While many at CES greeted virtual reality with a shrug, at the Sundance Film Festival VR was met with a warm embrace. And although the audiences at the events were fairly different, the response could also be tied in part to what was being presented, and actually be the harbinger of a larger trend. At CES, the focus was on the tech, and it simply wasn’t all that interesting this year; there were no big announcements about wireless headsets or other gadgets. At Sundance, the focus was on the content, much of which explored new forms of storytelling and drew rave reviews. So, is this the moment things shift — after years of focusing on the tech, is it finally time to start paying attention to (and funding, and creating) great VR content? Will that be what drives mainstream adoption, not the bells and whistles associated with a new headset?
Technically, Sundance grouped the VR content into a “New Frontiers” track, but at times it threatened to overwhelm the traditional films. According to sources on the ground, the hottest ticket over the weekend was the Upload VR party, and the Oculus House was packed every night. Oculus also seems to have won the day in terms of content — “Dear Angelica,” which was produced by Oculus Story Studio, drew rave reviews and was hailed by many as the type of piece that could be embraced by a mass audience.
VR was also used at Sundance to make reporting come to life in a new way. “Melting Ice” transports a viewer, along with Al Gore, to Greenland to witness the effects of climate changes. The “New Climate” sub-track also featured “Chasing Coral,” a VR experience about the Great Barrier Reef, and “Tree,” which put users in the center of a rainforest.
Lest you think it was all gloom and doom, there were plenty of joyful and whimsical experiences to be found at Sundance, too. Tyler Hurd’s “Chocolate,” which was funded by Viacom Next, immersed viewers in a psychedelic world of dancing animals, set to a bouncy track by Giraffage. “Asteroids!” reintroduced users to characters from another popular experience, “Invasion!” and allowed viewers play the role of a robot inside a spaceship.
And the diversity of the content presented at Sundance only really scratched the surface when it came to the possibilities for content. Brands have started investing in VR content recently, to great acclaim and success, producing content that goes far beyond the typical ad. Etihad Airways, for example, created an experience with Nicole Kidman that allowed users to explore an A380, and Ram Trucks created a series of short VR experiences that allowed users to virtually test drive vehicles when they couldn’t physically get in a car.
There’s been much talk of a trough of disillusionment around VR, and coming out of CES it was easy to feel a little deflated. But the news out of Sundance means that it might simply be time to shift focus, and make 2017 the year that content captures imaginations and finally gets the average person inside a headset.
On Friday, we provided a detailed recap of the week’s VR/AR business stories which we produce with our partner Vertebrae, the VR/AR monetization platform and ad network. Here’s an analysis of the top stories in VR/AR heading into this week.