#411: Living Stories: What VR Can Learn from Immersive Theater

charlie_melcherWhen the recession hit in 2008, book publisher Charlie Melcher looked to reinvent how Melcher Media told stories using the latest smart phone technologies. They developed an iOS app for Al Gore’s Our Choice, and started having a lot of conversations with other media producers from many different disciplines to see how they were using code as a canvas for storytelling. So in 2012, Charlie founded The Future of Storytelling Summit to gather together the most cutting-edge innovators of telling immersive and interactive stories. For the past four years, they’ve been featuring more and more virtual reality technologies at their yearly summit, which is happening again this year on October 5th and 6th.

Charlie cites Orality of Literacy by Walter Ong as a book that explores the impact of what was lost from oral traditions within cultures when the printed word started to become the authoritative source rather than from stories that were collaboratively shared. He sees that virtual and augmented reality is bringing us back to a previous time with “Living Stories” that are personalized, responsive, immersive, and multi-sensory. Rather than continuing to produce uni-directional linear media, these new immersive platforms are enabling us to play a more significant role within stories where we can exert our agency, express our creativity, and more fully collaborate in making stories.

I had a chance to catch up with Charlie to explore his thoughts on what VR can learn from immersive theater, the transformational potential of becoming a character within a story, the power of living stories, creating more social storytelling experiences, and how immersive technologies may be bringing back some of these pre-literate oral traditions and a greater tolerance for dealing with mystery and enchantment.


I recommend checking out some of the speaker videos produced before each of The Future of Storytelling Summits. Here are some of the VR highlights worth checking out:

World Building with Alex McDowell

Glen Keane – Step into the Page with Tilt Brush

Language of Looking with Eyefluence

Saschka Unseld – Uncovering the Grammar of VR

Ubisoft’s Corey May on the Player story vs. Protagonist Story

The Three Moods of Netflix: Escape, Expand, or Socialize

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Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. On today's episode, I have Charlie Melcher, who is the founder of the Future of Storytelling Summit, as well as Melcher Media. And so Charlie comes from a book publishing background and was forced to look into emerging technologies during the recession in 2008, and From that, realized that he's actually a company that's focused on storytelling and started to look at ways to immerse the reader more into either a book or interactive media and using code as a canvas for storytelling. And so from that, Charlie started the Future of Storytelling Summit and has been gathering a lot of different innovative leaders thinking about the future of storytelling throughout these different interactive media. and has lots of ideas about what's it mean to move beyond a unidirectional communications medium, make it more interactive, and start to have living stories, and getting back to a lot of ancient oral traditions that start to reintroduce the mysteries of the world. So, that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsors. Today's episode is brought to you by The Virtual Reality Company. VRC is creating a lot of premier storytelling experiences and exploring this cross-section between art, story, and interactivity. They were responsible for creating the Martian VR experience, which was really the hottest ticket at Sundance, and a really smart balance between narrative and interactive. So if you'd like to watch a premier VR experience, then check out thevrcompany.com. Today's episode is also brought to you by The VR Society, which is a new organization made up of major Hollywood studios. The intention is to do consumer research, content production seminars, as well as give away awards to VR professionals. They're going to be hosting a big conference in the fall in Los Angeles to share ideas, experiences, and challenges with other VR professionals. To get more information, check out thevrsociety.com. So this interview with Charlie happened within the Meltzer Media offices and I went there right after finishing 60 interviews about artificial intelligence and went directly from that conference and went to Meltzer Media and did this interview with Charlie on Friday evening, July 15th. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:34.085] Charlie Melcher: Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, and I'm the founder of the Future of Storytelling Summit, and also Melcher Media. So we've spent 20 some odd years making beautiful books, always trying to break out of the flatland of the printed page. So we would do pop-up books, or books with chips in them, or 3D glasses. And then eventually, in about 2008, 2009, The recession caught up with book publishing, and it really forced me to start to think about what my next chapter would be. The first thing at that time that I thought of, we were working on a book with Al Gore, our second book with him, and I asked, could I have the digital rights? And so he said, sure, go do something amazing. And so we put together this talented team, and we made our first app. It was a native iOS app for the tablet. and the phone. It was called Our Choice. And it turned out to be a huge success. We launched it. It was instantly the top grossing app in the App Store. Steve Jobs found the app and fell in love with it. And we won that year Apple's award for the best designed app of the year. The two young coders that we worked with, who were super talented, encouraged them to start a company to license that technology. They did. And very quickly, that company was bought by Facebook. And so we had this great experience of going from a traditional publishing company to a successful new tech startup. And what I loved about that was that we saw the potential of telling stories in new ways with code as a canvas. In fact, what I think was really unique about that app was that we played to the multisensorial nature of the tablet. At that moment, I started to realize that what was core to our company was our ability to help people tell stories, that it really wasn't so much about paper or ink or binding, but it was about our ability to understand what the message was, who the audience was, and how to connect the two through an emotionally powerful story. And so we redefined Melcher Media as a company that focused on storytelling first. We also started to look for people doing other amazing and innovative things in other media, and I started to have these conversations with people in different fields, gaming, and advertising, and music, and realized that we were all kind of struggling with exactly the same challenges. We were trying to figure out how to tell stories with code as a canvas, how to wrestle the phone into a publishing medium, and so I felt the need for a new community. I had to get these people talking to each other. Everyone was sort of stuck in their media silos that they had grown up in, and that was really the inspiration for the launch of the Future of Storytelling Summit. It took us a little over a year to put the first one together, and the intention there was to bring the best people who were really working at the pioneering cutting edge of all these different disciplines to come together to share their experiences, to cross-pollinate, and ultimately to collaborate. That was five years ago, and the summit has really grown and taken off, and it has inspired us to change our practice at Melcher Media as well. One of my favorite recent examples of our books is a book we did with JJ Abrams a little over a year ago called S. And in that, it's the story of two people who are helping each other solve a mystery around an author who wrote a book called The Ship of Theseus. and they leave notes in the margins of the book for one another. Every day they leave a note in the book and leave it on the shelf. The graduate student works at night in the library and the undergraduate, she works in the library by day. they also start to leave things in the pages of the book. So a postcard, a letter, a Xerox, a napkin with a hand-drawn map on it. And so as a reader, you read the novel, you read their relationship as it's explained in the margins, as they write notes to each other in the margins, and you pull out these objects and you read or make sense of them as well. So you become party to solving this mystery. My friend Felix Barrett, who runs Punchdrunk, a wonderful immersive theater company, said to me after seeing the book, Charlie, you're doing in print what we do in theater. You're making an immersive experience that comes alive for people. Coming from Felix Barrett, that's a great compliment. And so I think now our learnings from this next generation of storytelling and how it's playing out both in the digital arena and in the analog arena. So, digital in things like VR and AR, and analog things like immersive theater, or escape the rooms, or live action role-playing games. All of those things are influencing the way we make books today.

[00:07:29.614] Kent Bye: And so with the Voices of VR podcast, after I've done over 450 interviews now, I start to get a little bit of a 60,000 foot view of the overall domain and landscape of virtual reality. And I'm curious, since you've been doing the future of storytelling for at least five years now, if you've been able to kind of get that similar like 60,000 foot view of storytelling. I know just from working with interactive media and VR, there's this big tension between interactivity and agency matched with narrative and story, trying to find that balance between those two, just watching through a number of different speaker stories for the future of storytelling. I know that there was someone from Ubisoft who kind of phrased it in the language of the player story and the protagonist story, I think is another way to say that same dynamic of the protagonist is the narrative that you're telling, but the player is their own personal experience. And in VR, you kind of have your own sort of sense of presence. And so there's a focus on you being present in the experience. And on the other extreme, I think it's like you're not being present in your body. You're more empathizing with other people. You're trying to put yourself in other people's shoes. And so I see this tension between self and other in that. And so from your perspective, I'm just curious some of your kind of high level takeaways when you've been looking at the future of storytelling.

[00:08:46.145] Charlie Melcher: So I've been looking at a lot of VR, as have you, and I think we're so in the early stages of it. We're so at the early days, like when people invented the motion picture camera and they put it on a tripod and they filmed plays. And it took them 20 or 30 years to figure out the natural language of cinema, pans and cuts and montage. And so we haven't really figured out that language yet for VR. Too many filmmakers, I think, are picking it up and saying, oh, it's a camera. I'll just film. And so right now, a lot of the things that I see, frankly, I think they would be just as good or better as documentary films, or short docs, or short fictional films. There's only a few things that I've seen that I think really start to give the breadcrumbs for where we're headed. To me, one of the things that's so important about the future of virtual reality is having real agency in that virtual space. And by that I don't mean a larger field of view, being able to turn my head. I actually mean being physically immersed in the space and being able to interact with what's going on in there or have some control over the narrative. And so there are pieces that are starting to let people do that. I think some of it's still a limitation of technology. A lot of it's still just purely the headset and a viewing experience. The other big piece that I think is that VR is meant to be ultimately social. I don't think we are going to discover that that's the thing that people do a lot alone. They're going to enter into that space to be there in that virtual space with other people. So again, they're just the beginnings of that taking place today, but I think that's going to be a huge part of where it evolves.

