#975: Critic’s Roundtable for Sundance New Frontier 2021

After watching the 14 immersive experiences at Sundance New Frontier 2021, I invited three other immersive critics for a roundtable discussion unpacking each of the experiences inlucing CNET’s Joan Solsman, Forbes contributor Jesse Damiani, and CNET’s Scott Stein.

Here are the time codes for when we start to talk about each of the experiences from Sundance New Frontier 2021.

I will be having a series of over a dozen interviews with artists and creators totaling over 15-16 hours worth of conversations that were recording during Sundance 2021. If you’d like more information and context on this year’s show, then be sure to check out my interview with Chief Curator of New Frontier Shari Frilot.


Here’s my Twitter thread round-up of the 14 New Frontier pieces.

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So over the past week, Sundance 2021 has been happening, and there was 14 different experiences at the Sundance New Frontier. I had a chance to see all the different experiences, and then I wanted to get together a group of critics from the immersive community to be able to come and unpack each of these different 14 experiences, and then In the time of Sundance, I've also done like 13 different interviews with different folks diving deep into a lot of the different experiences. And I'll be getting into those in the Voices of VR podcast here. And because there's so much content, I may actually skip the takeaways. This podcast here actually contains some collective takeaways from each of the experiences. So I'll probably be pointing folks back to this episode to get more context and perspectives on each of the experiences. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this conversation with Joan, Scott, and Jesse happened on Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in. My name is Kent Bye and we're going to be doing a critics round table here for Sundance 2021. And so I'm very happy to be joined today here with...

[00:01:19.796] Scott Stein: Scott Stein. I'm with CNET.

[00:01:22.803] Joan Solsman: I'm Joan Salzman and I'm also with CNET. Scott and I are colleagues that work together.

[00:01:27.446] Jesse Damiani: I am Jesse Damiani and I cover VR and AR on Forbes.

[00:01:32.007] Kent Bye: All right. So I'm so glad that you all could join me today because we've been virtually attending the Sundance New Frontier and there's been opportunities to kind of run into people to talk about stuff, but I always like to have a deep dive with other critics and other folks have been able to watch. either all the pieces or as many as you possibly can. It's already hard to see all the pieces when you're at the festival, but then when you're at home, it becomes technical difficulties and timing and all these other things. So we've seen as much as we each can up to this point, and we're just going to be having a conversation. But before we dive into talking about each of the 14 different New Frontier pieces that were programmed this year, I'm curious if you all have some takeaways in terms of emergent themes that you saw from this year's festival.

[00:02:11.640] Joan Solsman: Well, certainly one thing that I think crossed a lot of different projects, and I think is present not only at Sundance every year, but is present at Tribeca and other ones, but that's thinking about racial perspectives, thinking of race and historical contexts in new and, you know, of course, there's a lot of Afrofuturism that shows up in festivals like this. And I think we saw that it's not unusual for Sundance to bring those perspectives and elevate those voices in VR. and XR, but there are certainly multiple pieces that try to put a new circumspection on race. Some that I haven't had a chance to see yet, and I know some of the other panelists have, but certainly Secret Garden and Traveling Interstitium are a few. Yeah, I'm curious if other people saw that too.

[00:02:53.974] Scott Stein: I definitely saw that. And the thing that struck me, I think like even in another type of umbrella with that, I saw a lot of riffs on memory. and recorded narratives, or it could be some of them literally were about memory and how memories decay or process. A lot of them were narratives that, you know, I think that gets into what Joan was talking about, that were about how do you tell the story? How do you keep a story? Or how does a history get told? How does a history get lost? And so it was interesting, because I think that sometimes there can be elements of these things that are trying to put you in a here and now and a performance. But I think a lot of these felt like in a way sort of archives, you know, a lot of times over and over again, there was that theme hovering and it was weird because I felt like I'd been reading about things like this lately. So it felt synchronous, but yeah.

[00:03:44.314] Jesse Damiani: Yeah. Piggybacking on that. And this is more of like building on these themes you're talking about and kind of like looking at something that was both a formal and thematic aspects of this year's exhibition was that it was And I'm not going to say it exactly as it feels to me, but it seems like almost even the pieces that were purely narrative, there was this more experientially focused aspect to the pieces where it was much more about, to me, like less of the kind of like go in through a narrative that's point A to point B. and much more about go be in this environment and narrative also is occurring in those cases. That came through in a lot of different pieces and started to become something that I noticed a feeling I would have afterward where it felt more like a memory of mine rather than a story I had gone and engaged with and left.

[00:04:36.110] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. For me, I did a whole Twitter thread and saw some emergent themes, some of which we've, we've talked about here, but for me, the big theme was like speculative design, world-building, future dreaming, Afrofuturism. So using the VR medium to imagine a future that doesn't exist or the other aspect of that as I guess, going back into the past. And so there is this time travel element of connecting the past to the present and all those memories and. as you look backwards, then you're also looking forwards at the same time, a number of pieces that were playing with that conceit. But yeah, certainly diversity, pluralism, inclusion, and niche cultural expression is how I say that, you know, the Bolivian piece of Prison X that had Bolivians from around the world working on this certainly was doing that. And then the final theme that I saw was relationality and interconnectivity in general. Pieces like Seven Sounds really played that with a lot in terms of whether or not you're isolated or how you're connected. So those are some of the themes, and I think that maybe gives a good context to dive in. And maybe where we'll start with Joan, do you want to sort of introduce the Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler?

[00:05:36.739] Joan Solsman: Yeah, yeah. This is one of the web browser-based pieces. The way that it was initially described to me is that it transforms your laptop into a primordial pool where there are artists that you can sort of uncover, artworks that you can uncover, and they kind of manifest. when you find them. I would love to check later on with the other people on the panel. I was not able to find all of them in this primordial pool, but the ones that I did find there were four pieces. I believe they're all by men and women of color. One is called Pluto, and that's sort of like a spoken word poem coordinated with visuals that are both space imagery and closeups of a woman's face as she's thinking about her own existence and how she interrelates with this universe being. There's another one, 99 frames per millennia. That one's a CG vortex sort of imagery with a dub music loop almost. Quantum Summer was my favorite of the four that I was able to see inside this primordial pool of artworks in that It touches into mentioning the world building. It shows this island CG environment with some sort of well of stars that are floating up and you can explore this time capsule moment in this island built world, which also is infused with sort of a hip hop soundtrack that you can come in and out of and shows black figures populating this sort of island. And then the last one that I could find was When Words Fail, which is by Stephanie Dinkins, who also had a separate piece at the festival. And that shows you also in like a galaxy-like space, all of these sort of play on a space theme where in this incarnation, you can see three figures of women that are collages of what look like different colored black eyed peas in a way with these floating rotating pills and you have an opportunity to record yourself answering a question, which is what you need to let go of to move on and those, I believe those recordings can be incorporated into the piece as it continues throughout the festival and beyond. And then there's another one that's, I don't know, did you guys find this other?

[00:07:40.759] Kent Bye: I reached out to the creators and asked about that. And they said it wasn't ready for the festival. So those four were all four. So, and I just wanted to throw out one other piece of context was that this is a group of futurist writers that came out of the Guild of Future Architects. And in that context, they had did a whole world building process where they all read all of Octavia Butler's works. And they were trying to do this Afrofuturism where they were creating what was going to originally be live performances, but because of the coronavirus, then they had to move to a WebXR platform. So all these pieces are WebXR experiences where they were intended to be like a live performance, but they wanted to archive some of their world building and speculative designs that were directly inspired by the work of Octavio Butler. And yeah, I was just absolutely blown away with all of them, but I'm curious to hear other thoughts about them.

[00:08:30.438] Scott Stein: I think what's really cool looking at it to me, when I see WebXR stuff, like applied to a browser, it just gives me feelings in a good way of like the original web, you know, like the feeling of like an undefined, mysterious space. And like, I used to get those feelings a long time ago in the early nineties, when you'd find like, where's a webpage lead. And I found that what they were doing with this was that had that strange frontier feel. So I just really enjoyed that. And I, you know, like just on a level of like, just the way it was structured. And I think that that's really fun. You know, at times I wonder like, where is this going? How long should I stay in this space? You know, there were some like the vortex where you could just keep staying and you can keep listening. And I thought, should I go back and listen, look for something else now? Should I keep all the tabs open? Which is what I sort of did too. Like the, you know, there's really no like guided path. And I think that's really cool. It's also like, somewhat unnerving sometimes when I want something to be almost like, I'm used to some of these experiences almost kind of guiding you by the hand. So I really appreciate that.

[00:09:31.705] Jesse Damiani: Yeah, I will say, so I really, I really appreciate both points on that front. And I think there's a certain type of anxiety when you're coming in wearing your journalist hat of like, I need to really grok what's going on and I need to like reach completion with the piece. So I too felt that anxiety. And one thing that I'm left with now that I've kind of done everything and spent a lot of time and actually left the tabs up is actually sort of what I was getting at with the formal aspect of Sundance is like some of these pieces aren't real, you're sort of meant to feel like you're coming in in the middle and you're leaving in the middle and that there's sort of this like infinitude to them. And this piece, I really felt that with also with the fact that even just the main interface to get to these different pieces, is obscured. Like the fact that we had that discussion internally, like, are we missing the fifth one? Like, you know, I can't find it in the, in the primordial pool. There's something really powerful about that. And thinking about how you can sort of like spread virtuality without any headset whatsoever. Yeah.

[00:10:33.913] Kent Bye: Did you have any thoughts of like, what was your experience of those Jim?

[00:10:37.657] Joan Solsman: I had a lot of fun allowing them to kind of happen organically, interact with each other. Like the fact that I'm sure everyone has the experience of opening too many browser tabs, but this was sort of a joyful experience of having too many browser tabs open because there would be intersections of music, especially, you know, when you have something that's sound-wise very repetitive, like the Vortex project, 99 frames per millennia. When that's kind of overlapping with this radio feedback, when you find something new, the fact that they can layer on top of each other, it taps into, as Jesse was saying, the fact that a lot of these projects felt like there wasn't a didactic experience you were supposed to have, you know? And I really enjoyed the fact that I questioned whether I was seeing everything and whether I was missing things and the fact that I could be fine with it.

[00:11:27.745] Kent Bye: Yeah, for me, I ended up spending a lot of time with each of these. And as a completionist, I did go through and listen, there is an end, it does end. So using WebXR, because it's WebXR, I could view source because, you know, I have a web development background. And I was just trying to figure out how it was actually constructed and made, which was unique and different. I've never had that experience yet. one of these festivals to have the leisure to be able to sort of poke underneath and see how it's actually built. The Quantum Summer World, I felt so magical. These moments of just like discovering this area and then the music would trigger and it would be transformed into this soundscape. And I loved how much collaboration that was done in that piece of bringing all this audio. The Pluto piece felt like just like a short poem video. And actually the artist statements on those, I got a lot of extra context from the artist creator hearing about why she created that piece. So there's like additional context there if you want to listen to see some more backstory for some of these pieces. And the when worlds fail, it was like being asked a question and like, what do you need to let go of to be able to really move forward, which is a provocative question that then gets archived in this space. And then the final 99 frames from Millennium, what I'd say about that is that I was at night watching it, all my lights turned out, just staring at this mandala, listening to it. And I found myself being like, I actually want to hear this original podcast. And I tried to find it and I realized at some point, you know what, this is totally made up conversation. This did not actually happen. This is, and then when I heard the artist statement, the creator said, you know, they wanted to create a audio soundscape that was imagining a future where the cinematic landscape was directly impacted by Octavia Butler. So they're talking about pieces by Octavia Butler, but projecting into the future, having an imaginal conversation as if all of Octavia Butler's entire created works have been translated into movies and how much of a impact that's made on culture. when I realized that that's what had happened. And I wanted to know, like, where's the trailer for this Windrunner 3 movie? I want to hear, like, who is this talking? Who's this, like, Stacia X3000? Who is this person? And I couldn't find the original source material until I realized, like, oh, this was all a speculative design trying to translate me into a world that doesn't yet exist. So. Yeah, it's incredible. Yeah. It's cool. So yeah, I guess maybe from there, there's a, an associative link from that would be the worldbuilding aspect. And for me, there was a number of different pieces that touched on that, but the one that I'll introduce was called beyond the breakdown, which actually was a facilitated group discussion that actually a couple of us were in the same discussion room there. And that to me was a worldbuilding process. You know, Alex McDowell at USC has put together this worldbuilding Institute where he. worked on the Minority Report where it's just basically bringing in all these experts to try to imagine the future in a specific time and place. From Minority Report, there's like a hundred different patents, but you don't need to be experts. You just need to be anybody. And this was set in 2050 and we're like imagining into the future and having a facilitated conversation that allows us to dream about what the future could be. And then at the end, it extrapolates down to how we can embody those values and those principles today. So it's like making this imaginal bridge between moving out into the future to see what the world could be like, and then seeing what we need to do today in order to live into that future, which I thought was an awesome process to have that facilitated into a group discussion. Using AI to sort of flip us into this future where you're having AI that could even manage a conversation like that, which it currently can't. So there's a lot of magic behind the scenes, but I think it helps set a context that allowed us to slip into another imaginal space of suspending our disbelief of whether or not this would actually be true and to imagine what that world would look like.

