#1157: Capturing the Digital Culture of a Virtual Help Desk for the Elderly in “New Update Available – Version 2.1”

New Update Available – Version 2.1 is a VR installation piece that blends contemporary audio documentary recordings of computer help sessions for the elderly, but then recreates these characters in VR within a speculative future where elders gather together within a virtual space in Metaverse with avatars in all in order to get their weekly computer questions answered.

It’s a unique approach of capturing a segment of digital culture that asks the user to reflect upon a time in the future when they may need help getting their own technology questions answered. The experience takes place over a single session as people log on and eventually log out at the end, and so the narrative structure is more about documenting the communal process and relationship dynamics within this community that is recontextualized by setting the time in the distant future. A fun dimension of this piece is being able to watch the activities of a couple of peers in this help session as they relive their nostalgic moments of Internet culture, which happens to be the bleeding edge of digital culture today. I had a chance to unpack this experience with director Jeroen van Loon at IDFA DocLab 2022.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast about the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. And you can support me on Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Continuing on in my series of looking at a number of different pieces from the IFA doc lab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So today's piece is called a new update available version 2.1. So start off you have an installation piece that you have this table with all these different computers And then you go into VR and you see that you're sitting in around this metaverse avatar representation of all these elderly people who are getting help with their computers and so This is a fusion of a speculative future, but also what's happening now in terms of documenting these types of community groups that are coming together for people to help elders solve their computer problems. So, in some ways, it's documentation of digital culture, but it's also documentation of this community and this process of people coming together and getting help. So we'll be talking to Jeroen about his process of creating this piece as well as some of the other aspects of what he was aiming to do and trying to capture and preserve this specific element of digital culture. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Jeroen happened on Sunday, November 13th, 2022 at the IFFIT DocLab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:37.868] Jeroen van Loon: So my name is Jeroen van Loon, I'm from the Netherlands and I work as an artist. I mainly make installations about digital culture and how digital culture changes. And now here at IDVA Dog Club, I'm presenting the first time I work with VR in a work called New Update Available.

[00:01:54.910] Kent Bye: Yeah. And yeah, maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into making VR.

[00:02:01.935] Jeroen van Loon: So my journey into VR is quite short until now. This is the first work that I worked with VR, mainly because I wanted to use VR in such a way that it also connects with the concept I'm presenting. And before, I mainly make physical installations, and each work has a completely different medium. Sometimes it's a performance, sometimes it's an actual A glass fiber cable of 12 kilometers, sometimes it's a server cabinet where I sort my DNA data. It goes all over the place a bit, but it always connects with the topic that I'm trying to research.

[00:02:34.205] Kent Bye: What's your background and what context are you coming in from as you're entering into this space?

[00:02:39.048] Jeroen van Loon: I studied digital media design at art school in Utrecht and there you learned how to tell stories with digital media. And from there my graduation project was very much about very research-based, so how the internet influenced my life and the lives of other people. And I think from my graduation project I've always tried to, through the works and installations that I make, visualize or document a certain aspect of digital culture in our society.

[00:03:05.700] Kent Bye: Okay, so yeah, I can see the threads of digital culture in this piece that you have here at IFADocLab, and so maybe you could talk about this piece that you have, updating to version 2.1, and maybe you could talk about how this story came about.

[00:03:17.264] Jeroen van Loon: Well, the work started quite a few years ago. I think in 2018 or 19, I visited for the first time, I visited a computer course for the elderly, out of pure interest. Without really thinking about it, I put my iPhone on the table and recorded their conversations, and then in a train back home, I listened to it and it sounded so beautiful and so great something to work with that I kept going back and eventually I asked them if I could record their voices to capture all the discussions and the arguments and the things they talk about once they get together to learn how to use a computer. And the very first version of this work was actually purely a video version. And the version that I present here at DocLab is the actual 2.1 version, which is a physical VR installation. And what I tried to do is to really replicate the course that I visited a few years ago. So you have tables set up like in a U-shape with all these laptops and you can go behind on the laptops and put on your headset and then you will see the very same location but in complete VR, like a sort of metaverse-like space. And there you can experience a short computer course for the elderly. So you will meet all the different participants and they will sit next to you and across from you. You will meet the teacher, Robert, and he just does what he normally does and begins the class and asks if people have problems or not and then he tries to explain it and it's a very low-paced work. You cannot do anything except sit, be present and listen to them talking. And that was the whole point, to be able to recreate such a moment in VR.

