Shari Frilot started the New Frontier at Sundance in 2007, and programmed the festival’s first VR experience in 2012 with Nonny de la Peña’s Hunger in LA using an early Oculus Rift prototype made by Palmer Luckey. Frilot has since programmed around 75 VR experiences since 2014 that explore storytelling, empathy, and emotional presence, but she sees that it’s going beyond empathy. She says that being in VR gives us “the ability to see ourselves in a way that we could never do alone,” and that VR embodiment may allow us to overcome our unconscious biases. In speaking about embodying a number of different creatures in The Life of Us she says, “you can watch yourself tap these primitive instinctual responses and you watch yourself go into another place of being able to socially engage with somebody” beyond the normal labels of white dude or a black lesbian.
I had a chance to catch up with Frilot at Sundance this year where we talked about the power of story to change someone’s reality, the role of Sundance in the modern history of consumer VR, interdisciplinary insights into storytelling from over 10 years of New Frontier, how VR could change how we see and understand our underlying value systems, and how VR could help us reconnect the body to the brain in a new way.
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Here’s the short documentary that Frilot references in the podcast about “Scientists Have Found a Way to Make Paraplegics Move Again”
Here’s the keynote that Nonny de la Peña’s gave at SVVR where she talks about Hunger in LA and some of her early pieces that premiered at Sundance.
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[00:00:05.412] 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 feature Shari Frillo. She's the chief curator of the Sundance New Frontiers section, which has had a pretty important part of the evolution of modern consumer VR, going back to featuring some of the early works of Nani de la Peña. In 2012, using a prototype Oculus Rift that Palmer Luckey was showing, way before he launched the Kickstarter, And in 2014, there was a number of VR projects on the DK1 that were also getting a lot of press attention, leading up to the eventual sale of Oculus to Facebook later that year. So I'll be talking to Shari about the power of VR storytelling to see ourselves in a new way, and how she sees VR as a way to cultivate new values and creating new interactions with each other as we are embodying ourselves in VR experiences. As well as the role of the artist and being able to make sense of a very confusing world and to be able to create stories that help us understand the world, understand ourselves and how we relate to it. So we'll be talking about all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by VRLA. VRLA is the world's largest immersive technology expo with over 100 VR and AR experiences. They'll have tons of panels and workshops where you can learn from industry leaders about the future of entertainment and storytelling. I personally love seeing the latest motion platforms and experiences that I can't see anywhere else. Passes start at $30, but I actually recommend getting the Pro Pass so you can see a lot more demos. VRLA is taking place on April 14th to 15th, so go to virtualrealityla.com and get 15% off by using the promo code VRLA underscore VoicesOfVR. So this interview with Shari happened at the Sundance Film Festival that was happening in Park City, Utah from January 19th to 29th, 2017. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:16.202] Shari Frilot: I'm Shari Frillo and I'm the Senior Programmer at Sundance Film Festival and the Chief Curator of New Frontier. So New Frontier is a kind of experiment and festival presentation that I've been up to here since 2007. The idea is to bring cinematic visions and practices from different silos, like the art world, the film world, technology, and bring them together. inside of the film festival to provoke a new kind of conversation, to recenter conversation in ideas. I was very interested in providing like an alternative conversation to industry buzz of the films, bring it back to like a pure, almost unexpected creativity. And so that's where it started, right? And so I've been tracking artists who are interdisciplinary or they're a fine artist who's engaging with film or a TV star who wants to do a crowdsourced studio, you know? Like folks who are kind of crossing these boundaries and creating these new worlds by doing it. So I was following Nani de la Peña in around 2000, I started following her around 2009, you know, with her Second Life work, Gone Gitmo, where she recreated Guantanamo Bay in Second Life as a documentary. And in 2011, she said, Shari, you got to come to my studio. I really want to show you something. So I did that and I walked into this really big room with sensor tracking all over. They put me on a big backpack and with like a big umbilical cord coming out with three guys and almost like a helmet. And I experienced VR for the first time. And it blew me away. Blew me away. And her practice as a journalist is taking live recordings, live eyewitness recordings, whether she collects them or she acquires them from subjects. And what she did with this piece, it's called Hunger in Los Angeles. This is what I saw when I went to her studio. It was an eyewitness account, audio recording of a guy who's on a hunger line in Los Angeles and fell out from a diabetic coma. The ER came and took him away. That was the event. So it's very, you know, even me telling you that is like, yeah, okay, you know. And if you read about it, you're like, wow, how could that happen? Even if you saw it on TV, you're like, oh, wow, that's sad. But if you're there, and it was, you know, when I entered into it, it was a unity, very simple, sim world, you know, very uncanny valley. And about five seconds into it, I just became one of the inhabitants. And it wasn't weird anymore, and it was completely interactive. And this guy was right next to me, and when he fell out, I went down, you know, I dropped myself down. I was engaged. I was invested. My body was invested. And it was just so incredibly, that instead of it something that I learned that happened, it happened to me. And so it became a memory that's personal to me that I would tell somebody about what happened to me. You know what I mean? And it's a very powerful way to tell news. So afterwards, you know, I talked to Nanya, I was like, wow, you know, this is really powerful. You're onto something. But I have to ask you, you know, you're a journalist. Your mission is to, as a journalist, is to inform the floating public. How are you going to do it with this? Because it took me about 20 minutes to go through this. You know, 15, 20 minutes. And how am I going to bring this to Sundance? You know, my audience is going to be furious with me. They're not going to be, you know, is this in a formative state or where are we, you know, where are you with this process? And she said, I don't know, Shari. I don't know how to answer these questions. They're really good questions. But all I know is that this is the medium. I'm convinced that this is how to tell the news. This is how I want to report my stories. And her passion for that and the clarity, combined with my experience of how powerful it was, we took that leap. So I brought her Hunger in Los Angeles to New Frontier in 