[00:10:27.085] Kent Bye: a couple things that come to mind. One is that there's the Alex McDowell's model of world building. So it's more about kind of building a world and having a shared experience going through that world. You know, my interview with Jesse Jodre, he talked about people who were building Dante's Inferno and also Jesse Sell talking about how in the actual text of Dante's Inferno that there's a tour guide who's kind of helping you guide you through this experience. And so it comes a little bit more like a theme park ride. One way that I have been thinking about virtual reality in contrast to film is that Eric Darnell from Bebop Studios said that with film, it's kind of like one person telling you their experience of their story. Whereas in VR, it's more of like you're given an experience and you're letting the audience generate their own stories. And I get the sense that there's a lot of these immersive experiences that are kind of like that. I mean, in some ways, Sleep No More, I think, is probably one of the closest things I can think of that really does an amazing job of having these parallel narratives and you have the agency to be able to jump between them. And it makes sense to be able to have this warehouse where you're going from room to room and you're a ghost so you don't have like true impact on the story that's happening but you have impact in the sense that you're able to have local agency within your experience without any global agency. The next extreme I think would be being able to have that full agency but actually have global agency meaning that every one of your small incremental actions was able to actually have consequence in the world and in the story in some way, some sort of dramatic arc so that you could have almost infinite replayability doing small different actions and then going on different paths within that, but still feel like you have an actual character or part within that experience. And so just in my experience and thinking about it, I've seen some breadcrumbs with, you know, looking at things like Sleep No More as inspiration, looking at things like Facade as inspiration, and there's artificial intelligence that I think is going to be a huge part as well. So yeah, since you've experienced a lot of these things, had a lot of these speakers, I'm just curious, you know, some of your thoughts on that.

[00:12:28.412] Charlie Melcher: Well, I think it's really smart of you to go deeper into the AI world. I do think that that's the technology that's missing to allow us to have the kind of responsive narratives that we are at the beginning of. I really envision this next generation of storytelling where the story or the characters in the story are able to respond to our actions, perhaps even read our moods or our emotions, without our consciously being interrupted to choose a path, have the story evolve in a way that is customized to us or personalized to us. I like to use this term, living stories, and to me that's a kind of storytelling that is personalized, responsive, immersive, multi-sensorial, and when you get stories like that, then you are living the story, it is emotionally engaging, it's memorable, it's powerful, honestly to the point of, I think, being transformative. And so we're just on the cusp of this next generation of living stories, something that reminds us of the sensual joy and kind of emotional complexity of being alive.

[00:13:43.038] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that's really true. And I think, like you said, the multi-sensory part, the more haptics and more parts of our sensory systems that are integrated into the experience, the more immersive that it's going to be. Things like the void, I think, is going to be a big part of being able to actually have this digital out-of-home entertainment arcade experiences where my experience of having this infinite redirected walking, it really put me in a different state and a sense of presence that I really haven't felt before. But yeah, I did just finish within the last seven days I've done 60 interviews about artificial intelligence and literally just came from that conference straight to this office and I will be starting the voices of AI because I do think that it's the future of storytelling in a lot of ways It's a missing component and I didn't and I wanted to really dive into it with the intent of eventually going into the creative AI field, which is like the subdomain within the AI, which really focuses on the interactive narratives and the drama and the gaming. So I look forward to really diving into that. But I think one of the really big challenges with interactive narrative, and Chet Felsnak from Valve told me this, is that the challenge with interactive narrative is if people go through it, do they know that they had any impact on the story? And so are they given explicit direction at any moment to know that their agency is actually impacting things, either on a local or global agency level? So people may go through an experience and just think they have the experience. And that's exactly what happened to me when I saw Sequenced at Sundance, is that I didn't realize that I was triggering different branches within the narrative, and I was actually really surprised to hear that that was encoded in there. But I think that's a challenge, is how do you make sure that there's choice given within an experience that feels natural? But this whole plausibility thing, I think, is a huge component of VR. You know, Mel Slater talks about there's two major components to presence, and it's the place illusion and plausibility illusion. The place illusion is that you actually feel like you're in an immersive space. But the plausibility illusion is like a house of cards, and it could be just anything from the Uncanny Valley or something that is a hole in the plot line, just like in any 2D movie. If we sort of don't believe what's happening, it can kind of make the plausibility illusion collapse like a house of cards. So yeah, just as you were saying that, all those different dimensions come up with the complexities that are involved with VR. But if you can kind of find that balance between cultivating presence and giving somebody a story, I think it's going to actually be a choice that people make in terms of Are they going to be focusing on trying to give someone an embodied sense of presence in some sort of interactive experience, which is more like a game? Or are they going to find a way to have them empathize with other people's stories? And I think that balance and that tension is the crux of what makes interactive storytelling so hard.