[00:04:56.383] Kent Bye: And so are the conversations that we're listening to in this piece, are those actual field recordings that you did, or is this something that was scripted that you wrote and then had performed?

[00:05:04.691] Jeroen van Loon: Well, it started with the Dutch version. That was completely authentic, so it was recorded there during the course. over six months, so I have a lot of material, and from all the material I eventually created one montage, one edit of 12 to 13 minutes, which has all the elements that you would normally experience in their course, but then a bit shorter. And from that we made the English version. So then we took the actual words and the lines and we worked with voice actors to create an English version because it's very difficult to use subtitles in VR. You don't really want to do it. So that's why, yeah.

[00:05:42.771] Kent Bye: I found that the interactions felt really authentic because there was moments where one person started to talk and then someone interrupted him and there was kind of back and forth that it felt like if you were to script it that way there wouldn't be much reason to and so they had that level of authenticity there that I really appreciated as well in terms of the larger dialogue that you had amongst all the different participants and so because it is fairly mundane interactions because he's walking through different instructions and they're checking in and it's a regular meeting where any troubles that they had throughout the course of the week they're reporting and they're getting help. I guess there's a deeper reflection reminding myself of different conversations that I've had with my parents of trying to step through different things step by step and that just the way that some people as they approach the technology they figure stuff out on their own versus other people who it's a lot harder for them to have that media literacy to decode certain stuff. So there seemed to be like a deeper message there reflecting upon the different ways that people adopt technology and the ways that it has to be explicated or they feel lost in having to figure stuff out. So I'd love to hear some reflections on those themes that you're exploring there.

[00:06:51.326] Jeroen van Loon: Yeah, well it's great that you were able to think about these things after the work because that's exactly what I was trying to do. Yeah, everybody I speak to, once they see the work, the first thing they say, yeah, well, with my parents. So always resonates very nicely. The main thing that I wanted to show is that I didn't make the work for elderly people. I made it for people like us who now, I think, understand the digital world. We can do whatever we want. We understand most of it. We don't have any trouble installing an app or whatever. But what I reflected on during all my visits to the computer course was that I will also be there, maybe in 20 or 30 years. And I will not have the problem of not knowing how to log into Windows or whatever, but I might have a problem of how can I access my pension in a cryptocurrency, in a VR network or whatever. So I hope that the audience, which is quite tech-savvy here, can still explore and experience what it will be like for them, maybe in a metaverse-like structure, how to deal with a digital world that you don't fully grasp or understand. Because I used to think my parents and my grandparents and stuff like that, those generations, those will be the last generation that would need a course like this. Because the rest of us, we grew up with the internet and digital phones and et cetera, et cetera. So we all understand the basics of it. But now after my half year visit to this course, I really started to doubt that. I really think that for me also in 30 years, I'll need something or someone to just help me with basic stuff. And the software, maybe that's my main point. I really think that software is getting faster, smarter, cheaper, more widely available. It goes closer to our body. It seems to work like just out of the box, out of the blue. but still you will have a lot of people who can't manage it. So the software can work perfectly, the app can be super smart, super high-tech, but if the user forgot his password to go to the app store and he cannot install the app, then it doesn't really matter how good or fast or smart the technology is because you cannot install it.

[00:09:08.135] Kent Bye: Yeah I guess as I was growing up I was the type of kid who was programming the VCR and my parents would always ask me to program the VCR so there was like this gap of the generations of the new technology that was coming out where it was easy for me to figure out but for them it was really challenging and so I guess the first time that I experienced that with technology is probably when Snapchat came out. And when I started to try to use that app, and I was like, wow, this really feels like an alien technology of how to even navigate the application. But I think the other component there is that when you're a part of a generation of all of your peer group is using something, then sometimes your friends will help guide you along or teach you or something. If something like Snapchat or TikTok, like apps that I don't currently use a lot and I don't really necessarily have a peer group that's using that, then it does feel like I experience that generation gap of the normative standards they have for their culture, for what they feel comfortable with in terms of sharing video or being present and authentic on video. So yeah, there seems to be this component of not only the user interface affordances of something like Snapchat that are difficult to figure out, but there seems to be a cultural component of your friends network and what they're doing and that when you have friends that are doing stuff then it's easier to learn stuff because you have a desire to communicate with your friends and figure out the technology versus something that if you don't have that connection then it does feel like being dropped in the alien parts of technology. So I guess as I was watching this piece, I was reminded from my own experiences of how I felt that generation gap where I felt like those were the kids that were programming their metaphorical VCRs with their Snapchat or TikTok.

