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Virtual Sundance turned my home into a playground of disconnections and awe

The game of connection can sometimes be as strange as the art itself.

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From Prison X, Chapter 1: The Devil and The Sun. A hand-drawn VR journey into a Bolivian prison.

Dan Fallshaw

With three laptops perched around me, I log into Sundance from my home office. A screen loads up of a virtual gallery space, where I create a cartoon avatar with a flat circle-head that has my photo pasted on it. I use arrow keys to wander in this browser-loaded 3D space, where I see other people I recognize. I try to chat with them. Sometimes it works. Other times I just wander away, silently.

I try again with a VR headset on, and this time I can move my hands. I still can't get the microphone to work, but we put our arms around each other for a virtual hug. This is all before I've even tried a single Sundance experience, but it already feels like art.

The Sundance Film Festival went virtual this year, like nearly every other conference. The part I looked at, the AR/VR and technology-driven New Frontier showcase, has always felt semivirtual, even its in-person iterations. Now, the entire experience itself has left any physical location. Installing and running the experiences at home was a rough and often transformative process.

That's not to say that what I've seen in this year's virtual offerings hasn't been enlightening, and emotionally inspiring -- and sometimes awe-inducing. But I can't draw a line between the art, which wrestles with technology and our place in society, and the literal wrestling with technology and distancing from the world I'm already experiencing. The glitchiness as well as the home experience is a theater for these pieces, and informs them just as much as the well-designed and sometimes equally glitchy in-person demo zones I'd normally try them in at Sundance or Tribeca, or somewhere else.

This may be the only virtual Sundance ever, or perhaps it's the first step toward a new hybrid. Cannes and Tribeca and other tech conferences, by going virtual, have opened doors for people to try these art showcases and films in ways that the normally fenced-off, in-person festivals wouldn't. It's democratized the process. Maybe future shows keep a virtual showcase in addition to special in-person installations and experiences. I hope that's the case. (You can listen to a two-hour episode of Kent Bye's The Voices of VR podcast for full impressions from Joan Solsman, myself and Jesse Damiani on this year's festival.)

On one of the first days of the virtual Sundance festival, I found that one of the VR experiences designed for PC VR wouldn't work with the controllers on my at-home Oculus Quest 2 or HP Reverb G2 headsets. I ended up Zooming with one of the festival's very helpful organizers, and finally got a build of the experience that worked properly. Stress-testing and IT support for home explorers is really hard at a distance, especially when in-person immersive showcases could carefully control the experience with specific hardware and assistants who would troubleshoot as needed. It's made it clearer than ever to me that the hardware itself needs improvement. It's easy to get an early app build for your phone, or a preview link for a video. But VR and AR still don't feel organic to the phones, laptops and other devices we use, and getting them set up can be clunky. The Oculus Quest 2 is wonderfully self-contained, but only one Sundance experience I tried had an experience designed for it -- and it had to be sideloaded using Sidequest on a computer. The other VR experiences needed PC VR, loading through Steam and then through a wired VR headset.

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Fortune! was a documentary told in AR on my phone.

AtlasV, Arte France and NFB

My home as an immersive world

One phone-based audio experience, a live concert called 7 Sounds, requested that I listen while in bed, in the dark. I did exactly that. One evening, my own bed became a Sundance experience space. And I let go, listening to 3D audio that surrounded me, and jarring sounds of orgasms and of rivers bubbling on forever. I slipped into a half-dream. Did I hallucinate? It's hard to not slip away when you're listening to immersive audio with your eyes closed in the dark. That seems like the exact point.

An AR experience, called Fortune!, used my iPhone to place a pop-up 3D experience on the floor of my living room. I watched a documentary podcast-style short about a Canadian counterfeiter, told in a fast-paced style that felt like Scorsese or Catch Me If You Can, acted out in cartoon miniature on my desk.

One nearly Zoom-like experience, called Beyond The Breakdown, put me in a chat with five other people (all fellow Sundance journalists), guided by a voice AI to dream of a future 2050. It was a welcome but futile experience. I've had a hard time dreaming beyond the next day lately. But this art piece spin-off of Zoom made me think of the limits of conversation and of communication as therapy.

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Tinker, by Lou Ward, is a live VR theater piece between two people, with silent observers. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Theater, alone

Trying VR in my own space, instead of at a festival where guides would help me in and out, escorting me through what I would experience, is a mixed feeling. I can try these in my own space, my own comfort zone. But also, if something goes wrong, no one else is there to help. I float in my own space.

Some VR experiences border on their own massive performance spaces. Prison X, a virtual journey through a Bolivian prison created in Tilt Brush, had me wear a mask and enter a prison on cocaine charges where I lived in solitary, rolled dice for my fate, and then wandered into a prison world filled with characters I could listen to. I made a phone call. I took a shower. And I felt, for half an hour, like I was in a hand-drawn prison art installation.

One live theater experience on Oculus Quest, called Tinker, took place between a cartoonlike performer avatar of a grandfather, and an audience participant who appeared as a simple glowing ball with hands. These two talked and improvised a life as grandfather and grandchild over a series of years in the grandfather's home workshop, which evolves over time into a play-space. And then later, as the grandfather suffers from Alzheimer's, he begins to forget the experiences they've already gone through.

I didn't interact directly. Instead, I was one of a few audience members who experienced it as an "observer," invisible and able to wander freely like a ghost. I felt like I had disappeared. I felt, really, like I have in so many real-life immersive theater performances: invisible and present, submissive and ready to experience. I hid in corners of the room, by an old bookshelf, or staring at stickers put on the walls, or looking at the grandfather's desk. Much like other dips into live theater I've tried in VR, it made me wonder how more like this can happen. And, how can it work for everyone without requiring so much setup gear?

At the desk I sit at every day, I watched a video performance of Weirdo Night, a normally in-person show in LA created by Jibz Cameron, aka Dynasty Handbag. LA is city I used to live in a long, long time ago, but I never saw this show before. Now it was performed to no one at all, and to an audience of just me. Or everyone else. Alone together. And watching from my office, I felt exactly like I've felt for a year, peering in at another life, alone. I laughed like a maniac.

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Beyond the Breakdown, a collaborative video chat experience imagining the future.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

We're already at the new frontier: What comes next?

Sundance 2021's New Frontier area was dedicated to new art, but really, the world itself is becoming like a new frontier. The struggles of connection, the weird and sometimes successful social spaces created by Sundance, which made me think of Burning Man this year in VR, or the Museum of Other Realities space where Cannes XR happened. 

There is a new weird semivirtual world already around me. And days after my Sundance experiences have settled into my system, I'm thankful for them questioning our reality. The world now feels ready to receive VR and AR art, and immersive art, in ways that are different than ever before. The theater has already come home. Now, we need to find more ways to get in.