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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.

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.”

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