[00:10:42.204] Jeroen van Loon: I think the social dimension is really big. One of what you described that if you have a network that can help you it's much easier to learn certain technologies. But what really struck me with the senior computer courses when I went to them to do the field recordings is that For the men and women there, it's not really all about learning how to use the computer. I mean, it's very much a social component. They come together to talk to each other. I think almost the first lines in the work is, you all know that, what's his name? Jerry or something died. And that's something that also happens when they come together and they learn. how everybody is, how their wives are, who died, who went to the funeral. That's a bigger component of the course than I expected before I went there. I thought it was just purely functional, learning how to use a computer, but it's very much also a social thing, and the teacher also in the work reflects at the end that for him it's something that he has to do over and over again. So he knows, okay, I will explain now something to you today, and you will get it, but next week, not everybody, but next week you come here again and you will ask me the same thing again, and I will just explain it again. So that's really something that I find very valuable and also very, I think, beautiful in these courses, that it's not purely a technical thing, but very much also social.

[00:12:06.132] Kent Bye: Yeah there was a moment when the teacher was guiding another person as he was trying to find the tab key and he's hitting the spacebar or the caps lock key and he's kind of going back and forth and that for me it was like a comedic moment because it was sort of like I could imagine that happening and the frustration of like oh just I know where the tab key is and it's like he's like it's the key that says tab he's like oh I don't have my glasses on and I can't read the keys and so there's this moment where on the one hand it's got this repetition where it goes on and on and on to the point where it becomes almost humorous but then on the other hand there's this like patience of the teacher who has to like do that and i've i know that i've been in that situation as well of just trying to explain something that seems intuitive but then yeah just having to struggle through that. So yeah in terms of the piece that was a moment that stuck out for me at least of this weird mix between this perverse humor to it but also this intense patience that you have to have but also this recognition of being in that same position of trying to help others as well.

[00:13:06.612] Jeroen van Loon: Yeah, the scene that you're describing, that's exactly what I tried to convey, so I'm glad you got that out of it. I see a lot of people giggling or smiling when they do the work, when they experience the work, and I think that's okay, that's also what I intended, but I hope, and if I hear you talk, hopefully I succeeded, that it's not only funny, it's also touching, or you also You smile or you laugh and you think, well, is it something that I should laugh about? Because the men are really trying. They come there every week. Also the teacher comes there every week. He doesn't get paid. And he just tries to help everybody. And the patience is something difficult to manage. Because if I have to teach my parents something or... or my girlfriend. The first thing I want to say is just click there and it's finished. But if they want to know how it works, that they can do it themselves again, it will take more effort and more time. Life is busy, you don't always have the time to explain it again and again.

[00:14:06.505] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the other components of this piece is just the fact that there's an installation here. So you have like the U shaped and you have the computers that are there, but I noticed that you've done screen recordings that are in the VR piece, but also as you go to the physical installation, you see all these computers that are there and it's playing through some of the similar types of scenes that you're seeing there. So I'd love to hear a bit of designing this piece of wanting to replicate the physicality of that installation, but also to more seamlessly have you feel connected to the virtual presence. Because it is an interesting way that you can imagine a future Metaverse iteration where you have these different types of support groups where people are somehow being volumetrically captured and projected into these experiences like this. So you're able to recreate that sense of being in a physical place, but also having the virtual element there as well. So I'd love to hear some of your thoughts around creating that physical installation, but also having that physical installation be a launching point into this future vision of what kind of support networks may look like in the future of the Metaverse.

[00:15:04.035] Jeroen van Loon: Yeah, well the first thing that I wanted to do when I thought that it should be a physical VR installation is was I wanted to mimic the setup and not only what I experienced in the course but also what we designed in VR in Unreal Engine because from all the VR works that I experienced if I look back the ones that worked the best is when I have some sort of mix between the real world and the VR world. I remember a work by John Hoffman in Berlin where I was standing on a balcony and in VR I was also standing on a balcony, the same one, and eventually it all broke down and the building crumbled, but obviously not the real building. So I wanted to do something like that, that immersion is bigger. At the same time, the work is for one person at a time. So if you don't wear the VR headset, then you don't normally have anything to do in the work. And that's why all the laptops that you see, they show screen recordings. They're also synced with the VR experience. So once the VR experience kicks in for somebody, then the screen recordings, they start to appear. So either after you finish the experience or before you're going to, you can get like a sneak peek on who are the participants, what are they doing. And if you're in VR, you can see left and right, left you see Helen, right you see Harry, and you can see what they're doing, but you cannot see the people across you, what they're doing on their screen. I try to create these separate layers that you have information in a story in VR, but you also have other stories from each of the screens outside of VR. So you can walk around and you can see what they're doing and what they're downloading and what they're trying to achieve and stuff like that. So I hope that it works at these two levels.

