With Help From Sundance, Is Virtual Reality Poised to Go Mainstream?

Virtual reality technology is at the point where it needs to take that crucial next step toward a more commercial application, especially in the cinema world. Someone has to do the legwork and make the promise of virtual reality a reality. They need to expand existing support networks to give artists and filmmakers room to experiment. News out of Provo, Utah, indicates that someone would be the Sundance Institute.

The institute's increased support is two-fold. First, Sundance announced it will expand its New Frontier section at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival to include 30 virtual-reality experiences, up from about a dozen last year. Sundance will also take these pieces on the road. New Frontier-related exhibitions will come to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in April and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in June.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, New Frontier is "a dynamic initiative created to identify and foster independent artists working at the convergence of film, art, media, live performance, music and technology." In other words, it's the edgy and experimental portion of Sundance's portfolio that redefines the idea of storytelling. Needless to say, virtual reality is a large component.

The New Frontier Story Lab is one of Sundance's virtual reality petri dishes. The lab looks for artists who are developing "interactive, immersive, or experimental projects that aim to create rich and resonant experiences for audiences." While participants have already been chosen, Sundance encourages interested parties to check back in June 2016 here for information to apply for the next round. The upcoming lab will consist of six projects running from May 20-25, 2016 at Sundance Resort. 

So Sundance has a New Frontier Story Lab in which participants dabble in the world of virtual reality, among other things. It also has a New Frontier Artist Residency Program, in which fellows are selected from the New Frontier alumni pool and matched with a sponsor organization to "develop a project that aims to push the boundaries of story in some manner." And Sundance announced it will provide 30 virtual-reality experiences at its upcoming film festival.

But there's more!

Sundance recently announced it has partnered with Jaunt Studios, an innovative creator of cinematic virtual-reality content, to create the Sundance Institute New Frontier/Jaunt VR Residency Program, intended to empower and support artists applying new technology to storytelling. The first artist selected for the six-month residency is Lynette Wallworth, an Australian whose work Coral: Rekindling Venus screened in the New Frontier program in 2013. Three more artists will be selected for the residency in the next few months.

And so the next 12 to 24 months will be an especially exciting time for virtual reality in film. The space remains a bit cluttered and the players are still finding their footing, but thanks to support from Sundance, we anticipate the field will mature and technology will improve. Kamal Sinclair, co-director of the New Frontier program, agrees. "A lot of the answers will be coming from the next generation of filmmakers that are jumping into the sandbox of this medium," she said.