2012. And so when I was in her media lab, the VR headset was like a $50,000. It was really expensive. It was at USC, and they were like, you're not going to take our $50,000 headset to Sundance. I'm sorry. So what she did was she worked with Palmer Luckey, and they showed up in 2012 at New Frontier with this kind of duct-taped cell phone looking thing. Headsets that works and I just sat there and we watched people stand on line and no one complained and everyone's giddy and Watch people drop down to the floor time and time again to help that guy that passed out people coming out of the headset and tears It was just profound. It was like a revelation. It was a revelation and So Palmer, lucky after that, set a Kickstarter. You probably know the story by now. I don't know if you need me to get into it, but it is part of my story, I suppose. So set that Kickstarter for $250,000 and raised $2.5 million to immediate production. on a consumer version of that prototype, the Oculus Rift. And when I found out about it, I gave him a call and asked him, well, you know, what kind of content you got? You know, maybe we should, you know, I feel like I want to continue this thread and see this through because it's, you know, our audiences had a powerful response to this. So Joe Chen came and gave me demos of what they had. They were mainly dealing with generating game content for it. There was an artist I knew I was going to program for the 2014 festival, James George and John Menard's Clouds. And the way that they were telling the story and how they were telling the story, I asked them, do you guys know about VR? Does NYU have a DK1 that you can get your hands on, you can explore it? Because it really feels like you have the stuff to do a part, expand your project to also present in VR. So they developed that chapter on VR, and it just belonged in their documentary, just what they're doing. Then I talked to Chris and Chris was like, we were actually talking about Treachery of Sanctuary, and we're about to get off the phone, I'll never forget it. I was on the rooftop of my girlfriend's place in Philadelphia, I was like, you know, by the way, Chris, you know, I'm really excited about VR. And he stopped and we talked about two hours about VR. He was so excited about it. So I was like, I'm going to do a show. I'm trying to figure out, like, how to do something, you know, with what's out there. And that's when he put together that piece. He basically retrofitted the 360 music video that he did with Beck. Sound and Vision, I believe it was. He's performing Sound and Vision. So that was two pieces, and then Oculus had an Oculus Cinema, so I selected a film out of the festival that was 3D to present that. So that was five pieces that I presented in 2014, and I did a really aggressive push to bring filmmakers in to see that, to bring film critics in. to see it, you know, and when Kenny Turan got into the DK1 and he came out, he was like, that's incredible! You know, I knew that, and I felt that energy. I knew it was, they're sitting on something kind of big. I didn't know what was going to happen. Three months later, Facebook bought it for two billion dollars and that changed my life. pretty much at Sundance and also as a curator of New Frontier. What I'm interested in doing is creating worlds that are looking at the intersection and the overlapping of two worlds and then seeing what the new worlds are coming out. So when there was all of this money being invested in VR, a lot of chatter about headsets and big companies, and there's cardboard, you know, coming down the pike. I did something for the first time in 2015 edition of New Frontier. I made the decision, because generally I'll curate a show like this one here at the Claim Jumper, which is multidisciplinary from different worlds. The 2015, it was that, but it was actually, I made a choice. The majority of the show was VR. And I went out and then I found 11 pieces. What was great about that show was that the 11 pieces weren't just from game developers or a certain kind of artist, practitioner. They came from performance artists, filmmakers. You know, I kept doing also that kind of pairing this filmmaker with this technologist and like, do this experiment and see if there's something that we could do together. you know, to Oscar Raby, who was already clear and had something, it was amazing. And that show really, in terms of the storytelling VR culture that we're seeing right now, that show was a critical show. That's when I saw the field shift over and something that blossomed out of the storytelling vein of VR, because there's a gaming vein as well. And that was when I started to get the kind of press for New Frontier that we never got before. You know, like several interviews with the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times and like, what's happening here? It was that perfect storm. So the risk paid off, you know, and it really did blossom a kind of excitement that went viral. You know, people were just so excited. You know, we had a critical number of people getting to the headsets, talking to, and seeing that a filmmaker could do it. You know, seeing that a performance artist can do it. Seeing, you know, Nani coming back and do it. Seeing what Chris Milk did, you know, with Digital Domain. So they got to see all these different manifestations and engagements with a brand new medium. See what Felix and Paul were doing, you know. I think it was maybe as much that there was a diversity that was energizing as it was the medium because there were all these different options and no one owned anything and it was wide open and it was all so powerful. So it was amazing. After that festival, there was a whole lot of excitement, a lot of chatter in the press, and the thing that I kept hearing was, where's the content? This is an amazing, you know, all this money's coming in and predictions for the industry, but there's like, where's the content? Where's the content? So, as we were approaching the 2016, that content actually exploded on my desk in October, just before I had to close. It was just like, pow! Just all this content. So I, once again, curated a very provocative show. I mean, I put out like 30 plus works. Anything that I thought was important, that was provocative, I included demos that I felt demonstrated, because I often bring media labs into New Frontier, things that are in progress, that I feel is important for filmmakers, you know, our audiences to be aware of, that might provoke them to think about telling stories in a different way. So I applied that to this material that was on my desk. And that was on the occasion of our 10th anniversary. We put this huge show out and our attendance tripled and it was just a turning point for this program. And it's an accelerated growth rate. VR and VR at New Frontier. Before I was provoking, I still kind of do, Now, in terms of VR, it's starting to develop, it's starting to muscularize itself and generate its own, and I'm talking about creative output, not the hardware, because that's also, of course, always expanding. You know, the creative community is energized and they're collaborative and they're figuring things out really fast. So this year's show, you're really starting to see maybe what you thought would come down in five years, it happened the next year. You're seeing it here, social VR, socialized