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Augmented Reality Surprised Sundance Film Festival with a Journey into the Human Brain

The largest and arguably most widely known event of its type, especially in the US, the Sundance Film Festival is an annual celebration of independent film—ones made outside the Hollywood system. This year, a new type of experience appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in an installation called "The Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine." This mixed reality presentation offered the user the newest type of storytelling in a long and important line—continuation of the species kind of important.

The Evolution of Storytelling

We have had many storytelling mediums throughout our history—simple drawings, spoken word, books, art, theater, radio, film, as well as television—each one taking the previous idea and adding new elements to build something new, often in reaction to technological advances of the time. With the exception of a few edge cases, these means of relaying entertainment, moral lessons, cultural preservation, and general education in a narrative have all lacked viewer interactivity.

This changed in recent years with the maturity of a newer storytelling platform we call video games. This term presents an incomplete picture, sounding more like an activity for children. A far more accurate term, in many cases, would be interactive storytelling.

This style of storytelling often takes all the previous versions and adds a deeply interactive and immersive experience to them. This particular medium can be broken down into many genres and sub-genres with varying degrees of storytelling capacity. That said, most are highly—if not completely—interactive. And more and more often, even the most simple games have a story to tell now.

As this medium has matured—with leaps forward in technology in terms of size and speed—the more immersive these stories have become. Once looking in from the top or a side view now puts the user in the center of the action. And with recent advancements in the last few years, we have finally moved beyond rendering these interactive stories on a flat 2D screen, moving first into virtual, then augmented, and most recently, mixed reality.

The NextReality

Virtual reality, as it has emerged today, has become the pinnacle of immersive interaction—putting on a head-mounted display which blocks the outside world in such a way that allows the user to find themselves standing in a whole new world. The user is then presented with new challenges to face and new stories, not only to experience, but to have a direct hand in sculpting as well. One major drawback is that the extreme version of immersion subtracts the ability to interact socially at all.

Augmented reality, or the layering of digital information on top of the real world, also uses a head-mounted display, or it can be a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. Up to this point, it is mostly being used for a far more utilitarian purpose. Object location and status tracking are all common uses, and there are many enterprise and industrial applications that allow a technician to see vital information quicker and with ease.

The newest incarnation, known as mixed reality, often misconstrued as a combination of VR and AR, is actually the mixture of AR and, using a complex sensor array, an understanding of the world surrounding the user. It is a mixture of digital and analog realities. The understanding that comes with mixed reality is a knowledge of the floors, ceilings, walls, and other types of surfaces and devices, or a digitized version of the general surroundings of the user.

This form of interaction allows the storytelling that one would expect from VR with a different level of immersion—an immersion with the familiar—all while allowing sharing of the experience and complete social interaction. This is what was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine

What Meta brought to the Sundance Film Festival this year—using their recently released mixed reality head-mounted display, the Meta 2—is an interactive holographic journey through the evolution of the human brain. The appearance of this experience at the festival shows the foresight of the Sundance organization as a whole.

Image by Meta/YouTube

The Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization designed to help support the advancement of filmmaking and storytelling. New Frontier is one of the initiatives by the Sundance Institute to support independent artists working where film, art, media, live performance, music, and technology meet, to help develop various creative storytelling mediums through financing and creator services.

The Sundance Institute has been ahead of the technology curve having a heavy focus on virtual reality since 2012, and they continued the trend of early adoption this year with the appearance "The Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine" experience.

This is the first time that you have an immersive augmented reality experience where multiple people can see and touch holograms together—it's the first time we're aware of that immersive AR has been used for storytelling.

Image by Meta/YouTube

Legendary actor, festival chairman, and creator of the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford, for whose film The Sundance Kid is the namesake of the festival, helped propel this annual event from its humble beginnings in the late-'70s and early-'80s to a powerhouse of "Hollywood-free" films in the '90s and even still today. The Sundance Film Festival has rocketed many independent movie director's careers; Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson are all notable directors that have become well known from their films first appearances at this festival.

What do you think about mixed reality as a storytelling medium? Should it be relegated to a realm of utility? Let us know in the comments.

Cover image by Meta/YouTube

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