Last May, Butchershop began working on a variety of creative projects with Oculus, the pioneer of virtual-reality technology. While VR is new territory for most people outside the tech realm, it’s quickly becoming a mainstream phenomenon, not just for gamers but for anyone interested in a uniquely immersive entertainment experience.
To better understand the power of this fast-growing technology, a few Crew members took an impromptu trip to the Sundance Film Festival, where, since 2012, VR has featured prominently alongside some of the world’s most talked-about independent films. This year, the festival’s New Frontiers program comprised three venues dedicated exclusively to virtual reality, with more than 20 experiences available to ticket holders—a much larger presence than in previous years.
Over 36 hours, we soaked up more than a dozen VR experiences and attended a variety of panels and pop-ups. We spotted two celebrities (Elijah Wood and Joel McHale; or was it Ryan Seacrest?), waited in countless lines, rode in at least two pickup truck Ubers, and met a ton of people who were amped about virtual reality.
Here’s what we learned.
1. We’re experiencing a VR gold rush.
The VR landscape is flush with explorers and creators, whether they’re pushing the narrative form beyond its limits or pioneering previously unattainable experiences. Space exploration! Sex with robots! Religious ceremonies! It’s all part of the VR ecosystem, and it’s expanding fast. “One year in VR is like one dog year,” said Gary Radburn, Director of VR at Dell, about the exponential evolution of virtual reality. “The canvas is much wider than gaming.”
2. The next wave of VR is in social experiences.
The idea of putting on a headset and tuning out the world seems isolating. That’s why creators are incorporating elements like simulated conversation, to cultivate a more social, interactive experience, deepen empathy, and make the virtual world feel, well, less virtual. Fall in Love, for example, introduces people to a virtual dating partner capable of asking questions (“What would constitute a perfect day for you?”) and responding to their human counterpart. Other experiences, such as Chorus, which made its debut at Sundance, invites several people to don headsets and collaborate to defeat evil intergalactic robots.
3. VR is more than just cool graphics.
Virtual reality is evolving beyond just vision and audio. Haptic gloves allowed us to feel the cold of a virtual snowball; motion chairs recreated the bumps and turns of driving a rover on the surface of the Moon; and cameras allowed us to get meta by seeing and manipulating ourselves in real-time through VR.
4. Big names are beginning to utilize the power of VR.
Everyone from Darren Aronofsky and Rosario Dawson to Jessica Chastain and Elijah Wood are producing experiences in virtual reality, making full use of filmic techniques like 360° perspective, depth, movement, and interactivity. Many attendees we talked to were most excited about the added layer that VR lends to traditional storytelling. And studios are starting to pay attention: The Darren Aronofsky-produced space experience, Spheres, was acquired for an unprecedented seven-figure sum at Sundance.
5. Oh, and one more thing we learned at Sundance.
Don’t be late. If you’re on the waitlist for an experience, arrive at said experience at least 30 minutes prior to showtime, lest overzealous attendees notify Sundance staff that you were late. (It happened to us. Twice.)