narrative, shared experiences, apps that let you make your own VR, like storytelling in ways that were stumping filmmakers just the year before. How do you make a cut in VR? Now you see this work like Through You, live action with dancers, cutting, using energy as the way to move a spatial story through. I mean, it's a remarkable piece. This happened like the year after. What's remarkable all through this is that the power of this medium has never been lost on artists. It really has. They see what it is and then they go for important stories with it, you know, like melting ice. You know, this year we're showing, and this is a companion, a VR companion piece to Inconvenient Sequel, which is, of course, the sequel to Inconvenient Truth. And it's one thing to see the documentary in the theater telling you the deep and rich story and giving you the details and making you aware of what you need to know. But it's all in your head when you go into the VR experience. and you are actually standing on the bank of a river that's created, a torrential river that's created by melting ice, it affects you in a totally different way. It brings the body into the experience of receiving the news, because you receive it not only in your head, your body feels the news, so you become the news moment, you become the news happening. And that's just a profound, super profound thing. You know, in this festival, Redford was very interested in doing something recognizing climate. And then we had these films, this material. And even in New Frontier, there are three pieces that are about the climate. It was just an organic thing that blossomed. It's kind of unavoidable for me to not ask the question, and maybe if I'm not recognizing it straight out, that VR, this platform in storytelling, and how it lets us embody the moment, that it is scaling our ability to deal with massive problems like climate change. Because VR lets us bring way more information to the table in combating, thinking, absorbing the problem, and puts us in touch with deeper instincts that are beyond intellectual instincts about how to act about it, you know, around it. That's just a... It's exciting and terrifying at the same time. It's almost terrifying in that the scale of our problems are also accelerating with the technology. And with the artists is the key component to this. That the artists can see the power of this technology and see what's happening in culture and with the climate and making these things that are medicine for us and our species. It's just such a tremendous thing to be a part of.
[00:16:56.726] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I bought my Oculus Rift DK1 on January 1st, 2014, and it was just a few weeks later when I had seen that there was going to be this interactive VR documentary called Clouds. And I was just transfixed with this idea of what they were doing. I come from a filmmaking background. My first Sundance was 1999, and I would come and watch films and had participated in a film that was in one of the alternative festivals. But it got into the technology. So for me, I'm sort of blending this art of storytelling from film but also the technology and I feel like there's this spectrum in VR narrative which is on one extreme is a passive reception like the yin element of a story but then the yang element of being able to actually exert your agency within the experience and so On the one extreme, it's usually a film that you're just receiving, and then the other extreme is a game that you're interacting with. But I feel like in the middle is that combination of your full presence and agency within an experience that you're able to then participate in, but also have a story element. You know, the gamers are really driving innovation in virtual reality. If you go back, it's interesting to hear that, you know, Nani was, you know, doing a lot of this storytelling, so I think story's always been there, but yet it's not driving technology. People aren't buying the technology to get stories, people are buying the technology to play games, and that, as a result, there'll be more storytelling that's enabled, but yet we're kind of in this space where Sundance really is, I see as one of the leading festivals in bringing forth that storytelling of what's coming next with interaction and storytelling, but yet I also think that there's a lot of innovations that are coming with artificial intelligence and natural language processing and interactive characters that, you know, I'm not seeing anything at this festival now, but I know that stuff's out there, so there's going to be next year a lot more component of artificial intelligence and being able to allow you to have plausibility within an interactive experience. Meaning that right now it's really difficult to meaningfully interact with an experience. Meaning that usually we have on the extreme of authored experiences, the creator has created the fixed outcome of what's going to happen and so there's maybe some branching. So you may be able to make a small decision and it may send you on another branch, but it's not like your decision is going to necessarily change the entire outcome. At the other extreme, I see this as this emergent narrative that's going to be more driven by artificial intelligent technologies, but that the middle part of the experience of being fully present, it just feels like this year at Sundance, I'm seeing a lot of innovations in terms of like Zero Days VR, in terms of what you can do with an immersive documentary, with Dear Angelica, with what you can do with the unique affordances of the volumetric nature of VR. You have Life of Us, which is bringing in the social component to an embodied experience that's has a narrative component. Mindshow VR, which I think is probably the most significant platform in terms of storytelling in VR, because it's really allowing people to express their agency and be able to create a story, but people can watch it and also participate, so it's creating this dialogue and living story. So, New Frontiers also got these other films that are amazing, and I think probably one of the most amazing experiences I had here was Travis Wilkerson's did you wonder who fired the gun and that was the process of bringing a live performance of a documentary so he was performing it and bringing his full radical authenticity and emotional presence in his body in the room while he was showing you these clips which were transporting you to you know this landscape photography that was allowing me to be transported to this different place and he was connecting his memory to place and being able to tell the story of that place, but also connect to other historical elements that happened in that time. And I just watched that and said, wow, this is really the future of narrative in VR because he's using place as a way to tell the story and orient around both his own personal memoir, but also the history of the world and all the big issues. And so he's connecting the personal with the political. It's just an amazing piece, but it sounds like in 2007 that there were these technologies that have been out there since the web really exploded in 1993, allowing people to participate in different ways in multimedia, and that there's the passive receptivity, but the new frontier seems like, well, how do you actually allow people to engage and interact with the experiences?
