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Still from The Dial
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The best VR and AR of the Sundance Film Festival

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Sundance’s New Frontier section showcases some of the most ambitious and interesting experiments currently being done with virtual and augmented reality, among other works based on emerging technology. Over the past several years, these have evolved from simple proofs of concept to long, complex narratives and elaborate installations. In 2019, the show focused on pieces that blended real and virtual art, providing a look at what home audiences will see later this year, but also a taste (sometimes literally) of how festivals might keep offering a unique experience.

Facebook-owned VR giant Oculus often shows off new narrative projects at Sundance, even when they’re not on the official slate. This year, it revealed an immersive theater experience called The Under Presents, which featured human actors playing roles in a surrealist cabaret. The high-profile AR startup Magic Leap also made its Sundance debut this year in New Frontier, where three pieces used its Magic Leap One headset.

Like every year, Sundance had the occasional technical hiccup or unpolished project. But its roughly 30 exhibitions also showcased some of Sundance’s best virtual and augmented reality so far. Here are the most compelling projects I checked out at New Frontier — from a focus group about killer robots to a real meal in a virtual world.

Still from A Jester’s Tale
A Jester’s Tale

Best augmented reality: A Jester’s Tale

Created by: Asad J. Malik

A Jester’s Tale is something between a fairy tale and a CAPTCHA test, and it’s by far the weirdest of three Magic Leap-based installations. To experience it, you walk into a physical re-creation of a child’s bedroom, at which point, a disembodied entity demands proof of your humanity to continue. The test? Using voice and object recognition, help act out an odd, disturbing story about a child and his pet rats.

A Jester’s Tale director Asad J. Malik previously debuted the mixed-reality political commentary Terminal 3 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Malik says his new piece is meant to explore the strange implications of a machine judging someone’s humanity. It’s also simply surreal. I don’t want to spoil too much, but one of the rats is played by postmodern YouTube star Poppy.

While it’s Magic Leap-only for now, A Jester’s Tale is currently being adapted to mobile augmented reality, so it should eventually be accessible to anybody with a phone.

Still from 4 Feet: Blind Date
4 Feet: Blind Date

Best 360-degree video: 4 Feet: Blind Date

Created by: María Belén Poncio, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, Damián Turkieh, Ezequiel Lenardón

Virtual reality film isn’t the hot field it was a few years ago. Camera manufacturers like Jaunt and Lytro have floundered, and production studios like Within have shifted focus. But New Frontier’s 360-degree video program was unusually strong this year, featuring a mix of short VR stories and stylized documentaries, like Ashe ‘68, about tennis champion and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe, and Traveling While Black, about the famous Green Book guide for black motorists.

The best of these was 4 Feet: Blind Date, a slice-of-life film about a disabled teenager named Juana who’s headed to a first date with a boy she met on the internet, who doesn’t know she uses a wheelchair. 4 Feet uses its 360-degree format to provide a sense of realism occasionally embellished with bright illustrated highlights. It follows its protagonist’s experience as she speaks to her family, moves through the city, and waits for a boy she thinks might not show up. The film captures Juana’s unique struggles and the universal awkwardness and uncertainty of first dates, leading to an ultimately sweet resolution.

Still from Gloomy Eyes
Gloomy Eyes
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Best VR animation: Gloomy Eyes

Created by: Jorge Tereso, Fernando Maldonado

The year is an alternate 1983, the sun has disappeared beneath the ground, and a Burton-esque religious revivalist is leading a crusade against zombies — until his young daughter falls in love with one. That’s the premise of Gloomy Eyes, a three-part animated miniseries whose first episode premiered at Sundance.

Narrated by Colin Farrell, Gloomy Eyes takes place on a shifting string of diorama-like stages, a style inspired by the VR animation powerhouse Penrose. It’s adorable with just a hint of creepiness, and its creators, who previously worked on the short film Shave It, say VR has given them a chance to explore slower-paced experiences. Future episodes are supposed to advance the story without sacrificing its close focus on a romantic relationship instead of an epic struggle.

