‘Not going back’: How Sundance reinvented itself in VR
Image: Sundance

‘Not going back’: How Sundance reinvented itself in VR

Protocol Next Up

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week, we're taking a closer look at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the ways voice security technology can help improve smart TVs.

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The Big Story

How Sundance reinvented itself in VR

The prestigious Sundance Film Festival, which officially begins Thursday, looks very different this year: After being held in Park City, Utah for nearly 40 years, the pandemic is forcing Sundance to go online. In addition to a fairly traditional web event with scheduled film screenings, the festival also includes a number of immersive and VR spaces, courtesy of its New Frontier showcase.

Sundance New Frontier selection chief curator Shari Frilot recently shared all the details with me:

  • The New Frontier Gallery features a number of AR, VR and interactive pieces. "People will be able to experience a wide range of XR works, ranging from live theater performances to VR works, and will be able to move around in avatar and do live audio chats and live webcam chats," Frilot said. The platform, which has been built by Active Theory, will be accessible with both VR headsets and desktop computers.
  • The Sundance Cinema House is a VR theater that will be used to screen a number of short films. "That is a massive-screen theater [where] 200 of us can come together," Frilot said.
  • Film Party is a virtual bar where festivalgoers can hang out. "Filmmakers can meet their audiences for the first time in a virtual environment," Frilot said. The bar is limited to 250 people at a time, but once that cap is met, Sundance is simply spinning up a new instance for the next 250 attendees.

Sundance isn't the first festival to embrace VR as a way to replace the in-person experience. Earlier this month, Tribeca held the premiere for the VR film "Baba Yaga" in VR itself. Frilot credited those efforts, as well as those of the London Film Festival, Burning Man and other events, for inspiring Sundance.

  • Even with those proof points, Frilot admitted that she was a bit nervous about putting together this year's New Frontier program. "We weren't sure how much work would come," she told me, which led to the decision to feature a smaller slate than in previous years.
  • "In the end, we had just as many submissions as we've always had," she said. "It means that the quality is really high."

Film festivals like Sundance long played a key role in popularizing immersive storytelling, giving many festivalgoers an opportunity to try VR for the very first time. But with the growing popularity of VR headsets like Facebook's Oculus Quest, and the pandemic forcing festivals to go virtual, filmmakers suddenly find that the medium can help them attract global audiences.

  • "We realized we can bring this festival to people on their computers at home as opposed to our venues, and in headsets at home as opposed to our venues," Frilot said.
  • This approach may continue even when Sundance is able to return to Utah. "I don't see going back from that," she added.


"Facebook nearly tripled VR revenues from 2019 to 2020 and that's with constant shortages of Quest and Quest 2 headsets throughout the year. We're just getting started." —Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag reading between the lines of Facebook's 2020 results.

"We felt like we had a little bit of a spoiling asset here that needed to be moved." —AT&T CEO John Stankey on why the company decided to release all of WarnerMedia's 2021 movies on HBO Max.



82% of leaders will adopt a hybrid-first model in 2021. Preparing the organization for a more complex hybrid workforce introduces complexities that can impact productivity and the employee experience. Explore 5 Steps to Building a Hybrid Workforce to help you develop your return-to-work plan.

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Watch Out

How anti-fraud tech could improve streaming

Voice security startup Pindrop announced a partnership with TiVo this week to bring its technology to smart TVs and streaming devices. Originally developed to fight fraudsters, the technology is now being used to personalize voice search results and present the right content recommendations to each member of the family.

It all started with the Chicken Man. Pindrop developed its technology to help financial institutions secure their call centers against fraudsters including the Chicken Man, who would always play a recording of chickens in the background to mask his voice. Dealing with scam artists helped Pindrop get very good at dealing with background noise. During a demo given to Protocol, an Android TV device featuring Pindrop's tech was able to identify two different speakers, even with a blender running on high gear and with one of the participants wearing a muffling N95 mask.

Not all personalization is born equal. Streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ have for years offered user profiles to personalize content recommendations. Similarly, Google and Amazon are both offering consumers a way to personalize responses from their respective voice assistants. But while the tech and streaming giants require users to actively set up user profiles and authenticate the voices of each member of their household, Pindrop is taking a more organic approach.

  • "We do something called passive clustering," explained CEO Vijay Balasubramaniyan. Pindrop's algorithms analyze over 250 voice characteristics, including intonation, rhythm and style.
  • In the living room, the technology is being used to develop unique profiles for everyone in the household; the profiles are then connected to content recommendation engines such as the one developed by TiVo. Consumers can decide to name the profiles for each family member, but Pindrop doesn't need to know anything about the real identity of each user.

The startup wants to fine-tune its technology to detect the emotion and age of consumers to further improve recommendations. TiVo has yet to announce any products that will feature Pindrop's technology, but Balasubramaniyan said that we may get an update on that in the next few months. In addition to its legacy DVR business, TiVo also launched its own Android TV streaming dongle last year, and is licensing its voice technology to other companies.

A version of this story first appeared on Protocol.com.

Fast Forward

  • CBS will stream the Super Bowl for free, without authentication. Good news for cord cutters, who are now wondering: What time is the Super Bowl?
  • Apple is working on a VR headset for a possible 2022 release. The device is supposed to be a high-end niche product, and a precursor to eventual Apple AR headgear.
  • Netflix is using a new audio codec. xHE-AAC has been developed by the German Fraunhofer Society, which also helped bring us the MP3 audio file format.
  • U.S. consumers pay an average of $47 per month for streaming. A survey says streaming spending has gone up 24% since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • On Protocol: Google ended Tilt Brush development.But while Google is throwing the towel on yet another VR project, Tilt Brush won't be shut down: It's going to be open sourced.
  • Also on Protocol: Plex launched a video game subscription service, letting its users stream classic Atari games.
  • Amazon's IMDb TV service launched on Roku. The free streaming service directly competes with Roku's own Roku Channel.
  • Hulu's audience has held over 1.5 million Watch Parties. Fair to say the pandemic has finally made co-viewing a thing.

Auf Wiedersehen

Everyone knows Netflix, Hulu and Disney+. But what about Xumo, Fubo, Moovi, Mubi or Tubi? Chances are, if you're reading this newsletter, at least a few of these may look familiar. Still, are you sure you would be able to figure out which ones are real and which are made up? Over at The Verge, you can do just that with a fun little quiz. Give it a try, and see if you can beat my score (I got 11 out of 13 right). Oh, and while you're at it: Try to come up with a name for a streaming startup that doesn't exist yet! With Vimeo and Vdio and Yidio and Veoh and Vidgo and Vudu already taken, it's harder than you'd think.



82% of leaders will adopt a hybrid-first model in 2021. Preparing the organization for a more complex hybrid workforce introduces complexities that can impact productivity and the employee experience. Explore 5 Steps to Building a Hybrid Workforce to help you develop your return-to-work plan.

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