[00:16:30.270] Charlie Melcher: One of my favorite experiences that I reference is the one-on-one that I had when I went to a Punch Drunk production called The Drowned Man. and I was pulled into a one-on-one with this young actress and went through a scene. I didn't really know what was going on at the time. I thought I was following her on my own free will, but in fact I had been sort of targeted, I guess. And I went into this room and she takes off my mask and she takes this trench coat and she puts it on me, this kind of 50s Bogart number and adjusts the collar and brings me down this little hallway into this dark room and it's this beautiful young starlet and the conceit of that whole show, The Drowned Man, was a 1950s sort of Hollywood studio and they're making a movie and all that and so I'm taken alone into this little room and we go down this hallway and it gets darker and darker and then I'm there alone in the dark. She lets go and I'm just standing there what feels like a long time in the dark and all my senses go on alert to try to figure out what's going to happen next and then all of a sudden I hear this loud noise over a loudspeaker that says, action. And then there's a flash of light. And in the flash of light, I can see that I'm surrounded by 40 or 50 of these photographers' umbrellas, you know, the kind that diffuse the light. And they're going off in a kind of staccato way. and very cinematic, you know, and then as my eyes adjust, I recognize that I see the woman, the actress, and she's walking towards me, but she has this kind of intense, crazy look in her eyes now, and as she comes closer, I realize that I don't know if she's friend or foe, and I'm worried that I might have to sort of physically defend myself against her. And as she comes even closer, her hand is coming towards my neck, and I am frozen. I can't move. My heart's racing. And as her hand comes right up, it lands gently on my cheek. And then she steps in closer, and I can feel the warmth of her against my body. And I can smell the sweetness of her perfume. And my hands just instinctively go around her waist. And all of a sudden, it dawns on me that I'm no longer scared of her. Now I'm scared of me. What role am I willing to play? I'm a happily married man, but I'm alone in this room with this beautiful young actress and she's looking up longingly into my eyes and leans in to cut, I hear over the loudspeaker. And now she's stepped away again and I'm in pitch black shaking like every part of me has been kind of activated and I don't know what's happening. And then she grabs me by the arm again and leads me back into that little office and she takes off the trench coat and she hangs it on the hook and she gives me my mask back and puts it back on and she's about to see me unceremoniously out the door when she stops and she leans and whispers into my ear, I think you'd be great for the part. And then I'm afloat again with the 400 other ghosts in that building. And I went in, as I thought about it, I had gone in as a voyeur, and I had come out as the leading man. I had been literally cast in the role of trying out for the leading man. And it changed me. It was so powerful as a storytelling experience that it made me walk a little taller. I went around London for the rest of the weekend thinking that it was a set for adventure waiting for me around every corner. And so I think about that kind of storytelling as this living storytelling, the kind where I feel it, I smell it, I fantasize about it, where it transforms me into a different kind of character that I wouldn't play otherwise. And I think that we're looking for that in all of our stories. I think this next generation of immersive storytelling is aspiring to recreate that kind of immersive sensory experience. And so I'm really excited about it. Frankly, I think this is also part of just a major shift. I mean, when we grew up, all media was unidirectional, right? We had no choice but to sit back and And passively consume our television or music or books and then the Internet came around and and all of a sudden we had the world's first two way mass media and that opened up a ton of ability to like to share to comment right that's what happened at first. But that's just the beginning of a Pandora's box that's been opened, and now people aren't satisfied with just commenting, or liking, or sharing. They want to co-author. They want to create. They want to have agency. They want a role to play in their stories. And so I see this evolution of the technology as going symbiotically with the evolution of people's expectations and desires for a role, creativity, what Janet Murray in her great book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, calls being an interactor, or what Shakespeare referred to as being a player. We want to be players now. And so you see that also in the growth of things like immersive storytelling and live-action role-playing games and escape the rooms and all those kinds of things. and you see it in the evolution of these new amazing tools for VR and AR and sensors in our built spaces and natural user interfaces and all of that.

