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The Future of VR Will Be Social, Culturally Diverse—Oh, and It's Already Here

Virtual reality is providing new opportunities for women and people of color, but has huge implications for human identity in the future.

Beckett Mufson

Beckett Mufson

Still from The Rose and I by Eugene Chung, Jimmy Maidens, Alex Woo. Images courtesy New Frontier

Envisioning a world where inequality and suffering melt away thanks to virtual reality and 80s pop culture, Ernst Klein's novel Ready Player One is a seductive prophecy for the media landscape of tomorrow—and today. Shari Frilot, The Sundance Film Festival's experimental New Frontier program Chief Curator, thinks it's close to becoming a reality, and could have far-reaching implications for identity politics worldwide. 

Frilot already sees new mediums like VR as a haven for women and people of color. Since New Frontier began in 2007, Frilot has been on a hunt for the most innovative experiments in new media, curating work from artists like Paul D. Miller, Kahlil Joseph, Milica Zec, Vassiliki Khonsari, and Yung Jake. It's no surprise that her stage has been huge for the virtual reality over the past few years, attracting A-list creators like Björk, Lucasfilm, Ridley Scott, and Funny or Die at the 2016 festival. Frilot has been a true believer in VR since 2012, not just because of its power as a storytelling tool, but because of how she's seen the medium used towards empowerment.

Five years ago, Frilot saw Nonny de la Peña's immersive journalistic experience, Hunger in Los Angeles, a virtual recreation of an incident in which a man collapsed from a seizure while waiting in line at a food bank. Hooked into a pre-Oculus Rift VR rig, viewers hear audio from actual footage of the crisis, experiencing panic as bystanders react to the situation. Frilot's invitation for Peña to show Hunger at New Frontier 2012 prompted Palmer Luckey—then an intern for Peña's USC team—to develop the protype virtual reality headset that would become Oculus Rift. "To a certain extent, this reincarnation of VR comes out of a Latina woman being frustrated with writing stories about experiences that affect people of color and having other not care," Frilot tells The Creators Project. "When you're dealing with a situation where you're shut out, you start to invent things. And you create things—you create stories, you create ways of telling those stories—to simply find empowerment, to simply find a way to tell a story."

Hunger in Los Angeles by Nonny de la Peña

Peña popularized the idea that virtual reality wasn't just for video games, but could tell factual stories better than a written article or a traditional video. Since watching Hunger in Los Angeles, Frilot has seen women and people of color use VR to tell unique stories countless times. She spends two to three hours a week in goggles—double if she's vetting projects for New Frontier—and travels the world to find the fresh faces and ideas. "In 70% of the rooms that I'm in while scouting VR, talking about VR, going to VR conferences, I see a lot of people of color, and I see even more women," she reports.

In ten years of programming New Frontier, Frilot has consistently found that the people pushing the envelope of storytelling represent a variety of cultures, genders, and ethnicities. "There's a very powerful rule set already, that technology is a white male field, that white men rule the world. But when I look at VR, I just don't see it," Frilot says. New Frontier's inaugeral year was dominated by Taiwanese artist Shu Lea Cheang's MobiOpera, a crowdsourced smartphone soap opera. Frilot backs this up with a track record of highlighting lots of non-white and non-male artists. In 2011, a year before Hunger in Los Angeles, she introduced Question Bridge: Black Male, a documentary-style video installation fighting stereotypes about black men in America. In 2016, over half of the entries had a lead artist or key collaborator that was a woman or a person of color. "At this stage, it's energizing to see the practitioners being more diverse than the filmmakers I might see at a film party, film conference, or even a film festival," Frilot laughs.

Still from Accross the Line by Nonny de la Peña. This entry to the 2016 New Frontier follows a woman walking past protestors outside an abortion clinic.

In a time when the NFL is using virtual reality to fight racism, and artists like BeAnotherLab are swapping genders, Within founder Chris Milk's claim that VR is "the empathy machine" has never seemed more appropriate. Social VR, an inevitability after Facebook's $2 billion investment in the technology, will continue this trend, raising questions about identity politics along the way. "One wonders what the impact on racism and discrimination will be when generations of children have grown up experiencing VR experiences where you can literally step into a body of a different race, or different gender," posits Shawn K., a media architect from Portland, in a post on Medium. Once we've fully integrated with the virtual reality matrix, will we even see the skin our cyberfriends were born in?

Frilot recounts a recent experience inside High Fidelity, the rapidly-approaching VR update to Second Life, to that effect. "I was talking to this guy with an uncanny valley face and I was a blue water glob, like an outline of a human being. And it was wonderous for about 3-5 minutes. And then all of a sudden it just became my world. it was the first time I had felt that since Hunger in Los Angeles. I was accepting the rules of this universe." Fans of Ready Player One should be familiar with the questions a completely believable digital reality presents, but the rest of society will have to address them in the coming years.

Waves by Benjamin Dickinson and Reggie Watts

In 2018, Steven Spielberg will release a film adaptation of Ernst Klein's novel, the ideal sci-fi film to define virtual reality's infant years. But Frilot says it could be growing up too fast for that to happen. "The technology's already here," she says. "That's the first time I've ever seen technology leapfrog a sci-fi movie. That's how fast this is moving." Much like Sundance's independent films getting picked up by Fox Searchlight or Magnolia Pictures, Frilot is already working with media buyers who want to pick up and distribute the experiences from New Frontier 2016. She's watched the field grow up, but now she's taking a moment to, in her words, "peace off virtual reality."

Now, it's time for Frilot to continue exploring other storytelling techniques. Next year, New Frontier will be divided into two parts: a VR showcase and a main exhibition focusing on other ways to tell a story. Submissions are open until August 31, so if you have an innovative storytelling project to share with the world, enter here.

Related:

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Is Virtual Reality The Future Of Journalism?