The Collider is an immersive experience that uses your memories and your body as a platform to explore asymmetrical power dynamics with another person. It’s a profound experience that pushes the limits of what it means to have you as the protagonist of an experience, and architects a number of embodied actions that are symbolically reflective of deeper patterns and behaviors in your life around your relationship to power.
I first had a chance to experience The Collider at IDFA DocLab, and then had another opportunity to experience it again at Tribeca Film Festival, where it was a part of the Storyscapes competition. I unpack the experience with the co-founders of Anagram, May Abdalla and Amy Rose at the Tribeca Film Festival where we explore the many deep experiential design insights that considered with architecting this immersive experience. They were really focused on creating a deeper context with enough mystery for two people to come together and explore their relationships to power.
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE OF THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.
[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 at the Tribeca Film Festival, there's about 22 different experiences, and five of those experiences were in the storiescapes. So they were doing some level of narrative innovation of what the future of immersive storytelling might look like. And so one of the things that the Collider did was that it puts you as the experiencer as the chief protagonist of the story that's unfolding. And the challenge of trying to put you as an individual into a story or to an experience is that you have to create some sort of context that allows you to go through some sort of either deep insight or change. And I think that Collider was able to pull that off, at least the two times that I've been able to do that. And the Collider is an experience where it's asking you to recall different memories, and then there's two people that are having these variety of different interactions, and they're really exploring asymmetrical power dynamics between these two different people in this experience. And I had a chance to talk to the creators of this experience, May Abdallah and Amy Rose of Anagram, And they aren't so precious about trying to keep all the different aspects of their experience completely private and spoiler-free. I think that's in part because, well, for number one, it's an experience that is about 40 minutes, so about two people at a time can see it. So maybe around 150 or so people have seen it at Tribeca. It was also showed at the IDFA doc lab, and maybe another 100 or so people saw it. So we're talking about an order of, you know, a few hundred people. And imagine that there was a lot of people that saw it and will want to program it. And it'll probably travel around to a lot of different festivals. And so if you do have a chance to see the Collider, then I'd recommend just seeing it without knowing much about it. That's typically what I prefer. But I also think there's a lot of really interesting narrative innovations that are happening here. And I think that May and Amy have a lot of really insightful experiential design insights into the process that they went through in order to create this experience of the Collider. So we'll be covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Amy and May happened on Friday, April 26th, 2019 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, New York. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:27.901] May Abdalla: So I'm May Abdallah.
[00:02:29.762] Amy Rose: And I'm Amy Rose.
[00:02:31.350] May Abdalla: and together we are the founders of Anagram. So Anagram, we make experiences that involve technology, your body, and storytelling. And we like to try and find ways where people interact with the experience which brings a lot of themselves to it. So how your body has to move or how you are in relation to the space or to another person is like a metaphor for the story that you're going through.
[00:03:00.600] Amy Rose: Yeah we're really interested in how we can find metaphors that relate what you're doing in a space or in an experience to things in the real world. So like the way you move reminds you of something or what you're doing with someone reminds you of something and that those are the things that make it interactive and make it meaningful rather than sort of simple I'll choose this bit or I'll choose that bit. We're not in that camp.
[00:03:25.095] Kent Bye: So I had a chance to do the Collider, which is the experience that's showing here in Tribeca, but I first saw it in Amsterdam at the IDFA doc lab, and it was one of the experiences that the organizers of the festival were like, you absolutely have to see this experience, you know, like definitely see this. And I had an amazing time seeing it, but then there's another side to see it and have a different experience. And I wanted to experience it again from that other perspective. But maybe you could set the context a little bit in terms of this world that you've created and what types of things you feel like you were trying to explore with these experiences.
[00:03:58.158] Amy Rose: Well the idea for the Collider really started in two places. There were sort of two ideas that branched together and met. One of those was that we were just playing with the Vive and we just found it really hilarious that if you're wearing the headset and somebody else was holding the controllers and they walked towards you that you would see them floating towards you and that there was something about the movement of the image that represented the controller that was very human in a way that other kinds of animation that you were looking at isn't. because you would see this sort of bobbing thing moving towards you, you would just feel like, what is that? And who is that? And can I get them? And we would sort of start playing with it, you know, just in a grey box unity world without even anything there. And it felt potent. It felt like something that spoke of other things, that spoke of connection and separation and of the sort of dynamic potential between two people that is that full of emotion and full of possibility basically. So that was kind of a response to the technology itself and we'd also been at lots of film festivals where we would see people a little bit like walking down a corridor and putting on a headset and the piece itself demanding the participant kind of forget that they are in a place. And even if I acknowledge them, there's something really funny about the idea that you put on a headset and you transform yourself into another place. And we wanted to address that head on and say, yeah, we're going to kind of say that you're somewhere else, but we're also going to force you to stay where you are and that there's always this split that's going on when you're in it, that you wear the headset, but you also have to remain present in the physical space that you're in. And that there's a sort of interesting slippage between those two things that speaks more to what's really going on with this hardware. And that's the exploration.