[00:21:16.127] Shari Frilot: It's interesting. Travis actually was, I think, a part of the 2008 edition of New Frontier. And we did with him then what we did with him this year, which was we understood what he wanted to do, that he wanted to take an experiment, and we built a stage for him and kind of rolled the dice and saw what was going to come out of it. You know he's come to the festival. We've talked since 2008 about all the developments and It's just interesting to see sort of like the convergence I'm not sure if he's been involved with VR at all you know but the convergence of the development of his work that speaks so powerfully to you who has a nose and and a site for what is starting to work, what's likely to work as a narrative structure, a narrative engine in VR that you can see it from somebody who's been engaged with this practice, interdisciplinary practice, and with New Frontier and this environment, this community, this crosstalk, is really interesting to me because which are identifying is the story first and how the story is reaching for a certain kind of medium that the medium is also building right next to him. So there's a kind of spiritual convergence with, kind of gets back to what we were talking about before, that convergence of needing to find a way to tell a story. You know, his story is kind of like an expose of his own family, who's this white supremacist grandfather who killed a black man. And unfortunately we hear a story like that all the time here. And his story took place in the 40s when it happened a whole lot more. But we never heard the story in the way that he told it that night. You know, with him in the room implicating himself, implicating whiteness, really kind of setting off a bio-bomb inside of the theater that you felt within your body. That's a new way of telling that story that hits you physically and you respond to it and he provoked us, you know, to speak Bill Spann's name at the end of that performance and you just step into that situation in a way that there is no way you can distance yourself and your responsibility and your engagement, your history with it. and you're doing it right next to somebody else who's also saying Bill Spann's name within the context of this narrative. You know, that shared engagement, the provocation and the seduction of the narrative to bring that kind of physical response is so important. It cracks something open that lets the story that is the reality, the stories that create the reality, set deeper inside of you. And you can engage with it more. You can identify it more. You can recognize that the story is you. And that's where we're really going to get somewhere. That our stories are actually us. And we have agency. We can tell those stories. We can create the stories. And with the shifting platforms of storytelling, those stories start to take different form and different kinds of power. It's the reason why I talk about our muscles, our new muscles, you know, because this technology is not separate from us. It's a part of us. We're developing it so that we can, so it's a part of our bodies, so we can expand our facilities and And then it's a biofeedback, you know, those technologies come back and expand us and evolve us and develop our brain in different ways. This acceleration in the technology, the acceleration in population, the provocation to talk about really important things that are scaled so large that affects us all. This is all kind of moving, and this is a little bit of what I talked about in my curatorial statement for this year. It's moving us to kind of face a new identity for ourselves that is at once individual, but also communal. And there's no separation between us and technology. That's obsolete at this point. You know, I really see it as a medium. We are part of a biodigital medium that recognizes us as individuals, but it also recognizes us as something that we share together, but that we are manifesting together. That is our new identity. It's a very powerful identity.
