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How virtual reality stole the show at Sundance Film Festival

John Gaudiosi | Jan. 30, 2015
Despite the attendance of Hollywood celebs like Kevin Bacon, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, and Keanu Reeves, the hottest ticket at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival was the virtual reality flight simulator Birdly.

Despite the attendance of Hollywood celebs like Kevin Bacon, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, and Keanu Reeves, the hottest ticket at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival was the virtual reality flight simulator Birdly.

The custom-made "ride" allows anyone to lie face-down, arms-out, and — through the magic of the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD) — experience what it's like to be a bird soaring past San Francisco skyscrapers. Open to the public and part of the New Frontier program, which celebrates the intersection of art, filmmaking and multimedia technology, the two-minute-long Birdly demo had wait times of more than two hours.

"VR has been embraced by the gaming community, and now filmmakers and storytellers are just getting started," said Shari Frilot, curator of New Frontier. "Filmmakers are drawn to this medium like moths to light because of the powerful quality of immersion that VR delivers."

There were 10 other VR projects to experience at the showcase, which were spread out over two floors of the Claim Jumper building on Park City's historic Main Street. Fox Searchlight used the Samsung Gear VR to showcase Wild: The Experience, a VR sequence featuring Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon from the Oscar-nominated film. Hollywood visual effects firm Digital Domain and production company VRSE teamed up for Evolution of Verse, a 3.5 minute VR demo that features cutting-edge effects designed by filmmaker Chris Milk. Danfung Dennis' Zero Point is a 20-minute documentary that traces the history of VR, shot completely in 360-degrees.

Oculus Rift was the HMD of choice for most the projects, which is fitting, given the unique role the Sundance New Frontier showcase played in the birth of Oculus VR.

Back in 2012, a 19-year-old intern named Palmer Luckey was at the Sundance New Frontier with Nonny de la Peña, senior research fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, to debut the VR experience Hunger in Los Angeles. Four months later, Luckey's VR prototype became a Kickstarter sensation and today he's a billionaire thanks to Facebook's $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift last year.

But the Rift has evolved over the past few years from the taped-up goggles that debuted at Sundance 2012 to the second-gen developer kit and the new Crescent Bay prototype that was shown at Oculus Connect and CES 2015.

"Thanks to Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, there are new opportunities for filmmakers to distribute their creations directly to consumers through an app," said Frilot.

Branching out

Oculus used the festival to announce its new VR film division, Story Studio, which is being overseen by Pixar veteran Saschka Unseld. Lost, the first VR short directed by Unseld, was demonstrated on Crescent Bay. The film has viewers following a hand that ends up belonging to a giant robot. Oculus Story Studio will release three additional shorts this year, including Bullfighter, Henry, and Unseld's Dear Angelica. The VR giant's move beyond gaming sets a high bar for production, and should encourage more filmmakers to try out the new medium.

 

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