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At Sundance, virtual reality is all around you

First Published      Last Updated Jan 21 2016 08:32 am

New Frontier » More artists are creating immersive 360-degree experiences using 3D goggles, and the technology will be on display at Sundance.

In a matte-black case the size of a lunchbox, Danfung Dennis carries the future.

Inside the case is a $99 headset, the Samsung Gear VR, into which Dennis inserts his smartphone. After a minute of dealing with the electronics, the viewer wearing the headset is standing on Antelope Island, with a herd of bison walking on both sides.

Welcome to virtual reality, or VR, an immersive technology that provides a wraparound 360-degree view of worlds both real and imagined. And the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, starting Thursday in Park City, will be the place to see it.

The cutting edge of storytelling through VR goggles will be front and center — and all around — at the festival, competing for attention with 120 feature-length films and dozens of shorts, representing the best of independent film from around the world.

"The technology [of VR] is getting to the point where we're creating very powerful experiences," said Dennis, a filmmaker based in Park City who's part of a team that has created "Condition One: In the Presence of Animals," a 4-minute VR experience showing bison, a grizzly, a jaguar and other endangered animals.

"In the Presence of Animals" is one of 30 VR works being shown at Sundance's New Frontier program. Those works cover nearly any genre one can imagine: comedy, horror, science fiction, animation, music videos and documentaries.

The rise of VR "has just been phenomenal," said Shari Frilot, a senior programmer at the festival and chief curator of New Frontier, which marks its 10th year at Sundance.

"At last year's festival, we showed about 11 or 12 [VR] works, and it was really hard to get all of them," Frilot said. "This year, it's 30 works, and I culled them from hundreds of submissions."

Emotional impact • For filmmakers, VR provides an immediacy they couldn't get with traditional movies.

Dennis had shot in combat situations, notably for his 2011 documentary about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, "Hell and Back Again," which won top prizes at Sundance and an Oscar nomination. But even that footage, he said, "wasn't able to convey the brutal reality of what I saw there."

Dennis co-founded Condition One, a San Francisco firm developing VR technology. The rig on which he and his team shot the "In the Presence of Animals" footage consists of 16 cameras, arranged in a sphere, each shooting in digital 3-D. The cameras' images are stitched together by software to create a seamless image no matter where the viewer looks.

Journalist Nonny de la Peña — who coined the term "immersive journalism" to describe her work — had her first VR experience a few years ago, in a virtual Guantanamo Bay detainment cell.

"When I did their walkaround, that was when I realized that was an incredibly impactful medium," she said in a phone interview. "It was transformative for me. … My whole life became about how to make better and more VR pieces."

In 2012, de la Peña unveiled New Frontier's first major VR installation: "Hunger in Los Angeles," which re-enacted a real-life incident at an overwhelmed soup-kitchen line. The installation employed a new type of headset, a prototype being developed by a then-19-year-old inventor, Palmer Luckey.

Though de la Peña's installation had some technical glitches — when asked about the prototype goggles, she asked defensively, "Are you the guy who walked into the wall?" — the emotional experience was potent.

On New Frontier's opening night, de la Peña recalled, the actor Gina Rodriguez watched "Hunger in Los Angeles." "She's taking the goggles off, and she's crying," de la Peña said. "It has that effect on people. … That emotional connection is so visceral."

This year at Sundance, de la Peña has created one VR experience and collaborated on another. The first, "Kiya," uses computer-animated figures and actual 911 calls to re-create a domestic-violence incident in which two sisters desperately try to save their sister from being killed by her boyfriend. The other, "Across the Line," re-creates the experience of entering an abortion clinic, past lines of shouting anti-abortion protesters.

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New Frontier at Sundance

New Frontier, a home for video installation art and other experimental works, marks its 10th year at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs Jan. 21-31.

The program will be seen at three locations in Park City, running Jan. 22-30 (hours vary, check the festival guide at sundance.org for details):

The Claimjumper, 573 Main St., second and third floors.

The VR Bar, Gateway Center, 136 Heber Ave.

“Treachery of Sanctuary,” an installation work by Chris Milk, at Festival Base Camp, 475 Swede Alley.