[00:25:41.643] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it reminds me of Marshall McLuhan just talking about technology being an extension of our central nervous system and that as we have new communications mediums that actually changes the way that we think and that we're able to actually have new neural pathways into the brain. And to go back to Travis for just a moment, you know, one of the things that I just wanted to point out is that, you know, he was giving a live performance of a documentary where he could have recorded that and we could have watched that as a film. but I don't think it would have had the same impact, and the reason is because he was there, he was in the room, and it sort of speaks to this transition from the information age to the experiential age, going from having direct experiences, so virtual reality technologies, artificial intelligence, and so as we move into this experiential age, another thing that I see is like this moving into live streaming, so people doing stuff live, And the thing that when you do things live is that there's no cuts, there's no edits, you're there and you're authentically communicating what's ever present in your body right there in that moment. And I think that quality of the moment of time of him being there, being able to be fully present, and for me to hear it in his voice and to hear the inner turmoil that he goes through, and it was scripted in the sense he was reading it, you know. There wasn't a lot of improv lines that I could discern, at least. It was very well crafted in that way. But there's elements where you really just feel his visceral energy, just in a radically authentic way. And I think that actually, that type of experience is going to be enabled in VR. And it's going to enable this live theater type of experience, where there's Sleep No More. We have the Hardcore here. It's another live theater experience, where you're going to start to see a lot more live theater of people embodying characters and being driven by actors. And that, you know, this is something that the academic community has already been doing with Wizard of Oz types of experiences, which sometimes they're abstracted in the sense that, you know, you can have one person control five characters and, you know, this is for training scenarios where one person is in a virtual reality experience and they're in a classroom with, like, five or six kids, all being driven by one improv actor. And so you're going to start to see this live theater type of performances in virtual reality, but you're going to be in an immersive space. and that it's actually allowing us to go to places and be transported in a way that is actually in our bodies and created memories. And as we go to places that would be physically impossible to go to in reality, then that's going to be blazing new neural pathways and opening new ways of thinking. So, it feels like there's a lot of clues, I think, here, even at New Frontier, in terms of where things are going, just looking at the live theater performance here, Travis's film that he had, and just all the other VR experiences, and Myubi's another experience that, you know, is scripted content. And talking to Felix and Paul, they said, you know, we had the actors do a lot of improv. We wanted to have them deliberately disrupt the scene so that people would be constantly present and in the moment and be able to authentically react. And I think this level of presence and authenticity is something that we're going to see a lot more in the future of narrative in VR.
[00:28:49.216] Shari Frilot: You know, on those lines, it's worth noting, and I've been thinking about this more as the festival goes on, about how much dance is in the show. That's a completely unconscious thing that happened. Now I'm looking backwards and I'm looking at the show. You know, there's dance in VR. You know, the Through You piece. There's... Heroes. Heroes, exactly, the AR piece, AR and VR, right? And then of course, Hardcore. And then I'll just jump out of the show, you know, you've got the AO that just came out, Britt Marling, and Zal Bakmanglish, you know, talking about dance as a technology. Then there's Synesthesia Suit when I was in it. And my partner in crime, Kamal Sinclair, who runs the New Frontier Story Lab, used to be a dancer, a stomp dancer for years and she was explaining to me this moment when she put on the synesthesia suit and you're like in this field of like vibrating it's like a field of almost molecules and she was like it made me feel like I was tapping what I had to tap to do the pop dance in in stomp and that really kind of blew me away because when I was in that field I actually felt like I was a part of this medium like I was a molecule and there was energy that really kind of scrambled my brain in this beautiful like luscious way that made complete sense and it's so hard to talk about. Because it wasn't something that I registered, it was just all of a sudden it was something I was a part of. And I'm still trying to put it together. But all of these things that are engaging with the body, the language of the body, and I'll borrow from the AO, the technology of the dance, and the technology that we have in moving our bodies, that is a kind of technology. I hadn't really thought about it so much, but this convergence is making me think about that more and more.
[00:30:32.987] Kent Bye: Yeah, and to go back to your human 3.0 statement, you know, it's really interesting to me to look at this process of being present in the moment of a reality that's the real world. And yet we're constructing these virtualized worlds that are coming from our mind in a lot of ways, or perhaps an artificial intelligent mind. But it's still a synthetic creation. It's not like an authentic creation in that way. It's always a choice. It's like a photograph. You're choosing what to see or not see. And so there's always some sort of limitation in terms of what code can do. And so what does it mean to have a direct lived experience within a synthetic reality? I think this is part of the question that I hear you asking is like, we're starting to be able to have these lived experiences within realms that don't exist in reality and what's that mean for our body and what's that mean for our humanity and to me it feels like when I go into VR it's all about becoming more present so that I can experience the four different types of presence and from an elemental theory perspective the four elements there's the fire presence of expressing my agency and will there's the earth presence of being completely embodied within the experience there's the air presence which is being able to have a mental and social exchange with either other people or even within myself, kind of the inner dialogue of my mind. And then the water is the emotional presence, so being able to fully engage my emotions. And I feel like the film has been very much focused on the water emotion and the air stimulating your mind, but you have no ability to be embodied, you have no ability to exert your will. within the experience and so that's where that convergence of this gaming that really gaming really focuses on that exertion of your will and I think with VR is really embodying you in a way but with VR you're really bringing all those different levels of presence together and as we go into VR and do that I just feel like I'm able to get more and more deeper sense of presence in the real world.
