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Virtual Reality Is More Breathtaking And Terrifying Than Ever Before

At the Sundance Film Festival's New Frontier Exhibitions, I flew like a bird, watched giant monsters fight, and met Reese Witherspoon in the woods.

Danfung Dennis

PARK CITY, Utah — The 2015 Sundance Film Festival's New Frontier Exhibitions, which showcases experimental art installations, is heavily focused on virtual reality this year, particularly Oculus Rift technology.

At Friday morning's press preview, I had a chance to try out several of the installations, which fulfilled a childhood dream of mine. For as long as I can remember, I've been drawn to the concept of virtual reality — perhaps because I found actual reality to be mostly disappointing. My early attempts at trying out VR were lacking, to say the least, seeing as the technology just wasn't there yet. And if it was, it wasn't anywhere I could access it.

But at Sundance, I finally was able to experience cutting-edge VR. The projects at New Frontier vary wildly in terms of tone and effect, but combined, they provided an entirely new perspective on virtual reality — both in terms of how far it has come, and what the future might bring.

Here's a breakdown of the VR pieces at New Frontier 2015, in the order I experienced them.

1. Wild — The Experience

Felix Paul Studios

Lead artists: Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël

I will probably never hike the Pacific Crest Trail. (OK, I will definitely never hike the Pacific Crest Trail.) But I loved Wild, and I was excited to get a small taste of Cheryl Strayed's experience.

I sat on a log and put on an Oculus Rift headset — for the very first time — and immediately found myself among the trees. Logically, I knew that I could look in all directions, but that took some getting used to. I watched Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) sit down next to me, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't the tiniest bit starstruck. Then, I heard a voice, and shifted my body in its direction until I was face to face with Cheryl's mother Bobbi (Laura Dern). After having seen the film, I was genuinely moved sitting between them. It made me think about the way this technology can supplement film instead of replacing it. It doesn't take anything away from Wild, but instead offers viewers another, more intimate perspective that heightens the experience of the original film.

2. Herders

Felix Paul Studios

Lead artists: Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël

Visually, Herders is stunning. It was created by the same artists who made Wild – The Experience, and they seem to be especially adept at using the Oculus Rift technology without losing the overall cinematic feel. In terms of subject matter, Herders isn't nearly as compelling, but it's hard to compete with Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and a fox. Still, Herders is undoubtedly the most interesting look I've had into the world of nomadic Mongolian yak farmers. So there's that.

I noticed that what worked best for me were the more intimate moments: In one scene, I was seated together with the family at the center of the experience. I could hear bits of conversations, not in a language I could understand, and I could hear them eating. Generally speaking, listening to someone slurp is not my idea of a good time, but I felt truly honored to be brought into this sacred familial space. Yes, the animals grazing were gorgeous to look at, but the simple pleasures of a meal among loved ones left a more lasting impression. It highlighted virtual reality's ability to give you a true sense of space. I felt surrounded by warmth: It was odd but undeniably pleasant.

3. Way to Go

Vincent Morisset

Lead artist: Vincent Morisset

Way to Go felt a lot like a video game, and I'd imagine that was by intention. There were controls, after all. Walking through the woods by way of an adorable animated black-and-white avatar, I pressed various buttons to walk, run, and jump. My relatively simple surroundings changed quickly and the indescribable buttons did different things every time. I found myself running more than walking, just because I was so eager to get to the next iteration of the woods.

Unlike the previous virtual reality pieces, this felt less like a 360-degree experience. I could move my head around slightly, but I was mostly just moving forward. And I could never quite veer from the path. Yet, it still felt overwhelming. The more I ran, the more disoriented I became. It wasn't unpleasant per se, but I knew that if Way to Go didn't end within a reasonable amount of time, I'd have to ditch that headset and vomit. Possibly not in that order. Overall, it was like nothing else that I experienced: whimsical, creative, and — in a few senses of the word — dizzying.

4. Birdly

Max Rheiner

Lead artist: Max Rheiner

Of all the New Frontier installations I read about beforehand, Birdly was the one I was most excited about. It promised to transform the participant into a bird using effective virtual reality technology, and to simulate an actual flight above San Francisco. And if you've never fantasized about flying high above a city, I don't want to know you. I was finally able to explore that lifelong dream with Birdly, which lives up to expectations of accurate flying simulation. Maybe too accurate — I totally crashed.

