VR storytelling beguiles Sundance with new breakthroughs

The film fest is the year's first pitstop for virtual-reality storytellers hoping to wow the world. Here's what impressed a key player in the field.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
4 min read
Felix & Paul Studios

Sundance is over, but the virtual-reality projects that debuted there are just getting started. 

The Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up Sunday in Park City, Utah, has evolved into an annual mile marker for virtual reality storytelling. In addition to packing the tiny ski town with film buffs and shivering celebs in parkas, Sundance has also become the first opportunity of the year to showcase narrative VR's progress and get a peek at the experiences on the cusp of breaking through. 

"It's great to go to Sundance and say, 'Holy crap, so that's what other people are doing,'" Colum Slevin, Oculus' head of experiences, said in an interview before the festival.

In a followup email interview, Slevin recounted takeaways and highlights from the fest. First among them: Festival-goers seem less confused about VR once they experience what creators have concocted. "There is less of a tendency to question the validity or longevity of the medium, as audiences have come to recognize the legitimacy of the storytelling and creativity on display," Slevin said. 

The legitimacy of VR in viewers' minds is something Facebook's Oculus is watching keenly. VR, which uses headsets to make people feel like they're transported to another world, has been one of the technology industry's big bets in the last few years, attracting huge investment. But the mainstream traction of VR has failed to keep up with the hype. Sales of Oculus Rift headsets, for example, were slow in the first year before Facebook sliced the price -- twice -- to give demand a shot in the arm. 


"Spheres," which takes viewers through the birth and death of stars, was the first VR film at Sundance to land a seven-figure distribution deal. 

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This year, Oculus supported five projects that premiered at Sundance's New Frontier program, the fest's section devoted to virtual reality and other experimental work. One of those pieces made the biggest splash: "Spheres: Songs of Spacetime" became the first VR movie to seal a seven-figure deal with a distributor.  

An experience in which actress Jessica Chastain narrates your trip inside a black hole, "Spheres" goes whole hog on trippiness. Even people who regularly spend their time pondering the mysteries of the universe probably emerge from their headset blinking and wondering what the heck they just watched. The project was executive produced by film director Darren Aronofsky, no stranger to mystifying experiences with films such as "Requiem for a Dream" and "Mother!"

Slevin called the "Spheres" deal "incredibly gratifying" and an indicator that VR as an "art form is finding its audience." 

"Spheres" will be available for Oculus Rift sometime this year. 

Slevin also called out VR storytelling experiments that incorporate more interactivity and artificial intelligence. 

At Sundance, for example, Fable Studio introduced an improvisational, reactive character in "Wolves in the Walls." The project is a reimagination of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's illustrated children's book. Its creators tapped into improvisational theater techniques to shape a character that responds to you in an intelligent and surprising way, Slevin said. The piece is expected to be available this year on Oculus Rift.

"In the past year, this new generation of storytellers has accelerated and grown tremendously," he said. "We are seeing non-traditional creators in the narrative space gaining a level of confidence and poise with the medium that wasn't as visible a year ago."

Among the other pieces that Oculus helped bring to Sundance, "Space Explorers" by Felix & Paul Studios takes viewers on a documentary exploration of the lives of astronauts, with a few wow-worthy computer-generated shots of Earth that you can watch as if you're floating in orbit. The piece is planned for release this year on Gear VR, Samsung's headset powered by its own phones and VR tech from Oculus.

(It's worth noting that NASA was an early adopter of VR, experimenting with it as a train technique for astronauts.)

A scene from "Masters of the Sun"

"Masters of the Sun" is a riff on comic-book storytelling in VR. 

"Masters of the Sun," an interactive comic-book series developed by will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, is described as a "retro futuristic B-boy zombie thriller about a hip-hop group from East L.A. that must battle an ancient god." I was given a demo of the first episode, which felt choppy and awkward at times as it tried to figure out how recreate the feel of a comic book in VR. The series launched for Gear VR on Jan. 19. 

The "Dispatch" miniseries takes the viewer inside the mind of a fictional police dispatcher, played by "Silicon Valley" actor Martin Starr, as he receives calls from people under threat from the same killer. The first three episodes launched for Gear VR and Oculus Rift in November. The final episode debuted at Sundance.  

Aside from the pieces at Sundance that Oculus itself supported, Slevin called out "Hero VR" as "incredibly affecting." An installation that incorporates your sense of touch, environmental effects and a documentary style, "Hero" drops you into the aftermath of a bombing as you race to help.

"The combination of physical sets, practical effects, real-time environments and use of natural (no headphones!) sound was remarkable," he said.

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