Sundance Goes Virtual

Take a virtual tour of Syria, fly over San Francisco, or break up with Alex Karpovsky. Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard take visual storytelling to another level at this year’s Sundance Film Festival

The bomb goes off. I flinch and stop walking, looking around, nervous in the dark room.

This is a far cry from what someone on the street in Syria would actually experience in a bombing, but for an entertainment reporter working the Sundance Film Festival, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten, thankfully, to that type of devastation.

“These stories are extremely visceral,” says Nonny de la Peña, creator of virtual reality experience Project Syria in Sundance’s New Frontier section. “It’s very hard to describe what it’s like to be near a bomb going off, and I think this is complementary to [what you can get via] broadcast, documentaries, and print.”

A Los Angeles native, De la Peña was at the fest in 2012 as the sole virtual reality project as part of New Frontier with a team that included Palmer Luckey, who went on to create the Oculus Rift. This year, hers is one of 12 virtual reality projects, out of 15 total in the section).

We were very unusual and people didn’t know what to make of us,” she remembers from only two years prior. “Even though we had three-hour wait lines, people seemed unsure.”

No one is unsure anymore. The New Frontier press open house was bustling with journalists enthralled by the goggles and the brief peek into alternate realities. Birdly is a flight simulator created by Max Rheiner that, for a few minutes, allows the user to mimic the experience of soaring over San Francisco like a bird. “I can’t give you a price,” says one of the creators, Max Rheiner. “For the moment it’s just a prototype, and it probably won’t be cheap. The goal is to produce an industrial version for science museums and arcade halls and the like. Who knows though, there might be a market for the home.”

After that high (pun intended), the interactive narrative film Possibilia deals with a kind of low we’re all familiar with: a break-up. Created by acclaimed directing duo The Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), Possibilia has viewers watch as a relationship (the male lead is played by Girls star Alex Karpovsky) unravels; all the while the viewer is able to interact with a controller and change the course of events as if playing a video game.

“Originally we were very self conscious about adding interactivity that can ruin the movie-going experience because you’re sitting there clicking away,” says Scheinert. “We wanted to come up with a story that would be complimentary to that experience—where the characters are going through the same stressful experience the audience is going through.”

From one existential crisis to another, I made my way over to theWild: The Experience, where I sat for a bit in the woods with Reese Witherspoon. Afterward, I joined the universe of Chris Milk in the Evolution of Verse created in partnership with Annapurna Pictures. The Google Cardboard experience—virtual reality goggles made from cardboard that you can take home and show off to your friends—was produced in partnership with Digital Domain and with the goal to create a photo-realistic CGI-rendered 3D virtual reality journey. I was on a lake watching the sunrise, then a train was headed straight toward me, making my body seize with fear a second time today, before it broke up into a million little black birds.

Other projects at New Frontier include an Interactive Oculus Rift date rape scenario, an immersive Oculus Rift based documentary about the Caravan of Death in Chile, and another Google Cardboard experience shot in 360-degree 3D called Kaiju Fury!, where a Godzilla-like monster attacks a city with the viewer standing at ground zero.