#688: A Sufi Zikr as Social VR Ritual

gabo-aroraGabo Arora’s ZIKR: A Sufi Revival premiered at Sundance this year. It’s a 360-degree video capture of a number of different Sufi rituals, songs, and dances, but it had a real-time, social VR experience overlaid on top of the live action footage. Arora collaborated with Sensorium and Superbright to create virtualized beads and an interactive social VR experience, but also different video effects to give a metaphoric interpretation of some of the transcendental spiritual practices of the Sufis. ZIKR: A Sufi Revival is not only an anthropological documentation of some these Sufi ritual practices, but the real-time social interaction through the bead interactions allows for the viewers to participate and create moments of group synchrony.

I had a chance to catch up with Arora at Sundance where we talked about the tradeoffs of representing the full authenticity of an extended experience versus crafting a curated and edited synthesis of an experience, creating a real-time social VR ritual and the logistical challenges balancing freedom and immersion with safety, the deeper intention of creating moments of empathy or connection to Sufi groups who are under attack, and the power of VR to capture artistic abstractions of these types of transcendent experiences. Arora realizes that once you have the reality of an experience that the myth and romance is never the same, but he still wanted to capture some of these mysterious moments in ZIKR: A Sufi Revival. He also finds literal interpretations of reality to be boring, and so he tried to
hypnotize the audience unexpectedly through sound, but also poetically juxtapose another world that contradicts and creates paradoxes in order take the audience into new places.


ZIKR: A Sufi Revival was acquired at Sundance by Dogwoof where it will be distributed to different cultural centers, cinemas, and museums, and there may be a networked version eventually released on Steam.

Here is some footage of audience members experiencing Zikr, A Sufi Revival at Sundance

Here’s a trailer of Zikr, A Sufi Revival

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So in the last podcast episode, I was talking to Brett Leonard about doing these group-facilitated ritualistic practices within virtual reality. Now, Brett wasn't showing any specific experiences, but earlier this year at Sundance, Gabor Aurora had actually documented these Sufi rituals and had done this blending between this 360 video of these different Sufi practices of drumming and chanting and dancing And intermixed over on top of that, a social VR experience with three other people, and you're standing in a circle with beads, and you're able to participate in something that has already happened. So even though you have this ritual context that's been captured and recorded, you're able to have a live ritualistic experience with these three other people in virtual reality. So this is kind of blending a lot of different things in terms of doing this anthropological documentation of these spiritual practices, it's doing social VR experiments on top of recorded real-life events, and just trying to blend all these things together and try to create these social VR group experiences that have a little bit more profundity to them. So I had a chance to talk to Gabo Arora about his process at the Sundance Film Festival and to talk about all the different trade-offs and challenges that he faced in creating this experience called Zikr, a Sufi Revival. So this interview with Gabo happened on Sunday, January 21st, 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:43.830] Gabo Arora: My name is Gabo Aurora, I'm a creator in virtual reality and I'm the director of Zikr, a Sufi revival which is world premiering here at Sundance 2018.

[00:01:54.446] Kent Bye: Great, yeah, so maybe you could tell me a bit about how this project came about.

