At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, New Frontier celebrated its tenth anniversary with a deluge of virtual reality, exhibiting nearly five times as many works as last year. A host of companies have invested in the medium, putting out a variety of new software, headsets and haptic devices. Viewing expanded to multiple venues, each crowded with VR neophytes from open to close. It is a propitious moment for virtual reality as an ascendant media platform; the confidence at New Frontier’s Main Street venue was palpable.
VR is now familiar enough that divergent trends have begun to emerge. Each has its own parameters and possibilities when it comes to "immersiveness" – a key descriptor in the VR lexicon.
The two dominant approaches at this year’s New Frontier were 360 video and video game environments. 360 video is a fixed perspective with the ability to look around in all directions – this is the standard for Google Cardboard and for much of the New York Times VR, for example. VR built on a gaming engine like Unity affords the viewer greater agency: the ability to move through three-dimensional space, interact with objects, and experience location-based sound, to name a few possibilities. Both platforms are viewed in a headset.
From this brief description, one might conclude that game engines are the preferred platform for VR, given their superior capabilities in creating interactive environments. But interactivity doesn’t necessarily imply a more fully immersive experience. Often, game mechanics and the tethered nature of a headset like Oculus take the viewer out of the work and back into the very real limitations of physical space.
Conversely, a passive observer in a 360 video can easily let the experience take place without the interference of cumbersome technology; untethered, a Google Cardboard or Gear VR user can look about freely without a cable or lagging haptic sensors.
Game mechanics also come with their own logic and linearity. In previous works like Oscar Raby’s "Assent," the Unity-built game world proved a novel solution to heightening the interactive possibilities of non-fiction work, allowing for a first person memoir that revisits the site of a shooting. But gaming platforms have their drawbacks as well. As any gamer knows, games incentivize fast completion and are goal-oriented – viewers will try to "beat" the game. This logic often overrides the artist’s intention to create a contemplative world.
The qualities of a 360 video are quite different. Once accepting of the role of passive observer, a viewer is allowed to ponder the spherical world, without trying to determine the extent of agency they have been granted. The video "Perspective," which recounts the shooting of a young black man in an altercation with police, uses this passive point of view to great effect. Creators Rose Troche and Morris May shot four 360 videos from the perspective of two police officers and two teenage boys. Each video is watched in sequence to show different points of view and, ultimately, a critical reveal. The photorealistic world provided the necessary gravitas for the subject matter; a CGI world may not have been so successful.
Perspective illustrates a broader trend from this year’s New Frontier. Many of the VR experiences focused on complex technological solutions to bring about the realism of their environments. That is to say, they focused on the simulation of life-like settings and interactions, governed by the laws of physics. Whether walking through a game environment in a dungeon or sitting on a boat in a photorealistic world somewhere in the South Pacific, most videos followed the premise that the virtual world should be as real as possible.
But realism (or photorealism) did not reign supreme at New Frontier – far from it. The more abstracted virtual reality artworks at New Frontier proved the most thought-provoking, showing the beginnings of an artistic language uniquely suited to VR. For instance, the art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast exhibited "In the Eyes of the Animal," a work harnessing data gathered in an English forest with a Lidar camera. A meditation on insect life in the woodlands, the piece presents the viewer with four visual sequences representing four different species. A backpack provides vibrations like those of a carapace spreading its wings in flight. The visuals in the headset morph and change depending on headset orientation, and an immersive sound design draws the viewer in to contemplate a real forest through a totally different lens.
In a similar vein, Peter Middleton and James Spinney created an intriguing VR component to a transmedia project titled "Notes on Blindness," which brings to life the diary of John Hull, an English author and academic who recorded the process of going blind. Built in Unity, the world created is beautifully poetic, outlining blue chimeras of familiar objects that resolve themselves upon concentration. It is an elegant use of the gaming platform, not to mention a fine example of a subject uniquely suited to VR, building from memories an interpretation of a spatial, visual world.
Perhaps the most provocative artwork of New Frontier was "Viens!" Produced by Michel Reilhac and Carl Guyenette, the 360 video invites the viewer to participate in an orgiastic interlude. Bodies intermingle, appearing and vanishing behind sheets of white plastic blown up from the ground and suspended in the air. "Viens!" celebrates the fixed position and voyeuristic nature of a headset-wearer. The content lulls the viewers into a sense of blissful and stimulating observation. The artists then toy with the spherical world, slowly turning the entire spherical video around the viewer, disrupting the expectation of viewer-affected gaze.
It is in these videos that New Frontier earned its moniker in 2016. Each experience was carefully constructed in VR because VR was the best platform for the artwork; rather than sampling a new technology, these videos stood out for utilizing VR to fulfill certain possibilities not afforded by other media. These three pieces underscore the power of experimentation in virtual reality. Rather than inserting a story into the VR silo, the artists push at the boundaries of the technology and implicitly comment on the possibilities and constraints of today’s VR devices.
More than ever, New Frontier demonstrated this year that VR is here to stay – not as the next manifestation of documentary, or cinema, or both, but as its own platform with a nascent sensibility and an exciting road ahead.
Nathan Saucier is a filmmaker and educator at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.