At Sundance's New Frontier, activists use virtual reality for real-world social justice

Notes on Blindness (Photo: Frank PR)

(KUTV) Walking into the New Frontier exhibit at Sundance feels a bit like walking into a futuristic party; fashionable light fixtures are dimmed, music plays and visitors laugh and talk as they drink wine and gather in small groups.

Beyond the cocktails and carousing, goggle-wearing guests line the room, headsets that seem more like fiction than science pulled down over their faces. They're exploring far-off places without so much as checking out of their Park City suites.

More than 30 virtual reality experiences stretch across the second and third floors of the Claim Jumper on Main Street, taking users to post-apocalyptic worlds, oceanic depths and endangered rain forests. VR is totally immersive; a 360-degree world you can move around in and interact with.

The Oculus Rift combines audio and video to make users active participants in the scenes around them. Gone is the comfort of watching from afar in a theater or living room; audiences must play vital roles in the stories themselves, actors rather than spectators in every scene.

A revolutionary medium, in more ways than one

Underneath the matte black, sculptural headsets of VR experience 'In the Eyes of an Animal,' users transform from fish, to frog, to dragonfly, moving under water and along forest floors to experience the world at angles humans will never see. Custom-built vests imitate the vibrations animals themselves would feel as they navigate their habitats.

"It delves you into an empathy with nature. The way [animals] see the world is completely different from the way we see it with our eyes, our ears, our touch," said Barnaby Steel, who co-created the VR experience with Robin McNicholas for their studio, Marshmallow Laser Feast.

"You build a connection to this thing, this living thing, all of these things that make it so unique," he said. "Through that connection, by experiencing it, the empathy kicks in and you start to value it."

The idea of empathy in virtual reality has activist filmmakers flocking to virtual reality as a medium. Steel and McNicholas plan to use their piece to encourage environmental conservation, hoping that it will help humans build a greater empathy for the animals affected by pollution and deforestation.

And they're not alone. At New Frontier, a gamut of social issues make appearances in the virtual realm.

'6x9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement' puts users directly within an experience felt by the 80,000 people committed to solitary confinement worldwide. The project, created by The Guardian, points out the psychological damages of sensory deprivation and brings attention to a population invisible to us -- and eventually invisible to themselves.

In 'Across the Line', participants attempt to cross the street and enter a Planned Parenthood clinic while protesters yell and harass them. While the figures within the scenes are animated, the voices come from real-life recordings. Every insult and threat feels painfully, shockingly authentic -- because it is.

"The whole point of this work is to immerse people, put them on scene, and to understand what it really feels like to be in any situation," said Brad Lichtenstein, a lead artist on the project.

Lichtenstein hopes to show his piece -- which he created with directors Nonny de la Peña and Jeff Fitzsimmons -- to politicians and lawmakers as well as the masses, so they might "understand what his or her vote actually means, in terms of being on the ground with women who actually face this. It's a powerful tool to open up discussion."

As technology improves year by year and virtual reality becomes less expensive and more accessible, more and more storytellers will take to the medium to express views, highlight injustices and further social movements. The tech is too new to accurately predict how successful VR may or may not be as a political and social tool, but one thing is certain: it's a game changer.

"VR is the perfect tool to disembody you," said Steel , as he helped lower a VR helmet on a user's head. "It takes you out of your everyday human experience and offers you new perspectives."

And, really, isn't that what storytelling is all about?

Experience it for yourself

VR Experiences:

  • Open Daily through Friday, Jan 29 from 1 to 5 p.m. Get there early -- lines fill up quick.

Films & Performances:

  • Cameraperson -
    Thursday, Jan 28 at 6:00 p.m: Yarrow Hotel Theatre
    Holiday Village Cinema 2, Friday, Jan 29 at


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