[00:02:00.242] Gabo Arora: Well, I've made a lot of other projects in virtual reality, starting with 360 and then most recently with The Last Goodbye, which is a room scale experience. And I'm constantly looking for how these new... technologies as VR becomes more interactive, social, how I could try to tell the stories I like to tell in them in something like this. So I discovered and was playing around with social VR and I just thought it was incredibly playful and delightful and added a whole new level of engagement and excitement. I mean, it gave me probably the same excitement I had when I first saw an amazing 360 video. Or, you know, for me that was with Chris Milk's sound and vision, which I saw that he gave me a demo and why we decided to do Clouds of Residue together. And it was fantastic. So then I just, you know, went to the drawing board and thought, how can we use this sort of engagement for something that's meaningful and interesting? Because a lot of my other work is documentary based and Trying to use the medium, trying to use technology to kind of tell some of the most important stories of our time. And to me, The Last Goodbye was really powerful because Pincus, who is a Holocaust survivor, he would talk so much about the Syrian refugee crisis. And it's in the film where there's a crematorium scene and he actually, through his voiceover, elicits what he sees in the news now and how it reminds him of the past. And when I spent time with him and also with the Shoah Foundation and Steven Spielberg, when we went to their gala, they would talk a lot about the parallels between Islamophobia and the kind of rising tide of Islamophobia and how it kind of had these parallels with World War II. And I thought that was very, very profound. And in a lot of ways, he made me realize that you can't decouple the refugee crisis from Islamophobia. That in some ways, it's kind of the root problem. That if we can kind of solve that, we could probably make a lot of inroads with the refugee crisis. Because there is so much fear and misunderstanding of what it means to be a Muslim. And so, for me, that was the kind of central overall I had that in the back of my mind and then I had the opportunity to go to Tunisia and it was brought up to me that there was a Sufi troop and a kind of revival happening with young Arab youth in Tunisia who were embracing Sufism and these songs and rituals in the aftermath of the Arab Spring especially when there were some attacks on some Sufi shrines a lot of the population rose up and said no this is an important part of our heritage and our culture And at that moment I thought about my own experience in Sufism because I had had profound Sufi experiences in India, most notably in Rajasthan, in Ajmer, Sharif. I grew up in a Hindu family. My parents were refugees from Pakistan. And we lost family members and all of our property in the partition because they were on the wrong side of the border, which was mostly Muslim-dominated. And they had to then go into New Delhi and into the Indian part of Punjab. And so there was a lot of animosity growing up that I had, my parents had towards Muslim people. Almost ingrained bias that, you know, I remember it was I could date anyone outside of my culture, but if I dated a Muslim, it would be the end of the world. And my parents would say that to me over and over. as I got older you know I just felt that there was still this attraction I had I felt there was something connecting me to Islamic culture and to me it was a lot of it through music and I discovered these shrines of where anyone of any faith could take part and enter these shrines and take part in these rituals and listen to this music And so I thought about that in Tunisia again, that this is the same tradition that is a kind of pan-Muslim sort of traditions. In all Muslim countries, they have like this sort of Sufi element that a lot of people connect to that's more mystical, that's more tolerant, that's just a lot more about experience and not rational in the same way. So all of this was like ding, ding, ding, like VR. And it was amazing, because you know, when I first discovered BR, it was, oh, let's take people to refugee camps, because, you know, let's go to places they can't go, you know, and empathize with people they don't usually meet. And all of a sudden, it's like, wait a minute, let's bring them into a ritual. Because if it changed my perspective, hopefully it can change other people's perspective, too. So that's how it kind of came together.

[00:06:54.721] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had a chance to try it out this afternoon. I've had some experience studying Sufism, specifically the Mevlevi order, which is the whirling dervish tradition of Sufism. It is very embodied and it is much more experiential in terms of the practices that they have. My experiences of doing the Sufi turn is that I experience this altered state of consciousness that It's hard to really describe what it's like, but it's this deep heart-centered connection where it just feels like a deeper cultivation of intuition, but also of connection to a different dimension of awareness from the heart, if I were to try to summarize it in any way. And when I was doing the experience within virtual reality, I've done quite a lot of ecstatic dance. I've done quite a number of different mystical Sufi practices. And there's a part of me that just wanted to be completely tetherless and sort of be fully participating in it. And that in a lot of ways, the technology was kind of like, a blocker for me being fully immersed within that ritualistic type of context. But the other thing that was really striking, though, was just the fact that there was a circle. And I think that there is a big power in a lot of these practices that where they do form a circle and it's a closed circle. And then kind of the decision to have people at the different cardinal directions in that circle, I think, helps to recreate that type of ritualistic experience that you may have. So I'm just curious to hear some of your thoughts on that.

[00:08:21.546] Gabo Arora: Yeah, I mean, I think we have to do a lot of QA testing of the tethered or non-tethered, and we had it untethered when we showed it to Shari here, and it became a little dangerous, because as you probably realized, it's not one-to-one, the distance between you and the avatar. We make it feel like it's further than it actually is. So that means it's ripe for you hitting someone in the face. And that kind of almost happened. And then rather than, I think we are going to iterate and think about that. But yeah, I think a big part of it was to really have that connection. And I think that's why the prayer beads and the ability to subtly interact your environment and to kind of give you that sense of trying to You know, here's the thing, I think a lot of VR experiences, philosophically, sometimes try to make things that are one-to-one or literal. And I was saying, and I felt this with my other work too, you can go to a refugee camp, you can go to a concentration camp, you can take part in a ritual. I'm not necessarily interested to give you exactly that sensation, although that's a powerful sensation. I think through art, through cinema, through abstraction, you can provide something that makes it sometimes different, but hopefully better, or hopefully just different in its own way, its own interpretation of it. And I think, and I've talked about it with you before with Maus, with the graphic novel on the Holocaust, He didn't choose to use literal representation of people. He made them animals. And I think with a lot of what we try to do, you're in this strange world with these avatars. Even the beads, the physics of it, is not what you would expect. Because there are actually some hidden things that they move in certain patterns if you kind of shake them a lot. So we are playing around with that, but I think it's important at least to kind of allude to the importance of participation in these types of stories. It was very important for these troops and these groups that it wasn't just a flat video. I don't think they would be very comfortable with that. I think we did a big amount of sort of talking to them that this was going to be about participation, that the camera was a person. That what we were doing was to kind of not just have someone be a voyeur because that would be in some ways slightly Offensive or just like you know you what do you have your hands crossed across your chest? You're just looking at them do do do very intense things like they want you to feel vulnerable and they want you to feel slightly disoriented for you to kind of like understand and we're doing it through technology now and I think the networked part of it right now is for four people live on the ground but eventually when we have it on Steam we're going to have people network into it from different parts of the world and I think that's when things get really amazing.