[00:16:43.777] Kent Bye: Yeah, I have to say, I'm not quite sure why Helen was at this support group, because the type of stuff that she's watching is a lot of stuff about CodeMiko, and like, digging into the history of computer graphics, and you know, she's got a lot of really interesting stuff that she's looking at, like Twitch streamers playing video games, it's kind of like an interesting contrast between having all these other people who are doing relatively mundane stuff with their computer, but Helen is sort of off into the deep frontiers of digital culture, the latest iterations of the metaverse, so I enjoyed being able to look over and to see whatever Helen was doing on her computer because she seemed to be maybe a little bit more advanced than all the other people that were in that support group.

[00:17:20.331] Jeroen van Loon: Yeah, the main idea behind Helen is that that's the one character that you can see. So all the other characters or all the other voices, they are from elderly persons today here. But Helen, she doesn't speak. You only see what she's doing on her laptop. And I designed her, you could say, as if she's old, not today, but like in 20 or 30 years, she's old. So that's why she's looking at Quake Championships, which is something that I watch a lot on Twitch and the World Championships of the same game. Yeah, she watches Code Miko, so it's a bit... of a fictional part where I try to show, well, maybe if we are old and we need something like this, we won't watch seniors dancing, which is also somebody doing that, but we watch the games that we used to play and stuff like that, yeah.

[00:18:08.869] Kent Bye: Okay, so yeah, it's sort of an interesting contrast because we're set in the future, but she's looking at something that's like very cutting-edge culture right now, but you're saying that in this future setting, she's kind of being more nostalgic in that context.

[00:18:20.616] Jeroen van Loon: Exactly, exactly, yeah, yeah.

[00:18:23.075] Kent Bye: Okay, great. And I guess what's next for this piece, where you take it from here?

[00:18:28.880] Jeroen van Loon: I hope to a lot of places. This is the premiere, so it's bound to be shown somewhere else in the upcoming years, but we'll have to see. I don't think it will change a lot content-wise or something, but I really hope there will come opportunities to show it in different places.

[00:18:46.427] Kent Bye: Yeah, we're here at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam at the DocLab, and so it's all about looking at the frontiers of nonfiction and documentary, and so I'd love to hear any thoughts around the documentary form, because you're taking recordings and you're kind of reinterpreting it into this spatial context that's set in the future, and so this kind of blending of different modalities and how you start to think about the structures and forms of documentary as we go into these new immersive media.

[00:19:12.265] Jeroen van Loon: That's a good question. If I look back on what were the VR works that really triggered something in me, I remember in my studio I wrote down on a piece of paper that VR should be less virtual and more real. And that's what I'm trying to do with the work, why it's so based on actual authentic recordings. Because I think it offers such new ways and such more immersive ways that you can experience reality. You don't have to fictionalize everything and visualize everything. Obviously, it's possible. But for me, the value of VR is when it has a more clear and deeper link with the world around us and the reality, and less focused on something that is completely fictional.

[00:19:53.146] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be and what it might be able to enable?

[00:20:01.395] Jeroen van Loon: That's a question I got asked a lot. What's good to know is maybe what really triggered me to think about this is I was just finishing the recordings for this work in 2019. Then the pandemic hit. And all these courses, or at least the courses that I spent time, they were all cancelled. Because people had to come together and it was not allowed. Which was very harsh because for these people the course was their way to the digital world. The pandemic hit, the lockdown. And now we were supposed to do almost everything online, but their teacher, they couldn't see because they were at home. And I think during the lockdown, during the pandemic, what I experienced is that before it, we thought, okay, the digital can be a very good, sometimes replacement of reality. But if you really have to do almost everything digital and there's no choice into meeting somebody face-to-face or through a Zoom meeting, but it always should be a Zoom meeting or whatever, then you'll see that the digital version of reality is actually very, very limited. So what the future holds, I'm not sure. I can really see that instead of going to an actual senior center, you go online in a metaverse. It's very functional. It could work very well. So I think if it has a clear function, I think I would be happy to use it. But if there are other ways, then I prefer those.

[00:21:29.868] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:21:34.820] Jeroen van Loon: Well, I think what I try to do with the work is to let people pose the question to themselves, when will I need help? When I will be so dependent on other people, when it comes to technology, because I just don't understand it anymore, that I cannot really fulfill the things that I want to do in my life. And I think that moment comes faster than you think. Yeah.