[00:15:07.170] Jesse Damiani: Yeah. All three of you did that together. Yeah. That's funny. That's funny.

[00:15:13.813] Scott Stein: It's one of the dangers of Sundance or early previews. You know, you end up with like fellow journalists, you know, in some way, like it would be even better. it will definitely be better to be in a space where maybe things were totally unknown. But I thought it was intriguing to me because A, I had recently been asked to kind of think forward for a future piece for a story. And despite thinking about the future, I found it really hard because I feel like the present has kind of eclipsed things a lot. So it was interesting because in discussing that, I feel like it is a sort of an impossible challenge. At the same time, I'm also really interested in a life beyond, we're always in Zooms, and the upper limit for that, and the way in which, how much more guided or interactive can things be? We've seen Zoom theater, and a lot of interesting experiments there over the past year. I'm doing D&D on Roll20, which is kind of Zoom-esque at times. I feel like what this is trying to look at with that extra guidance, I started to think about the future of interactions like that. It was inevitably Zoom-like. And so I just started thinking about the ways that it was helping me discuss it in sort of a therapeutic thing. So I thought that was really intriguing. I kind of left it with a complicated set of feelings. Sometimes things were combative. But not really, like in my mind they were. I felt like I was disagreeing and agreeing and kind of turning things over in my head.

[00:16:37.731] Joan Solsman: To kind of give some criticism to the project, I also really enjoyed it. I think that the process of world building, I think it's kind of a community associated project. Like if that is a spontaneous community or one that's grounded in some sort of understanding of each other in the past or a shared endeavor that you're all working toward, even if that shared endeavor is creating this world building, I feel like that's very hard to spontaneously create that sort of rapport within an immediate, spontaneous community. And so it's not so much a... It's an acknowledgment of the challenge that this project put upon itself and the challenge that I don't think any of the Beyond the Breakdown performances that they did were really intended to do anything more than still conversation, have some connection with a stranger, which is something I think a lot of us may be missing at this point in history, and also think beyond this current moment where, as Scott said, there's a lot of preoccupation about what the future is going to be like because we don't really even understand what the present is right now. One of my criticisms is it's really hard to have that feel like a fulfilling experience when it's mostly strangers in a spontaneous environment and you're not really sure what the rules of the game are. And inserting a fake AI, a pseudo AI into it also, those are some of the things that made it feel maybe bumpy or kludgy or clunky rather than like a polished experience. But I don't think polish is necessarily an essential thing to have here. What I did like about it was that it didn't make me think differently, consider how I should be approaching my day, which is a nice thing. And I liked that they presented a, there's so much focus on AI from the dystopic view. This one was a much more kind of not utopic, but this is an AI just designed to be helpful and sweet and not like get me an Uber or serve me, but to help me think and process and consider possibilities, which is a different kind of AI than I've encountered before. And I appreciated that.

[00:18:34.145] Jesse Damiani: It also, the approach was getting away from the, there's a lot of the soccer, like protopia is getting away from it, driving you toward a utopic sense of things and a dystopic sense of things. in the sense that it was almost like thinking about the future of your work and like who you are and really trying to ground it there. And the fact that you're doing that with strangers, I think there are pros and cons. I do think, Joan, to carry your point, I think where my criticism comes in is kind of in the onboarding and the way that the experience, like I heard from a number of people that they didn't know they were going to be on camera. They thought it was a performance that they were going to witness. And then after the fact, the idea that you didn't know your email was going to be shared with these different strangers that you met, and maybe that's not something you would have consented to, which I think speaks to the larger, that's both a creative and a structural thing in the sense of you've kind of got a situation that people are chucked into without as much kind of shepherding and handholding. All the things that it was striving to be, it would have made it that much stronger had there been a little bit more of that. Once you got going and once you were kind of in it, I agree that having the chance to do that with strangers, it's actually really resonant. It kind of evokes, I don't know, the platonic ideal of what chat roulette was supposed to be or something like the idea of just showing up and talking to people and having like some gates on the conversation that keep it from going into too random of territories. I really love being able to do that.

[00:19:57.400] Kent Bye: Yeah, my final thought and the piece is just that I feel like part of my identity is a world builder because I went through this piece. I was like, Oh yeah, this is totally what I like to do. And I think by asking people on my podcast, what the ultimate potential of VR is, it's like, I've been doing this distributed world building. And so for me, it was just fascinating to not only go through the experience and see world building formalized in such a small time. But from what I'm going to be paying attention to is the outcomes from what these creators are able to make in the future to be able to democratize this process and make it more widely available for more people to really facilitate this community world building. I think it's a really powerful technique. And, and actually Tony Patrick was involved with traveling the interstitium with Octavia Butler. He was the one who actually facilitated these world building processes. And so you can start to see that this world building process can lead to something that's like awesome art. So I'm excited in general of the principle. So let's move on to another kind of future dreaming type of experience of speculative design to miss the ending. Jesse, maybe you could set the context here.

[00:20:56.604] Jesse Damiani: Yeah, this is actually a fun one to piggyback from. So this was a tethered VR experience that mostly operated from a passive context, though there was a very core interactive feature, but basically from a narrative standpoint, you're situated within a world. where through some cues around you, you come together. The sort of chaos and claustrophobia of modern life has pushed people to like upload their consciousnesses to a digital plane. And that's visualized using this really simple mechanism of just these blocks. And these blocks are sort of assembled together to embody anything from buildings to a stream to cars and everything in between. And you're kind of in the middle of it. And of course, implicit in this is that you, as somebody participating, are making this choice in this experience as well. And you can leave behind your own memory into this world. So yeah, in terms of my experience of it, I loved the simplicity. And you talk about the multiplicity of perspective. I love the dropped in the middle. You're hearing these different people's voices and perspectives of, again, what was largely what was chaotic about life, but also some random pieces about, oh, I'd go down to that stream to do X, Y, Z. I actually am a big fan of these six off more film like experiences. I know that people have differing opinions, but I actually quite liked them because of the ways that it allows me to just like really focus on perception and how I'm experiencing something and not be thinking about like what I can do. And like, at least for me, your hands literally disappeared. So you really were just in this sort of receptive state. And I guess I should set the tone in terms of its life before this. It had won at the London Film Festival. Was it Best Immersive or Top Immersive? But point being, it had been lauded last year in London. So yeah, with that, I'll kind of throw over and get y'all's polls.

[00:22:59.876] Kent Bye: Yeah, I just had a chance to run into the creators and did an interview with them. Actually, I've done like 15 interviews and like 16 hours worth of interviews since the festival started. So I have lots of deep dives into each of these pieces, but I had a chance to talk to the creators. And one of the things that they said was that originally this was a theater piece where they're using boxes to be able to do this world building. And so you can kind of see how they were translating that pixel mindset. And for me, what was really interesting is how much you could do world building with just such a bare amount of voxels. And the voxels are actually difficult to light. And, you know, the game engines are more object oriented rather than voxel oriented. So there's a lot of stuff that they had to do to kind of fight against the game engine to do what they did. But that said, doing the voxel allowed them to do these dynamic fluid animations of space, which are harder to do when you just have like objects. So there's this fluidity that they're constructing the world as you're watching it. And there's actually leaning very heavily on the writing. And so what is being spoken and what you're seeing is very sparse. And so it's really catalyzing your own imagination to project into this speculative future that's asking all these deeper questions around what's it mean to the future of consciousness and technology and digital rot and these deeper concerns around our relationship to technology as we move forward. So I thought it was a provocative piece. The first time I got hung up on, oh, this is so low poly, low fidelity, like But watching it again and really listening to it, I really appreciated that amount of world building and speculative fiction that they had embedded into it. And yeah, I look forward to this as a conceit to have more people not get too hung up on like super high fidelity graphics, but allowing the imagination of the viewer to really be the center of a piece like this.

[00:24:40.859] Scott Stein: It also, for me, became really important for what was being said about the I mean, this is about uploading and about memories of themselves and the fidelity of memories that first it felt like we're starting with the audio and these abstract things are beginning to etch the content of the audio. So it's starting with the audio and then it's building out. So I love that sometimes the stories didn't seem to agree with each other. And I've been interested in the idea of like, history and consensus or just how you paint that over time. Maybe they do agree in different periods of time, but it was like something I was thinking about early on with the river. And then I think by the end of it, with the glitching and the decay of it, those voxels just make me think about, it inevitably makes me think about what's lost. You know, it's the sensation of this isn't the fidelity of, of the world before what's been promised hasn't been delivered. I mean, sometimes that can be a little heavy handed, you know, I think when you tell stories like that, I don't think it was necessarily here. I think that's just an interesting thing I kept thinking about too, was not just casting my mind into it, but thinking about how are these serving in the system that's about recording memories? How is it serving the people living in it?

[00:25:55.803] Jesse Damiani: One other thing I would bring up here is I think the discussion around uploading consciousness is a very flawed one. And I think that this piece evokes that both intentionally and unintentionally in the sense that really it's talking about memory and intelligence or like the sort of machinations of the brain and how much of the mind and of consciousness can translate into a digital context. You know, based on what I've read and based on what you see and when you, and when you talk to folks, like, we still don't even understand how consciousness is arising, much less how to like, put it into a digital context. Intelligence and memory, of course, and sort of like the simulacrum of a being, absolutely. And I think that's where the piece really succeeds is the idea that you do get that digital rod and the memories start to glitch and they start to forget who they are. And it really speaks to the fact that even if we are ever able to upload a singular consciousness, if consciousness is to be singular, that there are so many complications to come with that.

[00:26:59.062] Kent Bye: Yeah, this is a sort of a huge rabbit hole, we could go down deep, deep, deep, I did talk to the filmmakers, and they, they did say that they're trying to critique that from certain degrees, because I totally agree with you, Jesse. And at the same time, it's like a technological inevitability that we're going to try and we're going to perhaps discover the unique character of consciousness by whether or not this is going to be possible or not. And Joan, I know that you, you've suffered through the blizzard and you were unable to see some of these experiences. This is one of them, right? Like you weren't able to see it. So I don't know if you wanted to say anything about that, just in general, the difficulties of seeing everything.