[00:11:16.692] Kent Bye: Yeah, I wanted to ask about the prayer beads because from a VR design perspective, I can totally see how the beads are a way of being connected to two different people at the same time by your motions. If they're synchronized, you can actually get some patterns happening with the beads. It's kind of interesting to play with. You can kind of get some group synchrony in that way, which I think is really interesting. On the other hand, I would say the prayer beads have a very specific meaning within the Sufis and I would wonder what the Sufis would sort of say about using the prayer beads in sort of like this jump ropey kind of way. So there's this sort of tension between trying to interpret and give an experience with something where you're not there but yet also respect the sacredness of some of these objects and what they mean. I'm just curious if you had anybody from the Sufi traditions check it out and if they had sort of a thumbs up or thumbs down, or how you navigate those questions of taking these sacred objects and starting to recontextualize them within these virtual experiences.

[00:12:15.397] Gabo Arora: Yeah, that's a good point. I think when we modeled them, we made sure not to model them on real prayer beads, because they are a kind of interpretation of that. I mean, we say they're prayer beads, but we're not trying to take something that was, you know, a specific architecture of beads that we kind of put in there. But we did share all along what we were doing with all the groups, but it's very interesting with Sufism it's not organized and it's not very political it's not very they hesitate from saying like this is wrong this is right unless it's incredibly egregious you know and I think for them you know they knew that you have to kind of The whole project was far out for them, you know, from the very beginning. And they loved that about it. And what they loved about it more than anything was that they would have an opportunity to kind of share their story. And that's why the story, I think, for them, I think they were paying more attention to what words we were representing them with from their own words. But, you know, there's still an editing process of that. So I think they were a little bit more understanding. But it's a good question. I think it's a sensitive one. I mean there was a big debate about whether we were going to manipulate the original source of their songs. And I said yes. I said we should do that. If we can do it in a way that preserves the integrity because in some ways we are bringing something of ourselves to this. And if we can mix us with them in some ways, even if it's sonically, then in some ways we enter something that feels much more real, it's new. And that's what we were able to do with some of the sonic sort of integration of it being slightly hypnotic and hopefully subtle at times of how it peaks with certain synths. other things that we do but in general I think we wanted to do something I mean I had other bigger ideas that were of course next because I wanted to but one time my original idea was to do this with the wave VR and to have a Tunisian DJ kind of so the idea was that you were like in this kind of castle room with many doors and there was going to be the Wave VR with a Tunisian DJ remixing all of the original source as a DJ set but then when you went through the portals you got the original source and you came back and then you did it that was the original idea of how you would integrate so many so it'd be branching and then many people would be doing it at once and so if I came out of one and I saw you in the hallway I'd be like you should check that out or how is yours

[00:14:53.150] Kent Bye: But then I think people realize I was just using that as an excuse to launch my DJ career You know, so they're like no you will not be DJ Gabon We're not gonna allow it Well, I think that you know that it's interesting point that a lot of the Sufi practices are very experiential and I think it's it's powerful to be within an immersive experience to kind of feel like you're inside of that circle within the context of that ecstatic dancing and and You know, if you're at home, you may have a little bit more leeway to sort of really kind of, you know, lose control in a certain way. I mean, the only thing that you'd be in danger of is hurting yourself by running into a wall. But I think most people who are in VR kind of have a level of awareness to have both an awareness of their physical space and their virtual space, but I would say in ecstatic states, if people are kind of getting into these altered states of consciousness, then you're probably more susceptible to, you know, kind of going outside of those bounds. But yeah, the sonic aspect of the songs, I think, those rhythms also have this kind of ritualistic induction of inducing these trance states within your mind. And I think that, I know that I've talked to Brett Leonard, the director of the Lawnmower Man, talking about how he sees that virtual reality has the opportunity to explore all these kind of more shamanic practices. would characterize some of the Sufi practices as sort of like these almost static or shamanic practices where you're accessing these altered states of consciousness. And that, you know, for me personally, I feel like in some ways the virtual reality technology prevents me from fully being immersed in that. In some ways I may want to be able to just have an audio experience that Maybe I have a thing on my head that's able to track and having a full spatial audio. But in terms of doing the Sufi turn, for example, I can't do that with the chords. And as I'm moving around so much, I start to get loss of frames. And so there's a certain amount of really getting into static states through static dance, where actually when you're in VR, it actually takes me out or can cause other motion sickness parts of it.

