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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.
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Video artist Andrew Thomas Huang's first attempt at making a VR work was a spur-of-the-moment decision, while working on a shoot with the Icelandic singer Björk.

"Björk felt that the circular nature of the medium would work better for a song with a circular structure," Huang said in an email interview from London.

So, using a VR rig his producer had brought along, Huang shot Björk singing her song "Stonemilker" on the same beach where she wrote it. The VR video will play at New Frontier and is available now on iTunes for $2.99.

"VR gives you the opportunity to be extremely confrontational and viscerally direct with your viewer," Huang said. "Björk is delivering an emotion straight to you in your personal space, instead of inside a rectangular box."

Headsets at home • As more artists experiment with VR, more viewers will have the chance to watch VR than ever before.

More apps are being created that put the VR experience on people's smartphones. The New York Times, for example, made a splash last fall by releasing a VR documentary on the Syrian refugee crisis — and giving away Google Cardboard headsets, which can cost around $20 each, to subscribers of the Sunday paper.

Then there's the high-end VR experience, which is where Palmer Luckey re-enters the story.

The same year Luckey deployed his prototype goggles in de la Peña's "Hunger in Los Angeles" installation, he formed a company, Oculus VR, to develop the headset for home video-game use. In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion, which Frilot jokingly called "the single most valuable acquisition in festival history."

Oculus last week started taking preorders for its first home headset, the Oculus Rift, promising delivery in the United States and 19 other countries starting March 28. The price tag: $599. (The $99 Samsung product — the full name is the Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus — allows owners to access Oculus' store for apps and content.)

Meanwhile, preorders for a rival headset, HTC's Vive, begin Feb. 29, for delivery later this year. Sony is expected to start selling its PlayStation VR headset in 2016. (Prices for the Vive and PlayStation VR have yet to be announced.)

Some of the VR experiences at Sundance's New Frontier — to be housed in the new VR Bar in the Gateway Center, on Park City's Heber Avenue — will employ either the Oculus Rift or Vive headsets. Others will use mobile-phone technology.

And while companies are preparing headsets for consumers, Oculus also has created a studio to help content creators figure out the tools of this new medium.

"It's really finding the tools where you, as a storyteller and an artist, can shape an experience," Saschka Unseld, creative director of Oculus Story Studio, said in a phone interview. "We've got to learn how to play the instrument, then we can write the songs."

As with any change in movie technology — such as IMAX or the talkies — there's a steep learning curve for artists to figure out what works and what doesn't.

Artists at Oculus Story Studio created a cartoon character, a hedgehog named Henry, to experiment with storytelling techniques. One of the first things they learned, Unseld said, is that the relationship with the audience is different in VR.

"With 'Henry,' we had to acknowledge the audience is right there," Unseld said. "In a movie, unless you're talking the fourth wall, you ignore the audience. … In VR, there is no fourth wall. You're actually in that world."

For Danfung Dennis, shooting in VR has meant keeping camera movements to a minimum, to keep viewers from getting nauseated. For the animal footage in "In the Presence of Animals," crews would set up the camera rig on a tripod, turn on the cameras and then go hide behind a bush — so the filmmakers wouldn't be in the shot.

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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.