[00:27:33.757] Joan Solsman: Well, yeah, I mean, I'm sure everyone has their own ways that they can share their challenges getting the technology. My personal challenge is that during COVID, I don't have access to a PC rig for tethered experiences. And I managed to, through networks of friends, find some people that are like, yeah, we have one set up. We've got them all downloaded. You can come see it. And then on top of COVID, there was this blizzard that hit New York. And so every day that I was supposed to go in, I wasn't actually able to go to get to the desktop rig, which is everyone's had their own challenges of getting through the technology. And you started talking about how You started off this conversation about how usually when you're at Sundance, there are difficulties getting to see these pieces and that those are difficulties created by location and the constraints of time. And now there is no constraint of location. There's not really as much of a constraint of time. It's only the constraint of the technology. And when we're all in Sundance and in Park City, they can fix the technology and have it in one spot. And that way they can control it better. And now the technology is sort of out of our control. As you guys, I'm taking out my headphones while you're talking about the desktop experiences. So I don't get spoiled for that.

[00:28:36.362] Kent Bye: Um, yeah, no, that's fine. I wanted to sort of like put that out there. Cause you know, you won't be able to talk about any of the PC experiences, unfortunately, but I still wanted to have you a part of the conversation to contribute what you can. And to miss the ending, just to reflect on that, there was a bug where you couldn't actually start the experience. And so they had to like send another, another build of it. So that's just another meta example of that. But let's move on to the next experience here and let's move to another one that deals with the history and memory, the changing same. And so Scott, maybe you could set the context for the changing same.

[00:29:08.643] Scott Stein: Sure. So, you know, a lot of these I'd like to go into without knowing very much about them at all. I'll do the same here in terms of talking experientially what this is. The storytelling is volumetric. And so like the changing scenes of VR experience, again, tethered a lot of these probably by necessity, you know, you download a build that you launch on your PC and in Steam VR, you put on your headset and What instantly grabbed me was that the storytelling here were these 3D video, kind of like holograms of people, you know, they're, they're volumetric video. They're really cool. You don't see it all that often. And it has a sort of a Haley glitchiness to it, you know, in the sense that it's not perfect. uncanny would be like the word. And, you know, and I'm listening to someone telling me a story, inviting me into their home and reality a number of times in the story glitches and fades away. And you end up having reality ripped apart and you're floating over this amazing universe of memories and history. And it, this is all tapping into elements of black history. And you mentioned some Afrofuturism and also putting you into the experiential seat of what's going on. One of the main events involves someone who's walking down the street who gets approached by, it ends up being you, you being approached by cops. And they ask you, you know, what you're doing out, then you're put into the car, you're taken to the jail, you're offered a ridiculously unfair attempt at some sort of a plea bargain. And it begins to zap out and take you also in a parallel history of black rights and slavery. And All of this, from an empathetic standpoint, was very powerful. The part where it emotionally rocked me was unexpected. It was at the very, very end. You're in this more utopian or spiritual or kind of a healing place. And the person who's speaking, I'm going to paraphrase, but it was something like, if you want to leave now or you want to get out, take it off. Take the headset off. Or like, go out. But if you want to stay, stick around. And it just really made me cry. It just made me feel like it was a fourth wall breakage type of a thing. That was very powerful. I thought it was like the decision to enter into experiences as a shared agreement, even when distant. And now that I'm not with anyone, I'm doing this on my own. And there were a couple of experiences where I could have, I mean, we'll get into one later with seven sounds, but there are a couple of others that ask you or the Octavia Butler, you could stick around or you could not stick around. You know, there's no definite end. So I thought that choice was really powerful to me. It made me realize that even though I'm experiencing this kind of passively, there's still choices to be made. So I thought most about that. But also I think the glitching element to me resonated as sort of a, my whole experience of Sundance has been glitchy. I think life is glitchy. And so like things kind of breaking, coming together is very much in the spirit of a lot of things. And I felt this kind of owned a lot of that in the storytelling. So anyway, those are my thoughts.

[00:32:19.963] Jesse Damiani: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think there's a technical discussion and artistic discussion. And of course, there's a massive sort of overlap of those two things. But the way that volumetric capture, like, I think about other projects produced using depth kit, and other scatter projects, and the way Like I can see kind of an evolution of that material, like the material of the volumetric figures, because you're right, there's sort of this undulating quality to their mesh. And instead of it being something like vestige, where it's literally a point cloud, this is more actually trying to be like a continuous material. And I think, again, I won't presume to speak for the creators, but just generally, I thought that was a really powerful sort of like grounding of volumetric characters. And I did think it played quite well in terms of its thematic conceit. Because I think about all these different pieces that either by well-intentioned people who are outside of a given community or people within a given community who are trying to share what a given sort of like, they're trying to share a depiction of injustice and to do so using VR in a way that causes people to experience that for themselves. And I think, unfortunately, very few of those are successful. This to me felt successful with that because it, in addition to having really powerful scenes, like clearly the, the narrative had been distilled down to these really powerful scenes, including a note that ends like in this sort of bittersweet joy, which you so often is left out of pieces that are really geared around having you experience social injustice. You were able to kind of move through this narrative structures, the wrong word, experiential structure, where sometimes it's very grounded in something that feels like space time and physical. And other times it's very abstract and very mental and very imaginative. And I'm sure that if you went back and like pause that scene, there's like a bajillion references to sort of dig up and count. I think this is the part where I throw to you from having spoken to them, but I thought this was quite a successful piece.

[00:34:26.500] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah. This is from the Skyder team and it's a next evolution of their depth kit. So they're actually using Depth Kit Studio for the first time. So having multi-cam setups to be able to capture these volumetric scans. And yeah, the point that I would say is that this is actually fusing together lots of different techniques from photogrammetry to having volumetric scans, to having rigged avatars on top of volumetric scans, fusing them together. So technically there's a lot of innovations, but I'd say from a affordance level, the piece is trying to look into the past and see how the past is still present day to day. And given that they're drawing these parallels between scenes that are happening right now and going back and doing this time travel conceit and flipping into a different context, that's the same context, but at a different time, and then showing the parallels between those and coming back. And so I thought that that was really quite powerful for me to see how they're able to draw those together. And yeah, I really look forward to exploring where else they take it. This is episode one, so they're going to continue on doing more of this type of conceit. But Joan didn't have a chance to see this piece, so we'll jump over that into, let's move to Secret Garden, because I think thematically that's sort of a similar thing. So Joan, maybe you could introduce Secret Garden.

[00:35:42.538] Joan Solsman: So Secret Garden, it's another web-based experience. In this one, you are dropped into you know, the titular secret garden, which is space ringed by cotton plants, followed by okra plants, followed by, like, pansies and roses. And within this circular ringed environment, there are six figures, all Black women, who are loosely associated with a voiceover narrative that's telling sort of like a time capsule anecdote from some woman's experience. You know, as you approach one woman, that an anecdote will become louder, so it's like entering the environment where you can kind of hear into her consciousness, except that the anecdotes aren't directly associated with each woman. Sometimes you might approach a woman who's like a teenager, kind of looks like a bored teenager, and you'll be hearing sort of like an African abduction story, which you know isn't necessarily associated with that person. What I liked about it is it definitely is a commentary on the artist existing within a vacuum, within a spectrum of history, recognizing the history that she came from and how she exists in that spectrum and also how people can become a part of it. One of the touches that I really liked about this is that while you're in this experience, you see these sort of firefly-like glowing orbs occasionally. And at first I thought that they were sort of like signposts. Like I saw one and that led me in the direction of where one of these women figures was so I could almost like a signpost to get me to where I'm supposed to go. But what I realized later, as these things move, these are actually other people inside the experience. And so I loved that process of revelation, where the thing that I thought was a signpost is just actually another person in that community, which is It's really, I thought, a beautiful way of making you feel like you're part of this thing and helping you feel a part of this fabric of time and of ancestry and of recognizing that we need other people to lead us places, whether they're people from the past or people in that space right there. I really loved it. And I also, one other thing is, it's one of the few experiences my kids tried. I have young children, three and six, and my daughter was looking over, because we're all stuck in the tiny apartment in the middle of a blizzard, she was looking over my shoulder, she's like, secret garden, I want to see that. And it was wonderful to be able to let my child see this experience and also see it through her eyes. You know, I would ask her questions like, I would with any art piece. It's like, well, what do you think is similar about these women? What's different? And one thing that she never brought up, she never noticed that they were all the same race. Like the fact that these are all Black women never occurred to her. And so for a lot of reasons, I really liked how the way that this made me see the world differently and also look at things from different perspectives.

[00:38:24.923] Kent Bye: Yeah, experientially, I really enjoyed being able to navigate around the space and almost have this feeling of discovery, because there's different audio that is overlaid. And it's like overlaying oral histories of intergenerational experience of African American women, and both in the past and someone projecting out into the future as well. But just to be able to encounter a volumetric scan of a woman who's kind of standing there and looking around, but it's associated with kind of a random selection of those. They're not, like you said, they're not connected, but, and sometimes I would actually just sit there and listen to an entire loop. If you just stay on one woman, you can listen to the whole thing and it just kind of loops through. And so after I kind of explored around, I did that as well. And I just really enjoyed, there's actually on this piece, an ability to turn on captions, which I found really helpful. Cause you can turn on the captions and sometimes when you're walking, you could hear overlaying like six different things happening at once. And then you're able to, I'm able to read it and kind of. As you get closer to one of these women and that it amplifies into one of those voices and sort of dives deep. So I just thought it was a great conceit to be able to take oral histories like these and to spatialize it in this context. That gives me the feeling that I'm able to explore around and discover different ones and kind of hunt around to get all of these oral histories that I want to hear.

[00:39:40.454] Jesse Damiani: It's also one of these pieces. I love that point. It's also one of these pieces that doesn't ask you, like, you know, you're talking about, like, just standing there. There's not this, like, narrative completion aspect. It's another one of these pieces that you can kind of, like, come in and come out, stay as long as you want. And I think something that I was really struck by was watching these women who emote so differently. Like how they embody themselves just standing there. Like the woman that comes to mind was a woman in sort of the red button suit thing. And you could tell in moments that she was kind of uncomfortable standing there. And so that isn't necessarily related to any piece of audio, but it can be. And so then those new kind of emergent associations you make based on these oral histories with how the visual of how these women are embodying themselves, it was very quiet, very subtle thing, but I thought very powerful.

[00:40:38.340] Scott Stein: I loved this is a total like installation art piece, you know, like done on the web. And so yeah, I would imagine moving through a space like this or spending as much time or as little as possible. I'm really interested in audio to me, like audio driven on a technical side, audio driven things are much more engaging to me than anything, really anything visual. Because I find that I'm just going to orient to stuff differently and I can pick things out. And so I found almost in a sense, just following that. and going with what snippets started to grab me and just allowing myself to drift, I really loved. And I couldn't find where anything was. If I intentionally tried to look for a narrative again, I wasn't sure where it was. But I just let go and found myself discovering little corners. and sticking with them or moving on. And I'm not sure I saw them or listened to all of them. So I thought that was, that was magical. So just on a technical side, I want more experiences like that.

[00:41:40.133] Kent Bye: Well, yeah, well, this piece was a piece where you were locomoting around a space in order to discover these oral histories. And I think another piece that started to play with that a little bit was present X that did this kind of open world. Narrative exploration where you're kind of running around and encountering these different characters. So Scott, maybe you could set the scene for prison X. Yeah.