[00:21:44.848] Kent Bye: Yeah, I gotta say that was a really great and compelling story and a great example of creating a context and an experience that allowed you to generate your own story. I first saw Sleep No More back in 2011 and I just remember wanting to try to experience as much of it as I possibly could. And so when I saw Sleep No More, I would go into the experience and I would just start darting off suddenly into a different direction that nobody else was going. And I found myself just constantly having these synchronicities where just at that moment, the lead character would break and then I would be at the lead of the pack with 50 people chasing after me. And I was chasing right behind Macbeth, right before he goes through the door, he disappears and I can't go in there. But to me, it was like, almost felt like a ritual. It put me into this altered state of almost like being in this dream-like quality. And, you know, the thing that I really think about is this concept of time. The Greeks had two words for time. One was chronos time. Chronos time is when you're ruled by the watch and you have your schedule and you start at this time. The Kairos time, that's a time in which you're in this qualitative experience that just is almost like this time dilation where you just get totally absorbed into the flow and you lose track of time. And I feel myself going into that. Whenever I go into interviews at these conferences, I slip into Kairos time. I don't make any plans. And I just roam around and I start talking to people, but I don't plan any of it. It just sort of emerges based upon who I bump into in these sort of moments of serendipity and synchronicity. And I think that magic is part of what I think is the key to what has been called moving from the information age to the experiential age. And I think there's a lot of different dimensions of that. But one of that is being authentic and in the moment and being present and in that Kairos time. And so as you're telling your story, it just reminded me of talking to Charlie Hughes of like the University of Florida. And he's talking about these VR training situations that are trying to teach teachers how to teach a classroom of kids. And so the teacher standing in front of this classroom of five main actors And all five actors are played by one person who's an improv actor who knows the backstory and the story of each of those five kids and can change their voice and switch into character. And so as you were saying that, I start to really see this future where you're gonna be in a room, and maybe there's five or 10 characters, and maybe it's sort of a Wizard of Oz type of situation, which is that there's an actor who's improvving and acting out all these different characters. And so your mind's tricked and fooled that you're in this room, and you don't know when there's AI that's driving the character, perhaps, or when the character's actually interacting with you, but all that thing that you said could totally, you know, up to the point where they actually touch your face. But everything else, I think, is totally feasible to start to have these virtual environments and these kind of immersive theater type of experiences with different people interacting with each other. And I think that's going to be a key component. It's going to be able to give these people these experiences of story and narrative. And to me, I think really slip people into the magic of Kairos time.

[00:24:53.400] Charlie Melcher: So I think about what you said, and it reminds me of my belief that what's happening today is that we're being brought back to something that's more organically who we are as a species, that we started from a phase of being an oral culture. We made sense of the world around us through storytelling, inventing the gods and the myths and all those things. And at some point, we invented an information storage technology called the alphabet. And we started to write all those stories down. And when we did that, they became fixed and removed from us. In fact, Socrates referred to that as dead language. Literally, you were stripping the words from their original source and the intonation and gesture and facial expressions that are part of living language. And you were setting it in stone, or in that case, papyrus, in his day, and with that people could easily misunderstand what you meant, or even worse, misuse it. And that's just accelerated ever since then. And you think about the early days, all storytelling was living language, and it was even communal. I mean, think about music. No one just listened passively to music. Everybody either played an instrument, sang, or danced to the rhythm. You were part of that experience. And the same with our glorified idea of people sitting around a campfire telling a story. Mike Wesch, who spoke at FOST last year, a professor, did studies with preliterate tribes and saw that when they told stories, everyone participated. Somebody started the narrative, somebody else interrupted, somebody made a joke, another person heckled, there was a little wrestling for who controlled the story. I see us moving through the age of dead language to an age that's now coming back to where stories will be living and we embody them again. And I think that the various technologies, including AI, are part of letting us live with stories, be in the stories, have them be communal experiences again, and no longer that age of the couch potato that we grew up in.

