Sundance Institute 2017

Keynote - Sundance Institute, Park City, 19-29 January, 2017

As the Northern Hemisphere’s roughest season whirled into full swing, World VR Forum took off to North America, for the Sundance Film Festival, an 11-day visual extravaganza in Park City, Utah, bringing together some of Hollywood’s biggest names, all the major studios from Los Angeles and America’s millennial population to celebrate the world’s independent film industry from January 19 – 29, 2017.
Sundance, founded by Robert Redford, is the largest independent film festival in the United States, with a very diverse film selection, panel sessions regarding movies and the New Frontier panels organized by Shari Frilot, Chief Curator of the New Frontier.
Located at the historic Claim Jumper, the New Frontier section which existed for more than 10 years, allows to experience new forms of storytelling, any type of new media and has a very avant-garde flavour. Virtual reality is becoming more and more important in the New Frontier, with its own venues: VR Palace, the VR Bar and Cinetransformer for the panels.
Salar Shahna, WVRF’s Creative Director and CEO, who was invited by Frilot and attended Sundance with Delphine Setiee, Executive Director and COO, and Sophie Sallin, WVRF’s Head of VR Lab Programme, moderated an intriguing panel session on neuroscience and A.I. (artificial intelligence), Mind Meld: Our Biodigital Future, at the Sundance’s New Frontier programme.
According to Shahna, “now, more than ever it has become important to understand the concepts of neuroscience, which is the study of the central, nervous system, as it has been present in pop culture for many years. Movies from the 80s or the 90s, such as: Total Recall, The Matrix, Lawnmower Man, and Strange Days have integrated the concepts of neuroscience, but were mostly science fiction, and with the emergence of the new technologies such as AR, VR, MR and further with artificial intelligence and transhumanism, some concepts that belonged to science fiction are now reality. Therefore, it’s becoming more and more important to fully understand how the mechanism of our nervous system works.”
Shahna’s panel explored the following, “we, as humans are, literally, reinventing ourselves. AR goggles already allow us to hold virtual objects. Brain-machine interfaces will use thoughts to control artificial legs. Smart contact lenses will take photos and record video. Earrings could record encounters with the police and your crazy ex., that is why the connection between neuroscience and technology is so relevant in today’s constantly changing world.
Mind Meld’s” panelists included several experts in the neuroscience field: Ashley Baccus-Clark, an American Molecular and Cellular Biologist; Stefano Baldassi, Chief of Neuroscience at Meta, an American AR (augmented reality) company, whose motto is “brain’s the most powerful machine ever built” and James Fallon; Professor of Neuroscience at University of California, Irvine and a brain specialist. All three had absolutely mind-blowing projects.
Clark’s VR installation NeuroSpeculative Afro Feminism on women’s empowerment with Hyphen-Labs, a team of women of colour blending technology, art and science comes in two very fascinating pieces. The first piece immerses you through a VR headset into a neurocosmetology lab which is basically a futuristic beauty salon where you are a customer trying out beauty products and jewellery that also happen to be high-tech surveillance gadgets, perfect for espionage. The second piece, on the other hand, is an in-development piece of VR speculative fiction with eccentric, progressive characters, such as a transhuman “techno-Africana” expert who crafts prosthetics for her own body. Exploring sensitive subjects such as racism and sexism, it was selected at the New Frontier for its original, high-tech spin on the issues of race and gender.
Baldassi had an AR project, Journey to the Center of the Natural Machinewhich allows you to manipulate a holographic, full-sized brain with a partner on an AR headset and to explore all the functions of this biological machine not only from corner to corner but also as it evolves from infancy to old age.
And last, but not least, Fallon presented his famous study on psychopaths and how their brain functions. Fallon accidentally discovered that he has the genetic make-up of a psychopath when asked to analyse the brains of psychopathic killers by one of his colleagues for another study. Surprised by such findings, Fallon decided to investigate the make-up of a psychopathic brain even further and created his own study, which is now world-renowned, on this shocking, yet fascinating topic.
WVRF’s panel was one of a kind, the only one dedicated to scientific purpose, as most of the other panels, while also extremely creative and stimulating, were mostly dedicated to storytelling.