[00:41:58.909] Scott Stein: So loading VR experiences already. I'll preface is a little weird when you're doing things at home. I'm used to onboarding. and the worlds that are kind of built around these experiences. When you go to a Sundance, it kind of gets you a little bit into the experience before ever putting on the headset. So here, what struck me was, you know, again, I didn't know what was going to happen later on. I mean, this is a story, it's a Bolivian created art piece. It's about San Sebastian prison. So the language spoken is, am I going to say it's Quechua and Spanish? So these are things I picked up on later. The visceral part was, I'm being talked to in a world that there's a shaman talking to me and there are masks, and I'm invited to put one on and look at myself in the mirror. Everything has a hand-drawn quality to it. It was drawn in, I believe it was in Tilt Brush. Yeah. But again, I didn't know this going into it. But that resonates with me strongly. And then I didn't know how far deep this was going to go. And as I stepped through, I moved through this door, my controls were a little bit awkward in terms of the mapping. but it kind of worked for the experience in the sense that I felt awkward and uncertain going into this. So I kind of felt like in a way I was being drawn and I kind of half lurched into this world where now I'm in this open space full of people. I find myself listening to a food vendor. I'm invited to move towards the prison where I'm checked in on drug charges and I'm put into solitary confinement. And suddenly I'm being asked to, I have to lean down and pick things up. There's a lot more physical element that I suddenly ever expected. And from there, it opens up even further and it ends up taking me into a whole prison full of, it felt like a living diorama, like somebody had sculpted this art piece. And now I was descending into it, looking at these very impressionistic characters who all had stories to tell and all had different dimensions of a tale that I all wanted to listen to. And some parts were highly interactive. So there were times where like, I'm invited to take a phone call, and I pick it up and someone's talking to me, or I take a shower, and I love the shower, like you're standing there under the water. And it takes you at the end to the sensation of being puppeted. And you think you've escaped, but you realize you're back in it, and you're being controlled. And I felt extremely trapped. but I love hand-drawn VR. You know, I think, you know, when you, when you have these worlds that feel created, that you can step into, I really felt like it was a place I want to go back to over and over and felt like its own living sculpture. So I wanted to know more about it afterwards. And I've been reading up a little bit about it and you can illuminate me more about what I experienced, but I love that it took me through this. without me being certain what was going on. And those are my favorite types of immersive experiences. Yeah.

[00:45:03.595] Kent Bye: Yeah, I peg this as like the most ambitious interactive narrative piece this year because it did have quite a lot of like open world and very ambitious thematically. I think this piece was created by Bolivians around the world. So it was this massive collaboration of first time creators all coming together. And there was a strong sense of putting their own culture and their own representation, their own mythologies into these characters and the fashion and everything else. But also there was this threat of decolonization, of just trying to get away from the colonial impulses and that a lot of the scenes in the prisons and everything else with the drug war, it's all in the context of the prison dynamic of the impact of colonialism in Bolivia. So it was a real exploration of that. And to me, just from a narrative perspective, just to have that open world aspect there near the end and going in the phone booth and interacting with these characters. I mean, it was quite innovative when it comes to really exploring these new narrative structures that go beyond just a linear narrative. It's gated in a sense that you start off fairly linear and limited, but as you go on, then it becomes more opened up near the end. Yeah, I just thought it was just a really innovative piece. And also just exciting to see that degree of cultural representation from these Bolivians who were, who really just wanted to express different aspects of their own culture through this medium. And you know, they, this is the first piece that they've created and it's like mind blowing that they're able to pull all this off. So yeah, I'm excited to see where this team and what comes out of the future and also just to inspire other people around the world to dive into different aspects of their own culture and start to express it in this immersive way.

[00:46:40.694] Jesse Damiani: Yeah, big up to that. Just filling in some extra pieces. Cause really I would just echo what y'all said. It was able to capture a state of dream logic that I so often want VR pieces to hit, but they either don't or it becomes like, I don't want to sort of steer it too far in terms of the feeling and call it a nightmare because it's not, that's not quite right. But there's this sort of, you know, play with scale, play with power, the narratives again, like this is why this was a thing for me for Sundance. it didn't feel like this one narrative that when I was done, I had checked the box and like, okay, I got the story. It was more like I was dropped into a story world. I was ushered along, like I was in good hands and I wasn't sort of just like left on my own, but it was open. And it was kind of like what you learn about this world and this space and this sort of like dream environment, which then of course, like from a practical standpoint is a type of piece that would cause you to want to go back in and to learn these new things and to learn more details. And to me, that's one of the great superpowers of VR that I want to see people lean into. So this piece to me, again, felt like a really exciting move in that direction.

[00:47:50.035] Kent Bye: Nice. And again, Joan was not able to see this piece. So we'll skip over and we'll jump on to the next piece, which I want to move to Namu because Jesse, you had a great hook there about the dreamlike quality. Namu, I'm a little hesitant to deconstruct it too, too much because this is like a visual poem to me. And it's so, beautiful and elegant that explores the course of someone's entire life. Namu in Korean means tree. Talking to Eric Oh, you know, he lost his grandfather and it took him 10 years to be able to create this art piece that really was trying to honor the life of his own father. And so there's a lot of themes here about connecting to ancestors and really looking at the ups and downs of someone's life. And I was just profoundly moved by this piece, especially actually the second time that I watched it. I had watched it through once, and then watch it through it again, knowing where the full arc was going to go. But even then knowing what was going to happen, there was ways in which it actually hit me stronger the second time. And I know it's such a powerful visual poem that I don't know what else to say other than the interview that I did with Errico and the team to really unpack all the technical details and the intention But I'd say the other takeaway I'd say about this is that this feels like a strong enough piece that could win an Oscar. Like I could see it win an Academy Award. I think it's that strong of a piece and it taps into these universal aspects of our life and in such a beautiful way that says so much with actually not saying any words at all, but all through the affordances of the spatial medium of VR.

[00:49:18.223] Scott Stein: The storytelling of it felt very effortless. And I think that like my initial knee-jerk thing when that happens is I think about like the perfect structure of like, it's bad because anytime animated, I don't want to feel this way. But I start going into the thought of like a perfect Pixar short. And there are many, many more animated things than that. but in the, in the emotional territory. But I think that when I, when I watched it, I forgot that it was VR, you know, and that is a thing in a good way that it melted. I thought about how, um, it's a great example of casting into reality only the things that you need to be looking at. There's something about like the way my eyes work in VR that it doesn't really matter what else is there. And a lot of this felt kind of like these dreamlike emblems that are, you know, you realize what else is there in the background? I don't know, but there's enough. And I thought that was part of what made the storytelling feel kind of perfect for it. But yeah, you know, it was a lot more contained than I thought it would be. You know, it was like this perfect little, I thought I'm really glad to have seen it. And in that sense, it felt perfected, you know, for what it was. It made me think about my family and it made me think about the things I bear with me or burden myself with and all that stuff.

[00:50:28.595] Jesse Damiani: It definitely evoked, like it hearkened back to Pearl for me, where it's just like, you know, Kent, you referenced like you could win an Oscar, like, It's one of those pieces that does exactly what it sets out to do. And Baobab is far and away the best studio for, you know, not just animation, but animation with, with strong narrative. I mean, like they have really risen up a lot of other great ones out there as well, but to my mind, like every single thing they put out hits a certain mark. I mean, you referenced Pixar, they're sort of positioning themselves as a Pixar VR and this kind of lives into that. So yeah, it's one of those pieces that it's kind of like, yeah, go experience it for yourself. You know, I think about all the craft things I don't understand that they did so well, like the way that your perspective subtly shifts throughout. and like ramping toward the end and how effortless and how non-janky or glitchy that feels. I think about the like little subtle shadows and shading and like all these little sort of material pieces that you don't notice elsewhere. And so, you know, because you don't notice it elsewhere, you're like, because I'm noticing it here, then there must be an incredible, the sort of technical contributions to this project too, must be really astounding.

[00:51:39.398] Joan Solsman: Yeah, one of the things that I was struck with when I watched this piece, it was after the previous days at the festival, I'd watched some films, one of which was In the Same Breath, which is kind of a recollection so far of COVID and comparing the trauma of medical practitioners and families that have lost people, grieving families with leadership and what led to that kind of loss. and then also How It Ends, which is a pre-apocalyptic comedy where a woman's walking around with her inner child on the last day on earth interacting with people. And so I came to it with this perspective in my head, if we aren't already already, of considering our mortality. And so I came to it with this kind of heightened awareness of mortality, like we all have right now, and also kind of a heightened awareness of reflecting on our inner child, which is basically what this main character eventually realizes, you know, art is something that is intrinsic to who he is. And at the very end of its life, he has to come out of his darkest place of loneliness by recapturing that joy that he felt with art as a child. And so that's kind of what spoke to me from beyond the fact, I totally agree. Absolutely. The animation in this is beyond reproach, it's so beautiful and so well done. And that helped me to get to the place of being able to think about it in the context of other art at the festival outside of immersive, outside of new frontier about how artists of all kinds of stripes are grappling with the current moment in history that we're dealing with right now, the fact that we're all grappling with mortality and who we want to be, who we've forgotten about ourselves and what we need to rekindle. And it's wonderful that a piece can do that.

[00:53:19.687] Kent Bye: Yeah. Thanks for calling in that documentary in the same breath, which is absolutely amazing. I hope everybody has a chance to see that when it comes out on HBO max later this summer, really great look at what happened in China, but yeah, thanks for all of that perspective as well. So this piece of Namu was tabletop scale. Let's move to another tabletop scale within AR, which is fortune. So Jesse, maybe you could describe what fortune was.

[00:53:42.419] Jesse Damiani: Yeah. So fortune is a yeah. Tabletop AR with. audio from Canada's most famous counterfeiter. He counterfeited $250 million, and it's his audio recounting it, punctuated, obviously paid off, pun intended, by scenes in AR on desktop. People have talked about this, and some people have done this, and it's really short. I mean, it's five minutes or less. First of all, I mean, the guy, Frank, is a joy to listen to. The way he talks, he's just a really compelling speaker. And he seems to just approach life with this kind of devil may care, go with the flow, but also grab on when you have an opportunity. What really struck me and really excited me about this piece is thinking about how AR can really be used to make every individual participant their own filmmaker. I think about the different ways that other people could have just hit screen record on their phone and caught the angle exactly as they wanted. I mean, I loved pushing into the home at one point that he is in his home and you can push in and from the outside, it's just a home and you can still hear his voice, but you can also push in and see him sitting on his bed. And so there was so much that excited me about the potential use for this medium. And I also felt kind of like Namu, I kind of feel like it did exactly what I wanted it to do. I got like exactly the right amount of kind of like, and also like, oh, that's how that story ends. So I was really excited about what this piece was up to. Maybe not to color it too much, but I'll throw it to y'all.

[00:55:12.531] Scott Stein: Yeah. I thought it was, it was very like clean and fun and like, like catch me if you can type of vibe to the style of the storytelling and successful in the sense I expect a lot more to happen like this in AR. I guess I would have to say I would be a little disappointed in the sense that I think my imagination for where AR goes has a lot of different opportunities. Not that this piece needs to represent those. You know, I love that little scale. But when you mentioned being your own filmmaker, you know, I think of like a landscape that's like a whole city that would be on your table that you could, like Secret Garden, you know, you could kind of dip into and explore. Those are for other types of pieces. You know, in a sense that with something that still feels even more undefined, like AR, I'm hoping for more things that still bend and break the form. This feels much more form intact kind of VR, but for AR in your desktop. And so I'm not going to, well, I already kind of judged on those terms, but I think that like, you know, in the sense that as the lone AR representative, really, I was hoping for more, but it also shows how much you can already do, but I've already seen some things that do things like that, like Wonderscope, but I was glad to have watched it. I thought it was fun.

[00:56:23.590] Kent Bye: Yeah, I just want to jump in and say that I did have a chance to talk to Brett Gaylor to get a little bit more context. The big takeaway I took from that was that he created this with sort of a background in filmmaking. And so the piece itself is sort of at the core, like a podcast piece. You could just listen to this as a piece and it would work. And the thing that the AR is doing is it's helping to add like an additional layer of spatial context that you could really see this character come alive through this animations that they have and get a little bit more flavor of these different contexts and kind of interact in a certain way. And there's still things they want to do, like say, potentially have things be triggered, but the bill with augmented reality. So like really, when you look at the affordances of AR, they're not necessarily like really pushing the limits of what AR can do. In fact, this is a piece that could work just as well in VR. There's not really much AR-ness to it, except for the fact that more people have phones and they have VR headsets. So this is actually what I see is a way to do this kind of tabletop scale to get access to this type of volumetric storytelling to people who don't have the headsets, the VR headsets. You could still get the same type of experience on your phone. But I also agree that in the future, we're going to see a lot more exploring of this moving your body through space affordances of AR, which is really AR is about you being in your existing context and modulating your existing context with that story. And the tabletop scale is really just like you have a tabletop and that's it. You're not really playing with your context beyond that. And so really thinking about what that story is that is blending in your, your specialized context, I think is, you know, Pokemon Go has been able to do that in a game context. But narrative wise, it's a really hard problem to actually achieve that. Tender Claws is been able to play with that and tend to AR and experiments. And there's been other pieces that have done that, but generally I'd say like VR, I tend to have better narrative experiences. And so this is probably one of the stronger narrative experiences I've had in AR. And that's a good sign because it's like, okay, that worked, worked great. Now let's see how to expand it and how to maybe pull in more AR aspects into this story.

