How VR experiments at Sundance are bringing our bodies into the picture

Our impressions from the best of 30 film festival shorts and installations
Sundance 2016 brings bodies into VR

No other film festival has shown VR as much early love as Sundance. And after last year's intriguing, experimental line-up of nine experiences, Robert Redford's film festival is now mixing up and coming pioneers with bonafide Hollywood studios in its New Frontier exhibit which runs until 31 January.

As I arrived to Park City, Utah from my home in Los Angeles I felt a jolt of curiosity, as to what new storytelling devices would be breaking down the door of the traditional this year.

Having worked at New Frontier last year, I was prepared for the 10 year anniversary to showcase cutting edge technology but I didn't yet know that the experimentation doesn't stop at telling stories in VR. Now both Hollywood studios and indie filmmakers are looking to engage our entire bodies.

Here are six of the most interesting VR projects at Sundance 2016. Some feel more like precise art installations or arcade friendly set ups, others will easily make the leap to downloads for accessible VR headsets.

The Martian VR experience

Hearing the name Ridley Scott and VR in the same sentence made me super excited about this piece so it was the first one I made a beeline for. Fox Innovation Lab, RSA Films, and VRC have teamed up to bring viewers a first hand experience of being astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he wills himself to survive and ultimately gets rescued.

Now, you can get a taste of this right now on the Gear VR's Milk VR store but Fox had more scenes to show off at Sundance. Ascending down onto the rugged terrain of Mars, the specially designed D-BOX chair I was sat in enhances the experience, adding in all the tremble and forward motion of a rough landing.

Read this: Samsung is opening its own VR production studio in New York

Gripping the Oculus Touch controls I was able to work my way through a couple of different scenes - I drove a Mars rover and had to pierce my glove to boost myself through space to safety.

This is pure entertainment, and not only did I geek out over essentially playing a movie, complete with Hollywood level production values, I was also completely unaware of the crowded room outside of my Oculus Rift. For ten minutes, I was Mark Watney.

The Martian VR experience has many other scenes to play through - such as attempting to steer through zero gravity - but given the demand to try it out, I was limited to just the two five minute scenarios. But I was definitely leaving wanting more and it was my favourite of the lot. Let's hope Samsung bags the whole thing for Gear VR as soon as possible.

The Holo-Cinema

My inner nerd forgets it's a hologram and tries to shake C-3PO's hand

The sheer mention of Star Wars sends people into frenzy, as it did to me when I heard about this installation which places you into a Star Wars scene. ILMxLab, a division of Lucasfilm, is behind this opportunity to stand face to face with C-3PO, or even a dinosaur from Jurassic World in what can be reasonably be described as a 4D viewing experience.

When walking into the stage it seems like a pretty simple set up with just a blurry projection onto the walls. After putting on the motion tracked viewing glasses I was transported to the deserts of Jakku that come alive with The Force Awaken's new droid BB-8 zipping by me and C-3PO just generally chattering around. My inner nerd totally forgot that it was just a hologram when I tried to shake C-3PO's hand.

The Holo-Cinema uses 3D "stereo viewing" glasses together with cameras, placed above the screens with the projections on them, to track my head turning and where my eyes were looking. The result is that what's projected onto the two screens and the floor - not quite 360 degrees of picture - looks like moving holograms. Lucasfilm owns the patent for this particular set up so look out for more Star Wars experiences.

Again, ILM is stretching the definition of VR here - this is perhaps more augmented reality as it doesn't use a full headset. No real definitions or industry standards have been decided yet. There's a short Jakku based VR based short available for Oculus and Gear VR but the Holo-Cinema really is something else.

The Treachery of Sanctuary

Separate from the main New Frontier venue, I find the latest work from Chris Milk - of VRSE and general VR pioneering fame. The Treachery of Sanctuary takes place in a giant white tent up the street. This large-scale interactive installation uses projections of the participant's own body while they experience death, dissolution, and rebirth.

The Treachery of Sanctuary is far from a standard VR headset experience, it's an interactive, triptych installation but it's still very "connected self" in the most esoteric sense of the concept.

Beautifully designed, it uses three different screens all reflected into a large pool of water and the entire space is hidden inside from any natural light. Moving through each screen you experience your body first dissolving into birds then to be pecked away leaving only your legs on the screen.

The final and most spectacular part of the installation is turning into a bird yourself with giant wings, as you rapidly flap your arms up and down, your projection soon flies off the screens. Considering the number of people in the tent, I was surprised how effectively the combination of the sound effects and music held my attention entirely all while tugging at my emotions. Just. Beautiful.

Milk is showing off this project alongside his very moving collaboration with the UN's Gabo Arora, Waves of Grace, a short documentary about an ebola survivor in Liberia. You can view this now via the VRSE app on both the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard.

The Leviathan Project

The next experience is the work of many brilliant minds. Acclaimed production designer Alex McDowell's 5D Global Studio and The USC World Building Media Lab worked in collaboration with Intel and Unity Technologies to bring to life the world of Scott Westerfield's best selling trilogy, Leviathan.

The main VR experience takes place inside of a large flying whale, where you actually create your very own Huxley (a flying jellyfish to non-Leviathan fans) by selecting actual items you are prompted to touch. I was wearing custom controllers on my hands with sensors and in front of my on a table were various models in different shapes.