[00:27:06.858] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I totally agree with that. And, you know, I hadn't put the origin point to the Gutenberg press, but I think that you're right in that written language is probably, you know, predates that to a certain extent. I used to like to say that VR was like the Gutenberg press of the 21st century, but I actually think that it's computers that are like the Gutenberg press of the 21st century. So if you look at the cyclical nature of history and the patterns, I think that you can isolate it to like 1454 with the publication of the Gutenberg Bible as like this shifting of going from this explosion of book publishing. And with that was this solidification of that singular viewpoint. And I think that Alex McDowell and his presentation at Unity Vision Summit made that exact same point of coming from this oral tradition that it used to be information and knowledge was transferred through these stories. And in fact, coming from the AI conference, there's a lot of people who work in knowledge representation, and there's many different ways of visualizing knowledge, but one of them, which is semantic encoding of knowledge. Our brain actually stores knowledge through the semantic structure of language and stories. And stories are actually a very powerful way to teach children, but it's actually very difficult for AI to know what a story means, which is a part of the issue of the context and the meaning and the pronoun disambiguation problems that happen within stories that are clear to a child, but yet AI is still like one of the biggest open problems. But I think in this framework of thinking about what happened with book publishing, it sort of like helped spur the Enlightenment and they went back to the Greeks and looked at the classics and looked at the Plato and this proliferation of natural philosophy was being imbued into the culture and they look back to classical Greeks to be able to inspire them to create all this amazing art, which was the Renaissance. And I think that if we put back to the computers of what people are doing to create artificial intelligence, as well as virtual reality and augmented reality, as well as the worldwide web of this global brain. You know, all these sort of technologies that we have are kind of coming from this new Gutenberg press of the 21st century, which I really do think is the computer, which has been able to democratize publishing and information, but moving us into this experiential age with being able to fully be present to what's happening. So that said, I think looking back to the Greeks and Neoplatonic thought, I think is actually going to be a huge part of spurring a new renaissance. It's something that I've studied for about seven years of this type of mythology and storytelling. And I went to this conference called Vernus Genie, it's a plant magic conference. And, you know, there's Western medicine, and then there's herbalism, and then there's plant magic. When I went to this plant magic conference, there is this folklorist, and I did this interview with her, and she said, you know, these plants have stories. These stories, you go back to the story of the plant, and where the plant came from, and talking to the indigenous cultures, and the indigenous traditions had stories about the healing properties of the plants. And she made the point that there's so much encoded knowledge that we can actually build a relationship with the plant through this story, because we're actually listening to the story of the plant. And I think this is the key that is kind of lost within the Enlightenment, which was our relationship to the Earth and to what Plato would call the anima mundi, the world soul, and believing that we live in an unconscious and soul universe. And because of that, if you believe that the earth has a soul and that these plants have a soul in order to relate to that soul through the story. And I think that sort of insight, I think, really has stuck with me. And then I see the importance of story and how much those stories can both encode knowledge about the history, but it also helps us create relationships through these archetypal themes that happen within these stories.

[00:31:03.119] Charlie Melcher: You know, the thing that makes me think of is the reading that I did of Walter Ong's work. He wrote a famous book called Orality and Literacy, and he also studied preliterate cultures, and he described some of the characteristics of these oral cultures, and one of them was that they were very open to mystery. they were very comfortable with the unexplained, with the gray areas. And we moved then into this literate period, which we were still in or just coming out of, and knowledge became set in stone and was either black or white. It was like everything could be proven, science, enlightenment, like our sense of knowledge itself became very black and white. Experts were the people who had read all the books on a subject, they knew everything, you could trust them entirely, and our openness to things that were more spiritual, things that were more unknown mysteries, or the sort of magic of the universe kind of disappeared. And I'd like to think that as part of this coming back to our organic or original selves that's happening in this day and age, that we are coming back to being open to more of the gray areas, the unknowns, the mysteries of the world, and can make peace with that, can live with those. David Weinberger wrote this great book, Too Big to Know, and he talks about literally the changing shape of knowledge, our perception of how knowledge went from being kind of linear and top-down, driven by the primary medium of the written word, linear type, to now it being this more networked knowledge, right? The knowledge of the internet, of the crowd, the seeing patterns and big pictures instead of black and white yeses and nos or zeros and ones. So I don't know personally whether I subscribe to the stories of the plants specifically, but I love this idea that there are all of these ways in which the world works together and we're one part of a bigger web that we're coming to understand and appreciate again as the technologies and sort of our worldview shift in this new age.

