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A Sundance Film Festival Power of Storytelling panel participant tries out a Samsung Gear VR headset. 

In January 2012, a 19-year-old inventor from Long Beach, California, named Palmer Luckey arrived at the Sundance Film Festival with writer/director Nonny de la Peña. The two came to Park City to unveil de la Peña’s immersive journalism project entitled Hunger in Los Angeles. Viewers of Hunger experienced de la Peña’s depiction of an unfortunate series of events at a food bank in Los Angeles using a virtual reality, or VR, headset Luckey built in his parents’ basement the year before. 

Within a few months, Luckey founded Oculus VR and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fully develop the Oculus Rift headset. The campaign was successful, and in 2014, Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion. De la Peña and Luckey became known as VR pioneers, and Sundance New Frontier became a catalyst for the widespread use of VR as a storytelling medium. 

VR will once again be front and center at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival with the New Frontier exhibition—an experimental compilation of work exploring the convergence of film, art, and technology—hosted at the Claim Jumper building at 573 Main Street, January 20–28. Highlights from past years’ New Frontier exhibitions have taken viewers to visit an indigenous leader in a remote Australian desert, free-diving into ocean depths with marine science researchers, and into the passenger seat of a car about to crash. And though New Frontier Chief Curator Shari Frilot closely guards details of each year’s exhibition until the festival opens, she did say this: “The future of storytelling affords us the ability to observe ourselves and our instincts and become more conscious of the way we make choices and decisions.”

Not able to make it to Sundance this year? No problem. There are a dozen VR experiences available to anyone with a Google Cardboard viewer on the Sundance New Frontier website. The relatively inexpensive headset utilizes your smart phone and is available for purchase online. With it you can access the curated VR lineup by downloading an Android or iPhone app.

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A scene from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival VR documentary, #100humans


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