[00:32:23.242] Shari Frilot: Well, you know, there's a give and take between our bodies and let's just focus on VR, you know, technology generally, but let's focus on VR. I curated a three-minute documentary that is both here at the exhibition and over at the VR Palace where we're presenting the VR lineup. It's a little three-minute documentary about medical research. They're working with paraplegics, and they're trying to figure out how to help them walk again. And they built this exoskeleton for these patients, and they put them in VR. The initial intention was for the VR headsets that was hooked up to the suit to be able to control an avatar that moved the suit so that they could walk again. But something really unexpected happened. About a month or two after the patients during this training, they actually started to move their legs again. They started to move again. Now let's get back to the story. Those patients, the morning before they embarked on that experiment, the story that they accepted and they manifested was that they could not move their legs. And they engaged with a new storytelling platform, and that story changed their reality. So it's not separate. It's the story that actually determines what the reality is. And the platforms through which these stories are told and we share really affect the realities that we manifest through the story. What's really kind of fascinating, you know, just as a even before VR I always was fascinated like how does that guy over there experience the world? Is it really different than me? You know, like does he see colors in a different way? Or that woman over there when she walks does she feel the floor in a different way than I do? And I think that part of you know, what film gives you is that emotion, like another person's emotion and how they respond. What VR gives you is that possibility of feeling what another person actually, you know, feels. You know, that's why, you know, empathy kind of blew up as a point of excitement around the medium. But, you know, we're continuing to move forward, and the evolution, you know, empathy is really, and we start to see works like Life of Us, where it's more than experiencing somebody else's but walking a path in somebody else's shoes. It's sharing a space and socializing in that space together and you're watching yourself and you're watching the other person. It's a heightened sense of awareness. You know, I'm really starting to believe that it's more than empathy. It's our ability to see ourselves in a way that we could never do alone, just as bio-beings looking out for our survival, trying not to get snacked, trying not to get hurt, trying to protect our children, and having these ancient instincts that grow to be able to do that, so much so that they're just unconscious. You go into a communal experience like Life of Us, You can watch yourself tap these primitive, instinctual responses, and you watch yourself go into another place of being able to socially engage with somebody. You watch yourself respond to the person that's with you in the experience, and you're talking, and you address them as a monkey. You don't address them as, like, a white dude, you know? And, you know, I'm black lesbian. You know, that unconscious bias is not there. So in a certain way, it changes our social reality. You know, I'm sitting there watching two people queued up for Life of Us, and they're sitting next to each other, and they're waiting to get in, and they're not talking to each other, right? They're just two different people. They go into experience, they come out, and they hug. all of the sudden, what happened? You know, what happened? That's not happening in individual experiences. Individual experiences, people want to talk about it, but there's something about being inside a virtual experience and sharing something and opening up yourself in a way that is inspired by pure awe and wonder and exuberance and is uninhibited by fear and being snacked or judged There's something that gets unlocked in that experience, in that space, that I think is really important. It helps us evolve socially. Yeah.
[00:37:03.055] Kent Bye: And so what do you want to experience in VR then?
[00:37:05.898] Shari Frilot: Would I want to experience VR? I mean... I don't know, I don't really, I think I'm just more interested in watching the entire field evolve. I enjoy watching how the pattern of development is evolving and is being created. I selected this slate, all of it, I love it all, and it's a really highly selective slate. We smashed it down, 15 works, from like 45 last year. I think to answer that question is a dangerous, it's a dangerous question to answer. Because to answer it, I have to collapse the wave function from experience that I already have, which is very limited, and it's encumbered by a lot of old ways and a lot of old thinking. And it's kind of like asking a five-year-old, so what do you want to do in college? It's wrong to ask a father, you know, it's just wrong to do that. You know, you want to talk to a child like, what's exciting? You want to show them things. Be there with the discovery of that child's development. That's what I wanted, that's what I'm interested in. I want to be a part of the development. Because I don't know where, I don't know where we're going. I follow the artists. I follow them. Their role as artists are to interpret things in the world that we don't know how to interpret. And their role is to create worlds that help us understand and live and survive in a world that is confusing to us. And they may not have the answer either, but they're definitely the ones that are evolving this. They're growing it. It's the reason why the venue is designed, both of these venues, there's like strands of DNA all throughout both venues. It's the reason why I'm showing this paraplegics documentary, the medical documentary. because those patients couldn't answer that question for you. They really couldn't. If you asked them before the experiment, it would be out of their scale of existence or, you know, experience or existence to be able to tell you, well, what I want to do is walk again. You know what I mean? They could only answer that question or they could only provide that answer to your question after they were affected by the development.
[00:39:37.580] Kent Bye: Yeah, for me, one of the things that I really want to experience is referring back to one of the things that you had mentioned just a few moments ago and also at the Baobab Studios party is that, you know, using VR as a technology to learn more about yourself. And I feel like MindShow in some ways is going to be One way of being able to express your agency within an experience such that it's going to be an expression of yourself It's going to be an expression of your inner psyche in some way and it's going to be kind of like this Drama of yourself that you can play out and now other people can watch that and maybe understand a little bit more about your personality so things like that that are able to connect you to more to yourself and But you learn more about yourself in VR, but also to connect to others and to connect to the larger cosmos. I feel like there's, for me, a thread of the point in history where we are right now is kind of the equivalent time of when the Gutenberg Press had been out for a number of years and then a lot of the text coming from Greece, a lot of this early philosophy, neoplatonic thinking started to infuse and inspire the artists to start to infuse their art with the anima mundi, the world soul. And I feel like there's something that's happening that's very similar right now is that there's been this split between the mind-body and science and spirit and that like in some ways VR through experience is like this combination of your objective reality and your subjective reality in the way that It's actually kind of like creating this new fusion. In part of the experiential age we have a political environment with Donald Trump being elected where the amount of objective facts is being questioned by everybody on all sides of what's true and what's the journalism and who do you believe and there's fake news. you kind of have to, in some ways, have your emotional authenticity to be able to really hear whether or not people, if they really speak what they're saying, if they really believe it with conviction, which can be dangerous because we're entering in this realm of, like, if you say it with conviction, then is that true? So I feel like with VR, we're kind of entering in this realm where before, you know, you watch a film, you're always able to project your subjective reality into it, but you had no ability to change the objective reality of that experience, and with VR, you now have that agency and that embodiment within the experience so that now you can actually participate within that experience. And it becomes less of a passive film and more of a full experience that, according to our brain, is no different than how our neurons fire from existing reality. And so it's really kind of hacking our senses in a way that we're able to have these types of experiences. So for me, I'm just really interested in that cross-section of how can VR connect you more to yourself, connect you more to other people, and connect you to the Earth and to a larger cosmos.
