“There’s Not A Bad Seat In This House!” Reliving an Immersive Sundance Experience

By Kate Dowd

As a volunteer led us down the stairs into the basement at The Ray theatre in Park City, he said, “I’ll tell you what I’ve been telling people all week. There’s not a bad seat in this house!” Of course, how could there be, when everyone’s eyes were just inches away from a personal screen where we’d be experiencing an immersive, synced VR experience?

The Ray hosts something called the New Frontier initiative, created in 2007 to support independent artists who work with the intersection of film, art, and technology. The room where we’d be having the experience didn’t exactly look like a futuristic version of an opium den where people could come to get their fix of virtual reality, like I’d secretly hoped. The dim gallery was filled with about thirty evenly spaced office swivel chairs, all with head-mounted displays resting on the seats. Wires were everywhere, and even though they tried to organize them together into neat bundles, it still called to mind a cyberpunk den where we’d be doing something along the lines of “jacking into the mainframe”.

My friend and I took a seat next to one another, even though it didn’t matter, and I placed my headset on my lap. It’s a weird feeling, because when you look at a headset like that, you are struck by the sudden urge to bury your face into it right that second and discover what could possibly be in there, and how something so small can trick your perception into creating a whole world inside its plastic shell. I tried to get a peek but the light only flashed back at me in crescent shapes, silently taunting me that whatever world existed inside was to remain a secret for now.

Once we were given the go-ahead, everyone’s cold-weather clothing rustled loudly as the whole room scrambled to pull on their headsets as fast as possible. I was greeted instantly by that endless world that it held inside, and suddenly, I was standing at the peak of a mountain with yellow desert stones bathed in early morning light. In real life this was a view I would have had to hike for hours to get to, but it left me just as breathless. Floating above the valley below, in text that looked like I could run up to it, pluck it down and gather up into my arms. It said “Sundance ‘18 presents…”, and I could barely contain my excitement for what was to come next.

VR Mobile Program 3 by Two Bit Circus had a 27 minute runtime, but no moment was wasted as it led all of us collectively, yet privately, through every exhilarating scene as a wheelchair-bound police dispatcher struggles to stop a violent man as he cuts a path of crime across town, each victim contacting his call center first, some remaining on the line as they were attacked. It wasn’t live action like I’d assumed, but relied on geometric, interconnected lines to stand in for the human form, and used a limited color pallet of glowing white, blue, and hints of red against a black backdrop, which actually made more of the subtler details pop.

We watched with bated breath as the perpetrator jiggled doorknobs and tried every window to break in. We rode alongside in the passenger’s seat during a car chase as a victim’s wife floors it and barely beats an incoming train. My sweating hands were in tight fists all throughout. It was nothing short of exhilarating, and I realized it was no wonder they instructed us at the beginning to close our eyes for ten seconds if we felt overwhelmed. It was the culmination of amazing voice acting talent, animation, and cutting edge technology. We both left the room like we’d woken up from a vivid dream. It took a few minutes to adjust back to what I’d like to call “RR”, or real reality.

Virtual Reality has massive untapped potential as writers work to harness the incredibly immersive and 360 degree storytelling power this technology offers. To some, VR might seem like it’s only a passing fad, but I believe we are currently only scratching the surface for what the future of immersive entertainment can become.

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