Still from Mechanical Souls
Mechanical Souls

Best social experience: Mechanical Souls

Created by: Gaëlle Mourre, L.P. Lee

A handful of previous New Frontier projects have blurred the line between experimental art and live-action role-playing, and Mechanical Souls blends role-playing with VR video to strong effect. The experience puts a handful of people into the role of quality assurance testers at Mechlife, your average amoral manufacturer of eerily humanlike androids. After gathering at a table, they’re asked to analyze some VR video of a disastrous incident involving a robotic bridesmaid at a ritzy wedding.

But the videos all seem slightly different, and when participants start discussing what they’ve seen, it’s hard to pin down what actually happened. The workshop turns into an open-ended talk about what might have motivated the artificial being, with occasional contributions from actors playing robotic attendants — who don’t seem quite right themselves. It’s an experience that would translate well into a full live-action role-playing game, perhaps joining one of the handful of larps that already let you play sad robots.

Still from The Dial
The Dial

Best interactive mechanic: The Dial

Created by: Peter Flaherty, Jesse Garrison

The Dial is a complex and interestingly old-school take on augmented reality, laying out a bleak murder mystery as a tabletop diorama. The experience involves three people staring through phones at a dollhouse made of blank paper. The house is textured with images from an overhead projector, and on a phone’s screen, the scene is overlaid with props and people, creating two complementary layers on top of a physical object.

The phones aren’t just for viewing the story. One person is tasked with “navigating” the experience. As they walk circles around the house, their phone detects the motion and changes scenes, as though the navigator is a hand on a clock. It creates a sense of agency and responsibility throughout the story, which is largely about characters who feel powerless to take action after a woman’s mysterious death.

Still from Dirtscraper
Dirtscraper

Best writing: Dirtscraper

Created by: Peter Burr, Porpentine Charity Heartscape

Dirtscraper isn’t traditional headset-based VR; it’s an environment that’s projected onto a large open stage, which participants can wander around wearing headphones to add a soundscape. But it’s one of Sundance’s most compelling virtual worlds this year. The piece envisions a post-apocalyptic future where humans live in a vast, multileveled underground complex, their lives dictated by the strange whims of insectoid artificial intelligences.

The resulting space is something between a mall, an inverted high-rise, and an infinitely descending prison. Most of the Dirtscraper experience consists of watching tiny figures live out ant-like lives on the walls around you. Periodically, a scene or panel will flash some darkly poetic descriptions of this mechanized world. (“The sad suns glow at the center of each plaza, inviting people to mingle in their permanent daylight.”) Dirtscraper is a joint project from new media artist Peter Burr and game designer Porpentine Charity Heartscape, and it feels a lot like one of Porpentine’s eerie, eloquent text games come to life.

Still from Sweet Dreams
Sweet Dreams

Best installation: Sweet Dreams

Created by: Robin McNicholas, Ersin Han Ersin, Barnaby Steel, Nell Whitley

It’s a minor miracle that art studio Marshmallow Laser Feast — which brought a trippy piece called In the Eyes of the Animal to Sundance in 2016 — could get something as elaborate as Sweet Dreams to work at a hectic film festival. The virtual reality installation depicts a world that’s unhealthily obsessed with new culinary experiences. And thanks to a small crew of stagehands and a series of props, the VR scenes feature actual food and beverages.

In Sweet Dreams, you can reach for a virtual cup, take hold of its physical counterpart, and start sipping a tangy mystery drink. When a flower bursts in the virtual world, you can pluck a real, precisely placed “petal” out of mid-air — on your tongue, it feels something like Pop Rocks. Sweet Dreams treads a fine line between saccharine and slightly menacing. It’s not heavy on plot, but there’s a storyline that Marshmallow Laser Feast hopes to expand into a larger experience with, presumably, a few more meal courses.