[00:58:26.241] Joan Solsman: Yeah, I want to just call out one of my single little tiny favorite moments where the animation just made me, I watched it like four times over and over again because I just loved this moment at the end. It's so silly when Frank is in the courtroom with his lawyer and he's about to go away to prison for like 87 million lifetimes because of how much he's counterfeited. He's like, well, what if I turn over another 200 million? And his lawyer's like, Wait, you have $200 million left over? He's like, yeah. And then I don't know why, but the fact the little lawyer figure just goes whoop underneath the table to walk up to the judge. And that little fwoop, that little animated fwoop, just cracked me up. I don't know what it was about it, but I think that speaks Kent to what you're saying. That's clearly an illustration. If you can get a little animated character on my tabletop to fwoop under a table in this I don't have any bones, I'm a jelly human sort of manner, make me laugh so hard, then there's lots more horizons to explore because the little under the table we figured out in tabletop AR. So that's great.

[00:59:24.303] Jesse Damiani: I would also throw in building off of that, that like there's a value to the really simple experiences that don't throw so much at you so that you can focus on the little swoop and that get you thinking about what future use cases could be.

[00:59:38.846] Scott Stein: Well, and to your point on podcasts, I think that it is a really interesting thought to think about how these We already see a lot of outlets, New York Times has a lot of AR and a lot of storytelling experimentation. It is really interesting to think about how these could be ways to illustrate podcasts and storytelling on your phone. And there haven't really been any of those that I can think of. And this did feel like that, which was really cool.

[01:00:02.982] Kent Bye: Yeah, just a final note that this was a co-production between the national film board of Canada, as well as Atlas five. And Jesse, you'd, you'd called out Baobab as being a leading animator. I'd say Atlas five is right there with them and they also doing lots of other mediums as well. So yeah, just a very solid piece overall, but let's move on to the next sort of automated reality type of experience, which was a live audio performance called seven sounds. So Joan, maybe you could set the scene for seven sounds.

[01:00:28.578] Joan Solsman: Yeah, I love seven sounds. So to kind of level set and get people on the same page, seven sounds is primarily an audio only experience. There's a little bit of visual delivered over YouTube, kind of exposition to explain what you're about to have, but then they turn off any of the visuals and you're supposed to lay down on a bed and turn off the lights and listen to this sort of audio exploration of literally seven sounds. There's also some musical interlude and then The creator, Sam Green, gives you some narration about what about these sounds either is resonant for his own history, his own personal life, his interactions with a friend or colleague, or just generally his own notion of what sound means and how we experience. sound. I loved it because when I first watched it I did what they told me and I laid on my bed and it was 11 o'clock at night and the way that my apartment is set up when I'm laying on my bed like a couple times a month the moon will shine right through that sliver in between buildings where my bedroom window looks out and there was this almost full moon shining right down in my face and it was just like the most dreamlike environment to be able to listen to these sounds that take you to these different places that are spatially recorded so you can hear them moving around you and I definitely slipped in and out of sleep, I slipped in and out of dreams, I was able to loop back and try to pick up where I left off at one point, I woke up in the middle of a bunch of people having orgasms one after another, but it was just such a fun exploration of one sense, you know, especially at New Frontier, these projects tend to be so immersive. There are projects that are trying in past years, not so much this one, where they're trying to hit on your touch, your sense, your visuals, this immersive visual using scent, using sound. They're trying to inundate all your senses. It was really nice to have this experience that let you focus on one of your senses, do it really well, and let you sort of explore consciousness, unconsciousness, community, solitary, you know, interaction with community. And maybe that's why I don't have a very sound grip on what exactly it means to me. Yes, but I'm bummed. But I love that it's something that you can not really come to a conclusion. I haven't reached a conclusion about it yet, and I kind of love that.

[01:02:49.113] Kent Bye: Yeah, I also listened to it and fell asleep briefly and then went back because it was a YouTube live stream. I could go back and listen to what I missed. I did have a chance to talk to both Sam green and JD Sampson, the co-creators here. And seven sounds is a larger project that is part of 32 sounds. So this is a larger exploration that they're doing. The way that I look at this is that here's a documentary filmmaker and a musician that they're really starting to like explore. spatialized sound and their own creative explorations, trying to find out the character and the emotional quality of these different sounds and how to like string it together and experience. And so they're learning about it for the first time, and they're also teaching the audience about it in that process. And so there's certain things that, you know, being in the VR industry for a number of years, I've heard before, but what was particularly interesting is how they're trying to add this narrative component to it saying, okay, let's go back and forth between ways in which that we feel isolated and ways that we feel profoundly interconnected to the world in a participatory way and see how you can go back and forth between isolation to interconnectivity and how sound, it's the one sense that we have as humans that is the most spatialized and it's the most interconnected and it's the most invisible a lot of times that when you do good sound design, you're not supposed to pay attention. It's supposed to sort of speak to you at this unconscious sub symbolic level where it's influencing your emotions, but you don't necessarily notice it. And when you do notice it, that's usually bad sound design because it's like coming out too strongly. So there's sort of an invisible quality to that. And so they're kind of exploring this, but doing it in a way that the narrative structure of seven sounds, we're going to go through these seven sounds. And so you're kind of marching between one sound to the next. But seeing how between them, there's building and releasing tension through the lens of whether or not you're isolated or connected.

[01:04:27.645] Scott Stein: This may have been my favorite piece of, of all of them. It was definitely like in the top two. I fell in and out too. I was about to say like, Oh yeah, I, I watched it at 11 o'clock as well. And I forgot that it's an actually live performance that, you know, we all did that, but I love the time that it was set. I love the invitation to go into my own bed. It seemed to acknowledge my space and where I was at and where we were all at right now and built for that. And I just love spatial audio too, because what you can do with it with the sense is perfect. You know, like we're not there with visuals and VR a hundred percent. but what they can give us in audio, I don't think you can really get much better. So it just has this crystalline, perfect quality to it. And to be able to appreciate that and go on that journey for each of the experiences can really be wonderful, unnerving, hypnotic. And I definitely feel like there was a hypnotic dream, like liminal, you know, we were talking about this, like that was happening to me very much too. And again, the invite at the end to stay as long as you wanted, which I did. And, I just really appreciate, I wanted more of that journey. I can't say much more specifically about what it did, but it did everything that I hoped it would. And it did a lot more. Yeah.

[01:05:42.807] Jesse Damiani: Building off of that, first of all, the way you're invited to get into your bed is like the way I always want to be invited to bed when I'm staying up too late. They're like, your bed's so nice. Just like go lay in your bed. And obviously sound is important to that. One thing that I was thinking about a lot going into and during that experience is I was in, to carry the audio thread, I was in a clubhouse chat the other day and somebody was sort of musing on the idea that there are other animals, you know, namely like, like animals that use sound to communicate. So whales, dolphins, bats, et cetera, that have leveraged sounds and music as things that are functional in some way. that we just play, like with music, we just play. It's like this emotional play space. And while that, you know, that was more geared around music, but I thought about that a lot here, because at first I was reluctant, like, I actually didn't want to go to bed, I was kind of in the middle of doing other things. And I thought, oh, there's an audio experience, I'll be able to do other things. But then like, there was something about live people saying, like, please go do that. And the immediate shift that I had, like the way that I felt like it was almost like I went from standard definition to 4k with this, it means the same audio sound coming into my head, but it was like, focus on this for a second and feel into these textures. To me, part of what I see happening that this piece really embodies is there's so much, all these puns, there's so much noise, there's so much stimulation coming into your different senses. And we've exploded out with all this stuff. that now actually having a moment that calls you to be really focused on one sense, there's an incredible power to it. And lo and behold, the technology has really caught up, like doing this with spatial audio equipped listening devices is a boon, you know, is really amazing thing to do. And a lot of people now just have those natively. So yeah, talking about pieces that succeeded in doing exactly what they set out to do. Seven sounds for me was in that list.

[01:07:45.673] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah. Well, so seven sounds, they had a specific time that you had to show up and listen to it. And another experience that you had to show up at a specific time and watch both a live stream, as well as Instagram live and Instagram feed. It's called rich kids, a history of shopping malls in Tehran. Jesse, maybe you could set the scene for this experience.

[01:08:04.158] Jesse Damiani: Yeah. So rich kids, as Ken said, you have a YouTube, a live YouTube video playing, and you have an Instagram account that you followed called shopping malls in Tehran. And it's building on this rich kids of Instagram hashtag trend, where basically because of the political situation in Iran, there are a class of people who are somewhat above the law, they're ultra wealthy, and that's a result of the revolution. And now their children are of age and basically showcasing their lavish sort of excessive displays of wealth. And so this story features a son who's like a classic rich kid of Instagram and a woman he's sort of cheating on his fiance with, who comes from a middle class background, let's say, transposed in what that means in Iran. And so experientially, you're watching this live video performance that kind of comes in and out of the creators sort of being your guide, your muse in the experience and kind of walking you through and narrating what's going on to blasting out into these sort of global scale, sort of like implications in the world and the Anthropocene and, you know, how long radiation will live in the world and in the sort of like what that means on sort of scales of time. So it really kind of dances between this very intimate story that right off the top, you know, ends in tragedy with the broader, more cosmic scales of time and excess and harm and tragedy that that juxtaposes. And then by the way, the final bit I'll say before I kick to y'all is you then also have the function of Instagram as a social medium. You have our friend Noah kind of described it as a time machine and they reference it functioning in this time machine kind of way, which is perfectly in line with the conceit, but you're literally kind of reflecting on this medium that you use passively every day as a way of logging time. So a lot going on, really interesting things going on in Ridge Kids.

[01:10:01.525] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'll jump in just to say that I really enjoyed this piece. Not only the conceit of using like the Instagram timeline to be able to go back in time, almost like a memento, like you're telling the story backwards of like, you know what happens and you're just going like backwards in time. But that's the way that we tap into these stories. And then they sort of go even beyond, like they keep going back in time. And so just to really set a deeper and deeper context. For me, experientially, what was really interesting about this particular experience was that you're watching a YouTube live stream, and then you are invited to have your phone up and scrolling along the way, and you're actually using a second screen, but it's augmenting the experience. It's not taking away from the experience. It's different than most experiences I've ever had, where you could actually get more benefit from looking at your phone. And I often found myself sometimes like wanting to just turn off my phone and just pay attention, but then I would get penalized because it's like, okay, turn on your Instagram live stream. It's like, oh crap, I have to like unlock my phone and go back to Instagram and like click the live stream. So they would like break away to the Instagram live stream. And then in the live stream, they would be playing these prerecorded videos with lots of Instagram filters and effects that were really psychedelic and trippy. But you would get the audio feed that would be also supplementing what was happening on the primary screen. So it was the first experience where I had like this experience of like this secondary phone experience where it's usually a distraction. Now all of a sudden it's actually augmenting and improving the primary experience and seeing how you could use all these existing social media to create this ecosystem of an experience.