[00:05:52.807] May Abdalla: So then that became a kind of starting point of thinking about well what's that a metaphor for and then this idea of your internal universe and the external world and how when we're together as two separate individuals that I'm here and you're here but you're also there in your world and I'm also in my world and this kind of play dance that we do where we try and find ways to cross that divide of you and me. So that became kind of the beginning. In fact, it was initially titled The Impossible Divide, which was a terrible title.
[00:06:27.376] Amy Rose: Also just a bit depressing.
[00:06:28.517] May Abdalla: I think we were both kind of like... Having a bad time. We were both having a bad time and relationships were like people will never truly understand each other and we can use the vibe as a metaphor for this. And then it kind of became a little bit more of what it is now, which is, shall I just introduce the Collider as well? So the Collider is an experience about your relationship with power. And the idea is it is in fact a machine. It's a fully functional machine, not unlike the Large Hadron Collider, CERN, in Switzerland. And whereas the Large Hadron Collider shoots out particles at each other in order to decipher the bonds which exist at the heart of them, we shoot out individual humans. at each other, one at a time, in order to try and figure out what is the material that is created when two of these people come together. Why is it sometimes so strong? Why is it sometimes so limp? Why is it sometimes seemingly really healthy and then suddenly absolutely horrible? And so this is the kind of strange scientific inquiry which justifies this little experiment.
[00:07:32.308] Amy Rose: We really like finding these slightly absurd narrative frameworks that offer imaginative stuff. So the idea that it's a machine, but it's not a normal machine. It's not a futuristic-looking machine. There's no molded white plastic. There's no shiny chrome. Instead, there's velvet armchairs and rope and sand and green curtains. And this is a machine that's eccentric and got a personality of its own. We wanted to give it a really fun feel that was sort of exciting and strange. And we'd also been really inspired by this beautiful story by David Eagleman, which is in some all these different ideas about what happens in the afterlife. And there's this one about this otherworldly beings called the Collectors. who've created the Earth just to explore what happens in human relationships. The Earth exists because they're doing tests on people. So we're drawing on lots of these different references of stories and science and the absurdity of trying to measure what happens between people and the idea that you could do a scientific experiment on emotional attachment. is also slightly ridiculous and we sort of like play in that space of implying things but you know we're not doing scientific experiments we're sort of talking about them in a way that's slightly ridiculous.
[00:08:49.755] May Abdalla: So what happens in the Collider is that two people go in seemingly into this machine and they go in separately they're in a waiting room and there's a series of small rooms and eventually they encounter each other but when they do one is in the headset which is dangling mysteriously from the ceiling by a rope like a caged animal, and the other person discovers that they can manipulate what they see and do using the controllers. And so there's this actual kind of, even if people arrive together and they know each other, there's this kind of lovely encounter where they find each other for the first time again. in this kind of strange theatrical setting of this strange curtained room with sand and spotlights. And then increasingly what happens between them becomes something which they really create in that moment. It's that kind of the live thing in the room is how they decide to move and interact with each other. And there's no two combinations which are the same. And at some point props are introduced people have options about how they interact with those props and what is okay and what is not okay. And so increasingly it becomes about power. and how you feel in your own skin when you have control or the potential to control someone else. Does that fill you with horror or delight? Where are your edges when it comes to your relationship with another person? Do you enjoy being led or do you find that horrible and disturbing idea that someone else might take you to a place that you don't know what it is?
[00:10:30.845] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I had a chance to do the experience in Amsterdam and there is an opportunity for us in that location where you get sent to a cafe with a menu to have a series of questions, but because I only had a limited time and it was almost like I was double booked, I had to almost immediately run to my next appointment, so I missed the opportunity to Unpack what had just happened. So I'd only got what I had experienced in the headset because I'm a VR journalist I was like, oh, yeah, I would definitely want to see what's in VR I want to see what this VR experience is But there was so much that was happening outside of the out Headset and so much that happened between us that I was like, I never got a chance to unpack it So I wanted to go through the other side once I came here from Tribeca to kind of see that from that other perspective but there seemed to be that experiential design component where you're creating an experience that has almost the polar opposites of Who's being controlled and who's controlling and then they have an opportunity to unpack it and talk to each other at the end And so you're almost in some ways creating an entire Context so that people can have like an authentic conversation at the very end like face-to-face but all of this VR performative contrived interactions are to extrapolate very specific behaviors that you could then talk about with other people at the end as well.