So I was not only interacting in a visual sense but with my sense of touch too using items that were really in front of me, visualised in VR.

I hadn't seen an experience quite like this one before, even having used motion controllers like Oculus Touch, and it's easy to see how this type of experience could be used in VR arcades, classrooms and even living rooms with toys-to-life style partnerships. Upon finishing the creation of my Huxley, the experience was over, having lasted about 10 minutes.

In the Eyes of the Animal

The vibration of the Sub Pac on my back replicated the wings of an insect

Walking through the second floor of the New Frontier I spotted four custom made sculptural headsets hanging from the ceiling of a dark corner. Marshmallow Laser Feast is the force behind In the Eyes of the Animal, a 360 degree virtual reality film and its crazy accessories.

It's intriguing that these artists didn't want to use just the usual look of the Oculus Rift but instead decided to make it as much an art piece on the outside as what awaits on the inside. Who knows, maybe custom Oculus accessories will be the new fixie bikes for the VR generation.

Travelling through the eyes of four different animals (a fly, a dragonfly, a frog, and an owl) I saw a forest from the four different perspectives. The piece had a slightly slower start than I would have liked but once I got to the dragonfly, my senses came alive. The vibration of the Sub Pac I was wearing on my back - a tactile audio system accessory that you wear like a backpack -wonderfully replicated the wings of the insect.

Giant

Inspired by true events from the director's own life, New York based Millica Zec allows us inside the basement of a family trapped in an active Serbian war zone.

This VR experience uses an Oculus Rift as well as modified subwoofers located under each seat. The result is that Giant makes you feel the ground shake as each bomb goes off and grows closer and closer to this family's basement. In the piece, the two parents are telling their young daughter that the bombs are the steps of a giant who wants to play with her.

It's a shame that the acting was subpar here because Zec shot this in such detail that I could see the expressions on the actors' faces as though I was really next to them, sharing in the danger. The director chose to use actors and not computer generated characters for emotional impact.

There's more...

We didn't get to try out all the exhibits at New Frontier but there's plenty more experimental works on show there. Here's a taster of what we can expect to see coming to consumer VR headsets in 2016.

Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor

This is Rose Troche's follow up to her powerful two person POV piece The Party from last year's Sundance. Here the VR director looks at what happens when two men are stopped by a police officer and the situation "spirals out of control". Should be a head scratcher.

Kiya

Nonny de la Peña, known as the godmother of virtual reality, is at Sundance with a real life story about domestic violence. The work uses audio and imagery from the events depicted, in which two sisters try to save a third from being shot by her ex-boyfriend. This is not one to be taken lightly. The Emblematic Group wants viewers to become "active witnesses" to the story.

6x9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement

Another dark one, this VR experience from The Guardian looks at the experience of 80,000 people who are kept in solitary confinement, i.e. "tiny concrete boxes".

The Rose and I

Eugene Chung's The Rose and I is set to be much lighter, if no less innovative, fare. If you have a Gear VR you can try out the short Rosebud but this new piece for Sundance takes the amazing 'pinning' controls - which let you zoom and look 'around' a 3D scene - even further.

It's a new animated experience from Chung's Penrose Studios, which he founded after leaving Oculus Story Studio.

Stonemilker

VR is still pretty out-there so of course it has attracted Björk's attention. To call this collaboration with Vrse.work's Andrew Thomas Huang a music video is probably quite insulting. Stonemilker is a standout track on Björk's latest album Vulnicura and this piece tries to explore how VR can impact on performance.

That's just a taste of what Sundance is showing in VR - experiences also include the game Job Simulator from Owlchemy Labs, two chapters of Sisters which we've already tried out on Google Cardboard as well as films about Maasai and Bajau tribes from Felix & Paul, an experience which lets you feel what it's like to be blind and Irrational Exuberance, an interactive art experience designed specifically for room-scale VR.

Hit this link to Sundance's website to see the full line-up with all the artists and collaborators and look out for more VR news from the festival this week. And follow Ashley Leiva on Instagram here.

7 Comments

  • Cristian says:

    These all sound like great experiments. I can't wait to see how they are implemented in the future in feature films. 

  • Cristian21 says:

    Informative article. I can't wait to see how these experiments are implemented into future movies. 

  • Marc-K says:

    A well written and tantalizing piece. Really makes the reader feel like they are in each VR exhibit. 

  • nichmar14 says:

    Great read! Each of these features were so well described that it makes me want to experience it for myself. 

  • llp10 says:

    Great article, I look forward to hearing more about VR and seeing these experiences (hopefully) released to the general public. These all sound fascinating, particularly the piece by Nonny de le Pena. I would love to try these out myself, especially the Star Wars experience!

  • Reed_Flocks says:

    Such an engaging read! It's so exciting to have a look in to the practical applications of the technology that's been "up-and-coming" for so long, and to see how it's actively shaping the way we understand the perspective-forcing power of cinema. Can't wait to see what's next!

  • Kristin_Mente says:

    Thank you Ashley Leiva for your amazing recount of your experiences with these showcases. What VR technology does for the viewer, you have done for us - you put us right in the middle of your adventures!

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