[01:11:28.624] Joan Solsman: Yeah, I thought it was a really savvy use of Instagram. I think the fact that they were using Instagram hashtag as one of the basis of their subject matter sort of set the level that you need. So you can't talk to the kids here. You need to really understand how Instagram works as a platform, how it works as a medium, and how you can speak inside its own language and use it to its best capabilities. The thing that I kept thinking about is there's another piece at the festival, a film, which has written out our hashtag, Jay. The way I've heard people pronounce it is just Romeo and Juliet, which is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with the Shakespearean text. But it's told through things like texting, through selfie cam stuff, through Instagram sharing, through Instagram lives. It's told through basically the same conceit that it's telling a story through social media and camera phones. But within the frame of a film, it doesn't succeed nearly as well as Rich Kids does, just because within that frame of the film, you know, you're on this linear path, you're being sort of forced into showing how these non-linear ways of experiencing a story, you're forced to make them fit a linear narrative. And not only that, but also a Shakespearean linear. narrative. And so I tip my hat to people experimenting and trying and trying to figure out how to make that work. But I can see it's a really clear juxtaposition of how like translating storytelling into like an Instagram social context really works well and is done well with Something Like Rich Kids. And it really has more, there's more that needs to be learned about how to make that fit the parameters of a film.

[01:13:03.316] Scott Stein: I really wish I had seen this one. You know, I could have watched the YouTube thing, but I've missed the actual performance times. I didn't want to take any of it in without having done one of the performances. This is the one I missed and I totally regret it because I'm really interested in seeing how that all works. That's all I have to say about it.

[01:13:21.268] Jesse Damiani: I think there's one more performance left.

[01:13:23.569] Joan Solsman: It might be happening right now, actually.

[01:13:25.691] Scott Stein: Yeah, but it's like happening while I have to do something else with my family. This is the challenge of being at home. Normally I would say, I'm not here. Um, yeah, I guess I could still do that.

[01:13:35.825] Kent Bye: Yeah. Being able to really dedicate your full attention. I really recommend and just having the full experience to take it all in. So it is probably going to have continued lives. So try to catch it at some point. And this piece with the rich kids, as I was watching the Instagram, there's like this immersive experiential element of just the filters and the experience that reminds me of was nights. which was a very experiential, sensual experience that started from an erotic poem by a Polish director and poet and co-director. So they translate this erotic poem into a spatial experience. And just in talking to the creators, one of the things that I found interesting is that they both have neuroscience backgrounds, and they're very interested in saying, how can you modulate the world around you and do neuroscience research on that. So this piece is actually like the foundation for additional neuroscience to see once you have these really big fluid objects, can that trigger your mirror neurons to be able to project meaning onto those. So overall, it's just a really sensual experience with dance and choreography and I'd say probably the most evolved piece in terms of using the spatial affordances of VR without, I mean, there's a poem, but it's in another language that I don't understand. And so they're augmenting that poem with different things that are happening with the shadows moving, with going from night to day, with these things moving around and dancers that are interacting with you in various ways. So overall, I just thought it was a really immersive experience. And what I'd say is like the best immersive experience of Sundance 2021 for me.

[01:15:04.907] Jesse Damiani: I mean, I agree in recommending it. I think it's not like the first VR piece you put on somebody. Like, I think it's something that like what I realized existing in it is there's all these questions you start to have that you're left to understand and decide for yourself. And so it's definitely an incredibly sort of evolved piece that to me feels more like a direction of what's coming. Like, as you said, I mean, with the neuroscience background, there is this really fertile ground to explore intimacy. Obviously, it's referenced as being an erotic poem and sensual. I question that framing because I think it sets up expectations that are not quite right. I think it's very sensual and I understand the eroticism. It's not lascivious in any way. It's not crass or vulgar in a way that I think is sometimes connoted by erotic. But yeah, I mean, Kent, echoing you, I thought it was incredibly successful and really pushes into creating an individual intimate experience in a way that few others do.

[01:16:14.045] Scott Stein: I think it was my first VR experience of Sundance 2021. It didn't resonate for me the way I expected. And so maybe it's something I need to try again. It's so interesting hearing your perspectives on it, because I feel like for me, it may have impacted me the least. And then I'm wondering why. And I think that, again, I didn't go into it really reading up on what it was about. I just wanted to see it on its own terms. I mean, there were visceral elements were strong. I was curious about, it made me think about things like haptics. I think like the sensation of someone moving through you, I feel like I want to see more with some of the things that were being hinted at there. You know, I feel like there's, if it's about intimacy, I wanted to experience that, not on an erotic level necessarily, but just the idea, VR and spaces, like when you get to that six inch gap, there's something that happens that's very, and it's like someone getting really close to you. It just becomes a different visceral experience. I may have wanted more of that, or I may have wanted to explore what was happening when that entity, when they were passing through me, what was going on there. But it was finished and I said, okay, what's coming up next? But luckily, I can revisit it and I want to because now after talking about this, I'm curious.

[01:17:27.744] Jesse Damiani: Just to make sure, because some people were having audio issues. Did you have audio? I did. Okay.

[01:17:34.695] Kent Bye: I was having an issue where it was crashing. And so I ended up having to watch it a bunch of times and then I was able to make it all the way through. So I probably in total watched it like four or five times. Plus I was doing an interview with the creators. And so I wanted to be able to see it. One thing that I would also point out is that they said the Polish language inherently has these ASMR qualities to it. And because I watched it a number of times, the visual field dominates the first times that you see it. So it wasn't until the later listenings that I let myself really surrender into like really absorbing and letting myself feel the more ASMR qualities of it, which I think is interesting that for me, that didn't come up at first, but repeat watchings that came up more. And I'd say the other thing is that there's a certain amount of fluidity that these objects have that I don't see that a lot within immersive experiences. So there's a bit of an awe-inspiring element to that. And talking to the creators as well. I always get like, I try to suspend my final judgment and stuff until I talk to the creators and get more context. And this is a type of piece where after I talk to the creators, I have even a deeper appreciation for what they are able to do because I didn't realize that this was going to be driving all this other neuroscience research that they're planning on doing with it. And this is the first piece that's like out of Poland. So it's also cool in that sense.

[01:18:46.693] Scott Stein: I'm definitely trying this multiple more times because I'm, I'm very curious about this now. Like Yeah. It's a very surprising backstory to it.

[01:18:54.338] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Scott, let's move to tinker. And this was another performance. Actually, I should just say that this is probably 50 or 60 people that had a chance to see this. It's probably the hardest piece to get into with, you know, one person and then four observers. So maybe you could set the scene with tinker.

[01:19:10.565] Scott Stein: Yes. A tinker. I first installed by sideloading it onto the Oculus quest in that sense, kind of the cleanest and freest process. I feel like in the sense I didn't have to tether anything. which suits the form. I've seen VR theater experiences before the under presents, and there have been ones, um, finding Pandora X and some other things that have had theatrical elements. This was a very intimate one participant and one performer with four people, I guess, who have a chance. I didn't know how many that you could be an observer. So I got the observer ticket, which made me invisible. So what was interesting, is the style of it is kind of like a cartoonish performance stuff, which is I think inevitably what happens when you perform in VR until you get to some sort of future volumetrics. But what I really loved at first was like a behind the scenes thing. So I popped in at my time. It was the first performance, I think. So it wasn't quite ready yet. And the actor was moving around and kind of sighing to himself and fixing things. I didn't even know if he could hear me. I just absorbed it and didn't know what was going on. Then I left and I came back in and then I realized there was one person who had kind of hovering hands. It was really more of like a ghost figure, kind of a spirit. Whereas the other one was this grandfather. You don't really know these grandfathers first. And then he said, oh, you can all talk. And I didn't know who this person was, I guess, an actor or performer, but the way it was told, the embodiment of it in the style felt almost as if I was listening to somebody tell their life story. It didn't feel any separated or removed from that. And it starts with a slide projector where you're talking about memories. Again, it's a memory focused piece. And it goes to one particular room that is the grandpa's kind of office space and tinkering place, hence tinker. And the other person is the grandkid. And it must be really wonderful to do it as the participant because the size of the person changes over time. And so at first they're really small and they're doing these things on the floor and I'm sure everything looms large. And later on, it jumps through different time periods and the space changes and you start to have experiences that you can refer back to that are referring to things that we actually went through. And it's also about Alzheimer's. And so later on, he's not really able to remember things. And so things start becoming labeled and there's this kind of a feeling of an inevitable dissent with that, which is very gracefully done. What I found really fascinating was my experience as an audience member. I hadn't experienced this being an audience member in an immersive theater piece that worked this well. There was another one with NYU that was exploring this in a more of a theater experience where you'd sit in seats and share it together. I found my freedom of movement and my ability to be invisible allowed me to move back and basically hide by a bookcase or move under a play area. And I started to look at details and didn't feel like I was interrupting. And I felt like I was part of the experience and I felt a lot of loss at the end of it for that. And I didn't want to be a participant. I actually felt some sympathy for the person thrust in the participation role because you have to speak and lend some performance to the thing. And I really love not doing that. I thought it was really successful for me. And if again, like, I'm going to say that, I hate, I don't know why I hate doing it. I keep saying it. But if I think about Pixar, because a lot of these things make me think of those emotional story arcs, this has a much longer arc than a story like this, I would normally be expected to tell. And so its ability to linger allowed me to really think about things in a very different way. But how natural the performance was, was really surprising to me. And I was continually turning that in my head. Is this person How were they feeling and how improvisational was this? So I want to see a lot more like this.

[01:23:02.835] Jesse Damiani: I agree with that completely. And actually, Scott, to kind of echo you, I was also a passive observer. I don't know if it was some permission I hadn't enabled or if it was something technically, but they also couldn't hear me. And I tested a couple of times because when I came in, there was already one passive. Cause basically like for anybody listening, like the other passive participants also don't see each other. So like your entire essence is distilled into your voice and you're watching this play out and similar experience to use God of like, all of a sudden I was like, wait, now I can do and go wherever I want and I can zone out sometimes where I'm just listening and I can go like I can be a detective or I can be like a blob and either way like there's nobody observing me and I will say like so on the side of like realizing that people couldn't also hear me which is something that's supposed to be happening you realize how devastating that feeling is where it's like oh if I wanted to gesture at something or like there's no way for me to be like it's like I am as disembodied as you can possibly be from an agency standpoint, which in and of itself was a powerful experience. And then moving up a level, let's leave that aside, I don't know that, and Kent, you probably know better than me, but I don't think I've ever seen an experience that, I mean, obviously no experience has done it this way, but I don't know of another experience where it's taking the germ of sleep no more and manifesting it and like saying like, Oh, you're you and the audience are in this mask and you don't talk. And now it's like, we're removing the ability for anybody to see you. Like you're just there observing and it created a totally different type of receptive state for me that like, I really think it cracks something open, like for me as an individual, it cracks something up where I was like, holy shit, I need to see more of this. My one sort of critique is maybe a strong word, but it's just it ended up narratively feeling a little bit one note where it's like, I knew going in that this is a story about Alzheimer's. So that's the one piece I was looking for. And because the other character is also an actor, the only sort of like established bond is like sort of an artificial theatrical one. Not like, it's not like watching like an actual grandfather with his actual grandkid. And so narratively, I felt sad that his mind goes and that, you know, you see how that plays out. But I didn't have that like deeper narrative connection that I really craved. But again, the technical feat, I think, was so surprising and so kind of exciting to think about new possibilities with that, that that really was the big thing for me.

