Sundance’s New Frontier offerings test boundaries of new technology
There is a certain poetic justice in the fact that Park City’s defunct Blockbuster video rental location on Iron Horse Drive has been reincarnated as a central hub for Sundance’s New Frontier program — the festival’s annual exhibition of the very latest in media technology.
In the re-purposed space where local residents once picked through bins of VHS tapes, Sundance attendees will be immersed in augmented- and virtual-reality experiences, some of which are also enhanced with artificial intelligence and biometric feedback.
Blockbuster may have been slow to catch the tide of technological changes in the entertainment industry, but Sundance has been quick to adopt, and nurture, emerging trans-media platforms.
In the 1990s, a handful of universities were tinkering with virtual-reality headsets and haptic gear, but it wasn’t until 2012 when Sundance’s New Frontier curator Shari Frilot enlisted Nonny de la Peña and Michaela Kobsa-Markto to bring their nascent VR project to Park City that the film industry really began to pay attention.
Legend has it that the headset cobbled together for de la Peña’s project spurred a Kickstarter campaign that became the foundation for the company Oculus Rift, which shortly thereafter sold to Facebook for $2 billion. These days, virtual reality is a hot trend among gamers, artists, engineers and scientists.
“That really revolutionized the field and sparked the incarnation of VR,” said Frilot during a pre-festival phone interview.
Since those first motion-sickness-inducing excursions into the world of immersive entertainment, Sundance’s New Frontier fans have watched the technology become more refined — and the lines to participate in the program grow longer. Artists have simulated experiences as varied as hunkering down in a bomb-stricken war zone, traversing the tundra with Mongolian yak herders, being reborn as a tree in the jungle and exploring the depths of outer space.
Here are a few highlights recommended by Frilot:
Esperpento (digital puppetry)
Traveling While Black
Rocket Man 360
Likely to be most talked about
Traveling While Black
In the meantime, Oculus and countless spinoff companies have captured the imagination of video gamers and brought virtual- and augmented-reality into the mainstream cultural lexicon.
Still, Frilot, who spends the months between festivals searching the globe for new boundary-shattering art forms, says the landscape is evolving at an ever-increasing pace.
“Every work in the program this year comes from a moment of being surprised and knocked off my feet,” she said. “I see so much work and travel all over the place, it’s those works that take my breath away that hit the list. … It is a really special year, these artists are inventing new ways to express themselves.”
According to Frilot, the sizable space at 950 Iron Horse Drive, plus the lower level at The Ray venue, which came online last year, allow for more and bigger installations. Importantly, it will also include a bigger lounge, in her eyes an important interactive social space for the festival’s eclectic assortment of artists and audiences.
In all, this year’s New Frontier program lists approximately 31 titles — one of the biggest lineups in New Frontier’s tenure. Some are short VR or AR experiences that require headsets and take viewers on a variety of journeys inside a unique story’s environment. For those fluent in New Frontier terminology, they are described using words like: projection mapping, interactive, multiuser, immersive-theatre play and AI (artificial intelligence).
But not all require wearable technology. There are three films and several exhibits that according to the catalog employ: immersive light displays, magical reality and pre-cinematic stereo imaging.
The New Frontier venues include:
•An ongoing series of displays and performances at New Frontier Central open to all credentialed Sundance attendees.
•Ticketed exhibitions at The Ray (short VR and AR experiences sold in 90-minute blocks)
•Four films that will be presented at a variety of Sundance venues.
For a list of specific artists, times and locations go to: https://www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival/program.
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More than 240 films will be screened during Sundance, but audiences will experience some of the most groundbreaking work not on the big screen but rather through high-tech equipment like VR headsets in the festival’s New Frontier program.