robert-hernandezRobert Hernandez is a Digital Journalism Professor at USC, and he serves a sort of innovation lab to see how journalists can use emerging technologies to tell stories. I talk with him about some of his projects including “The Deported: Life Beyond the Border” and a series of “Homeless Realities” 360 videos and Snapchat filters of immersive stories of the homeless population featuring audio guided tours of photogrammetry scans of their homes. So we cover what he’s been finding to be the unique storytelling affordances of VR and AR, and I share some of my deeper thoughts on the philosophy of journalism at the end of the episode.

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Music: Fatality

false-mirror
Ali Eslami is an award-winning Iranian virtual reality developer who has recently taken an artist residency in Amsterdam in order to continue his speculative design of a virtual city. Eslami’s premiered False Mirror at the International Documentary Filmfestival of Amsterdam’s DocLab this year, where he created a number of different speculative futures in a modular virtual city that explores concepts of scale, identity, embodiment, and temporality through dynamic architecture. His previous experience of Death Tolls was an immersive visualization of over 300,000 body bags to represent the death toll in Syria, which won the DocLab Immersive Non-Fiction award in 2016.

I had a chance to catch up with Eslami at the IDFA DocLab to talk about what it takes to become a virtual reality developer from Iran, become self-taught through the Internet, creating immersive projects with Unreal Engine, and his speculative design process to explore the phenomenology of a post-human sci-fi future.

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Here’s a demo walk-through of False Mirror:

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Music: Fatality

pilgrim

lauren-hutchinsonPilgrim is an AR audio documentary that I experienced at the IDFA DocLab premiere as I was walking through the streets of Amsterdam. Co-director Lauren Hutchinson captured audio stories of people as they were walking the Camino de Santiago trail in the north of Spain, and you have a chance to listen to their transformational stories as you’re walking through an urban environment. If you stop, then that pilgrim continues on and you wait for the next pilgram to come along with a new story. They used prototype AR glasses with spatialized audio that were connected to a phone, which used ARKit through camera to track your movement and rotations as your turning around.

I had a chance to talk with co-director Hutchinson, who collaborated with Saschka Unseld and the Tomorrow Never Knows team in order to create this location-based, interactive AR story set to a specific loop in downtown Amsterdam. Aside from the phone providing directions, the overall experience was screenless. It focused on augmenting your experience with interactive audio in order to recreate the serendipitous interactions that you might have if you were taking pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago trail.

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Most people on the trail have some sort of reason for being there, and they captured a number of people who were in transition or had just gone through some sort of transformational experience. There is a very specific depth of sharing that happens in the context of refuge which was recontextualized, remixed, and overlayed on top of the context of a bustling urban environment. The creators wanted to highlight the vast differences of these different contexts, and so they embraced this chaotic balance between fate and free will where sometimes there are circumstances beyond your control that might trigger a change in the stories you end up receiving. It’s a form of branching narrative where you may not even be consciously thinking about the stream of consciousness segments you’ve receiving, which led to some profound serendipitious moments in my experience of it.

As the tracking technology and spatialized audio solutions on mobile AR glasses continues to improve, then we’re going to start seeing a lot more of the immersive theater type of stories where actors are physically moving their bodies through space and you have the ability to follow them. But the first iteration of location-based AR stories will likely be more like a guided tour or a more linear branching story with explicit opportunities to make choices through the experience.

But what’s made clear to me with the Pilgrim experience is that there will be all sorts of different location-based, AR audio stories that are overlaid on top of specific locations. And as spatialized audio solutions start to come out on AR glasse, then that’s going to open up more screenless options for creatives who won’t have to use visual components in order to tell a compelling story.

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Music: Fatality

idfa-doclab

caspar-sonnenThe DocLab at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) was started in 2007 by Caspar Sonnen, and it’s very similar to the New Frontier programming at Sundance as it’s looking at how what new forms of storytelling is emerging from the affordances of emerging technologies like VR, AR, and AI. Sonnen cites John Grierson’s definition of documentary is the creative treatment of actuality” as the underlying guidance for what an “immersive documentary” could be. Rather than capturing footage of real life events, a lot of the projects at DocLab use emerging technologies to be able to catalyze a very specific phenomenological experience with the participating audience through calling on memories, cultivating unique social dynamics and interactions, recontextualizing space through location-based augmented reality stories, and a whole class of experiences that typically fall within the categories of immersive theater, biographical memoir, or ice-breaking social games.

