The Sundance Film Festival confirmed our hunch that 2016 will be the year virtual reality really goes mainstream. Cardboard viewers are easily accessible for entry-level consumers, Oculus is making affordable at-home headsets for those hoping to step up their VR game, and Samsung’s headsets are tricked-out and cutting-edge. But what exactly can you watch with those snazzy goggles, anyway?
A lot, apparently.
This year, Sundance’s New Frontier program brought festival-goers more than 20 virtual reality pieces. We tested out several offerings ourselves on the ground in Park City and each one blew us away—some even threw off our equilibrium. (Warning: if you’re prone to motion sickness, tiptoe into VR, don’t cliff dive.) The VR experiences came in many forms. Video games and movies obviously lend themselves well to the medium, but it turns out VR also enables users to do some pretty mind-boggling things and interact with their virtual environments in fun new ways, too.
VR was actually so prevalent at the festival that it was almost too big to digest. Here are the bullet points:
It’s a Very Singular Experience
Expect to feel very alone in virtual reality. Unlike watching TV or movies where it’s a group mentality that you’re sharing something everyone else is seeing, too, VR is something you do all on your own. You may see things in your 360-degree experience that your friend does not. That’s not to say it’s lonely or bad or anything like that. It’s just different, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Filmmakers Are Testing Weird, Cool Concepts
There is no half-assing a VR idea, and filmmakers are already pushing the boundaries of the medium with eyebrow-raising projects. That’s on purpose. Like any new medium at the very beginning, VR is a little bit of a spectacle, and the films that are developed for it definitely live up to it. Take Defrost, a six-minute pilot where you are placed inside the body of someone who woke up in 2045 after being frozen for 30 years. We were simultaneously creeped out and impressed. What’s more impressive is that this is being tested out as an actual show—there will be 12 episodes and will star Harry Hamlin. So, basically, VR could easily become the next TV.
VR Goes Beyond Watching, Sometimes
We had an interesting experience watching The Leviathan Project. In this, art and technology collide as users are thrust into an 1895 science lab and asked to participate in experiments. Moving real—like real, real—beakers and other props around a set while wearing a VR viewer, users actually choose their own adventures and engage with the people and animals in the project’s augmented world—even creating their own hybrid creature and occupying its body while flying around the lab and seeing the space through its eyes. Wild.
There Are Awesome Movie Extensions
The Martian VR Experience, which allows users to step inside astronaut Mark Watney’s space suit and dive into scenes from the feature film, was one of the coolest VR experiences on Main Street. Unfortunately, we missed it due to long lines—only one person can use a headset at a time, limiting the number of viewers per day—but luckily this one will be available for streaming later this year.
Comedy Will Thrive in VR
Funny or Die had an activation in Sundance at the Samsung Studio, where comedians Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel premiered their first-ever VR comedy sketch, Interrogation. Director Lex Halaby built his own VR custom rigs just to shoot the scene, and it’s ridiculous but also cool because you’re literally inside a sketch. “You are in it with us,” said Scheer during a panel about VR. “For virtual reality, there are so many things to explore.”
It Doesn’t Have to Be That Expensive to Test
While it’s unclear when, if ever, certain other Sundance experiences will be ready for home viewing, reps at the festival’s VR preview suggested several ways to test out VR now, without investing much money. The easiest way is to find an inexpensive cardboard viewer online (check Google Cardboard for options) and experiment with free options like those available on YouTube’s #360Video channel or on the Vrse app. And we suggest downloading the Jaunt app on your smartphone to go behind the scenes with InStyle’s virtual experiences, too. Drew Barrymore’s cover shoot is up now and there’s more coming soon that you won’t want to miss.