[00:16:51.745] Gabo Arora: But do you think that's because you know what the real thing is and you're comparing it with that, you know? I mean, I think that's kind of the thing where the ideas of things before we have experience of them, when you're a child, you know, and you're starting to date or meet people, you know, you have this anticipation of what it's supposed to be like and then the reality of it is never the same. But once you have the reality of it, the romance and the myth of it is different, you know? And I think we generally made this for people who have no idea about Sufism at all, you know? And for it to be an introduction to a perspective and a way of life where they could say, wow, like, these people are more than just what I thought they were. And I was able to kind of have some sort of, for lack of a better word, have some fun together and to kind of do that. Think you know part of what you're saying is that you could be limited I think by your direct experience with it because I'd be more critical to if You know, I've done ayahuasca full disclosure and people always tell me about that ayahuasca and we are and I'm like, I mean I I'm going to be comparing it to that and if it doesn't live up to that I It'll be disappointing. So I think that's kind of my thinking is we have to have a different perspective on what this is trying to do that it gives you an ecstatic state that almost has to catch you by surprise, you know and Like the troop scene, you know towards the end with the men going in and out I knew that people might look for the visuals to go psychedelic on them and But I knew that we had to work hard to hypnotize you through sound. And to me, that's my favorite part because it creeps up on you. And I think that's what's really important for VR is that we don't have an ocular bias, you know, that we actually try to engage Unexpected senses I was talking to people about I would be amazing if you have these like claws or whatever these gloves and You feel heat and you feel this I find these literal Interpretations of reality to be the most boring if I expect something to be hot in VR I want it to be cold. You know, I want it to be a whole other world that kind of poetically juxtaposes and contradicts and creates paradoxes that take us into new places, you know and and I think it's kind of like almost playing with that veil in some sense, you know? Or whatever, the maya, the veil of ignorance. We have this desire to just lift it off, but sometimes its very existence there allows us to kind of experience or even see it a part of God, of the experience to me, you know? So we're trying to create this sort of strange, abstract veil. But I'm not going to say we totally succeeded because it's a really hard thing to do. But, you know, we're trying.

[00:19:40.002] Kent Bye: Well, I agree. And I think in talking to Jaron Lanier, one of his theories is that with virtual reality, we'll be seeing VR experiences, but there's something in our brain that will always know that this is a symbolic representation of reality. And that when we're in the real life, that the more that you do it, the more refined attention you have into the beauty and the wonder and awe of reality versus what you can do within a virtualized experience. I've sort of done enough VR work and kind of like agree with that. I think that I will be surprised if we'll have virtual reality experiences that will be completely tricking me into being in another realm. And I think that I have had immersive experiences where I have lost myself and I've had that, but more than less, there's a certain amount where there is something that's magical about these practices and being live in the moment and co-creating a ritual with other people and being a participant within that context. and that I can feel that participation in the different practices I felt, and that when I'm in a context where there's a 360-degree representation, there's a part of me that knows that I'm not really there, and that this has already happened, and that I'm sort of like a witness to something rather than a participant. Now, having other people that are around me helps to sort of bring an awareness of them, but I could only see their hands. I can't see their face. I can't see their body movements. And so I sort of see a small taste of what is happening with them, but not like a full kind of representation of what's happening. So for me, I actually would love to see different representations that were perhaps volumetric and maybe sort of more symbolic. to allow my imagination to kind of like fill in the gaps. Something like Dispatch is an experience that I saw that was started to use this real deconstructed symbolic and archetypal representation of the human form and I think that it works really well within that context and I think it would work well here as well to start to kind of like allow me to sort of enter into these altered states that doesn't have this thing in my brain where it's like telling me it's not real. It's not real. I was seeing the 360 video with no volumetric, sort of the flat projected onto a sphere. It's different if I am in a context with these depth and the objects, I would expect for me that to get into even a deeper static state. And because I've done a number of these different static practices, I did get into a bit of an altered state by watching Zikr. So that to me was super impressive. At the same time, I kind of broke, I pushed it to the experience where I actually broke the thing and it sort of like started tugging on my head. And so it was just sort of like this, like reminder of like, to me personally, like that omen was like, yeah, these practices, you get it a certain far, but to really get into those Asiatic states, like the technology is always going to kind of get in the way.