[00:11:47.464] Amy Rose: You've got it exactly. In a way, we're most interested in what happens in the conversation and that's kind of where it's all supposed to come together. That you've done something together, you've been in the same space, you have been collaborating in some way, but you have no idea what the other person did or experienced or was asked to do. And something about that really speaks about our experience in life, you know, and the idea that we share space with other people, and yet we often end up with very different memories of a particular occasion than our comrades did. I mean, even, you know, like May and I, we work together, we do a lot together. And then when we talk about things that happened in the past, it's like, oh, but I thought, I thought you said that, or I thought that happened. And there's just so often so much subjective difference in how we experience the world. And trying to set up a situation in which that becomes really clear, and then you're given the opportunity to try and overcome that in some way. feels really interesting and potentially really powerful. I mean here I haven't spoken to so many people that have gone through it yet because we've only been open for like a day but in IDFA I was really fascinated by the difference in like very good friends doing it together or colleagues doing it together or strangers doing it together and all these different conversations that would emerge at the end depending on the chemistry in the room. And so, like, some people that knew each other really well ended up just talking for hours about how it brought up all of these different memories for them and, like, thinking about relationships and, you know, significant others and all this stuff. And for us, that's really satisfying that we want to make work that inspires that sort of dialogue, you know, and that makes people think and is also a bit fun along the way.
[00:13:29.549] May Abdalla: Like, I think what's really potent about immersive experiences is the potential to enter another world, be yourself but be a slightly different version of yourself. Do something because it's the rules of that world that you wouldn't do in the rules of this world because you have ideas about what rules you follow and we all have our ideas about who we are and what we do and what we don't do. and then you can kind of create an interaction or a world where the rules are different and for a moment you therefore can be different and then afterwards knowing what it meant to be that person for a moment is the place where things might shift.
[00:14:07.008] Kent Bye: Yeah, and the thing that was also really striking about this experience was the use of memory as almost a palette to set a context and have people draw upon their own embodied experiences that are archetypally about these moments of either having power over someone or having someone else have power over you. And that, for me at least, I had moments where because you had that invoking of those memories, of course, the different embodied interactions are subtly bringing up those memories. And then you're explicitly having people act out the memories with each other in different ways, and you have different ways to express through these different little miniature characters aspects of the memory. And then as you come together, you create a memory together. In this experience, at least at Tribeca, it wasn't at IDFA to be able to do a collaborative memory. But so maybe you could talk about that associative nature of memory and how you were trying to use memory as a part of the experience that you were creating here.
[00:15:07.181] Amy Rose: Ages ago, when we started working together, the first thing that we did was we went and we did this residency with this brilliant English company called Blast Theory, who make interactive... They've been going since the 90s. They're really brilliant. And one of their bosses is this amazing woman called Ju. And she asked us this question when we were first developing work together, which was, how do you get the audience to bring something of themselves to the experience? How do you create space in which the audience can bring something of themselves? And so often in things that we make, We don't want to make people perform in a really overt way something that's very personal. So in the Collider you're not asked to do something like tell someone something. You're asked to remember something but the way in which you might express that memory is abstracted enough to remain sort of personal and private but we also ask you to do it. and that balance of getting somebody to go there in their heads but not feel too exposed is really important to us because there's so much immersive theatre that demands a lot of exposure and so trying to find the right kind of provocation where there's a bit of exposure or there's a bit of something that you might feel a little bit edgy about doing but there's still a lot you keep for yourself, but you're still there. That's the kind of palette that we're interested in, in a way. This could really be about you and what's going on for you, but that's also your business, and I'm not going to push it out of you.
[00:16:39.567] May Abdalla: So what happens in the Collider is that you're asked either to think of a memory where you had power over someone or someone had power over you and then later in the experience one of the participants is asked to refashion the scene where that moment took place in the circle where they're both standing. And so the scenes are like, in and of themselves, they're very banal. They're often two people standing side by side or, you know, what they might do is move someone's arms or just slightly the angle of how they're standing. But it's very potent to recreate the world of that moment with another person. And just knowing that somebody is going through something in their memory that they're doing with you, it evokes in the person who's not doing anything with their memory, they're just being the mannequin for the other person's scene, a real sense that they have something that they are protecting that is honourable somehow. Or they like they know that there's something real that is happening that they don't know anything about but they know that it is Real so when the person does speak or whatever is happening Although it is completely as Amy saying like impenetrable to really know what that means. You know, what's the nature of that? It's a real kind of Sharing that allows that conversation to happen later because Not necessarily, the conversation doesn't have to be about the memory, but a sense that I held something for you, and so something has happened between us that's completely mysterious to both of us.