I talk with Sonnen about the history of DocLab, the trends of immersive storytelling, and the evolution of virtual and augmented reality as storytelling mediums. We also cover some of the experiential highlights of the conference, and I provide a wrap-up at the end of some of my other experiences that I had there as well.

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Music: Fatality

where-thoughts-go

lucas-rizzotto
Where Thoughts Go: Prologue is one of my favorite VR storytelling experiences of the year, as I think that creator Lucas Rizzotto has discovered a number of different design innovations that push forward the storytelling potential of the VR medium. I’d highly recommend everyone check it out before diving into this interview unpacking his design philosophy of emotional education, and cultivating this sense of introspective, self-reflection.

Where Thoughts Go is an experiment in collaborative storytelling that is built on the premises that the emotional nuances of our human experience are complicated and nuanced, that everyone has a story, that these stories deserve to be heard. Rizzotto has crafted a series of worlds that cultivate a deep sense of emotional authenticity and vulnerability. Each world is designed to based around a specific question, and you can listen to previous answers to these questions by selecting a floating sphere that plays you previous responses. You’re then invited to record your own answer to these questions, which is added into the overall experience. It’s an ever-evolving, living story that is designed to create an introspective hero’s journey of self-reflection, and it’s a perfect example of what I’ve been referring to as the “Yin Archetypal Journey.”

The Yang Hero’s Journey is like Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey, which is much more about the individuation of the hero making who is choices & taking action out in the world. The Yin Archetypal Journey is much more about ego disillusionment, centering the experience in the embodiment & emotional presence of an individual’s phenomenology, & seeing how an individual is connected to a larger whole. I previously spoke about the dynamics of the Yin Archetypal Journey with Cosmos Deng, who expands on how the Chinese mythologies and stories are influence by Taoist & Buddhist culture of focusing more on how the individual is connected to the larger whole. Where Thoughts Go manages to provide that experience of showing you the common threads of human experience as you listen and empathize with other people’s experience and reflect upon your own experiences relative to the questions.

I unpack some of the experiential design philosophy, collaborative storytelling innovations, and insights for how to create a VR experience that’s resilient to trolling with Rizzotto at the Magic Leap LEAPCon in early October.

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Here’s the announcement trailer for Where Thoughts Go: Prologue:

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Music: Fatality

fuchs-brooks
I moderated a discussion with VR pioneers Fred Brooks & Henry Fuchs at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ Future of Reality Summit (original video is here). We talk about the evolution of immersive technologies since the mid 1960s. Fred Brooks heard Ivan Sutherland’s Ultimate Display speech in March of 1965, and Henry Fuchs heard about Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles VR prototype from Stanford’s Alan Kay.

They each share the milestones of the evolution of tracking technologies, display technologies, real-time graphics and scanning & volumetric capture technologies from the late sixties until today, as well as some of the early applications from NASA and with flight simulators. They also talk about the overpromises of the hype cycle of the early 1990s, but also how the term of “virtual reality” really helped to catalyze a community of practice as well as tell the story to military funders who continued to support the type of research and work that was being doing by Fuchs and Brooks at UNC Chapel Hill’s department of computer science.

We also talk about whether or not VR and AR are well on their way to mass ubiquity or if the immersive industry should be bracing for an winter period. Fuchs was skeptical that we’ve crossed a tipping point for XR moving into mass consumer products was going to be enough to justify the investments that companies having been making into spatial computing. He specifically cited Microsoft’s HoloLens, and he made these statements before it was announced that Microsoft won a $480 million military contract to develop an Integrated Visual Augmentation System for the Army. But overall, Fuchs and Brooks fill in a lot of gaps of the history of VR and provide lot of context and perspective for how we got to this point with all of these immersive technologies.

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The video version of this discussion can also be found here on the University of North Carolina School of the Art’s Media + Emerging Technology Lab page.

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Music: Fatality

numena

andreea-cojocaruDesigning impossible architecture in VR is changing how Andreea Cojocaru designs real buildings, and she’s reveling in the fact that she finally has a tool with VR to be able to explore some of the deeper philosophical questions about the nature of spatial design and architecture that have previously been impossible to feasibly explore. These research questions include the difference between quantities and qualities, including (i.e. Why is the abstraction and blueprint of a building different than an embodied experience of it?), how does changing where you are change who you are?, and how can architecture incorporate insights from math, music, bodies moving through space, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty phenomenological philosophy?