[00:22:24.590] Gabo Arora: No, it is. I think, um, but you know, the limitations can serve as opportunities, hopefully, you know, even within it. But I agree with you. I think I got the message in the morning that they're like somebody danced and almost destroyed the tether. Now I know it's you. That was me. Yeah. And I was like, what? They're like, yeah, what are we going to do? We had this whole discussion about, what do we do? Do we untether now? We've been having, it's been a wild experience. But I think, to me, there are always going to be those limitations. But within it, just look at all the other amazing stuff in the festival this year. Yeah, we're not there, but there's still these incredible moments of transcendence in so much of this work. And I mean, I always look to one of my favorite artists is James Turrell. And with James Turrell, it's very simple. cuts a kind of rectangle in a room on the ceiling and you look at the sky that you always look at but because it's framed for you and then there's like the subtle lighting it's like I've never looked at the sky that way you know and then it's weird that you needed artificial lighting and this building and all these horrible things of modern civilization you know that probably heat the room or whatever it is And that is what makes you actually pay attention to the sky and its color for the first time and the beauty of where we are. And so I think a lot of these sort of like clunky technological strange things like still present incredible opportunities to do that. And I think to be honest present a lot of opportunities for independent voices. You know, I've done this not alone. I've done this, you know, with some of the best minds in VR because they thankfully believe in me and my vision and some of my other work and they want to kind of take part in doing something that's important in all of us. And, you know, working with Superbright and Sensorium, it's just been really incredible to see these independent voices that hack and create new tools to actually make something happen that has never happened before. And I think that, to me, is another opportunity that you're making these new tools. I mean, there is proprietary stuff in Zikr. I could talk about some of that, or I think Egal from Superbright would talk more about that. But there are other things that I just kept insisting that's what I wanted. And they're like, well, it's never been done, but let's try. For instance, projecting video on those particles wasn't easy. You know those transitions into your orb like that stuff looks easy, you know it because we were trying to find a connective tissue between the real world and the elevated a static world in some ways and What was that kind of language, you know, it turned into particles, you know in some ways, but I think there's a festival version I think we're gonna make some tweaks and I think we're gonna definitely listen to a lot of people see or how we can make it a bit better and maybe we tether or not but I think starting and you know just having the point being made that stories with participation can be interesting and meaningful for the type of work I'd like to do because most social VR I've done is fun but I kept thinking how do you make something playful yet profound, you know, and hopefully we've been able to kind of marry those two very weird type of distinct tones in a way that still kind of moves you but you feel like released and happy.

[00:25:53.145] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's something about my experience of going through a number of these different rituals that either participating in some or watching them, you get this, especially the whirling dervishes as they're turning because you get this sort of sense of, it's almost like this metaphor for bodies moving through space and time because they're orbiting and you're moving around and you're both turning but you're also kind of going around. I start to think about that in terms of, like, if I were to try to translate that into VR, you know, how could I, you know, begin to even sort of capture the essence of what that is? And, you know, knowing their tradition and knowing that there's certain things that would want to be preserved in that or sort of kept in the place where you have to be initiated into that. And there's a certain process of that initiation. And so you're talking about rituals and sort of esoteric knowledge that you'd be initiated into, but yet, you know, how do you start to either document it to recreate it or from an anthropological perspective capture it because if the Sufis in some ways have a crosshairs in their religion and being sort of posing against some of the more radical Islam practices And if they take more of a pacifist approach, then they're sort of at risk of perhaps some of these practices being lost. And so in some ways, you're capturing those to archive them. And so it's sort of multiple purposes of trying to, you know, I would perhaps argue that to really capture it, you'd almost have to like really have the embodied experience to be initiated to sort of go through the whole Part and then from that as an insider be able to then capture it just to me It's just difficult to come in and then sort of capture The physical act without sort of getting the deeper story and the meaning behind everything But I'm just curious to hear where you go from here if you plan on sort of expanding out to other Practices or if there's other projects that you're working on next

