Sundance 2020 has wrapped and we’re back to tell you about what stood out and what you missed out on :) 

While most of the films at Sundance 2020 will be available to the rest of the world in the days and months ahead as they hit streaming sites, the artists’ experiences on display at New Frontiers—Sundance’s experimental storytelling program—can only be experienced on site by a few. They aim to push the boundaries of how stories are told and experienced. And perhaps open a window to a potential future for how we all may experience stories in the years ahead. Here are a few of our favorites from the festival.

The Book of Distance

by Randall Okita

Don’t read the logline for Randall Okita’s The Book of Distance. Twenty-five minutes in a VR story about the Japanese internment sounds painful—on at least a couple levels. Just strap in and be taken on the best interactive VR story told yet. While many VR films have you looking for a skip button halfway through, TBOD is never boring (and that’s a feat for VR!). The experience follows Randall as he tells the story of this grandfather who left Japan to start a life for his family in Canada and found himself at the center of some of history’s darkest moments. It’s an interactive film, and the story unfolds at a comfortable pace, never waiting on you, but encouraging you to pick up and examine real photos, letters, documents, or help the family build their house and plant strawberry crops. Randall tells me, “We used techniques from theatre, mechanical sculpture and installation to create a space that was tactile and rich.” These simple acts bring you closer to the real world characters. The Book of Distance will have you believing VR’s moniker as the “empathy machine” and perhaps provides a useful template for a way in which we may one day relive the big moments of our own lives. NFB Interactive

Spaced Out

by Pierre “Pyaré” Friquet

Two words: Underwater VR. As the novelty of plain vanilla VR has worn off, we’re seeing more works like Spaced Out that aim stimulate more senses and push us into ever-more immersive worlds. To experience Spaced Out, you don a swimsuit (kindly provided for you), change in a small room, jump in a pool, strap on a special waterproof VR headset, and float off into another world. The story drops you in the middle of an abstract visualization of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission where the floating sensation of the water amplifies your experience of floating through space. If you want to see what next-level VR feels like, give Spaced Out or other experiences powered by BallastVR, the company pioneering water-based VR, a try. Pyaré

Chomsky vs Chomsky

by Sandra Rodriguez

While most sensationalized coverage would have you thinking the goal of AI is about building physical humanoid robots that LOOK like real people, the real goal that most in the tech and science community are interested in is creating programs that THINK like us. In this case, Sandra and her team at MIT have taken a thought exercise into practice and recreated an AI version of linguist/philosopher Noam Chomsky. Trained on thousands of pages of transcripts from decades of interviews with the real Chomsky, the AI purports to be able to respond and answer questions (including entirely new questions) in the same way the real Chomsky might. All of this is experienced in VR inside a private room where you’re encouraged to ask AI Chomsky your most pressing questions as a sort of real life AMA. I stumped him on a few questions, and he averted others, but it’s mind-bending to think we will one day be able to consult famous thinkers from the past on events in the future. NFB Interactive

Breathe

by Diego Galafassi

The allure of Breathe is great—a combination of using the new Magic Leap headset and mixed reality (MR, XR, ??) with a breath sensor strapped around your xiphoid process to tell the story of how the air we breathe is connected to others in the present and past. But the end result falls short of transcendent due in part to the view area limitations of the Magic Leap (there’s no getting lost in a world here, you have to be staring straight at what you want to see) and a lack of interactivity or meaningful build in the story. Crimes of Curiosity