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How Sundance will virtually beam you to space to watch movies and party

Feel like escaping Earth right now?

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Sundance's festival experience this year includes a virtual space station with a party bar, art gallery and cinema house, all orbiting the Earth next to the International Space Station. 

Getty Images

Later this month, the Sundance Film Festival will unlock a virtual portal to ascend beyond the Earth's atmosphere to a space-garden simulation. Your new next-door neighbor -- the International Space Station -- floats serenely beyond the dome of glass encircling you, as you both orbit the planet rotating silently below. 

For decades, the Sundance Film Fest has packed movie lovers into the snowy mountain hamlet of Park City, Utah. But with the coronavirus pandemic forcing Sundance to transform into a (mostly) remote affair this year, the fest needed a new virtual venue to re-create its arty, festival atmosphere. 

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Sundance usually happens in snow-covered Park City, Utah. This year, it'll largely take place remotely.

Getty Images

"It's Zoom meets Fortnight meets Legoland," said Shari Frilot, the chief curator of Sundance's New Frontier program, the fest's tech-heavy branch focused on cutting-edge storytelling. 

To build the virtual environment, Frilot and Sundance joined forces with Active Theory. A company that designs digital experiences, Active Theory helps make those annual Spotify Wrapped curations of your listening of the past year; it's also the puppetmaster behind Coachella's livestreams, and it built an interactive 3D Hogwarts for Harry Potter fan site Pottermore. 

I got a demo of the Sundance environment the day before New Year's Eve, when the the prospect of putting 2020 in the rear-view mirror brought growing anticipation for a happier 2021.

I'd really like to escape Earth and get back to that space garden now please. 

Sundance in Space

The space garden is a single-user orientation space. There, you can set up your avatar and get accustomed to the mechanics of moving around in this virtual world. Based on WebXR, you can access it through a simple Web browser (I was told to use Google's Chrome), moving yourself around with arrow buttons or simple point-and-clicks in the space. But it's also accessible with virtual reality headsets for a much more immersive feel. Your avatar is simple floating geometry, topped with a circle that features your uploaded picture. 

From the space garden, you can enter one of the festival's three main community spaces: Film Party, Cinema House and the New Frontier Gallery.

Film Party is the only one that transforms that photo circle on your avatar into a live webcam feed. It's a bit like taking your Zoom window for a walk while you explore a spacey art bar. With spatialized audio, you can hear people more clearly as you approach them. "This is where Sundance is happening," Frilot said. 

Film Party has up to six post-premiere film parties happening at any one time. Each party can fit up to 250 people, but when a film's party hits that max capacity, it spins up a new room for all additional comers. (For veteran Sundance-goers: Yes, that means you won't have to wait outside in 20-degree temperatures because the party was already full before it even started.) 

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Users, a film by Natalia Almada, is a 2021 Sundance Film Festival feature premiere that'll also screen for fest particpants with VR headsets in a virtual Cinema House. 

Natalia Almada/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Cinema House is the environment's only space that's exclusive to people using VR headsets. It re-creates the concept of watching a movie communally in a theater. Attendees can hang out there and socialize for 10 minutes before the movie, then communication turns off during the film as you watch together on a virtual big screen. After the movie, each participant is transported to that post-movie film party. Cinema House is limited to 250 total, first come, first served. And it'll screen such films as Users, a film about the "ruthless locomotion of technology," and a a special selection of international shorts from the festival lineup.

Finally, the most freeform community space is the New Frontier Gallery, which is like walking around a spacey art exhibition. If you mosey over the right spot along the edge, you have a picture-perfect view of the ISS sailing over the planet. This Gallery is home to the fest's New Frontier program of cutting-edge projects. Like the other venues, it has a capacity of 250 people at a time, but it can spin up an unlimited number of galleries whenever the latest one hits its max, making New Frontier's capacity essentially infinite. 

The New Frontier program this year includes Web-based experiments that anyone can try regardless of the tech they have in their home; others are virtual reality pieces available for people with headsets to jump into on-demand. Still others involve elements of live performance, putting them on set schedules. 

Tucked inside the experience is a gateway to a virtual social experiment, more of an unstructured playground that puts live video communication like Zoom inside interfaces that are much more fun. Instead of a gallery of faces in Brady Bunch-intro squares, you and friends can webcam chat in a simulated Amsterdam bar or a private karaoke parlor. Called do {not} play, it was originally built for IDFA DocLab, the new-media segment of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. 

Sundance from your couch

Overall, Sundance's spacey virtual experience will coexist with the full festival's run, which kicks off for a week starting Jan. 28. Tickets for the festival are available now: Though single-film tickets are $15, the cheapest entry with access to the virtual environments is a $25 Explorer Pass. The truly committed can drop $350 on an all-inclusive Festival Pass, which combines all the virtual spaces with access to film premieres you can watch from home. 

Film premieres will mostly be streamed remotely, but Sundance still wanted to "fly in the face of all reason and logic, and try to do something that would feel time-bound, live and shared together," said Tara Hein-Phillips, Sundance's chief technology officer. 

These remote screenings are preceded by a digital waiting room for 15 minutes before start time, with a  text-based chat with filmmakers and other attendees. After the film concludes, those viewing it in real time can participate in a live Q&A with the creators on YouTube. But anyone with a reservation for the film can start watching anytime during a three-hour window of its premiere, and then they have up to four hours to complete it. 

And for those who can't score a reservation to the film they want, every film will have a second-chance to watch, two days after its premiere date. For a 24-hour period, films are available on-demand, but each title is available on a first come, first served basis. So if you find a film you really want to watch -- like the one where Nic Cage plays a bank robber in a "delirious mash-up of Western, samurai, and postapocalyptic thriller" -- plan for some morning-hours movie viewing.

These streamed screenings will all be accessible through the festival's site, as will its virtual Main Street, where most of the fest's free and publicly accessible content is found -- panels, talks and other virtual events put on by marketing partners. 

These streamed screenings and the New Frontier-led virtual spaces make this festival's lineup the most accessible ever for the widest range of people. Some longtime Sundance attendees are sure to miss Park City's snowy haven. But in the special space world of Sundance this year, anybody is welcome to take a break from Earth for a bit.