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The best virtual reality from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

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We saw some incredible films during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but equally important was the explosion of virtual reality experiences. From soaring over San Francisco to exploring the streets of Syria, VR took us everywhere. These are our festival favorites.

Lost

Lost Poster (OCULUS)

Bryan Bishop: Directed by Saschka Unseld, Oculus’ first VR movie was the moment we’d been waiting for: a complete narrative experience with a story, characters we enjoyed watching, and a gorgeous, immersive world. We felt for the disembodied robot hand, hid behind virtual bushes when its owner approached, and we couldn’t stop smiling the entire time. While we’re still in the infancy of VR storytelling, this is the first project that clearly articulates how vast the potential is, and we hated it when Lost was over.

Birdly

Birdly VR flight simulator hands-on images

Casey Newton: Anyone who would complain VR isn’t interactive enough should first try Birdly. It’s a thrilling simulation of a flight over San Francisco, experienced while strapped face-down into an odd-looking chair. With your arms spread wide, an Oculus on your face, and headphones on your ears, you find yourself soaring over the city’s downtown, flapping your wings to gain altitude. It’s a calming, meditative experience — at least until you find yourself crashing into the Transamerica Pyramid. Immersive and exciting, Birdly is the kind of VR experience that turns skeptics into true believers.

Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party

Perspective Chapter 1 The Party promotional image

Casey Newton: A harrowing look at date rape from artist Rose Troche, told from two perspectives. In the first segment, you look through the eyes of a male college student at a party, flirting with a girl who has had too much to drink. After doing shots, "you" and a friend lead the girl back to her bedroom. In the second, you watch the same scene unfold, this time through the eyes of the assaulted girl. The scene isn’t interactive, and that’s part of what makes it so upsetting: something terrible is happening, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. A provocative and unsettling use of VR that could not be more timely.

Project Syria

Project Syria promotional images

Bryan Bishop: We first encountered Nonny de la Peña’s "immersive journalism" take on VR several years ago, and her latest project takes you to present-day Syria. With the aid of a motion tracking rig, you walk around the street and listen in on a conversation from a group of locals. That’s when the rockets hit. When a young child raced through the dusty aftermath, I tried to chase after him — only to have the person in the demo room gently stop me from running into a wall. While its graphics are relatively primitive, Syria is impressive in its immersion, and heartbreaking when it reminds us that we can’t help children halfway across the world simply by wearing fancy goggles.

Way to Go

Way to Go promotional image

Bryan Bishop: While a lot of pieces this year focused on storytelling or replicating real-world scenarios, Way to Go takes off in the exact opposite direction. Directed by Vincent Morisset, the man behind the Sigur Rós film Inni and interactive music videos from Arcade Fire, Way to Go is an audio-visual fever dream. You’re a crude black-and-white figure, able to walk, run, or soar through a mysterious forest as you desire. Colors and sounds wash over you in a synesthesiastic blend as you trip from one world to the next, and your only purpose is to explore and experience. While we played it on the Oculus Rift, Way to Go began life as a web-based project, and you’ll be able to try it there on February 5th.

Assent

Assent promotional still

Casey Newton: Oscar Raby’s project is billed as a multimedia documentary, but we experienced it more as a nightmare. Assent is addressed to Raby’s father, a Chilean army officer who was present during the brutal execution of members of his regiment in the aftermath of a coup. You begin in a crude representation of Raby’s house; by shifting your focus, you’re transported to an area near the hill where Raby’s father witnessed the massacre. Raby describes the shooting, and the events leading up to it, in vivid detail; the father is mute as his son forces him to re-live what may have been the worst day of his life. If there’s a hell, it probably feels a lot like Assent.