But that's OK! My flight, however short-lived, was incredible. While most experiences at New Frontier are done seated, Birdly has you strapped into a full-on contraption: Your arms spread out like wings, and your body is horizontal. You flap your arms to control your height and tilt your body to determine the direction. Turns out, flying is actually more challenging than I'd imagined, but the thrill of looking down at San Francisco and feeling the wind in my face more than made up for my untimely demise. Sorry, birds. I've underestimated you.

5. Assent

Oscar Raby

Lead artist: Oscar Raby

Sitting down at a computer in what looked like someone's bedroom to participate in Assent, I felt anxious about what to expect: This VR experience dealt with the execution of rebels in Chile. As artist Oscar Raby placed the Oculus Rift on me, he warned me that there would be "confronting images." I said I was OK with that, as my heart began racing.

Assent is a conversation between Raby and his father, who witnessed the execution of 15 military detainees as part of Chile's notorious Caravan of Death, but there's not much violence: Because the focus is on the conversation, and on the way both men process brutality, the horror is mostly implied. And yet, the sentences are punctuated by gunshots — faint at first, but louder as you find yourself moving closer to where the executions took place. Each gunshot jarred me, my breath grew short, and I thought again about the power of virtual reality (which can send you somewhere entirely foreign from your own experiences) and the danger therein. For the artist, I reasoned, there must be tremendous responsibility involved. And, in the case of Assent, restraint.

6. Zero Point

Danfung Dennis

Lead artist : Danfung Dennis

Zero Point would have been a good place to start my morning of virtual reality exploration. It's the first documentary shot for virtual reality, tracing the history and progression of the technology itself — all while showing just what VR can do.

I loved the interactivity of the learning process with Zero Point. I was able to gain valuable context into the installations I had already experienced: what preceded them and what might follow. At the same time, I was still a part of it.

Zero Point is a documentary that truly takes "show, don't tell" to heart. The visuals varied from fairly straightforward to overwhelming. At one point on a beach, I heard a woman calling for me to follow her. I had to turn my head to see her. And I swear to you, even though I knew I couldn't take her up on her request — even though I'm too gay to feel temptation for a bikini-clad babe — I wanted to follow her. That's the conscience-altering power of VR. In another moment, a herd of buffalo approached and a couple of them came right up to my face to investigate. The desire to touch them, however impossible, was palpable. And that feeling of missing out lingered long after I'd taken the Oculus Rift off.

7. Project Syria

Emblematic Group

Lead artist: Nonny de la Peña

I'll admit that I didn't want to do Project Syria. After the intensity of Assent, I didn't think I'd be able to handle it. But in the interest of experiencing something new — and pushing past my comfort zone — I decided to strap on the glasses (not the Oculus Rift this time) for a walking simulation through the Aleppo district in Syria.

I didn't have free reign, but I was actually able to move more than just my head. I felt like I was fully a part of my surroundings, and I marveled at the possibilities. That's when a rocket hit. (And I thought my heart had been pounding before!) I knew the bombing was imminent — it said so in the program description — but to be there, seeing buildings crumbling around me and a child thrown to the ground, was almost unbearable. Again, it speaks to the power of good VR. To experience the plight of the Syrian people is a worthwhile endeavor, however uncomfortable, but there's only so much in-your-face trauma I can take.

8. Kaiju Fury!

Ian Hunter

Lead artist: Ian Hunter

Closing out my day at New Frontier was the very fun Kaiju Fury!, which depicts the destruction of a city from a fictional, much more lighthearted perspective. As two kaiju (giant monsters, a la Godzilla) battle, the city around them falls apart. Participants in this VR experience are hapless bystanders, staring up at the monsters from below and realizing how much damage the city is withstanding — and how fucking screwed they are.

There is a fun B-movie feel to Kaiju Fury! and it helps that the glasses are not Oculus Rift, but rather homemade. (At New Frontier, patrons can learn how to make their own VR headset with the How to Cardboard demonstration.) So much of the virtual reality I experienced was big, bold, and high-concept. And while Kaiju Fury! is certainly large in scale, and high in production values — artist Ian Hunter is nominated for an Academy Award as a member of Interstellar's visual effects team — it's also silly and fun, a nice reminder of VR's range after a few heavier pieces.

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