[00:42:10.961] Shari Frilot: You know, a part of that, of what you're talking about, are values. What are our values? And where we are with our value system? Do we find valuable? And how do we develop values? You know, stories have always helped us do that in different ways. How to value ourselves, to even see ourselves. But there's something that's really interesting in how VR is socializing, you know, with live engagements, works like Life of Us. Because they grow our way of interaction, our values shift. And it's so important to think about values right now. We're sitting here in a room full of about 20 people, and I bet every single person in this room has some kind of insecurity about the acceleration of technology. And the acceleration of the economy, you know, what's happening with the economy, acceleration of climate change. We're being stripped down, kind of naked to the winds, like a cosmic wind. We don't have anything unless we have a value system, you know, coordinates around what is important to us. We're at the stage where we're very ripe to redevelop, you know, as we kind of embrace this new identity, to redevelop, reconsider what it means to be human, what is important to us, what are our values. It will have everything to do with how we develop this technology and how we are developed.
[00:43:47.302] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:43:55.724] Shari Frilot: Well, you know, because of how it brings the body into play and that it's rapidly going to become a medium of socialization, of communication, maybe as importantly as another way of expanding how we tell the story and construct the story. And it comes back and it grows us. What I am excited about is this moment of reuniting or coming back to embracing the fact that our brains are a part of our bodies. And we generally use about 20% of the brain. We don't even know what the 80%. For me, that's really interesting and important. And I have my eye on what's going on in medicine. You know, more and more I'm moving in that direction, just in terms of like, as a curator here in a film festival, of how is the brain engaged differently and mindfully as a part of the body. when we're now, as a culture, having such a hard time keeping up with our new lives. We're having such a hard time. And so what do we do? What do we have to work with? How can we step up to acceleration? Does that 80% of the brain, is that part of it? Is developing that, is that part of it? That's a super interesting question for me, and I think about it in a lot of free-form ways. But I don't know like if we're mindfully going that way or for actually going that way You know We continue to evolve and the brain has been a part of the evolution of our species and it has a lot to do with our technologies that surround us and I would not be surprised that this might be the new frontier of the body Awesome.
[00:45:37.336] Kent Bye: Well, thank you so much.
[00:45:38.817] Shari Frilot: Thank you. Thank you Kent
[00:45:40.814] Kent Bye: So that was Shari Frillo. She is a senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival and is the chief curator of the... Sundance New Frontier section. So, I have a number of different takeaways about this interview, is that first of all, just as Shari was telling the history of her involvement with the New Frontier, going back to 2007 when it was first started, and then leaning up to 2009 when she first saw some of Nani de la Peña's work in Second Life with Gon Gitmo, and then in 2012 when she featured Nani's piece Hunger and Laleh at Sundance, where Palmer Luckey brought one of these prototype Oculus Rifts and were really kind of showing virtual reality to a consumer audience for the first time in a really long time. So to me, I think it's interesting that some of the first VR experiences were some of this immersive journalism that Nani de la Peña was doing. And that, you know, eventually in 2014, when there is five VR experiences that were there, was just contributing to this environment where these virtual reality technologies were just getting a lot of press attention, which I think as Facebook was looking at Oculus, likely had some influence as some of the stories were actually some of the first VR experiences that were really getting out there and getting a lot of press attention. But I really liked Shari's points about how storytelling is a platform that changes people's realities. just from the short documentary that was produced by Quartz. It's called Scientists Have Found a New Way to Make Paraplegics Move Again. So, essentially putting people in these exoskeletons and moving their bodies, but giving the visual feedback through virtual reality, I think there was potentially some connection there, that as this robotic exoskeleton was moving the body and they were showing the visual feedback within virtual reality, it was helping to reconnect some of those neural connections. So it was a form of neurorehabilitation. And while these paraplegics can't fully walk on their own right now, the studies were able to show that they're able to regain some of the control over their bladder as well as their bowel movements, which meant that for a long time they weren't able to control the schedule of their day, but now they're able to have a little bit more control over the schedule of their day, having that functionality. And it's in large part due to some of this neurorehabilitation that was enabled by virtual reality technologies. But I love the point that Shari was making when I asked her what she wanted to do in VR. She was very hesitant to say, you know, I don't actually want to answer that because it may collapse the quantum wave function. And, you know, I'm just coming from this somewhat limited perspective that is encumbered by a lot of old ways of thinking. And so it'd be very difficult to ask some of these paraplegics what they would want out of VR and for them to be able to say, you know, I'd like to be able to walk again. So I think that her larger point here is just that we don't actually know the full limits of potential. And, you know, I would push back on that saying that, you know, we have a lot of principles that we are kind of laying out. And I think for me, when I ask that question, what do you want to experience in VR? It's a very interesting litmus test. And I think moving forward, I think it may actually generate some of the more interesting answers than the ultimate potential of VR. I think they're kind of talking about different things. One is talking about what you want to do in VR. It kind of speaks to your own personal