The hottest thing at the Sundance Film Festival wasn’t the celebrity sightings. It was Virtual Reality (VR)—nothing less than the future of storytelling itself.

I have to admit, I was delighted to see actor Alexander Skarsgaard at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last week, but in the end the hottest thing at the festival wasn’t the celebrity sightings, the Ugg boots, or $20 SUV Uber ride that went five blocks.

No, the thing that everyone was talking about was Virtual Reality (VR)—nothing less than the future of storytelling itself.

Forget what you remember from the 90s, the promise that wasn’t to be. The VR projects that were part of this year’s New Frontier exhibit at Sundance—a showcase for innovation in film—allowed you to imagine the possibilities of VR. Now if only the industry can keep up.

A new frontier in storytelling

I traveled to Sundance to soak in some cinema and accompany Birdly, an Oculus Rift-enabled VR flight simulator from the Zurich University of the Arts, selected for New Frontier.

New Frontier champions films that expand, experiment with, and explode traditional storytelling. Recognizing the crossroads of film, art, and media technology as a hotbed for cinematic innovation, New Frontier is also a venue showcasing innovative media installations and panel discussions that explore the expansion of cinema culture in today’s rapidly changing media landscape.

“The content creators in the 2015 edition of New Frontier radically challenge the very notion of storytelling,” said Shari Frilot, Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer and curator of the New Frontier exhibition.

“Working with virtual reality and new gaming technologies, these artists, filmmakers, journalists, media scientists, game designers and creative technologists present a peek at the dawn of a bold new cinematic world, through an unprecedented exploration of the most basic state of being.”

Birdly fit right in. In fact, it stole the show. The swissnex San Francisco sponsored project was so successful because everyone has fantasized at least once about the possibility of flight. Birdly gives them the opportunity to lift off.

Experiencing the story

Other stars of New Frontier included the godmother of VR, Nonny de la Pena’s Project Syria, which seeks to expand the neutral experience of the viewer of news and puts you inside the conflict.

By combining pioneering virtual reality technologies with audio and video captured during a real event, those who experience Project Syria feel transported to the powerful scene, becoming witnesses as the intense tragedy unfolds.

Another Oculus Rift VR project by Oscar Raby from Australia was an autobiographical interactive documentary about Chile’s Caravan of Death in the aftermath of the 1973 coup, a story he learned from his father. Revealing the story in the personal environs of the recreated bedroom of his youth.

What these projects have in common is that they create a new level of empathy in the experience. Rather than simply hearing a story, you experience it, and not only as a viewer. You become the character, the person making the choice, in the action.

Speaking to this experience directly is Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party, a 12-minute experience about a college rape by Rose Troche and Morris May in which the viewer is essentially inside the body of the male perpetrator, looking where he looks, grabbing a cup when he does, hearing his voice as if it was his own.

The next six minutes of the experience is from the girl’s heavily intoxicated perspective, as she meets the man and is ultimately violated. It’s extremely disturbing, but it does represent an edgy and immediate form of storytelling that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.

A whole new language

Mark Bolas, Associate Professor of USC Cinematic Arts and Director of INIT Lab, is also a father figure in the VR community. He has spent his life in the world VR research and, during a panel discussion at New Frontier called Virtual Reality: The Big Picture, he remained the voice of the future, saying you can’t simply apply VR to the tropes of storytelling used in Film today.

The whole world is disrupted with VR and it introduces a whole new language.

Another member on the panel was Oculus VP of Product, Nate Mitchell, quite appropriate as all of the VR projects in New Frontier had Oculus Rift goggles in common. No secrets were revealed about where Oculus will lead us, but it again emphasized the fact that we need to throw away our old perceptions and rules in storytelling when it comes to VR.

Nate Mitchell, Oculus VR’s VP of Product

Oculus VR’s VP of Product Nate Mitchell

It was the SVP of Production for Fox Searchlight, David Greenbaum, who seemed the most entrenched, representing the film industry as it tries to adapt these new tools to their trade rather than open up to a whole new narrative.

The question is, can the various wheels that make up the VR cog keep up together in the development of the new medium? Where will it take us next after empathy, who will we become next? How far into someone else’s experience can we enter?

Maybe in a few years I won’t need to travel to Sundance at all to see icons like Alexander Skarsgaard, I can live my own virtual reality where I can interact with celebrities and heroes, or become one on my own.

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