[00:27:42.900] Gabo Arora: Yeah, you know, Casper, someone from IDFA, who's the head curator of IDFA Interactive, he did it and he said, I want all your footage. I just want all of it. And I said, OK. And he just said, I mean, this has to be longer. Because you're right. It's a little bit of a, it's always that mixture, right, with thinking about people's attention spans and Sundance and different audiences. At some point, all of those things that you saw that you were in there for one or two minutes are 30 or 40 minute rituals of intense endurance and difficulty. So I think there is something to be said of how I'm trying to figure out He's adamant that, you know, he wants to kind of like recut it. And I'm like, whoa, come on, you know, and figure out a way to do what you were saying is to kind of give people a deeper sense there. And maybe it is a little like a commercial take on Sufism or pop take. To be honest, I'm trying to make it accessible and I had no idea what the reaction would be. I had zero faith that it would resonate or anything would happen because it's so unlike anything I've ever done. And it's so unlike anything I've ever seen in VR myself. It has really quirky, strange, kitsch moments too. Those instruments, I almost killed them a week before we came here. I was like, these are just ridiculous. And everyone was like, we love them. I'm like, OK, but are they supposed to sound good? Or can you hear other? All these insane things that I think we still need to figure out. But I think what we want to do is try to figure out what the version of this is that gives you the possibility to do more of these things deeper if you choose to do it and maybe have like a more linear type of regular cut. The other thing is, you know, the executive producer on this, and I'm very happy to have him on board because he's very badass himself, is Reza Aslan. Who is a religious scholar and he's been the one to really kind of nitpick on everything to make sure that we are you know serving the integrity of how you and he's a spokesman for a lot of religions and he's you know, he's been on Fox News and and He's taken on Bill Maher and most interestingly enough, he called the President of the United States a bad word on Twitter and it got his show cancelled from CNN. He kind of takes things on because it's mostly around things related to Islamophobia. And so his involvement, I think, we've talked about, he's just been like, we gotta do more. We gotta do more religious experiences, maybe, or Sufism in different places, or just this very concept, let's push it a little bit more, because I think him and I both agree, or at least I agree, that our world is divided, and I think a lot of it is because of this division between secularism and religion. not allowing a space for a commonality of people to respect the other. I don't think there's a lot of respect right now for people who are religious, and I don't think a lot of religious people respect for secular people. And if we don't kind of figure that out in some way, then I think it's not going to turn out well. And the Arab world, historically, with Arab nationalism, one could kind of point to the root cause of a lot of the problems in the Arab world, of a kind of very hard-nosed secularism. Bashar Assad, secular. Saddam Hussein, secular. Gaddafi. They were part of an Arab national movement that was Nietzschean in its sort of like anti-religious sentiment and a kind of cracking down Egypt has been a kind of blowback on some of that stuff from Nasser and a lot of these other great leaders of that time. So I think we have to figure out a kind of happy medium. And I think with Reza and other ones, we're thinking if we can give people an understanding and love for religion, even though they don't have to. I'm not necessarily religious at all. I just find religious practices, when you go into it, filled with beauty and magic Intense mythology and there's so much there, you know, I mean, I I've read the Bible cover to cover and I think it's beautiful But I'm not a Christian and you know, I of course I've read parts of the Quran. I've read the Bogwood I want to read everything I want to know because I feel like before there was mass media and all we were doing these were the kind of stories that people Like give people meaning and there's so much to learn from that, you know the power that it can have on people And so I think these are part of it, and we're looking to do more. And I think the bigger thing is, I'm trying to figure out a way to make Zikr not just a festival darling or whatever it would be, but for it to have real distribution and a real way to be integrated, whether it's in museum exhibitions, but even putting it on Steam, but then figuring out a way to actually get people excited to download it. and to understand it and to kind of think about it in deeper ways. So we have some things in the works that would, I think, constantly kind of push people in a way. Someone jokingly said, Oh, you're trying to make Sufi the new yoga. I get it. You know, not exactly. But, you know, I think there's something in there to kind of get us to empathize and understand religious people and religious experiences, because I just think you know, that the old model of the antagonism is just not going to work. And I know we've drawn such hard red lines, you know, and it's important, like, about, you know, gender rights and identity politics. I get all of those. I'm very much in favor of those. But at some point, we need to figure out that I don't think you're going to convert everybody to secular fundamentalism. It's just not going to work, you know. So we have to figure out a way to live together. And hopefully, if we share in them, they'll be curious to share with us. And this is just the beginning, hopefully.

