Sundance’s ‘biodigital’ film festival will try to bridge the gap between VR and reality

The Sundance Film Festival next year will mark a significant return to Park City, Utah, after personal ceremonies were canceled last year. But Sundance isn’t giving up on the digital platforms it used to stream movies and bring kinephiles to the VR community center last January. As part of its New Frontier exhibition, Sundance plans to expand The Spaceship, its virtual place where attendees can talk and explore VR and mixed reality art installations together.

In an effort to connect Sundance’s personal attendees with his global online audience, the Festival will also launch a “Biodigital Bridge” in Park City. Shari Frilot, Sundance’s senior programmer and chief curator of New Frontier, describes it as a screen on a human scale where physical and digital attendees will be able to communicate with each other. Developed in conjunction with the impressive Active Theory studio, the bridge will offer basic chat support, but it’s mostly a way for Sundance visitors to see how other attendees enjoy the event.

Curator Sundance New Frontier Shari Frilot.

Sundance Film Festival

Frilot says New Frontier has been promoting the concept of biodigital experiences for several years, mostly through exploring ways technology can cross our lives. Imagine the way an app like Uber, or even Google Maps, has reshaped the way we move through physical spaces. But now that the pandemic has forced us to rely on our technology more than ever – Sandance would not have been possible without it last year, after all – that term seems practically predictable. It’s more than just a word: Frilot says she’s interested in researching the technology that best serves humanity, or Team Human, as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff put it.

Last year, I discovered that Sundance’s online platform last year was a fascinating way to explore the festival and interact with fans. At the heart of this experience is the aforementioned spaceship, which allows participants to think together on computers and VR headsets. It looks like a scaled-down version of Second Life on a laptop or desktop. You walk around like simplified avatars, and if you want, you can also turn on your webcam, which fills your avatar’s head with live video content. Because Sundance’s platform is built on WebXR, a way to deliver virtual reality over the web, you can enter the same space in VR by putting on any handset and visiting Sundance’s website.

Sundance Film Festival 2022 New frontier

Sundance Film Festival

Compared to SXSW’s VR platform, which looked beautiful but mostly felt like a virtual wasteland, it was clear that Sundance had fixed something last year. After isolation for most of 2020, the opportunity to see many of my film-loving friends in VR made last year’s Sundance feel special. So next year, Frilot says, the festival goes even further. The spaceship will be upgraded with a new Cinema House, where attendees on computers and VR headsets can watch live events from Park City, as well as room discussions.

In the field, Sundance will also have a new space called The Craft, which will allow personal attendees to visit New Frontier exhibitions, art discussions and panels. There will also be VR headphones to use, although the festival also encourages people to bring their own equipment if they have it. Sundance has not yet finalized its list of New Frontier exhibits, but Frilot tells me that many artists are optimizing for Oculus Quest 2, so festival goers can experience their work without connecting to a PC. But there will probably still be pieces that require serious VR equipment. The famous Egyptian Sundance Theater will also host some New Frontier performances, which will take place both on earth and virtually on a spaceship.

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Naveen Kumar

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