[00:18:16.786] Kent Bye: And there's a part of those memories, one memory is that you are remembering something where someone had power over you and then other person is having a memory where they had power over someone else and then you bring us together where then the person who was controlling other people were starting to control us. So I was in the headset the first time and I remembered Not knowing that there was somebody else that was a human doing it for a really long time, it was almost like embarrassingly how long it took me to realize. I don't know if the direction that they were taking was to try to really hide that they weren't human. And I found that when I was doing it this time, the person who was in the headset was actually trying to grab the controllers out of my hands. And I had to constantly just dodge it. And I was like, he has to know that I'm a human here. My cover's blown here at this moment. But I remember that moment of realizing, wow, that thing is moving in a way that, oh, wait a minute. That's not computer programming. That's a human. There's a human being on the other side of that. And just that interplay of recognizing and seeing the humanity and the movement of an object and knowing that it's kind of responding to me in a too specific of a way for it to be any sort of AI that exists, at least as far as I know, that's out there. But you have that realization in that moment. And I didn't feel like in the moment, like, oh, this person has had power over me. It was more of like, oh, wow, this is a really interesting discovery that I'm having in that moment that there's a person on the other side. And it didn't feel like I was being controlled. But maybe you could just unpack that a little bit.
[00:19:50.670] Amy Rose: Yeah, I don't think we assume that the participant who wears the VR is definitely going to feel like a puppet or that they're being controlled. But I think in a playful way, you can play at surrendering to something, you know? And we try and help the participants to be playful with it. So it goes from something that's quite light and quite kind of, oh, just sort of flop around, to something that's a little bit more serious with asking about memories and with thinking about, well, what could this relate to? I wouldn't say that we're saying, you definitely feel like this when this is happening. It's more that we're sort of suggesting that, you know, what does this offer up? And do you notice? And can you sort of tune your attention a little bit to say, well, what does it feel like? Can I play at being controlled? And what does it feel like if I play at being controlled? Or what does it feel like if I play it controlling? And for the controller side, as you know now, there's a lot more, in a way, going on of, well, you could sort of do something much worse to this person. You know, we have a lot of fun with buying props for the filing cabinet, basically. I'm like, maybe I should buy some waxing strips. No, that's going too far. But yeah, I guess we're into the offering of possibility. And then everyone does with it what they will.
[00:21:11.319] May Abdalla: Sometimes, I mean, sometimes it's not about anybody doing anything. It's just about the tremor of the possibility of it happening. Like there is this one piece of art, which I absolutely love, which all involved was it was in an art gallery somewhere in Scandinavia and it was a blender that was plugged in it in the wall and in the blender was a goldfish and some water that was live. And so it's not about is somebody going to press the button? It's just about how do you feel when you look at that blender? It has a tingle. It's alive with something that happens to you just by you knowing what your finger could do were it to approach the blender. And so I think we don't want people to hurt each other in the Collider, but the invitation to think about how you would feel leading people in different directions is, it's enough. You don't have to do anything. Just...
[00:22:07.496] Amy Rose: Hilarious Dutch men did do quite a lot to each other.
[00:22:13.246] May Abdalla: But it's enough. I mean, it is a piece about power. It's not a piece where you get tied up and abused by a stranger.
[00:22:21.435] Amy Rose: I'd just say there's also something, you know, again in this festival context you walk down the corridor and you see all these people and they've got VR headsets on and I just always really wanted to do stuff to them and you know they're like, they're standing there and you just kind of want to poke them or there's just so much potential and we always quite enjoy running our experiences because we're sort of in the process of like creating something for somebody and they're in it and we get excited when they get excited and in a way the controller role in the Collider is giving that role to a participant. It's going like, here, here's open space and somebody. What are you going to do? Are you going to give them a good time or are you going to give them a bad time?
[00:23:02.202] Kent Bye: The person who is the controller in my experience was very sympathetic because she did not do anything crazy in terms of give me really exotic feather experiences or whatever. There's a whole filing cabinet filled with different objects that you're invited as a controller to interact with the participants with these different objects. And the person who was in my experience did very little with a lot of those. And so there was some of me being surprised that a lot of those things were even there because it was like, oh, wow, this is a whole dimension that I missed out on. But there is also this experience where you do make the invitation to reach out and make a connection and to touch the person who's in the VR headset. And for me, when I touched the person when I was a controller, there was almost like this jump in the body that I was like, oh, I don't know how trauma sensitive this person is. I don't know what their history is. And I don't know what level of consent they would have for me to even be touching them right now. For me, it was just like, oh, wow, I need to be really sensitive here. So then to have the idea that there'd be a filing cabinet filled with ways that I could potentially torture this person in a way that would be surprising, or maybe they wouldn't consent to that. For me, as a controller, not knowing what the level of consent was for the other person, I was defaulting to do very little of anything at all.
[00:24:17.261] Amy Rose: Which is why it's so different depending on who you do it with. Because if you did it with a friend, basically that's why when we see good friends doing it, then they often take it really far.