[00:33:41.474] Kent Bye: Yeah, and talking to Marilyn Schlitz from the, formerly of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and now she's doing different research into worldviews and consciousness research, but one of the things she told me at the IONS conference was that one of the fundamental skills we're gonna need in the 21st century is to be able to deal with paradox, and to be able to really empathize with different worldviews, because having a different worldview means that there's a different set of metaphysical assumptions, they have different value systems, It's not that you have to endorse all those value systems or metaphysical assumptions. It's just being able to understand them enough to be able to see the world through the lens. And I think that's a part of what virtual reality offers, is us to give this perhaps embodied experience through these different practices such that we can come to a better understanding and There's just a number of films here that I saw two of them last night father and sons Which was looking at more radical Islam communities within Syria, but focusing on the father and son relationships within those communities so something that is very extreme context, but something that is transcendent of that human relationship of those human dynamics and connections between fathers and sons and And then Welcome to My Neighborhood, a feature about Mr. Rogers, who was extremely spiritual in his ministry, but yet he doesn't explicitly talk about that. He just sort of embodies it within his actions of how he's sort of relating to people. And it's an embodiment of his principles and his values, and that he's sort of doing things that we can all agree upon, you know, loving your neighbor and giving love to children everything that he sort of stands for, whether or not you have sort of opinions around people who are religious or identify with Republicans or whatever, Democrats or whatever. I noticed that there was a moment in the Mr. Rogers neighborhood that he was like, he was a lifetime Republican. And it gave me this charge of like, wait, you know, what's that mean? But in that time, it meant something different, you know, and it's sort of not as sort of ideologically split as we are right now. But those two films back to back are showing that there's these different ways that we can start to empathize but also connect to people but to be able to navigate these paradoxes of understanding the traumas and the conditions and the cultures and the taboos of different people and the more that we're able to kind of slipstream in between these different perspectives the more that we're able to kind of understand each other.

[00:35:57.557] Gabo Arora: Yeah, no, I think that Mr. Rogers film blew my mind and I think that we need more of it because obviously somebody who's very religious and a Republican and very different but, you know, able to give you so much good and I think, you know, you had mentioned the paradox and the contradiction. I can't remember who said it. Maybe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Real intelligence is the ability to have those two conflicting ideas resting in your mind at the same time without letting it drive you totally crazy. Like, I think we need to be able to get to a point where we can be exposed to things that contradict our worldview, but in some ways don't threaten us and frighten us as much as they have. And you know, within social media and everything that's happening, I think if somehow virtual reality and these types of stories can kind of permeate and expose people Well, you know, it's always the same trick right that I want people to experience a new technology in a new way in a story That's never would have been expected, you know because usually these things are so expensive and difficult and they are and they spider-man or Batman or Marvel Comics or anything else, but all of a sudden we've been able to, I think, hopefully get people to realize that, you know, these people are different than them, but, you know, we need to kind of figure out a way that we can coexist. So thank you, Kent, for checking it out. And thank you for, again, you know, I think very, very insightful questions that we're going to use to hopefully improve the piece as well.

[00:37:30.201] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling? And what am I able to enable?

[00:37:40.835] Gabo Arora: I mean, I still believe in it wholeheartedly. I think it's getting more and more exciting as you have more and more immersive and interactive tools. I think it has many potentials that have been discussed ad nauseum of what it is, but I think its greatest, I think, contribution will be for it to be a tool to truly make greater human connection and understanding. And I think you'll do something Hopefully that will you know, like so many other modern constructs have made our lives better And you know like Steve Jobs would say, you know, the computer is a bicycle for the mind I've always said that I think VR is a bicycle for the heart and I think that's the the best way to think about it and I still believe in that even though there's all this anti-empathy type of discussion around it and poo-pooing. I understand the skepticism, but it's undeniable that it gives you an ability to connect with other people in ways that are just incredible.

