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

Next year’s Sundance Film Festival will mark a momentous return to Park City, Utah, after the in-person festivities were canceled last year. But Sundance isn’t giving up on the digital platforms it used to stream movies and bring cinephiles to a VR social hub last January. As part of the New Frontier exhibit, Sundance plans to expand The Spaceship, the virtual venue where visitors can chat with each other and explore VR and mixed reality art installations.

In an effort to connect Sundance’s in-person attendees with the global online audience, the festival is also launching a “Biodigital Bridge” in Park City. Shari Frilot, Sundance’s Senior Programmer and Chief Curator of New Frontier, describes it as a human-scale screen where physical and digital attendees can interact with each other. Developed in collaboration with immersive studio Active Theory, the bridge offers basic chat support, but is primarily a way for Sundance attendees to see how other attendees are enjoying the event.

Sundance New Frontier curator Shari Frilot.

Sundance Film Festival

Frilot says New Frontier has been pushing the concept of biodigital experiences for several years, mainly by exploring how technology can intersect our lives. Think of the way an app like Uber, or even Google Maps, has changed the way we navigate through physical spaces. But now that the pandemic has forced us to rely on our technology more than ever before—after all, Sundance wouldn’t have been possible without it last year—the term seems practically prescient. It’s more than just a buzzword: Frilot says she’s interested in exploring the technology that best serves humanity, or Team Human, as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff put it.

Last year I found Sundance’s online platform a fascinating way to explore the festival and interact with fans. At the heart of the experience is the aforementioned spaceship, which allows participants on computers and VR headsets to brood together. On a laptop or desktop, it looks like a stripped-down version of Second Life. You walk around as simplistic avatars, and if you want you can also turn on your webcam, which fills your avatar’s head with a live video feed. Because Sundance’s platform is built on WebXR, a way of delivering virtual reality over the Internet, you can enter that same space in VR by donning a headset 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 done something right last year. After being isolated for most of 2020, being able to see many of my cinephile friends in VR made last year’s Sundance special. So for next year, Frilot says, the festival will go even further. The spaceship will be upgraded with a new Cinema House, where attendees can watch live-streamed events from Park City on computers and VR headsets, as well as room-scale discussions.

On the ground, Sundance will also have a new space called The Craft, where attendees can visit the New Frontier exhibits, artist discussions, and panels. There will also be VR headsets to use, although the festival is also encouraging people to bring their own gear if they have it. Sundance hasn’t finalized its list of New Frontier exhibits yet, but Frilot tells me that many artists are optimizing for the Oculus Quest 2 so party-goers can experience their work without being connected to a PC. But there will probably still be pieces that require a serious VR rig. Sundance’s famed Egyptian Theater will also host some New Frontier performances, which will take place both on the ground and virtually on the spaceship.

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