[01:25:35.310] Kent Bye: Yeah. Just to jump in around passive observers, there is a piece called The Meta Movie that was at Venice. You have one protagonist that is the key actor in the movie. I was the protagonist, and there's also flybots, but the flybots have an actual virtual embodiment. You can see them as you're moving around. So I don't know if there's been another piece that had a ghost like presence. And it's super fascinating to hear what you said, Scott, because I did the exact opposite, which was assume I had a body and I was staying out of people's ways. This would be a perfect experience for me to just sort of like imagine that I was the protagonist, even if I couldn't speak, I still have the perspective. They don't have the passive observers have the same scale shift. And that's part of the feedback that Lou Ward has gotten a number of times. I'll probably add that. but finding out how to recreate that experience of that protagonist with the passive observers, I think is a challenge because, well, there's two points that I'll make here is that I found that the onboarding was really rough because there was like this period in which the actor was asking all of these in real life questions to the protagonist user, which was really grounding them in their own identity. And then all of a sudden they're identifying and embodying a grandchild. And I'd like to see a little bit more of a cleaner magic circle That is like not even having the grandfather on board you to only see that the grandfather when you're in the experience and have somebody else on board you and give you all the logistical details because it's like it's breaking the plausibility presence when you have somebody from inside the experience, who's telling you how to change your height and dealing all the logistics and sort of like getting what's essentially this information that's trying to be fed into the experience to get it more contextually relevant to your life experiences. In my experience, someone who's supposed to be playing a two-year-old, he's saying, look at these books. Do you read? And the person's like, yeah, I read. And it's like, this next line was like, oh, well, when you're old enough, you're going to learn how to read. And it was like, wait, Who is this person embodying? And so when you have these pieces, you're expecting people to have the literacy for what it means to be able to embody a character of like people who play D&D or live action role play. They know what it means to embody a character with the motivation, the feelings, the needs, the desires, and like, they know how to play that role. And I feel like that onboarding for how to really ground people into what this character is and who this relation is and what their motivation is. that's a hard problem. And it's one of the first pieces that's really trying to achieve that. And I think that's probably one of the biggest stressors that I saw as a observer that kept on taking me out. Cause it's like, here's his grandfather. He's asking him questions that he should know because he's the grandfather. He wouldn't have to ask any of these things about the family. So yeah, I agree that there's parts of the narrative that need work in terms of building and releasing that tension. Cause When I talk to Lou Ward and hear some of the experiences that he was trying to recreate of hearing his mother, who has ALS, say, I love you to him for the last time, you have this feeling of what happens when you're dealing with family members who have a neurodegenerative disease, and how do you recreate the simulation of that type of experience within an immersive experience? and have people go through all these embodied experiences within an experience like Tinker, someone who is the protagonist's grandchild gets to actually embody those experiences. And so I feel like they have much more higher bandwidth experience of trying to recreate the feeling of the grandfather and grandchild relationship. But as an observer, I found it hard to kind of project myself into that by just kind of watching from the sidelines.

[01:28:49.919] Joan Solsman: So I was the child participant when I got to do it. And so it's interesting hearing your guys' take on it, especially since Kent, yours was so different than it sounds like Scott and Jesse's. Because I, similar to you, Kent, I also had problems, not problems, but difficulty with the onboarding where I didn't, you know, I knew that I was going to be playing this character and I was going to be watched, but I wasn't, briefed on my motivations or exactly like the role I was supposed to play. I was just kind of, you know, following the actor's lead and his lead was, like you said, in my experience, he was like asking me as like a two-year-old, do you read books? And I was like, yeah, I read books. And he's like, what kind? I'm like, well, lots of children's books right now. And he was like, oh, is that because you're a child? I was like, well, yeah. But I also, as an actual human, have children. So I read a lot of children books to my children. He's like, oh, really? How many children do you have? And then we went into this conversation where I was an almost 40-year-old mother embodying a teen. And so my point is that the difficulty that I noticed was that it forced me to disassociate from the narrative too. It forced me to think more about, what am I supposed to be doing in order for this to work, not just for me, but for other people? Am I failing? Am I making it awful for people? And not trying to get caught up in that anxiety as much as I could, but it was just a hard thing to turn off. But what I will say does seem like it worked really well is that I did notice, I feel like a lot with these kind of interactive immersive experiences, the ideal for people like us is like, oh, I wanna be the one that gets to be the one that touches the rover and makes it drive. But I definitely noticed that the people that were participants had a much more emotional reaction to the piece. Like at the end of ours, there's a moment at the very end where the actor's standing there and I'm talking to him and trying to react to him and he's supposed to take his pills and I'm trying to get him to take his pills. he has this, you know, moment of just kind of feeling like he's surrendered to the fact that he can't control his memories and he can't control his thoughts and he doesn't really know what's happening. And so I reached out my hand so that we could hold hands and he held my hands virtually. And of course there was no touch, but as soon as that moment was over, we all went back to this attic space where you can talk with people that are the passive observers and two people were crying. I didn't have that emotional response because I feel like, Jesse, like you said, being that passive observer, feeling like you're free to just feel what you need to feel and experience what you want to experience without any repercussions. Maybe let people tap into what that means for them, if they've had that experience before, but I could tell the people that were passivers really resonated with this experience where I didn't have quite as much of an emotional connection with, which is strange because my grandmother passed away from Alzheimer's. So it's something that I remember from my family and maybe because I had to perform, I didn't feel safe tapping into that emotion because I didn't know what it would bring out. The passivers I could tell had that freedom a little bit more.

[01:31:41.524] Scott Stein: Yeah, I felt it offered me a lot of freedom for emotion. And I wanted that. Plus, it's like, it's interesting when I've seen these types of experiences before, they're theatrical. I haven't been used to having an audience. So I don't know how it feels a participant, knowing that there was an audience around me. Like I'm thinking about Baobab's Jack experience years ago, Tribeca, that was one person goes in works with actors, and you're in this kind of safe space. And then Draw Me Close, the one that we got hugged in VR. That was the experience. It was a real space. But the point being that I almost feel like I'd want to, I don't know, because I wasn't participating, but I'd want to lose myself in that and not think that there were observers. But I don't know how it feels because if the observers are invisible, maybe I don't think about it, but it's a very different dynamic at play.

[01:32:26.372] Kent Bye: Yeah. So I think us here, we maybe represent 10% of all the people who got to see this experience. So it's nice to be able to sort of unpack it. I think it'll be helpful for both the creators and the rest of the community as this type of experience continues to go out there. We have just a couple more experiences I just want to get through here. Four Feet High was a piece, there's a short piece that premiered at Venice 2018, was then at Sundance 2019. They then went out and expanded that into a six-part 2D series and then a four-part VR series that is both here at Sundance Film Festival. I had a chance to see each of these pieces It's a story about a woman who is in a wheelchair. She has a physical disability. It's a story that's not about that disability. It's about all the other aspects of a coming of age story. And she has friends and it's like an amazing ensemble cast, amazing first time actress that they cast who had never acted before. She did an amazing job. But to me, one of the more interesting things in terms of a VR perspective is that this is a story that is told through a episodic series, both in VR and in film. And they had to tell what's essentially the same characters in the same story, but tell the stories different ways depending on the medium. In the film side, they have a lot more focus on the dialogue. In the VR side, the dialogue that's there is actually a summary of the dialogue. It's not the full dialogue. There's more complexity to the dialogue, but they didn't go into the details of translating every single word. They're just trying to give you a sense. And so the VR piece ended up focusing on specific emotions to that four part series. And they would shoot that first, be able to set up the scene, allow the actors to walk through it. And then after shooting the VR portion, then they would do all the pickup shots in the film. So it's kind of like the blending the theatrical elements of just a run through within how it was produced. but they produced at the same time. And I think this is going to be a historic piece that people look back to to really analyze the affordances of what type of story you can tell in film and what kind of story you can tell in VR.

[01:34:25.051] Joan Solsman: That's really interesting to know their process of how they approached integrating the two forms of filming, of capturing. I haven't been able to watch the flat form of Four Feet High. I've only watched the 360 capture version of it. But I think the 360 capture version really works. And I think the fact that it was very smart to integrate animation, especially since it's trying to tell more of an emotional vignette. It tells a narrative, but it's, you know, I guess trying to translate this sort of emotional vignette to each of these chapters. The animation helps amplify that. I really thought that that's a wise choice. And I liked the fact that, I mean, beyond the fact that it tells a story that doesn't often get told about kind of a sexual awakening and discovery of a woman with disabilities, I appreciate that because, you know, there's so much in VR and 360 that's, you know, the passé term about an empathy machine that was really hit you over the head for a couple of years in VR. And I feel like this is a much more mature way of doing it. It just like lets a person whose experience is definitely unlike mine and probably unlike a lot of people's just kind of experience that in a time of life that everybody can relate to. Like we can all relate to like feeling like we're getting teased. not really understanding what's going on with our hormone-ridden bodies, and then finding acceptance with friends and finding your place. So I like that part of it, but I'm also hearing, Kent, I guess, a little bit more about their process and making them really impressed at how successful they were with the 360 element of the project, because I thought it worked really, really well.

[01:35:55.033] Kent Bye: Yeah, just a quick note that anybody with their Explorer pass can see any of the 2D series, and so highly, highly recommend checking it out. And it's also brilliantly told.

[01:36:04.513] Scott Stein: I didn't catch the 2D either, and I need to do that. I thought it was really well told and really well done. And what you're talking about now, what Joan was bringing up, it does make me appreciate, almost like in the sense of Namu, but in a different way, like There's a lot of nuance going on here. And it's, there's a lot of tightrope walking with this type of storytelling, you know, whether it's how do you do the subtitling and how do you follow that or not follow it? And is that okay? The times it felt more documentary ask and other times it was more animated, but also a theatricality to the staging. You know, there were parts that definitely went into a dreamscape of more theatrical filming and it handled that really gracefully. Also at times you can choose to turn around and look. at main character and how she's interacting, or you can just embody the main character. You cannot turn around, you can just be in a scene yourself. And I thought that was really cool. And I thought it was, I mean, also just really fun. And like, I just want to say that on just a total storytelling temporary and wild and fun. And it took you on a path that for me felt liberating too. And I thought it juggled a number of things at once. So I just, and also for the length of it, sometimes it can feel a little difficult to go through a 40 minute 360 piece to say the least. I've had eight minute ones that feel interminable. This broke itself up so well. I just wanted to keep going. So that's like a real achievement too.

[01:37:30.243] Jesse Damiani: Yeah, I agree. Like the word that comes to mind about this piece is fearless. you know, it's fearless to take on a subject that a lot of people wouldn't take on and to do so. Like I even think about the way that so often you're at the main character's level, but it's not gratuitous. It's not like, look at how hard she has it or something like that. It's more just like implicitly giving you the sense of this world. And then the narrative content, you get this variety of scenes and it ties into really sort of pressing sociopolitical aspects of women's sexuality and women's right to make choices about their body. I don't want to, I'll leave that part for people to encounter, but for that to be sort of dovetailed, like the simple act of bringing that sort of social commentary into context with a sexual awakening in any story context, in any medium is tough. But then to do so in this kind of like electric, fun, emotionally dynamic piece, it was just firing on all cylinders. You know, it really just was a joy from a storytelling standpoint, from a VR standpoint, from yeah, socio-political standpoint. So big kudos to this team.

[01:38:41.813] Kent Bye: Did you get a chance to see the 2d version, Jesse?

[01:38:44.015] Jesse Damiani: I didn't actually. Um, so I'm curious. I'm very curious to see now that I know that, because one thing I'll say abstractly about that is I find that I'm usually whenever something like this exists and usually it's the reverse, usually it's a flat movie with some like VR kind of throwaway integration. I find that because of the form of film, encountering characters first that way distances you from them. And when you encounter them in VR, it's kind of like you're still watching movie characters, but now they're not as cinematic to you anymore. Now they're like, it's like they're still distanced, but they're more just quote unquote regular. I'm really curious to see the reverse path of having encountered them and lived with them in VR to see how I feel. Like I'm wondering if I'm going to feel like it's more of a documentary than a narrative piece because of my predisposition from within the VR, the sort of intimacy and the presence of the VR experience.

[01:39:37.399] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. Each of your homework is to try to watch it before the end of the festival, because my, my statement, my statement is that it it's like, what are we going to say, Joan?