[00:24:30.761] May Abdalla: It's not about what you do with the stuff in the filing cabinet. The fact that you felt a level of complete awareness of the vulnerability of the person in the headset. When you said I didn't feel like the other person was controlling me in the headset. And that is interesting as somebody who does so much VR, you know, when you see the physical movement of somebody in a headset, it's obviously of someone who's a bit vulnerable. And when you're outside really looking at someone, what that vulnerability inspires in you is often a sense of protectiveness. You know, that is what most people want. And suddenly that sense of I'm protecting this person is a really beautiful connection that is happening, which is not visible to anybody other than that sense of here's a stranger. And I've been given these options, the very thought of which seems terrifying.
[00:25:24.419] Amy Rose: Yeah, I don't I don't want to have these options. Can I just please have a feather?
[00:25:28.080] May Abdalla: And that's all you know, that is that's the edge. And you don't need to do anything at that edge. All you need to do is look at it and choose what side of it you're on. And that in itself is the entirety of the experience. We made this show for the Tower of London about surveillance. And what we were saying at the beginning is we like to think about what are the situations that inspire in your skin a tremble. Your body as the platform. The thing that we want to play with is your gut. and the back of your neck and like your cheekbones and all of those things which nobody knows how to program but we kind of want to program them and this show is about surveillance and you know the sensation of being watched by someone you don't know where they are or watching someone who can't see you like all of these things are like very exciting because they play with you And at some point, people were asked to plant a letter on a stranger.
[00:26:22.188] Amy Rose: And there's like a lot of just a stranger, a member of the public, an unsuspecting member of the public.
[00:26:26.370] May Abdalla: And there's a lot of build up to this moment. And they get closer. They choose the person. They edge close like they follow the instructions because people follow instructions. That's what we've learned. If we've learned anything, people follow instructions and they edge really close. And just at the moment when they're totally full of adrenaline, their armpits are moist and their hands are clammy. We say no. Step down. This is just an exercise in adrenaline. You don't need to do anything. We've already done the thing. The thing is you. That is an interesting place to go. You know, standing in the room where somebody is putting you into a memory, which you don't know what it is, but you know that you're important to it. When you hear the words they say and you have no idea of the content, like all of that sense of being in this abstracted world, it's a very intimate space without really needing to share very much. It's quite exciting how you can play with that and just using technology to kind of work on the body as opposed to vice versa.
[00:27:22.478] Kent Bye: It reminds me of the Milgram obedience experiments where you're asked to push a button and to shock people and you know it was an actor that was acting and yeah but people thought they were actually shocking people but there's a sort of dynamic of following instructions or obedience where there is this element of being in the in that room as a controller and being asked to lift down the vent and to peer in and then You're getting instructions through your headphones, which I think is another key part of this experience, which is you put on some wireless headphones and you have instructions and you have this whole experience where you're learning about the world through the narration of the audio. the person who is in the VR headset gets into the VR headset, but someone who is the controller is just having this audio augmentation layer the whole experience, where they're getting the whole information. I found that actually going through the VR experience first, I wanted to do that because I thought, oh, I'll be able to see the VR experience, but then to go through the controller second, I was like, oh wow, there's actually way more information that the controller is getting about this world and the meaning and the instructions that the controller is getting that were different or there's like an asymmetry in terms of what each person knows about this world and what instructions that they're getting.
[00:28:36.399] Amy Rose: I think when we were making it, we got worried that the VR side would be more fun than the controller side, so we worked really hard on the controller side. And then we were like, the controller side is now really fun and the VR side is a bit boring. Quick, work on the VR side.
[00:28:53.204] May Abdalla: I think we got interested in how to choreograph an encounter between two people asymmetrically quite a while ago.
[00:29:01.331] Amy Rose: It's quite funny, in the R&D we'd try doing really clashing instructions, so that one person was told to do one thing, the other person was told to do another thing, and just see what happens. And it would just really often go completely wrong in a quite hilarious way. But trying to get it so that the two people, that the meaning underlying their narrative journey is a bit different, but then that it does come together at the end. is quite hard, but I think we managed it. But also, the idea that you are following instructions also comes into it from a sort of thematic point of view, which is that essentially, if we're a piece about power, both people are following instructions, and that we always get really kind of tickled by, as May said, by how willing people are. And there's always this voice in, like, she's really nice to you and she's quite soft and she persuades you in quite a gentle way. And so you do it all. And we both find that really fascinating. And at first, when we started making work, we got very worried about people not following the instructions and all of our friends who would try to break it and, you know, take off the headset and break the set and all that kind of stuff. But, like, it just never really happens. and there's something really fascinating about our willingness to follow and in a way the collider is trying also to unpack that at the end by saying like you know you've heard these instructions in this voice and like but what are all the possibilities like why do we follow and who do we follow would it be different if it was somebody else who was asking you and you know in our sort of world now with machines talking to us sort of who that voice is and our relationship with that voice is becoming increasingly complicated and interesting. You know, lots of people writing about the kind of voice of Alexa or the voice of these different machines that are essentially subservient creatures and they're all given the voice of women. What is happening with that and how is our relationship with technology being reformed year on year by the voices that we give it? That's kind of come into how we've thought about some of the development of it as well.
