same way we can't escape our blackness or the reality of being black in America, I didn't want people to be able to escape the experience that they're having when they watch Traveling While Black. I wanted them to be fully immersed, and that's something you can only do with VR.”
Another emerging trend is that of the growing intersection of Artificial Intelligence and filmed entertainment. This was demonstrated more by panel discussions rather than, say, films created by AI or traditional films about AI at the New Frontier venues.
Of course, industry interest is high in discovering how AI will be able to create content on a hyper-personalized level on-demand. However, the real area to watch is that of greater discussion, experiment and controversy around using AI to pattern-match to drive business. Executives will explore more AI options to potentially select creative teams to replicate box-office smashes and original content hits, for example, to ensure greater ROI and further reinforce the personalized proposition that AI offers.
Indeed, New Frontiers hosted a panel discussion entitled AI: I Love You. Panelists discussed how AI will begin to better process our words, tone, expression, senses, and gestures to serve up a more personalized entertainment offering and/or experience and, thereby, create greater demand. Panelists included Eleanor Whitley (Sweet Dreams), Stephanie Dinkins (Not the Only One), John Monos, head of human-centered AI at Magic Leap and Google Empathy Lab’s Danielle Krettek. This will be an area to watch for business opportunity as much as controversy, particularly until standard tests for cultural bias and more are well in place.
Finally, this last trend presents a space for opportunity. The Festival, as in most business arenas, tends to physically separate the space of the intersection of film and tech from that of the traditional space. However, the new school of titans will most likely be those who can expertly blend the two areas and/or move seamlessly between them just as consumers do. There is still much room for integration and discussion around the storytelling and business model opportunities leveraging both established and emerging technology and near-future usage.
Indeed, in an era where Dropbox says that 66% of the theatrical films shown at Sundance in some way, shape or form touched the Dropbox platform, there is a true sense that the next compelling opportunity is the fostering of what's next at an intersection of the familiar and new rather than the silo of tradition versus that of innovation. As the film industry continues to explore the business of storytelling, we'll see new applications used in ways that are unimaginable today.