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An Agent for Change: Virtual Reality (VR)
by Karen Pecota

Fourteen virtual-reality (VR) installation experiences is what Shari Frilot, Curator of the Sundance Film Festival Edition of the New Frontier, introduces as the 2015 program called OCULAR EVOLUTION. Frilot challenges festival attendees to engage with the creators of the exhibition to experience their version of visual storytelling using the latest virtual-reality technology. She explains, "The content these artists, filmmakers, journalists, media scientists, game designers, and creative technologists use parallels a universe through fabricating the most human, basic state of being.” She adds, "The featured collaborators offer an unprecedented peek at the dawn of a new bold, new cinematic world.”

Zero Point from documentarian Danfung Dennis (Academy Award-nominated documentarian for his film Hell and Back in 2011) features an Oculus Rift virtual reality--using special goggles for the experience. Zero Point is the first documentary film shot for virtual reality that shadows the pioneers in the field. The researchers and developers who are creating this new digital dimension from combat training simulations, to research labs at Stanford, from indie game developers to hackers, is an immersive game-like experience. It brings viewers up-to-date on an exciting new medium in the digital world.

There were fourteen exhibits represented in the New Frontier Venue. Three of them featured here below give a sample of how storytelling collaborates with the strange digital experience--virtual reality.

Assent from Oscar Raby is an interactive Oculus Rift installation lasting twelve minutes. Media artist Raby puts the viewer in the shoes of his father as he shares a horrific military experience. Raby's father was an army officer on the day the Caravan of Death came to his regiment. The Caravan of Death was a brutal campaign that executed military detainees in Chile during the aftermath of the coup in 1973. Raby's father lived to tell his son about the experience many times over. Raby's immersion documentary allows one to hear, feel and visualize a first-hand account of war. An experience that forever haunts with the atrocities and its life-long effects. To be immersed into this story one must use the Oculus Rift goggles. The goggles help one to focus on listening to the story thus being immersed. Once the storytelling is in progress one is lost in the experience of being like a fly on the wall or a spirit-being elevated high in the air able to freely move about to observe every part of the storytelling. It's a daunting ride!

Birdly from Max  Rheiner is an interactive Oculus Rift installation lasting two minutes. This experience uses an open flight simulator that one simply lies on, stomach down and arms and legs out-stretched. The Oculus Rift goggles are placed on the head. By the touch of buttons and arm movements of up or down you are like a bird flying through the air in and around the city of San Francisco, California. One sees the city through the goggles. Yep! Just like a bird. You have the ability to fly as high or as low, fast or as slow as you so desire. It's almost as exhilarating to watch one in the Birdly simulator as it is to be Birdly yourself. It's a fun ride!

1979 Revolution Game from famed Rockstar games designer Navid Khonsari and Vassiliki Khonsari is an interactive gaming installation. These innovators of non-fiction storytelling take us  on a history tour. This interactive documentary places the player inside the action of the Iranian Revolution. There are nine episodes to the game using actual audio testimonials, a real-world soundscape and touch screen gameplay. The first episode 1979 Revolution: Black Friday premiered at the exhibition. The goal is to take the interactive emotional, historically true narrative and put one into the situation. Once in the game as a player, the experience is the choices one would do in the situation of an uprising. What moral choices will one make under extreme situations as they navigate through the streets of a revolution? It's horrific ride!

The creators of Google offers the hands-on experience to make your own VR glasses out of cardboard. This show made the creative process come alive and believe the words of some that VR is the wave of the future for how the world will do business. Not simply for the gamer community. According to entrepreneur and Oculus Rift Founder, Palmer Luckey, "Virtual Reality is the final platform."

Author, Joel Stein, in writing an article on the impact of VR for TIME Magazine, describes his experience using the Oculus Rift VR. He explains, "Using the cluncky pair of goggles, most of which have a smart phone slipped into a slot in front of my eyes, which does most of the work. These machines are not as complex as what Palmer Luckey developed, but they provide a cheap, effective rendition." He continues, "The Screen, when it's that close to your face, fills your field of vision--the first frameless visual medium. The sense of depth is far more realistic than 3-D, with everything stretching out to infinity, scaled perfectly." Stein continues, "I can look all around, whipping my head to see above, below and behind, which gives me brief moments of what virtual-reality pioneers longingly call "presence"--when you really feel like you're inside a fake environment. It's an amazing technical achievement. It's the coolest version of the 1970s View-Master toy I could imagine."

Stein's article, INSIDE the BOX, August 17, 2015 edition for TIME Magazine, also features his take on trying several versions of the virtual reality experience. Palmer Luckey, Founder of Oculus Rift (sensory-immersion goggles) is one of the visionaries making VR mainstream.  At age 22, Luckey just sold his business Oculus VR for $2.3 billion to Facebook guru, Mark Zuckerberg. Stein says, "The surprising joy of Virtual Reality is about to change the world."