[00:31:01.728] May Abdalla: And beyond that just I think the other thing that really informed this was because initially it was about this idea of asymmetrical relationships and dependence and it increasingly became about power and why we let people govern us and you know this was three years in the making and in that time Trump was elected in America and the MeToo hashtag kind of revealed just how much we give people power to do awful things to us. And to some degree, that is about the culture of who takes that power, but it's also about the culture of who gives that power. And so without kind of trying to talk about who's responsible in a macro level, this is about your micro experience of where the moments have been that you have witnessed in yourself giving something away that you didn't want to give away. And why does that happen? And can we see that individually and also take it back?
[00:32:07.427] Amy Rose: Yeah, and it's really hard to think about because you easily get into blame. You get into, well, it's your fault that you gave your power away. You know, what's wrong with you? And that's a dead end. And actually, it's if we can find the space to think, how am I complicit in this? What can I do to get myself out of this position in an internal way? What does that look like? And, you know, of course that grows completely out of personal experience and frustration and thinking about, you know, why am I in this position again? Or, you know, those kinds of year on year, like personal experiences of feeling controlled or feeling like somehow you can't take what you want or you can't be who you want to be with that person. Those sorts of feelings, like how do we unpack them?
[00:32:55.462] May Abdalla: In a way, the best way to unpack them is to invite someone to remember that moment, and without making a traumatic experience, have this playful invitation to notice all the things that went through your mind and body, and retell that story just for a moment. So it's not really an angry piece about power. It could be, but it's more a reflective piece about that, if you see what I mean.
[00:33:21.160] Kent Bye: What kind of feedback have you gotten in terms of people after they go through the experience and unpack it? Do you hear back insights into these power differentials, power dynamics? What type of themes do you see emerging after people go through this experience and talk about it?
[00:33:35.388] Amy Rose: I haven't had that many conversations this time around yet. I did have a conversation yesterday. She was controller side and she was like, I felt so protective of this person. And I, you know, I was really wondering what was going on for her. And I wanted to know and I wanted to. And I was like, well, that, you know, that's kind of what it's about. And she was like, yeah, it was so fascinating, like having that feeling dynamic run through me in a real way in the room. And for me, we should make work that has real feeling dynamics that run through it. And so that I felt very pleased about. I was thinking of you. Oh, yeah. So in IDFA, a friend of ours, a man, did it with a woman that he didn't know. And his experience was afterwards he told us he was the controller side. And he said that he just thought all the time when he was going through it about how men mistreat women and the power that men have in our culture over women's experience. So he kind of took it as an opportunity to be incredibly gentle and kind to this woman that he sort of had some power over in that moment. And then I think she basically had an amazing time. And then afterwards, they had a great chat and then they ended up going out for dinner or, you know, they they sort of they sort of made friends. And I was so moved that a that it made him think about that and be that he took it as an opportunity to sort of actively respond. and that it kind of worked, you know, that just for that moment, this woman, this unknown woman has a lovely time. I mean, that's great, isn't it?
[00:35:22.430] Kent Bye: I think it's interesting to be talking to both of you about this because I've gone through the experience twice but even though I've gone through it twice there's like new insights that I have about my own experience because there was a moment where they have the different voices changing and then this time it was like do you trust all these voices and I was like actually no I don't trust them all as much like there's somehow the original voice, I trust more. Maybe it's familiar, or it's something about consistency. So for me to go back and project myself, how would this experience change if the voice would have changed? And I would be like, yeah, it would have changed a lot. There's a trust that's built up by that voice. But I don't even remember the voice changing the first time. And maybe it happened, and I was just so overwhelmed with the overall experience that it was just not a thing that I remembered a part, or I don't know if I got that as the person in VR. But I liked how you were able to deconstruct the power dynamics. And when you said in this conversation that, yes, both people are listening to the voice, and we as creators are controlling them, that the whole layer of controlling the controller was happening with, you know, people like to enter in a magic circle. They like to consent. They like to play by the rules of the game. And if everybody plays by the rules of the game, they can actually have a better experience. I think there's a dynamic of that. But to kind of then have that whole magic circle be deconstructed in the moment, I didn't really fully understand until this conversation right now.
[00:36:41.831] Amy Rose: Well, we're going to do another iteration. Maybe it will get more obvious.