[01:39:46.785] Joan Solsman: I was just going to say, this is another example of technological difficulties. When I was testing my setup for getting my AirPlay to show films on my TV, and I was trying to figure things out, I was going through some of the things that are already unlocked. And I started Four Feet High, the episodic one. And I didn't realize that once I started it, I had to watch it all within four hours. And so now it's locked out for me. I can't, I even got in touch with Sundance. I was like, can you please let me, I really want to see this. And they're like, sorry, maybe if I raise a ruckus and I'm like, I went on Ken's podcast and I said that you guys will let me see this and you really need to. So I don't know, maybe I can. Oh no.

[01:40:20.362] Kent Bye: I need to see if I can get in. I accidentally started some other ones. Hopefully they'll let me watch it. Yeah. Well, so yeah, I mean, I do think that what they were able to achieve with each of these versions is just really impressive. I think it's one of the more interesting aspects because you can really see the affordances of what they're able to do with each of these characters in the story. So and the four feet high means that they've shot both the VR experience ended up being a little bit lower than four feet because the lead actress that they got was less than four feet, but also the film version as well was also shot at four feet. So both the film and the VR were shot at that height. You can tell a little bit more in the VR version, but let's try to like wrap up things here with the last, uh, experience and then sort of have some closing thoughts. Uh, Jesse, maybe you could talk about the weirdo night performance.

[01:41:05.584] Jesse Damiani: Yeah. So this was a really exciting one for me. This is like a, a local LA show. That's normally at Zebulon in LA now transposed into this new sort of COVID environment. So it's sort of a variety show riffing on the sort of late night talk show experience by an artist named Dynasty Handbag, who also curates a bunch of other underground artists in LA. And, you know, it's zany, it's kind of metamodern, and it's very aware of itself as a show that is taking place to no audience. Which to me, I'm sure people have played with this, but I hadn't seen somebody play with it this way, where it has all the trappings of being this live show. Little throwaway bits and little comments that occur throughout that reference the fact that there's actually nobody there. It's not like the way that a lot of these shows, like I think of The Daily Show, has adapted to Trevor Noah in his living room, and you're just kind of like, transplanting this live show into this other format. This is like really causing you to feel the loss and the ache implicitly that the performers feel in not having that audience there. there's this sort of meta commentary about like, who even are these audience members like flipping through their phones, like being shitty during the middle, you know, so it's not doing so in this cloying way. And then the performances themselves range from hilarious to actually there's some great music in there. And so I don't know, as just something to watch, it was just really a really fun thing to watch. But it also really caused me to reflect on the past 10 months, and I'm not myself much of a performer, but I can sort of project into what it must feel like to folks who have really been wanting that stage and that space and that electricity and that live feeling who haven't had it. So yeah, I was really, really, really glad that this was part of the mix.

[01:42:57.283] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. This was a 2d video that you're watching and I'll watch it with my wife and we just really loved it. We were just laughing a lot and it was just very enjoyable. And yeah, by the end of it, it did feel like we kind of went out to a show, even though we didn't go anywhere. And I think new frontier generally, the question is like, what is the liveness of live? When you do a live performance, what is it that's live about that live performance? And sometimes it'll say it's a live performance, but it's not live with some of these experiences that end up being pre-recorded, but it's still like, it's the mindset of being a live performance. So you're kind of showing up as if it's something that you're receiving. Your quality of attention can change when it's contextualized as a live performance. This wasn't. only shown during a specific time, but it was like, I told my wife, Hey, let's watch this tonight. And then we ended up going it. So it felt like, Hey, we had set an intention to go to the show and we watched it. And yeah, just this reflection of like the COVID era of like, this is what it feels like to go to a show now.

[01:43:53.298] Scott Stein: I loved it. I was just laughing a lot. It took me to living in LA years ago. I hadn't even known about the show existing. So I, you know, I've gotten the dad mode and. lost perspective on a lot of cool things in the world. And also, don't go to shows as much. So I loved, I mean, it also gave me vibes of kind of like the Eric Andre show and things of like, I loved how broken it all was. And I loved the kind of scream into the abyss of like, this was like wrestling with the madness of the past year variety show. And it totally spoke to that to me. And I loved it for that. And I didn't expect that. And I have friends who work in theater, have had to close down or kind of just waiting it out. But also, yeah, it felt very present. You know, that was really cool. Like, I was really glad to watch it towards the end as one of the final pieces.

[01:44:44.949] Joan Solsman: What I liked about it is that the performance itself is very entertaining, so I love that too. But I also like that it made me not personally reconsider what New Frontier means as a program, but I like the fact that, I mean, really, New Frontier, generally, products are incorporating some sort of technology that's experimental. And really, there wasn't anything experimental. It's a show that's been running for how long, Jessie? 2007. Yeah, like more than a decade. It's just on Vimeo. You know, it's an on-demand clip that you can go to on Vimeo. And so I just kind of liked the fact that Shari Freelot was probably just like, I really want to include this, so I'm going to do it and fuck it. Like, I don't care about the rules. Like, I just kind of like that this is, you know, this is a performer who kind of says fuck it to the rules and whatever the rules are of New Frontier, Shari gets to make those rules. And she was just kind of like, I want to include this. And I'm really glad she did. So I kind of like that it broke rules and what's more new frontier than breaking rules. So I don't know.

[01:45:45.523] Kent Bye: Nice. Well, we did it. We got through all the experiences and I just want to do a quick round of people sharing some wrap up thoughts or things. I would share like two or three things. One was that the active theories dream weave platform where new frontier was happening with all these social interactions. It was a lot of glitches in the beginning, but I think those got ironed out at the time. being able to kind of run into people and have conversations within a New Frontier gallery space was nice. Sometimes triggering those audio bubbles would be tricky. So they'd do that in order to scale. So it's sort of a trade-off. But people seem to be in the film party bar throughout the conference, kind of chatting with each other. And there was some opening night parties for some of the films and creators. Sometimes they were there, sometimes they weren't. But the other thing I'd throw out there is the cinema was amazing. I'm not sure if you each had a chance to try it out, but it was in a theater that you're in space and you see the earth going by. And so you have a screen and it's all in WebXR. And I just had this really transcendent type of experience watching users film, which was already kind of a visual poem. It wasn't dialogue heavy. It was very visual and slow, but in the context above me was like just the earth going by rotating every six minutes. And yeah, it was just really trippy to kind of feel like I was in a space theater watching it. So yeah, that's, I guess one of my final thoughts is just that, you know, all the other stuff that they have there, but also it was just great to be able to watch all these experiences and to be able to chat about them. We talked about some of the themes earlier. And for me, I'll be having 15 to 16 hours of additional conversations, breaking down all sorts of other details about them. So if folks are interested about any of these, but this is a good overview, but yeah, and sort of do a quick round to see if there's any other final thoughts from each of you.

[01:47:21.911] Joan Solsman: Well, I'll kind of piggyback on your commentary there about Cinema House, Kent. I think it was really nice that New Frontier got to take on such an intrinsic part of the festival. You know, New Frontier often feels like it's the part that I know all four of us really treasure the most about Sundance. I love going to films, but I go there to see New Frontier and the films are a bonus for me. But this year it felt gratifying as someone who cheerleads for New Frontier that that there was film party, that people after every film were told go to New Frontier and go to film party, and the fact that there was Cinema House and that anybody could go and just pop inside to the New Frontier gallery if they wanted to, to just, if nothing else, just kind of see generally what the idea of New Frontier is. And so I loved that Sundance is a film festival, definitely first and foremost, but I love that this year, as bizarre as it is, the New Frontier got to be more of the lifeblood of Sundance. And it makes me hope that elements of this iteration of Sundance continue in years to come for a lot of different reasons, and that being one of them.

[01:48:24.864] Scott Stein: Yeah, I think this is the New Frontier. I could not separate the meta experience of trying Sundance at home in this kind of broken, glitchy, magical world with all the pieces nestled within it. It's like an art project in itself. And I think like, that's really exciting. Like we're kind of blowing inside out a lot of stuff that AR VR landscape thought of as their mental territory with virtual. And it's coming in from all directions. And now we're seeing like, what do we do next? And so I feel like that's super exciting. And it makes me sometimes frustrated and other times makes me feel like I want to be like 10 years down the road. But I forget how front and center it is now and how that's kind of being rebirthed. So I love that part of it. And I think the ability for people to experience my first Sundance. So like I meant to go with Joan last year and I kept being lazy and not going the time I got an invite. And it's great to do it from home. It also is terrible to do it from home. It's both. But I think the ability for people to access that is super important. But maybe this will always be a dimension of it. I know at Khan, they had talked about that as exploring that. I think this is a dimension to all experiences that hopefully will coexist. And they'll know to have these two different parts of it. And I hope that's what we're seeing the beginning of here.

[01:49:42.924] Jesse Damiani: I would argue that we are. And I obviously implicitly are too. But carrying sort of what you're saying, To me, what was so exciting about this, because like I had even relative to the normal amount of glitches, I think I had like an extra dollop for reasons I won't get into. But certain things were really hard to navigate to, but I was able to make it work. And they were super responsive to kind of like helping me problem solve. One thing that's really emerged for me over the past, what half decade, seven years or so, is that a lot of the landmark moments that we really look back on as landmark moments are these kind of like janky pivot points. You know, they're not like, like, sure, there's Facebook acquiring Oculus, like, yes, there are the big kind of like tentpole sort of moments. But there's also all these like little shifts that it's just like, we're reaching as far as we can and like in the process of that reaching a bunch of things kind of like fall apart or get left by the wayside or or whatever. Like I think about all the experiences that first we're bringing the human experience into VR and how many times the networking would break down or glitch or whatever. To me, this fits that capturing some of the reasons you're saying is that virtuality was treated as a real thing. It wasn't the VR section of Sundance. And I think that's something I know that they've been trying to break for a long time is like new frontier is not the quote VR section of Sundance. There's a lot of VR in it for now, but it's a bigger thing than that. This year to me feels like virtuality was given the gravitas glitchy and strange and sometimes frustrating as it may be. as meatspace, as like space, like being there in spacetime was. And wherever we go next, that toothpaste isn't going back in the tube. And so that piece is really what excites me about 2021. And then, you know, looking into future years.

[01:51:28.242] Kent Bye: Yeah. And my final, final thought is just that when I talked to Shari Freelo, she said that when you go watch these experiences at New Frontier, the experience isn't over until you have a chance to be able to talk about it. And I feel like just in the course of this conversation here, we're able to sort of complete our own journey with the New Frontier and that, you know, this Robert McKee quote of true characters revealed when a human being makes a choice under pressure. And the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, and the truer the choice of that character's essential nature. So that quote, when you think about watching a film, sometimes you're watching other people's character be revealed, but in these immersive interactive pieces, sometimes it's your own character being revealed. So when we go through these experiences and share what it means for us, it's our way of being able to share what it means to us, how it reflects our own character. So, and I recognize the limitations of my own singular perspective, And I just really enjoyed the opportunity to be able to hear other people's experiences about other things as well, just to help calibrate how I relate to the collective. And so thank you each of you for joining me here on this podcast, to be able to go through that process and to unpack Sundance New Frontier 2021.

[01:52:32.592] Joan Solsman: Thank you for hosting us, Kent.

[01:52:36.055] Scott Stein: I feel like we all just gathered around some virtual cafe table somewhere. This is pretty great. And the Sundance that never was in a physical space.

[01:52:44.322] Joan Solsman: Yeah.

[01:52:45.633] Kent Bye: So that was Joan Salzman of CNET, Jesse Damiani, who's a contributor to Forbes as well as Scott Stein also with CNET. So I don't have any other takeaways. I mean, this podcast was kind of our takeaways from Sundance. And I guess the other thing that I would just say is that I'm going to be diving into around 13 plus interviews that I conducted over the course of Sundance and I'll be publishing those. And, uh, yeah, just to unpack some of the different narrative innovations and insights from each of these different pieces. So. Yeah, if you enjoy this type of coverage and you'd like to support this type of independent journalism, then please do consider becoming a member of the Patreon. Just $5 a month is a great amount to give and just helps me continue to bring you this type of coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voices of ER. Thanks for listening.

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