Sundance Spotlights Virtual Reality’s Quest for Respect

MIYUBI Birthday
Courtesy of Funny or Die

The Sundance Film Festival may not seem like a place for contemplating the frightening speed with which technology is revolutionizing media. But even those who came to Park City just to watch good old-fashioned cinema got a taste of what’s to come at Passage Pictures’ afterparty Monday for its new film “Marjorie Prime.”

The film depicts an aged woman interacting with a hologram of her deceased husband’s younger self. While that may seem like something out of some fantastical future far from our own lifetimes, partygoers were actually greeted by a hologram of the character, played by Jon Hamm, rendered all too realistically by tech firm 8i.

But as eye-popping a sight as that might have been, those who took time away from Sundance’s film scene to attend the festival’s New Frontier program might not have been as amazed. In its 11th year of operation, New Frontier has always offered plenty to explore at the intersection of art and technology. And this year proved no exception, as a renewed focus on virtual reality exhibitions gave attendees a good sense of how far this budding category has come in terms of providing consumers newfangled thrills akin to a Hamm hologram.

But while New Frontier has shone a spotlight on VR for the past five years, 2017 represents a particularly crucial juncture for the technology. This year’s showcase comes after a full year of availability for all sorts of hardware dedicated to VR viewing. What throughout its tortured history seemed about as commercially viable as jetpacks is now a reality, bringing a newfound urgency to the content exhibited at New Frontier.

Which isn’t to say VR is basking in the glow of being The Next Big Thing either. As headset manufacturers from Sony to Samsung have discovered the hard way, adoption of this technology is coming along slowly. To borrow research firm Gartner’s famous “hype cycle” paradigm, VR currently finds itself in the inevitable “trough of disillusionment” that hits just about every product innovation cursed by unreasonably high expectations.

But part of the blame for what’s held back VR has been assigned to content. The complaints come in all flavors: there isn’t enough content, it’s hard to find on existing platforms, and most damning of all, it’s just not compelling enough to move this market forward. Even VR’s most diehard evangelists—and they were out in force in Park City—concede that it’s time for the technology to make a more lasting impression on consumers than that fleeting “gee whiz” moment that comes soon after donning goggles.

What also came up a lot in conversations about VR at Sundance (see panel discussion in video below) was the need for an original hit to emerge capable of fueling more awareness for the technology, the way “I Love Lucy” once did for TV, and more recently, “House of Cards” for streaming. Augmented reality, a not-so-distant cousin to VR, was blessed with its own unlikely hit in 2016 courtesy of Pokemon Go, though few AR adherents believe it adequately demonstrated how impactful projecting virtual imagery into the real world can be.

The purpose of Sundance’s New Frontier program isn’t to make an argument for the commercial viability of VR content. But as a curation of the best work in the category, some scrutiny is going to come with the territory. And if you looked hard enough, there were signs of creative maturation that might not scream hits in the making, but still register as encouraging progress.

Those progressions didn’t require being as outré as the Hamm hologram, though in New Frontier that wasn’t for lack of trying. Many of the VR exhibits seemed intent on outdoing each other for how far out they could take their creativity. VR guru Chris Milk’s “Life of Us,” for instance, attempted to socialize VR by allowing two different people in separate enclosures to enter what might be described as an acceleration of the entire course of human evolution through the prism of weapons-grade hallucinogenic. You are depicted running alongside the other person as projections of your bodies morph from multi-cellular organism through the primate stage and so on way past Homo sapiens.

Other projects went far beyond just requiring goggles to taking on hand-held controllers that allowed you to manipulate your environment and gamify the experience, like Baobab Studios’ “Asteroids” and Jonnie Ross’ “Mindshow.” There was even a “Synthezia Suit” from Japanese artists that turned VR into a full-body outfit that delivered haptic sensations beyond just the hands.

New Frontier’s aggressive avant-garde-ism can actually be a little tiring after a while, which made some of the more simple approaches more resonant. There’s already some buzz for Oculus Story Studio’s “Dear Angelica,” an elegiac tale about a girl recalling her deceased mother via a style of illustration that in VR can make you feel like you’re somehow ensconced inside a canvas as it is being painted on, the lines and colors swirling all around you.

New Frontier has the distinction of offering up artistic experiences like you’ve never seen before. But perhaps the closest thing the program has to the kind of breakthrough VR needs is a work of deceptive simplicity and familiarity.

Miyubi,” a production of Felix & Paul Studios in collaboration with Funny Or Die and Oculus, is an unassuming offering. There’s no hand-held controllers or room-scale projections; just Oculus goggles are required. Perhaps the worst thing you could say about it is it could have just as easily been performed in a typical 2-D TV show. But therein lies its quiet power.

“Miyubi” (pictured above) tells the story of a mildly dysfunctional family from the perspective of a fictional Japanese toy gifted to the middle child. Set in the various rooms of a home hilariously outfitted in the garish decor of American suburbia during the 1980s, “Miyubi” feels a lot like the ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs” right down to the fashion and hairdos of both parents and kids.

That probably doesn’t sound like the stuff of great VR, and yet “Miyubi” manages to do something almost unthinkable to anyone who has sampled VR in recent years: it tells a well-acted, multifaceted story filled with humor and pathos that lasts as long as 40 minutes. It’s a span of time that might seem impossible to anyone who has writhed around in goggles from various hardware manufacturers just long enough to glean whatever dimension-stretching visual stunt a typical VR production usually exhausts after just a few minutes.

Best of all, the VR experience in “Miyubi” feels like an organic outgrowth of the story it tells, not the kind of tacked-on trick that could have risked undercutting the narrative.

That doesn’t mean “Miyubi” is some kind of end point for where VR can take entertainment. To the contrary, its goal seems to be to build a bridge between conventional entertainment like a traditional Sundance movie and a VR world that, as New Frontier largely demonstrates, is flailing around in search of structure. “Miyubi” lays a stepping stone for VR newcomers that will probably be required to mainstream a medium that is almost certainly headed in some wild directions.