Cojocaru is a founding partner, technical, and creative lead of NUMENA Virtual Reality Architects, which designs both virtual and real spaces. They won VR Now’s VR Industry award for their B. Braun Aesculap Spine VR experience, which had an amazing piece of speculative architecture where you were floating through microscopic bone structures as a climax to the medical VR marketing and training experience.

Cojocaru has lots of insights about what VR designers and 3D modelers can learn from architects for how to design immersive spaces, and she’s a deep thinking about the potentials for how VR can help elucidate the quality of our experience relative to the world around us and as a result transform the concepts of our own identity and sense of “what’s possible” and what “reality” actually is.

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Music: Fatality

under-tomorrow-sky-speculative-architecture2

quiddale-osullivanQuiddale O’Sullivan is an architect who is using his spatial design skills to design environments within virtual reality. We cover a wide variety of worldbuilding insights from an architectural perspective, and how the process of architecture is an iterative process that is informed by critical a theory of design for different types of spaces can cultivate human emotion or drive specific behaviors. When asked about any sort of universal design framework for architecture, O’Sullivan said, “You think you’ll discover some sort of rigorous process, but at the end of the day, it’s actually all about intuition.”

O’Sullivan was also really inspired by the avant-garde movements of so-called “paper architects” such as Lebbeus Woods, the Archigram Group in London, Ant Farm Group, & Cedric Price. These speculative architects weren’t as concerned with building actual buildings as much as pushing the limits of what’s possible with the medium of architecture, but with virtual reality, there aren’t the same physical constraints or limitations which means a lot of this either impossible or non-feasible sci-fi concepts designed by paper architects could start to find a home within virtual reality.

We cover a lot this design process, what social VR experiences can learn from stadium design for cultivating group experiences, the open questions of how environments really influence our behavior, where will the art be in VR, and why as an architect O’Sullivan strives for people to misuse the architectual spaces he’s designed.

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Music: Fatality

vr-privacy-summit
The VR Privacy Summit happened on November 8th, and brought together representatives from the top XR companies, start-up companies, VR experts, medical academics, and legal experts to talk about the potential risks and benefits of having access to biometric data from VR technologies. I talked with co-organizers of High Fidelity’s Philip Rosedale, Stanford’s Jeremy Bailenson, and Independent Researcher Jessica Outlaw at the end of the VR Privacy Summit to capture some of the highlights, takeaways, and next steps for facilitating a broader conversation about the future of privacy using immersive technologies.

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Stay tuned for more information from the organizers from the VR Privacy Summit, but in the mean time be sure to check out my other three interviews from the VR Privacy Summit:

Also, if you’d like to get ramped up on some of the complicated and nuanced issues around privacy with immersive technologies, then check out some of my previous interviews that cover a broad range of issues of featuring legal, medical, and technical experts. There are also a number of convsations with some of the biggest VR companies about privacy in VR:

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Music: Fatality

The medical professionals at the VR Privacy summit has a lot of interesting insights into how they navigate issues around informed consent in medical research through Institutional Review Boards, and perhaps how privacy policies for companies need a similar independent agency that advocates on behalf of consumer privacy. I had a chance to talk to UCSF’s Adam Gazzalley, Stanford’s Walter Greenleaf, and the National Institutes of Health’s Susan Persky about what the medical profession can teach consumer VR technologies for how to navigate privacy issues.

The medical profession in the United States is a specific context that has HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) to protect medical information as private. What does it mean for consumer technology to be able to gather a lot of this biometric data that would normally be protected as medical information, but it’s not switching into a new consumer context that may have private legal implications through the third-party doctrine.

We talk about all of the amazing health and healing applications for virtual reality technologies, but also some of the potential risks for making this data available for different contexts. The overwhelming take-away that I have from this conversations is that the potential benefits could far outweigh the potential risks, and that it’s worth exploring how to create private and safe contexts to use virtual reality technologies to their full potential, but that there are many open questions for how to find a balance between these risks and benefits.

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Music: Fatality

Photo: System Lock – Yuri Samoilov Creative Commons Attribution 3.0