[00:21:57.205] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, yeah, it's interesting to think about this in terms of not only seeing what's happening now, but to kind of project myself into the future and seeing that type of support networks. It's an interesting fusion of both what's happening in physical reality and ways of interpreting that in this virtual context. So yeah, lots of different provocations there. So thanks for joining me here on the podcast and helping unpack it all. So thank you.

[00:22:20.111] Jeroen van Loon: No problem. The pleasure is all mine. Yeah.

[00:22:23.274] Kent Bye: So, that was Jaron Van Loon, he's a creator of the piece called New Update Available Version 2.1. So, a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, When I saw this piece, there were certain elements of the dialogue interactions that felt like it was more documentary style, like just the cadence and the way that people were interrupting each other and the kind of awkwardness that was happening felt like it was captured. Now, the original version in Dutch that I wasn't aware of, I would just watch the English version. And so then they had to translate everything and then have actors come in and recreate the different dynamics. And so starting from this process of just going into a community and documenting some of the existing aspects of that community, and then taking this speculative future, because with the pandemic and everything, some of these different communities had to stop actually physically meeting, and so thinking about what would this look like in the future with people coming in and dropping in on a weekly basis to report whatever difficulties they had with their computers that week, and then they would get help. And so, when I think about aspects of story and storytelling, it doesn't have like a traditional narrative structure that I'd say. It's just more of documenting a process. And this will be reflecting of some of the other themes that came up in the course of my trip to the IFA DocLab 2022, which there was this recommended book of the year from IFA and from DocLab called Collective Wisdom, Co-Creating Media for Equity and Justice. In the process of that conversation, they're talking about going beyond the single authorship, but also how media can start to serve as a documentation of a process rather than something that's a story. And that process is trying to facilitate the cultivation of a community. And this piece in particular, When I first saw it, I wasn't really connecting the dots there, but after the whole complex of the experiences that I had over the course of at the doc lab, this theme of co-creation and these non-traditional narratives or just focusing more on the process rather than the end product, I think this is a great example of that because it shows a documentation of that process. But also, as I watch this piece, it reminds me of all the different times that I've helped my parents with different aspects of technology and either remotely over Zoom or when I visit home, then try to fix whatever is broken with the technology. And so I think what Jaron is saying is that this is something that we may all have to face at some point, even though we may consider ourselves to be very tech savvy, there may be a certain point where technology shifts change so much that it feels alien to us. I've certainly had glimmers of that for different apps that I've seen, or at least where there may be a critical mass of people that are using something like Snapchat or TikTok, and it's just not something that I have necessarily immersed myself into and I don't have a community or a following there. my chosen mode of expression at this point, but it does feel a little bit alien in terms of interacting with that workflow and expressing myself in that way, or even just the aspects of how to work the technology. So this is just a documentation of that type of digital culture and having us reflect on the ways that we may be helping others in our lives, but are there points in our own lives that we may have to receive that type of help? And again, just kind of reiterating that this is a type of piece that is documenting that type of process relational aspect of capturing of a community and preserving of an aspect of digital culture in that way. And the final thought that I have was the person that was sitting to my left of me was kind of at the cutting edge of bleeding culture right now. CodeMiko and looking at all these different Twitch streamers and these world championships of eSports, whether it's a mobile game or Quake championships, like the person to the left is like this elderly woman who's going back through what feels like right now the cutting edge of digital culture. But in this speculative future, it's in the 20 or 30 years from now, and she's reminiscing about all the different things that she watched when she was younger. And so it's kind of like this interesting fusion of a speculative future, but is also at the bleeding edge of culture at the moment. So, yeah, that was kind of an interesting contrast to be able to see that. I ended up watching a lot of the person to the left of me screen. There was a bit of a bug that was in this experience, which meant that if you weren't moving your head for like 15 seconds or something like that, it would automatically reset. And so I actually had to watch this experience like three different times because I was so fixated on watching something, but I wasn't moving my head enough, and so that re-triggered a restart. I think they may have tried to fix that near the end, but that was just one of the experiences I had if you were actually at DocLab. Maybe you didn't come to a logical conclusion, you just kind of stopped. Because it doesn't have a traditional narrative structure, it doesn't have a way that you kind of know whether or not it's ending. But people do log out at the end, and so there is a natural conclusion. So if you were like me and you kind of had it just stop, I had to go through it again just to make sure that I was able to actually see everything. So that's all I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a, this is a supported podcast. And so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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