[00:36:47.113] May Abdalla: I think the challenge is what we're trying to do. And it's difficult because everybody's different. So what we want is everyone to be different and everyone to be themselves and everyone to feel free and everyone to feel the way they do. This is the right way that they're not looking out for. Should I be wild with the cabinet or should I be safe with the sand? It doesn't matter. And the experience works when it catches you, no matter how you fall, that it looks after all of the versions of the people who go through, because it's not about how you do it, it's just about noticing whichever way you do it, why you choose that. And so there is no breaking of it. If you don't want to participate, then that is because of whatever reason, and that's not breaking it either. The thing is there, the choices are there. It's not better if you're this person, and worse if you're the other person. It's just an imagined room where it's all about you. So do with it what you will and don't feel judged because nobody knows except for you.
[00:37:45.943] Amy Rose: One of the really nice things that happens is that afterwards, when we talk to people, they tell us the memories that they thought about when they were in it. And for me, like some of those are just really beautiful that you get someone that you don't know particularly well coming up to you and being like, God, you know, I just thought about when my second child was born and this is what happened. And you get these little snapshots of a moment in someone's life. And I just think it's beautiful that there is space for that. And that once those memories are kind of called up, that people want to then do something with them and be like, oh yeah, no, what did you think about? And that doesn't happen every time, of course. But when it does, it's just, yeah, it's really nice.
[00:38:28.904] Kent Bye: What are some of the either biggest open questions that you're trying to answer or open problems that you're trying to solve?
[00:38:35.426] Amy Rose: Well, we started making work together because we used to just make documentaries for the cinema and for the TV. And we just always got very interested in how our physical experience can affect how we feel about things and how that might be used in the service of crafting a story for somebody. And so in the last six years, pretty much everything we've made has been trying to explore that in a different way. So, you know, what is it that you're doing with your body and particularly like the environment you're in, the textures that you encounter, the movement that you might go through, and how can that be part of something in a very real way. It's not accidental that you step into sand, it's not accidental that the chairs are covered in velvet, just all of those little details. I guess we're very interested in our physical experience.
[00:39:26.021] May Abdalla: So I think early on, back in the day, we started thinking about rituals I'd come back from pilgrimage at Mecca and we did a little pilgrimage in North Wales and we thought a little bit about these forgotten physical rituals or performances that would go through as an individual that were important and so where is the realm which is not about thinking or looking or imagining A lot of culture asks us to put our bodies in the freezer and stare at a screen or think about a thing. How can we think without using our mind? How can we put a few motions or moments together that do something that we can't do just by thinking about it? And so for us, interactivity is, I mean, what does interactivity even mean? Why would anybody want to do anything interactive? Is it fun? Is it more expensive? Is it the industry? It's more like, I want to bring my whole self to something. And what we learned making Door into the Dark, which was the first project we did together, was that the more you ask somebody to get involved, the more they get out of it. So, you know, we have a 40 minute experience here. It's quite demanding. Some experiences are six minute. have to put their phones away. You know, maybe they can't do everything today because they have to do the Collider, but it's worth it because it's something in being able to take your time through the experience which is more rewarding than skating on the surface of something, I would hope. And so to ask for interactivity to be whole is a way of offering something more to the people who take part.
[00:41:12.553] Amy Rose: We also really want to make a piece involving loads of jelly. We just haven't had the opportunity yet.
[00:41:18.708] May Abdalla: Our question daily is, when are we going to get the jelly commission? The first fantasy we ever had, I think, was that we fill a room with jelly and then you're given a samurai sword and you go through the door and you have to find your way out. It's an experience for one person ever. And it's really hard to build. And it's very expensive. But we did email Roundtree. that they never replied.
[00:41:43.096] Amy Rose: Wouldn't it be so fun?
[00:41:47.337] Kent Bye: So finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of immersive experiences are and what they might be able to enable?
[00:41:57.482] May Abdalla: Global change on a massive level. Very, very slowly. I think the thing about active participation asking more and therefore giving more is really real for me. It can also be very disappointing but that doesn't mean that it's not incredibly fruitful. So there is a culture of how we consume stories and in a way finding these new terrains for experiences is really dynamic and beautiful because It means that we haven't necessarily already organised who is it that should participate and how should they participate. So it's not the opera, it's not for a certain class of person, it's not necessarily this. We don't necessarily have to ignore it, you can kind of surprise somebody on the street on the way to the subway with a thing that happens to them. which is out of the ordinary. I think we're just always fascinated about like just a slip in reality that you might walk through and something else could happen in order for that reality to one day be maybe something you could go back to yourself.
[00:43:06.238] Amy Rose: A lot of the work that we've made relies on audio but it doesn't necessarily rely on VR or a set but it's always kind of getting you to try and imagine something maybe about the real world that you're in or like the place that you're in and I think there's something about adding that layer to a real place I mean, actually, I don't know. I find it really difficult to answer that kind of question, partly because I detest the hype around VR and around XR and all these things, and think that a lot of it is empty and meaningless. Sorry to be really negative.
[00:43:43.488] May Abdalla: But we do want to support it in order to be funded by the Lucas Foundation and Magic Leap. And Disney! Elon, call me. But I think that...
