A World Without Boundaries: Prepare to Have Your Mind Blown at Sundance's VR Palace and New Frontier Exhibit

Sundance shows how the implications for VR and AR go well beyond filmmaking and art.

By Michaela Wagner January 21, 2017

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The Meta 2 augmented reality headset. The Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine, an official selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival New Frontier program, is the first AR project to debut at Sundance.  

These days, technology is moving much faster than any of us can keep pace with. Nowhere is that notion more apparent than at the VR Palace and New Frontier, the virtual reality centers of the Sundance Film Festival. Already in its eleventh year, this year's line-up features more than 30 pieces highlighting the infinite applications of this emerging technology. Not only does virtual reality explode the possibilities of film storytelling and video games, it's also further opening unchartered territory by melding art with other industries, including science and medicine. 

Here are a few of the projects of note we experienced for ourselves and recommend checking out.

Life of Us

Created by veteran artists Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, Life of Us is a shared VR experience that takes you through the story of evolution. You and a partner enter separate rooms, but you take the same journey and can converse about what's happening. At one point, thanks to the total immersion of VR, you find yourself swimming through the ocean, running through the legs of a T-rex, and soaring around erupting volcanoes. The adventure is exhilarating and, of course, leaves you wanting more. 

The Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine

How much more engaging would school subjects like biology been if you could not only see objects like the human brain in front of you but interact with it as well? If Meta's The Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine is any indication, this isn't too far in the future. This groundbreaking debut allows multiple users to interact with a hologram of the brain. In and of itself, it was certainly entertaining to look through the different components of the brain and actually push and move each part around. But what this piece really accomplishes is illustrate very clearly the vast potential of augmented reality. The Journey ....  is obviously just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be done with this fascinating new technology.

Heartcorps: Riders of the Storyboard

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An image from Heartcorps: Riders of the Storyboard by dandypunk.

Another installation that plays with augmented reality in a magical and artistic way is Heartcorps: Riders of the Storyboard, created by dandypunk, Darin Basile, and Jo Cattell. This so called "digital light poem" follows Particle, a two-dimensional light being that comes to life through projection-mapping technology and interactions with Cirque du Soleil performers. You enter a dim room where a mysterious soundscape sets the mood, that's interesting just on its own. The truly fantastic is, of course, the show and the projections of stars raining down around you and one of the performers riding a unicorn across a universe. 

Scientists Have Found a Way to Make Paraplegics Move Again

 Video games or digital entertainment comes to mind for most people in the context of VR, but the piece Scientists Have Found a Way to Make Paraplegics Move Again highlights something revolutionary happening in medicine. The short film shows how this technology is being used by medical professionals to assist in the recovery of paraplegic patients. Through the use of VR, they learn to use their brains in untraditional ways to "walk" in a virtual world. The exercise is reforming the connections and allowing patients to regain motor sensations. 

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A still from Chasing Coral: The VR Experience by Jeff Orlowski, an official selection of the New Frontier VR Experiences program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Chasing Coral: The VR Experience

A companion to the documentary also premiering at this year's festival, Chasing Coral: The VR Experience let's you hop on a boat and dive into the Great Barrier Reef with scuba diver and researcher Zackary Rago as he documents coral bleaching at Lizard Island and the death of vast swatches of the Great Barrier Reef. Part of the New Climate initiative, this is another powerful way to let people see for themselves the destruction of the environment they might otherwise never experience as anything more than a soundbite or newspaper clipping. 

You could spend the entire festival playing around in the VR Palace (475 Swede Alley) and at New Frontier (in the Claim Jumper building at 573 Main Street). We'll definitely be heading back to experience some of the projects and experiences we didn't get to on our first visit and we suggest you do the same!

The New Frontier exhibit is open to all Sundance Film Festival credentialed pass holders; admission to the VR Palace requires tickets purchased from the Sundance website or at the Main Box Office. 

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