[00:33:11.733] Kent Bye: What are some of the biggest open questions that you think are driving your work forward?

[00:33:17.596] Charlie Melcher: I would say that the thing that I'm most excited about right now is, one, the constant learning that comes from being in this position of curating future storytelling. The opportunity to get to meet such amazing people and be inspired by them, challenged by them. The fact that we do that, and it's fairly heady, wonderful stuff, and then at the same time, we have this little shop that makes things. And so we still make books and apps and websites. So we have this nice mix of understanding or thinking about ideas from a 10,000 foot level, and at the same time, workshopping them and getting our hands dirty. And there's something incredibly gratifying for having your head and your hands and at times your heart engaged in same ideas but from different angles. So that's the most fun part of what I do today.

[00:34:13.197] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:34:20.638] Charlie Melcher: I think the ultimate potential for virtual reality and augmented reality will be us getting to understand ourselves better. I think that this idea that we can learn by doing, that we can experience the things we were talking about of having a multi-sensorial and powerful and transformative experience, ultimately that will fulfill what stories have always fulfilled, which is to give us a better understanding of ourselves and our places in the world.

[00:34:47.444] Kent Bye: Is there anything else left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:34:52.352] Charlie Melcher: Well, I would like to hope that it would also enable us to connect with one another better, and certainly playing to that idea of empathy, which I know it's overused a bit, but if it can give us a little more understanding of our fellow humans from different parts of the globe, I would hope that maybe this is just the utopian in me, but that it'll make for a happier, more harmonious planet, too. Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. It's a pleasure and fun.

