×

Virtual Reality Used to Be All About Tech. Sundance Hints It’s Becoming a Medium

Talk to filmmakers and visual effects specialists who work on virtual reality (VR) experiences, and you’ll inevitable be talking about technology. Which headsets are they targeting? Which cameras are they using? What about positional tracking, mobile VR and hand controllers?

But recently, that conversation has started to shift from the how to the what, from the tech to the story. The latest evidence for this trend was this week’s Sundance Film Festival, where VR was once again the talk of the town.

SEE MORE: Sundance New Frontier Gets Its Own Cardboard Virtual Reality App

That’s not entirely new — VR already made a big splash at Sundance in 2015. But VR experiences were really just that last year — isolated titles that let viewers experience the allure of presence, of being in the middle of it all. This year, filmmakers and VR producers started to take the next step, and further explore the possibilities of storytelling. In other words: VR wasn’t just a technology anymore, but a medium, albeit a nascent one.

Take “Defrost,” for example, the Sci-Fi VR drama by “Grease” director Randal Kleiser. Not only does it use the modalities of mobile VR — which offers presence in a kind of paralyzed way, because the headset doesn’t know when you are moving around — as a part of story, which is told from the POV of a woman who just awoke from a coma. But it also pushes the envelope on serialized VR storytelling, with a full season in development, and plans for a second and possibly even third season already on Kleiser’s drawing board.

Popular on Variety

SEE MORE: Randal Kleiser’s Sci-Fi Virtual Reality Drama ‘Defrost’ Debuts at Sundance

Or “Allumette,” the upcoming animated movie by Penrose Studios that was previewed at Sundance with a first trailer. “Allumette,” which is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Matchstick Girl,” will last more than 20 minutes when it is finished later this year. It’s not just much longer than the typical three-to-five minute VR experience, it’s also pushing the boundary of what VR storytelling looks like.

SEE MORE: Penrose Studios’ ‘Rosebud’ Is A Breakthrough for Mobile Virtual Reality

“VR movies are a new art form, wholly different from cinema, the stage play or the opera that came before,” wrote Penrose’s Eugene chung in a blog post about “Allumette,” adding: “Even the word ‘VR Movie’ is temporary nomenclature—a stop-gap between the last great visual audio art forms and this new one.”

And then there is “Gone,” the VR thriller that from Skybound, Wevr and Samsung. Samsung released three additional episodes to users of its Gear VR headset this week after making the first two episodes available in December. “Gone” is as much an experiment in immersive storytelling as it is an attempt to produce a first serialized drama with mainstream potential.

Sure, all of these titles still also explore a lot of new territory when it comes to technology and distribution, but the story itself is increasingly moving into focus — and the timing for that couldn’t be better. Samsung started selling its Gear VR headset this past holiday season. Google just announced that its partners have collectively shipped more than five million Cardboard VR headsets. Oculus is going to ship the Rift headset to consumers in March. Sony and HTC are expected to make their devices available soon after.

With that, VR finally has an audience beyond developers and industry insiders. And with that audience comes the desire for more than just technology demonstrations. “It’s the beginning of (creatives) taking it more seriously as an art form, rather than a novelty,” said Oculus Story Studio producer Edward Saatchi in a recent interview with Variety.

He added that the changing face of VR movie making has been nowhere more obvious than at Sundance. “Two years ago, it was a whisper,” said Saatchi. Last year, VR was still more about marketing and technology, he said, adding: “This year, it’s a very different story.”

More Digital

  • HQ Trivia

    HQ Trivia Lives? CEO Claims He's Found Potential Buyer for Live Game-Show App

    Hold the phone, HQties — there might be a second act for HQ Trivia. The once-buzzy live game-show app, whose audience had declined after peaking two years ago, shut down last week after the company ran out of money and a deal to sell it fell through. Now Rus Yusupov, CEO of parent company Intermedia [...]

  • Dolan Twins

    Dolan Twins to Launch Their First Podcast (EXCLUSIVE)

    The Dolan Twins, sibling digital influencers who have a combined following of more than 50 million across internet platforms, are set to launch their first podcast: “Deeper With The Dolan Twins.” The new weekly podcast from 20-year-old Ethan and Grayson Dolan is being produced under an exclusive pact with Cadence13, a division of Entercom Communications’ [...]

  • Justin Bieber Changes album cover

    Following Lil Nas X, Justin Bieber Track Is Latest to Highlight Online Marketplace

    A shout-out on social media from Justin Bieber has brought some additional shine to Splice Sounds, the popular platform for rights-cleared sounds and beats. The track “Running Over,” from Bieber’s album “Changes” and featuring Lil Dicky, was produced by The Audibles and is based on a loop created by British artist Laxcity and uploaded to Splice. [...]

  • LadBaby at Abbey Road Studio, London,

    Facebook Leans on Local Creators to Grow Watch and Hit New Target Areas

    As Facebook leans into sports, non-scripted and select scripted properties, it’s increasingly looking to an army of creators rather than A-list celebrities to tap into all three target areas as they grow businesses on the Watch platform. Facebook’s newly appointed head of entertainment media partnerships for Northern Europe Anna Higgs tells Variety, “The Watch strategy [...]

  • Apple-Coronavirus

    Apple Warns of Sales Shortfall for March 2020 Quarter, Blaming Coronavirus Outbreak

    Apple said the spread of the coronavirus in China has disrupted iPhone manufacturing and driven down sales in the country. As a result, the tech giant said it now expects to undershoot the revenue guidance it previously provided, of between $63.0 billion and $67.0 billion its fiscal 2020 second quarter (which ends March 28). “Work [...]

  • Jeff Bezos

    Jeff Bezos Forms $10 Billion Fund to Fight Climate Change

    Multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, announced a $10 billion fund to invest in projects that will combat the alarming trend of climate change. The Amazon founder and CEO announced the formation of the Bezos Earth Fund in an Instagram post Monday (Feb. 17).⁣⁣⁣ According to Bezos, the fund will begin issuing grants this [...]

  • Jake Paul

    YouTuber Jake Paul Launches Entrepreneur How-To Platform, Financial Freedom Movement

    YouTuber Jake Paul wants you to be financially free, for $19.99 a month.  At a rally on Saturday, the content creator — along with influencer friends and around 50 teenage and tween-age fans, some chaperoned by parents — launched the Financial Freedom Movement (FFM) in partnership with GenZ Holdings Inc., a Los Angeles-based brand development [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content