PARK CITY, Utah — In 1994, “Reality Bites” caused a stir at Sundance. In 2017, it’s virtual reality.
Over the past few days, VR has dropped me in the middle of 1862’s Battle of Antietam and in the living room of a gay man as he’s being disowned by his family. At Sundance, you can even become a tree if you’re so inclined.
“VR in this past year has really accelerated,” says Miles Perkins, vice president of marketing communications for Jaunt VR. “It was a little bit of a niche thing in years past. … It’s turned into a real industry. And this year is probably larger than I’ve ever seen it with VR filmmakers — filmmakers who are dedicated and specifically doing things just in VR.”
Jaunt debuted “My Brother’s Keeper,” an offshoot of the PBS series “Mercy Street,” which follows two brothers fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War. More than 150 Civil War re-enactors were used to film “My Brother’s Keeper,” and several of them crawl right up in your face as they die. You can practically feel the intensity of the battle.
Jaunt also premiered “Bashir’s Dream,” a mix of live action documentary filmmaking and animation that tells the story of Qusai Bashir Masaama, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee living in Jordan, who was shot in the back by a sniper while he was on his way to buy candy.
Other virtual reality standouts at Sundance include the Synesthesia Suit, a full-body exoskeleton-style suit with 26 sensors to provide as much sensation as possible while playing the video game “Rez Infinite” or experiencing the psychedelic sounds of “Crystal Vibes.”
In August 2014, Daniel Ashley Pierce recorded the audio of the verbal and physical abuse heaped on him by his conservative parents as they were kicking him out of the house because of his homosexuality. That audio is the soundtrack to “Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story,” which lets participants experience Daniel’s hurt and pain in 360 degrees.
And a three-hour wait accompanied “Tree,” a haptically enhanced virtual experience by artists Milica Zec and Winslow Porter that follows the life cycle of a rainforest tree.
“You start as a seed, you burst through the ground, and then all of a sudden when you start getting branches, you realize that your arms are branches,” Zec says. “You can move them, and your body’s a trunk. You get to witness what unfortunately way too many trees go through today in rainforests.”
Much like “Chasing Coral: The VR Experience,” in which you can watch the Great Barrier Reef dying off as a result of warming oceans, “Tree” is part of the festival’s The New Climate program focusing on environmental issues.
“What we thought with this piece is not to have the standard climate change piece where we are telling some statistics and scaring you,” Zec says. “We actually want you … to see it from the perspective of nature. There are no words in this piece. You just get to be a tree. And we thought maybe if we evoke emotions through that, if you connect with the tree, maybe you’ll get to feel more for climate change.”