Virtual Reality has exploded over the past few years from something you’d see in the movies to something you can now experience at home. From The New York Times’ VR app to the proliferation of Oculus VR headsets, the expansion of this medium has become a playground for artists and filmmakers to craft a new cinematic language for storytelling using 360o views. And thanks to advances in technology, all users need to participate is a smartphone and a low cost kit like Google Cardboard.

One of the newest filmmakers exploring this virtual sandbox is Oscar-nominated documentarian Lucy Walker. While working on a follow-up to Wim Wender’s The Buena Vista Social Club, Walker fell in love with the various dance styles she would see at the band’s concerts in Cuba. So inspired to capture the dances she saw, she developed a short VR experience called A History of Cuban Dance. In chronological order, Walker traces many of the island’s most popular dances like salsa and mambo with voiceover explaining the historical context to the viewer. Occasionally, major events like the 1959 Revolution are mentioned in front of sweeping views of the capital city, Havana.

‘A History of Cuban Dance’

“You can see history in their dancing. I loved dancing, but I never thought about that before.”

Before Walker fell in love with Cuban dance, she had become enamored with immersive storytelling. “Over the past few years, I fell in love with Virtual Reality here at New Frontier,” she said of the Sundance Film Festival’s VR expo. “I managed to get ahold of VRSE before I went to Cuba and got a VR rig from them and just started experimenting.” Walker filmed A History of Cuban Dance on a custom VRSE rig that has since, “changed every two weeks since I got it.” But that, she says, is thanks to the lightspeed rate of how VR is evolving.

“You can see history in their dancing. I loved dancing, but I never thought about that before. I was trying to shoot as much as I could and learn as much as I could,” Walker said of the experience covering every step from old school rumba to hip hop-influenced reggaeton. She skillfully plays with the placement of the VR rig, alternating from an outsider’s perspective into the middle of a dance circle. You must constantly turn around to see your surroundings, and that is its own kind of dance. “You can’t film too far or too close, and you need to shoot at nose height for VR,” she said of some of the technical challenges.

Monica Castillo at Sundance’s New Frontier. Photo: Vanessa Erazo

There’s more to come for A History of Cuban Dance. The version premiered at Sundance’s New Frontier was only a rough cut. “There’s more fine stitching [assembling the multiple shots to compose a 360o picture], sound design to do and a new dance to add,” explained Walker.

But the virtual realm can also be a place to teach empathy as VR pioneer Nonny de la Peña has explored in her work with Emblematic Group. Her earlier pieces would call upon the viewer to react in certain situations or put them in an uncomfortable spot to experience what they otherwise would never see. Her earliest interactive piece for the Oculus Rift, Hunger in LA put the viewer in line at a food bank, during the height of the recession, where a man passed out in diabetic shock. It was up to the viewer whether to check on the man or to stand around with the other onlookers.

‘Across the Line’

You hear every insult with weighted clarity, and even if your instinct is to bolt through the clinic doors, you can’t. You’re in her shoes, frightened by the mob around you and stuck within that moment.

On display at New Frontier, De la Peña’s latest pieces include two projects that are much more immersive than her earlier work while remaining just as emotionally provocative. In response to violence against abortion providers and women’s health clinics, de la Peña and her team developed Across the Line about the experience of crossing the safety perimeter of an abortion provider. Across the Line starts with a cinematic sequence to set up the story of a scared young woman thinking about going through an abortion. It then jumps back to her friend driving her to the clinic where they meet hostile anti-abortion activists who yell slurs and try to cajole her to turn away. Then the simulation begins as you become the patient trying to get to the health clinic. Your friend is outside, leading the painfully slow walk. Like most of the Emblematic Group’s work, there’s a dose of sobering truth and Across the Line uses real recordings of pro-life activists hurling insults at real women entering the facility.

While you have the freedom to move past the row of protestors, the simulation does not allow you to run away from them. It’s timed to make it feel like the longest walk of your life. You hear every insult with weighted clarity, and even if your instinct is to bolt through the clinic doors, you can’t. You’re in her shoes now, frightened by the mob around you and stuck within that moment.

‘Kiya’

If that didn’t devastate you enough, then prepare yourself for the harrowing story of Kiya. Based on a real 911 call, the viewer is placed at the scene of a tense domestic violence stand-off that turns fatal. Two of Kiya’s sisters try to save her from her partner’s abuse, and the viewer experiences the painful minutes waiting for the police to arrive. As the situation escalates the aggressor draws a gun, but the police have yet to arrive. Although you don’t see the heinous murder-suicide, the viewer is standing outside with Kiya’s two sisters as they scream and cry. The scene fades to black as the gut punch of a fact blazes on the screen about the prevalence of fatalities from domestic violence.

Walker’s and de la Peña’s projects are just a small peak at the vast variety of VR’s potential for immersive storytelling. In the creative space of Sundance’s New Frontier, there was everything from larger-than-life video installations, new developments with Lucasfilm’s Holo-cinema which invited users to walk into the Star Wars universe and even a simulator for working in an office. There’s almost no limit to the kinds of narratives that can be brought to life on this burgeoning platform.

Using Google Cardboard and your smartphone, you can check out the Sundance New Frontier VR projects that were created for mobile platforms using the Sundance VR app.

We partnered with TribecaFilm.com to cover Latino talent at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.