[00:35:19.443] Kent Bye: So that was Charlie Melcher. He is the founder of the Future of Storytelling Summit as well as the founder of Melcher Media. And so I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all this concept of living stories I think is really important. And the origination of this living stories idea is in contrast to what Socrates called dead stories, which is essentially stories that have been written down with language. And so there's something that comes alive when someone is able to actively speak the story within a context of a group that's able to interrupt and interject and add and be able to allow the story to grow and evolve through many different tellings. And so this is a theme that I think has been repeating through a number of different podcasts, especially with Alex McDowell, where he was making a lot of these very similar points at the Unity Vision Summit. just kind of showing how there is a multiplicity of perspectives before the written word and before book publishing and film and radio and all these media where creators were able to document and record their singular perspective. So I think this multiple perspective within VR is kind of coming back into play and I think that Charlie's really focusing on the potential of VR and AR as interactive media for kind of like the most amount of agency, both local and global agency, and interactivity within the context of a narrative. So that's one dimension of one of the four different types of storytelling. I still think there's going to be room for the types of stories where you're a passive ghost and you're just consuming the story, or maybe you have the choice of where to look around, but you're not actually making any choices to either navigate the space or be able to interact with different characters. Just at SIGGRAPH this past week, a good example of that is Patrick Osborne's Pearl, which is probably one of the best VR narrative experiences that I've seen. Just beautifully executed and a wonderful short film that has minimal amounts of interactivity, whereas there's a few moments where you're kind of triggering events. But for the most part, it's on rails and a linear story that's being told to you. And I think there's always going to be room for that. But as we move into like this more interactive agency driven types of stories, I think that we're going to be moving beyond this traditional model where it's a unidirectional type of story and get into more of these interactive narratives. And so I think the living stories aspect and especially the story that Charlie shared where he's in this punch drunk, drowned man, immersive theater experience where he's having a one-on-one interaction. And so within Punchdrunk productions, you're typically as an audience member wearing a mask and you're essentially invisible to most of the characters. However, there are some characters that are able to grab you and take you and give you this very intimate one-on-one experience, which is essentially what Charlie went through when he was kind of walking around and was taken into this hallway and into this whole experience where he has this experience of going from a voyeur, and at the end, he's walking out as a leading man character. And so this idea of having these types of dynamic, interactive, immersive theater type of experiences, I think we're going to start to see that within VR a lot more, especially with this interview that I just published in episode 409, as well as the winner of the Realtime Live competition at SIGGRAPH, which was essentially this technology to be able to live shoot a motion captured character with all the different graphics rendered in real time and to be able to have one actor shoot a scene with herself and to be able to record one take and then play it back and then do that all dynamically in real time within the engine. And so this technology is already starting to become available where you're going to start to see these live theater types of performances with live actors dynamically interacting with the characters. And so from Charlie's mind, he sees that the future of storytelling is really going to start to have the audience moving from this passive role and starting to play a role, or to express their creativity, or to become an interactor, which is the term from Hamlet on the holodeck, or become a player, which is a term from Shakespeare. And so these different types of experiences where you're able to actually interact with the environment, some good examples of what that looks like are these immersive theater experiences like Sleep No More and Drowned Man, and some of these escape room experiences where you're in a room and you have to figure out how to get out. So when I asked Charlie about what he sees where VR storytelling is at, I have to agree that we're still at the very beginning. And I think one part where I may disagree is that I think that there's actually a lot of the fundamental building blocks and concepts of the nature of the virtual reality medium and what it can do. I think some of those are starting to really start to fall in place and be fleshed out. But it's not something that has started to really come together and be strung together in these different coherent experiences where genres are starting to be able to be formed so that you can start to differentiate what are the universal building blocks of storytelling within the VR medium that is universal to all genres and what are the different types of techniques that are unique to different genres of storytelling within VR. and should we even be calling it storytelling and should we call it building story worlds where stories can emerge out of different experiences that are being created and should we think of it more as like a theme park ride or an immersive theater experience or being able to alter your perspective from different locations and world views and having different access to different situated knowledges that are somehow simulated and the whole social component that is going to be a part of VR that you can start to go through these experiences with other people and start to dynamically interact as a group and not just as an individual and so you can start to have this Dante's Inferno type of experience where maybe there's a tour guide that's leading you through a specific environment and yet the stories emerge from the interactions that are happening between all the different audience members. And the role of artificial intelligence, and perhaps within the constraints of narrative, we can start to have sophisticated enough AI to detect the emotional intent, and then from that, give that to a drama manager and start to have different acts of a story and narrative that's being played out as you're having these interactions with artificial intelligent NPC characters. So there's a lot of different ingredients that I think are starting to come together. But I have to agree with Charlie that it is very much still early days. And I do like this idea that we are starting to move our culture into bringing back a lot of things that were lost with the introduction of written language and with published media and film and starting to experiment a little bit, like, what is it like to be able to have this oral tradition culture? I mean, in a lot of ways, the Voices of VR podcast is a lot of this oral history of being able to capture the knowledge through these different stories and hear many different perspectives. And so even though it's using a very old medium of audio, I feel like in some ways they're starting to cultivate this new immersive media that VR is going to be able to just take this to the next level of being able to bring together all these different voices and perspectives together in one place in one time. And you're not just going to be passively listening to it, but you're going to be able to actually dynamically interact and engage with these different perspectives and worldviews. And so I do think that in looking at these different cycles of history and seeing that the Gutenberg press was the catalyst to this renaissance that happened back in the 15th century, we think that computers were on the same trajectory of having all these different innovations with the democratization of publishing and interactivity and the internet and the World Wide Web and virtual and augmented reality technologies, as well as artificial intelligence. All those things being added together, I do think that we're moving away from this previous information age and moving into this new experiential age that I hope is going to start to reintroduce a lot of the mysteries of the subjective and qualitative aspects of life. And that it's sort of breaking us out of this linearity of our lives. And so the Kronos time and the linear aspect of all the previous books and written language and films and podcasts, even, are all this old paradigm. And we're moving into this new realm that is more nonlinear and interactive and participatory. And you're able to express your creativity and agency within these environments. And it's going to be more about circles than straight lines. and people are going to be able to escape into the magic of wonder and awe through being able to really step into this Kairos time, this nonlinear and qualitative aspect where nothing is planned and you're really just present for an adventure and re-enchantment with the universe where there's both metaphoric and literal magic happening, being able to do things that you could never possibly do within the real world. So that's all that I have about the interview today. I just wanted to send a quick shout out to Tilt Brush that if you haven't tried out Tilt Brush, you should absolutely just find a vibe and give it a go. But especially now, just today, they had released all these audio reactive brushes that once you go into VR and start to paint around with these brushes that are actually dynamically interacting with the music, it was just such a moving experience for me to be creating something that was alive and dancing with me. So definitely go check that out. If you haven't tried Tilt Brush, do everything that you have in your power to find a vibe and give it a shot and put on some of your favorite jams and just go create something awesome. So, that's all that I have for today, and if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and if you'd like to tell more people, then please do consider leaving a review on iTunes. And if you'd like to send some financial support to the podcast, then please consider becoming a donor at patreon.com slash voicesofvr.

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