desires of what you want to experience. Experiences that you want to have, that you see the power of VR, and these experiences haven't been created yet, so what do you want to experience in VR? And then the other dimension of the ultimate potential of VR really isolates VR within a specific context or the multitude of many contexts. But if people focus on one context, then they're able to really expand the possibilities of what's even possible in that context, given the VR technology. So I think they're both really interesting questions that you'll likely hear me be asking a lot more. But one of the things Shari says is she actually doesn't know where this is all going, that she's really looking to the artist to be able to show us what they want to see. And she says that part of the role of the artist that she sees, at least, is to interpret things in a world that we don't know how to interpret. and that process of creating worlds that they're hopefully going to allow us to help us understand more about this world to be able to live and survive in it. And not only that, she says that virtual reality is actually moving beyond just empathy, but it's actually giving us the ability to see ourselves in a way that we could never do alone. So, you know, in this life of us experience, you're embodying these different characters and you're evolving through all these different stages of development of the human from starting from amoeba going all the way to where we are today. And that part of this experience of being embodied in these different characters is that they're modulating your voice. and you're embodying these characters. So the combination of those two things with another person, it started to really change the way that I was interacting with the person that I was going through this experience with. And one of the things that Shari is saying is that that experience is basically taking a lot of unconscious biases that we have based upon our normal interactions with people things are kind of happening below our conscious level of perception. And that by being embodied in these virtuality experiences, it could potentially cause us to overcome a lot of these unconscious biases and be able to interact with each other in a completely new way. And that within the context of these new types of interactions, that she says that what she sees virtuality is going to actually be doing is it's going to start to change the way that we even think about our value systems. our value systems are essentially what we value and that she says the role of storytelling has been traditionally that it's helped us to both reflect what our values are but also project us into these future either utopian or dystopian stories such that we can see the outcome of our small decisions over time but also allow us to empathize with characters who are put into situations that are very difficult for us to imagine what that would be like. But through the power of story, we're able to do that. And then to realize the process of seeing a story is watching character being revealed by making decisions under pressure. That's what Eric Downer now told me in terms of how he sees the role of story is that it's a process of revealing your character based upon being in these situations of pressure and making decisions. And we don't have the ability to experience everything in life. And so while watching a story allows us to step into the shoes of people who may be in those very difficult decisions and allows us to think about what decisions were made and to see those outcomes. So that if we encounter some similar situation, perhaps that will help us inform our decision. And I think that's the process of the connection between your value system, what you're valuing, and the role of stories to be able to show those values playing out within the context of that story. And that as we watch this acceleration of technology and economy in the midst of this ecological crisis, then, she says, we're being stripped down naked to the cosmic winds and we don't have anything unless we have a value system and coordinates around what is important to us. And that we're at this stage where we're really ripe to develop as we embrace this new identity and redevelop and reconsider what it means to be human. And I think that is at the essence of what virtuality is doing, is it is allowing all these new capabilities to interact. But at the heart of it, it's asking all these deep questions of what it means to be human. What's important to us? What are our values? And it's going to be these values that are really driving how we continue to develop and evolve this technology. So, you know, at the end, Shari is saying that, you know, what she finds really exciting about VR is that it's really bringing the body into the equation and that we're having a hard time as a culture keeping up with our new lives. What do we have to work with it? And how do we step up to that acceleration? Our brains are trying to evolve in order to keep up with these technologies, but also incorporate the body in that process in a new way. And that VR may be a huge part of this new frontier of reconnecting the body to the brain. So at the Sundance Film Festival over the last couple of years, there's been about 60 VR experiences and I've had a chance to see all of those in 2016, 2017. And you know, the thing I'd say is that there is a lot of interesting innovations in terms of what the emerging narratives and stories are going to be that are really focusing on character and empathy and emotion and cultivating that sense of emotional presence. And that from the gaming world, we have a lot of the agency and embodiment and choices and mental and social presence. And that, you know, I think there's this fusion that's happening right now. And that's what I think is so interesting about this New Frontier initiative and mission is that they have been trying to do this interdisciplinary approach of seeing how all of these different fields are coming in from different perspectives and seeing what type of innovations they can do to storytelling. And that there's going to continue to be a lot of innovations that are coming from completely out of left field or just people who are discovering unique affordances of virtual reality when it comes to embodiment, or just seeing what you can do with artificial intelligence and natural language processing as you start to move away from more authored stories to more emergent stories. So that's all I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. 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