Slice of Life

Become a tree at this year’s Sundance Ignite On Tour

Jordan Phelps | Contributing Photographer

Sundance Ignite On Tour will be hosted inside Newhouse 3.

There’s a single slit of a window in the cement-walled cell. The bed — sparse with a pillow and a few sheets — takes up most of the space, leaving a small path for walking around it. Besides a toilet, sink and a few metal table platforms, there isn’t much else in the room. For Kenny Moore, swathed in red in a T-shirt, shorts and hat, the cell seems dwarf-sized for his frame.

For years, Moore lived in this room in solitary confinement in Maine’s State Prison. When people put on a virtual reality headset, they can walk around Moore’s cell as he sits on the bed and describes “fishing,” where he used string and paper to fish items to and communicate with other inmates. Standing in the same cell with Moore, they can gain a sense of the overwhelming feeling of isolation that caused him to cut and take chunks of his skin off.

“After Solitary” is one of the virtual reality experiences to be featured at Sundance Ignite On Tour this Thursday and Friday. The event, hosted by the Sundance Institute, the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the School of Visual and Performing Arts, brings VR professionals and their work to Syracuse University.

People can sign up for a time slot outside Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse 3 on the days of the event. While a person can only try one exhibit per day, there will be numerous panels over topics like the future of immersive video journalism and ethics and virtual reality.

“Storytellers have found whatever technology is available to tell their stories, from drawing on caves to recording their adventures to the printing press to radio. Virtual reality is the next step in terms of a medium for storytelling,” said Keith Giglio, an assistant professor of television, radio and film and one of the organizers of the event.

At last year’s Sundance event, the focus was on film, but this year there was so much interest in virtual reality that Giglio and Dan Pacheco, the Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair in Journalism Innovation and organizer for the event, decided to make it exclusively VR-focused. About 16 to 20 students, mostly from Newhouse and VPA, will be volunteering to help guide people through the experiences.

One of the exhibits is “Tree,” which uses haptic technology so users can experience growing into a tree, Pacheco said.

“Instead of just describing what a tree’s life cycle is like — and then deforestation — you experience it from the inside out,” Pacheco said. “And you feel really embodied as that non-animal entity.”

This use of haptics is one of the two biggest areas of development in VR technology right now, Pacheco added. Another major area of growth, volumetric video, is the type of experience in “After Solitary.” The other volumetric video experience coming to the event, “Out of Exile,” centers around what one gay man felt as he came out to his conservative family — and when they all attack him.

To use volumetric technology, filmmakers used a spherical green screen. A person is placed in the center, where cameras capture their movement and speech, Pacheco said. Then the footage is rendered into a 3D video, which allows users to walk around the person.

“After Solitary” and “Out of Exile” are both based on true stories, Pacheco said. Rather than just seeing or watching, people can truly immerse themselves in that person’s story. There is a danger for people to think these experiences are exploitive, he said, but the purpose of the technology is to increase understanding of someone’s experience.

Some of the professionals coming include Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, the directors of “Tree;” Cassandra Herrman, a director at Emblematic, which produced “After Solitary” and “Out of Exile;” and Veda Shastri, a producer for 360 videos for The New York Times.

The professionals will meet with students in a VR workshop on Thursday evening to provide feedback. SU students will also be showcasing their virtual reality work, and some will speak on a panel with other local VR artists on Friday.

Pacheco said he is excited to see how people will get inspired after exposure to virtual reality. Lorne Covington went to one of the first VR events at Newhouse a few years ago, and afterwards emailed Pacheco saying how inspired he was and that he had a project he was fiddling with in his basement. Covington went on to create the 360 Video Interactive Wall in the Alan Gerry Center for Media Innovation in Newhouse, and will now be one of the panelists at the Sundance event.

If someone gains inspiration but doesn’t have the experience or equipment, now they can be connected to students and be able to produce something, Pacheco said.

“I love it when new VR geeks show up, but I also think the students here now have this expertise and this passion,” Pacheco said. “They want to use it to tell stories that need to be told — that can maybe even really only be told from the inside out. Because that’s what’s new about all this.”

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