Virtual Reality to Push Limits of Storytelling at Sundance Film Festival

After decades of setbacks, false promises and unfulfilled expectations, virtual reality is finally on the tipping point of becoming a widely adopted technology and artistic medium—and it would appear filmmakers are embracing VR’s potential.

Later this month, nine new VR experiences will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is bringing VR out of the realm of science fiction, but the Rift alone won’t bring VR into the mainstream. While technology enthusiasts can imagine VR’s potential when they experience a prototype or early game, the general public will need to experience something uniquely thrilling to embrace the technology, and pay for it.

Until there are extraordinary experiences, VR is little more than a cool optical illusion. So, let’s take a look what’s playing at Sundance and how these daring explorers of media are harnessing VR to tell their stories in a new way.

In Nonny de la Peña’s “Project Syria,” the user bears witness to a powerfully tragic scene. De la Peña transports you to Syria, where over a million children have been displaced in the recent violence. Here you watch helplessly as a scene unfolds—immersing you in a journalistic story in a way an article or a news video never could.

At its core, storytelling is about empathy, and creating empathy in stories depends on carefully crafting point of view.

While “Project Syria” takes the witness point of view approach, another VR experience, “1979 Revolution Game,” is designed to engage players in an immersive “on the ground” experience of the Iranian Revolution, integrating interactive moral choices and intuitive touchscreen gameplay—placing the user in a more active role.

Besides playing with point of view and levels of immersion, artists are also experimenting with multiple narrative threads and allowing the user to experience an event from multiple perspectives.

“Perspective; Chapter I: The Party” lets users experience both characters’ perspectives at a college party, where a young man and woman meet and misinterpret each other’s signals, leading to outcomes they may both regret.

However, the most exciting experience might be the simplest: flying. In “Birdly,” you can experience what it’s like to be a bird from the first person perspective.

While Oculus and VR continue gaining momentum, the real tipping point will come as the artistic community tailors experiences for the VR platform (Oculus or otherwise). Like painters and photographers at the rise of cinema, filmmakers are just beginning to experiment with and learn to leverage VR for storytelling and artistic expression.

Later, they may push the technology’s development to serve their creative needs.

It’s an exciting time to be in the world of entertainment and entertainment technology. Read more about these projects here or head to Sundance to experience them yourself!

Image Credit: Raffi Asdourian/Flickr

Sveta McShane
Sveta McShane
Sveta writes about the intersection of biology and technology (and occasionally other things). She also enjoys long walks on the beach, being underwater and climbing rocks. You can follow her @svm118.
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