[00:38:38.719] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much. So that was Gabo Arora. He's the director of Zikr, A Sufi Arrival, which was premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, so Gabo is trying to always push the limits as to what's possible within the virtual reality medium. He's doing all these different various experiments. And so this experiment was to try to look at something which is a spiritual practice and to try to do some anthropological documentation of that and to capture it and then through his own directorial sensibilities try to edit something that is normally like a half-hour ritual into something that is many different rituals kind of all juxtaposed together but also telling a larger story of what's happening to these Sufis in Tunisia. So I had this experience of having the audio soundtrack help get me into this hypnotic state. And there was also, I was sharing a virtual environment with three other people. We were standing in a circle, you know, playing with these different beads. And I was really dancing around to the point of really just trying to make it into this ecstatic dance. And there was this tether on the headset that actually got caught because I was moving so aggressively and it actually started kind of pulling my head back. And so. It's this tension of trying to create these virtual reality experiences that are allowing people to have some boundaries of safety to prevent me from running into other people and to punching them in the face, because there is this artificial distance that in this experience, we're actually closer than what I'm seeing perceptually within the VR environment. And so I could totally understand how they're trying to prevent me from doing that. And so anytime you have a tether on like that, that's restricting your movement, it's going to somehow break the presence in a different way. And I've gone through a number of these different Sufi practices, the full ritual practices, and I'll definitely say that there's a very different qualitative experience of actually being live in one of these experiences with the live music, with other people. There's this feeling that you're participating in something that is emergent in the moment and When you take a 360 video capture of a ritual practice like this and then go into it later, then your mind is going to know deep down subconsciously that you're not participating in it alive, that it's something that already happened. Now, that doesn't mean that you can still get a sense of what some of these practices were. I think that I was actually surprised the degree to which I felt like I was kind of present in one of these circles where there was these different drumming and dancing and singing that was happening. But there's something also that happens by doing it over long periods of times that gets your mind into even deeper levels of trance states and altered states of consciousness. And so I think there's this tension, like Gabo was saying, was some of the people that were helping produce this project were advocating for like the full unedited, uncut version of like, just go in and have like a full experience of one of these songs, rather than what is essentially kind of like a highlight reel of these different experiences and so Gabo as a virtual reality creator has to make these different trade-offs to make these decisions as to how he's going to take something that was already there but also help amplify and craft and edit because anytime you're editing it you're changing what actually happened and so this isn't a one-to-one simulcrum of one of these rituals it's trying to give you a taste of a full spectrum of some of these different practices. But I also say that the fact that I'm in these virtual reality experiences with other people in real time and that I have these bead mechanics that I'm able to do different movements, but if we are able to synchronize our movements in different ways, then you have these different emergent properties that happen within the beads that are within this experience. So that was an interesting construct to see how you could take someone who were physically separated in space, but then, you know, not actually be holding anything physical other than your Vive controllers and to, in the virtual reality world, connect yourself to other people and to have these moments of group synchrony where you can actually have these other emergent behaviors, which I think is, you know, talking to some of the neuroscientists about these concepts of synchrony and what it means to have group synchrony within the context of a VR experience is that it does something to your mind where it actually makes you feel more of a larger part of a group. There's a book by Michael Pollan called how to change your mind and he's talking about what is physically happening within your brain when you take a psychedelic and there's this default mode network in your brain that is essentially kind of like your ego or your sense of self and that taking a psychedelic will turn off that part of your brain, that default mode network, and that it will allow you to have this ego disillusionment moment, which allows you to feel more connected to the larger whole. And I think that some of these types of altered states of consciousness, the trance experiences, these transcendent spiritual experiences that are done through these rituals, I think in some ways are doing the same thing, but without the psychedelic. It's like you're getting to this point of feeling a part of a group and just being a part of something that's larger than yourself. So I guess the open question is, is to what degree can you have a virtualized experience of some of these practices to still achieve some of the same effect? And my suspicion is that, you know, from my own experiences with these different practices, is that I do kind of want to have an experience of the entire ritual, especially in the context of something at home, where I'm not waiting for other people, I'm not worried about issues of throughput, because whenever you talk about these types of experiences within a context of a museum, you have to think about, well, how many people can go through this in the course of an hour? If it's four people can go through it and it's an hour long, then there's only so many people that can go through it over the course of a day. But if it's only 10 or 13 minutes long, then you can get a lot more through. And so it just becomes issues like that, where it doesn't become feasible in that context within a museum to be able to have the full experience. And that's something that may be better suited to have at home. So I'm excited to see where this goes. And I do think there are some various issues in terms of, especially when you start to sell these types of experiences, then you're taking something that is a cultural process and then redistributing it. And I think there has to be some level of consent or at least some validation that whatever that you're interpreting this practice and putting out into the world that it's still within the alignment integrity with all the different meaning systems that are embedded within that system. So just as an example, I've never done anything like that with the prayer beads and the Sufi rituals. And so I would just want to make sure that whoever was in charge of doing these rituals that I wasn't doing anything that was going to be, you know, seen as something that would go against what whatever the deeper meaning of some of these symbols are. So I think that's just something to be aware of in terms of there's some sensitive navigation to be able to get this out there, especially if this is an instance of some of these Sufi orders and some of these countries are being targeted explicitly. And so some of these practices have the risk of disappearing. And so virtual reality could have this real important anthropological function of being able to actually capture and document some of these practices that could be disappearing over time. So Zikr, a Sufi revival was premiering at Sundance Film Festival. I'll be curious to see what ends up happening with this, uh, after Sundance this year, Galba Awara, along with Tom Lofthouse, Nathan Brown and Shaska Unsell, they created this content technology and research studio called Tomorrow Never Knows. And so I'll be curious to see what ends up happening with Zikr and the distribution and if it does end up on Steam and if it does end up on these different museums that are out there. 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 enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, leave a review on iTunes, and consider becoming a member to the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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