Sundance New Frontier Lab 2016 | Pushing the Boundaries of Interactive Storytelling

The Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Lab is a place where film, art, performance, and technology can merge into an explosion of mind-blowing talent and creativity. With virtual reality becoming consumer-accessible (I have an HTC Vive setup at home), and a variety of other innovative technologies being developed, the New Frontier Lab is bursting at the seams. For the 10th anniversary of this exciting vertical, six projects were chosen from nearly 400 applicants.

Kamal Sinclair, the Director of the New Frontiers Lab Programs, was looking for projects that were really strong in story, as that is the focus of the Sundance Institute. Second to story is the technology. More important than the actual tech is how it is used to service the story. “What platforms? What is the UX/UI? How are audiences engaging with the story, and how do they participate? Artists are pushing for story, pushing for story experience, pushing to bring something about the emotional condition into our thinking. They are using the technology to do that – not just using technology for technology’s sake.

“What we feel unifies them all is an exploration into immersion,” says Sinclair. “We have a couple of VR pieces, we have an augmented reality piece that is also geo-located and site-specific, so it kind of puts you into the real world. We also have an immersive video game that you play with your body, and a haptic VR project, which is tablet-based.”

The six projects chosen for the New Frontiers Lab are:

‘Aria End,’ Sundance New Frontier Lab 2017

“Aria End” by Peter Burr and Porpentine Charity Heartscape 

Aria End is a science fiction video game and installation about Aria, a trans woman with cyborg intestines who works in a subterranean mega-ruin — the site of a bizarre disaster that changes all who are exposed to it. By inhabiting a series of underground base camps and modifying a network powered by intestinal flora, the player comes to identify with the space through the act of maintaining virtual architecture. 

“The Art of Dying Young” by Shawn Peters and Barry Cole 

The Art of Dying Young is a film installation and new media bike tour that examines the lives, local histories and place-making initiatives of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant and South Williamsburg told through the lives of two young men who have been memorialized through murals. 

“Happy” by Josephine Decker and Jess Engel 

When Madeleine shows up for Kazie’s birthday, she and the other guests discover Kazie curled up, half- dressed on the shower floor. So — why is everyone looking at Madeleine? Happy, a live-action virtual reality exploration, takes us into the architecture of mental illness, where the most unreliable narrator might be — yourself. 

‘Hue,’ Sundance New Frontier Lab 2017

“Hue” by Nicole McDonald and Rob Auten 

For Hue, life has lost its color. What once was bright and bawdy is now pasty and pallid. With the help of your hands and your heart, only you can help Hue find his formerly full spectrum. (A haptic VR interactive tale.) 

“The Passengers” by yako (Jean-Christophe Yacono), Ziad Touma and Nicolas Peufaillit 

Take a seat among The Passengers, an immersive virtual reality fictional series set from the different point of views of strangers on a train, as you enter their subconscious to journey beyond the image they project. 

“Seeing-I” by Mark Farid, John Ingle and Nimrod Vardi 

For 24 hours a day, for 28 days, artist Mark Farid will wear a virtual reality headset through which he will experience life through another person’s eyes and ears. 

‘Seeing-I,’ Sundance New Frontier Lab 2017, Photo by John Ingle

The big themes, Sinclair says, is “this idea of how the body interacts with these story worlds that are being built, and how do you navigate immersion?” In terms of subject matter, Sinclair says that submissions focused on questioning this moment in our evolution as a society. “We are on a precipice of a big technological shift, a shift in scientific research, and people have a lot of questions about what world we are racing to.”

Interestingly, Sinclair says that most of the submissions this year were fiction. Of the six finalists, four are fiction. Up until this year, documentaries were far more common in the New Frontier Lab, and one of the demos they were able to show me, Collisions, is a perfect example of that. Director Lynette Wallworth journeyed to a remote desert in western Australia to connect with the Martu tribe of indigenous people. The Martu had lived on this land for 800 years, 50 generations, and knew the land better than anyone or anything. A member of the tribe drew a topological map of the land and, when held up beside a satellite image, there is more than just a resemblance; the drawing is as detailed as the photo. Collisions is able to provide a sweeping 360 degree view of this desert land which is home to the Martu people, making the viewer feel like they are actually on this remote land.

‘Happy,’ Sundance New Frontier Lab 2017

Senior Programmer and Curator of New Frontier, Shari Frilot, says that when she was originally handed the section of the film festival, it was for experimental film. “There were some things that were happening in the early naughts. A lot of feature films were coming out of the art world,” she recalls. “In 2006, digital technology was starting to affect how our filmmakers were making movies. We were the first major film festival to project digitally. When YouTube became the largest search engine, beneath Google – before Google bought them – that signaled to us in a strong way that our filmmakers were about to shift roles in our society. We realized we needed to build something at the festival that resonates with these changes and landscapes.” It was then that Frontiers was re-inaugurated as the New Frontiers section, and art, cinema, and technology intersected. “The whole idea is to cross-pollinate the conversation and create new language.”

One of the big concerns amid all this new technology is how to exhibit it. For each VR experience, a viewer needs to be strapped into a headset, and it is a “one at a time” experience. A friend of mine waited in line for over four hours just to try out the Oculus Rift headpiece at a local Los Angeles convention. He promised it was worth it, but will others feel as zen about it? “I’m working on it,” Shari promises, “but I’m not ready to share it yet.”


The Top 50 Must-See Sundance Movies:

Top Photo: ‘Seeing-I,’ Photo by John Ingle, Sundance New Frontier Lab 2017