[00:43:55.204] Amy Rose: The thing that feels like almost an interesting political move is to really speak to the body. Because if you speak to the body, you just invite so much more in of somebody. And you end up being able to make work that is for everybody. You know, it doesn't demand that you're very well educated or like you know everything about the news or that it isn't a sort of exercise in being on point in a cerebral way. How can you make stuff in which like everybody can have a strange transcendental time because it speaks to something universal about our experience. And also that storytelling has been evolving in different ways like in every generation and this is just what's going on now. And what's going to happen in 20 years, who knows? It will be completely different. And hopefully there'll be some people that have got some energy to do some work, because we will definitely not have any energy left by then. I will be living in a cottage, making pottery.
[00:44:56.057] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?
[00:45:04.101] May Abdalla: Oh, the immersive community, because that's your audience, huh? That is a good invitation. Don't take yourself too seriously.
[00:45:10.560] Amy Rose: I mean, probably this really bad thing to say, but like, I think the idea that the immersive technology can, I'm sorry, this is going to be really negative. Sorry, May. A lot of films that are made for this kind of technology at the moment feel like They have to relearn the lessons that documentary and that films learned in the middle of the 20th century. And I feel like the community needs to stop thinking that what it's doing is brand new because it isn't. and people need to watch work and be critical and sort of expect more and think like how can we do stuff that is genuinely challenging and fun but doesn't sort of imagine that this is going to somehow like solve poverty in Africa because it is not.
[00:46:02.030] May Abdalla: There is a dangerous level of hype about immersive experience isn't there? I think the stuff about empathy sends shivers down my spine and I think that what we hope we're doing is less about empathy and more about self-realization. Does that sound really grandiose? I just think, like, I feel that, you know, we both made documentaries for a while. There is a kind of slippage into feeling like if we had compassion for other people, things would change. But I think that thing about having awareness is something that actually these experiences are really good for because you're there. Whereas the people that you may be invited to have empathy with are not.
[00:46:50.398] Kent Bye: I think the sort of trauma tourism, the Western gaze or ways that existing empathy pieces are done in VR, there's a lot of problems with that. When I went to Amsterdam and I saw Kasper Sonnen curated all this stuff with DocLab, I was expecting a lot of 360 videos. And the first experience I walk into is the Collider. And I'm like, this is not what I was expecting at all to be at this documentary film festival. The definition of documentary is a lot more expanded from how Kasper thinks about it. but I've always been a huge fan of documentary, and so it's surprising to hear you say that a lot of this stuff has been done before in these other mediums, so I don't know if it's a suggestion that there's certain things to be learned from documentary in particular, or the nature of human experience, or empathy, or what is it?
[00:47:36.473] Amy Rose: I think it's something to do with the conversation around empathy, because if VR is feted as the empathy machine, whoever did that, People who make documentaries have been dealing with finding ways to tell stories about other people that are sympathetic or that in some way get into what's going on for them for a very long time and the politics of that relationship between the maker and the subject has been interrogated for a very long time and I think we need to keep on interrogating that relationship and now You know, in The Collider, like we were saying before, the relationship becomes between the maker and the participant as well. And we need to carry on interrogating the relationship between the work, the subject and the participant. Because if you have people and you're asking them to come in and you're asking them to give something of themselves or do something that's quite intimate, You know, what is the politics of that relationship that's going on? Where is the duty of care? Where is the kind of respect for somebody's real feelings about that? And in my early experiences of VR being presented at festivals, really often I would feel that I was kind of shoved and pushed and pulled. And it was always kind of funny, but it definitely ruined the work. because I'd be sort of dragged out of something afterwards or I'd be sitting on a really crappy chair and somebody would knock into me and there were all these things that would happen that were kind of strange and so I think we need to really think about that and think about what's going on between makers and participants and makers and subjects and you know what are these new scenarios that we're creating and how do we do it well? Rather than like, how do we do it for like 20 quid? Because that's also an issue. Okay, awesome.
[00:49:27.257] Kent Bye: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you.
[00:49:32.059] Amy Rose: Interesting conversation. Thanks very much. Yes. Lovely to chat.
[00:49:35.798] Kent Bye: So that was Amy Rose and May Abdallah of Anagram and their experience. The Collider was a part of Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival. So I've a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, I feel super lucky of being able to actually go through the Collider twice from each of the different perspectives. The first time being in the VR headset and the second time being outside being the controller. So the interesting thing is that whenever you walk into an experience and then you put on the headphones they start to guide you through these different directions and they ask you to recall a very specific moment and there's something very magical when someone asks you either a question or to recall a certain memory because you could be asked that question over and over again and your answers will change. I have that experience of doing the Voices of VR podcast where I've asked lots of different people about the ultimate potential of VR and sometimes I have the opportunity to talk to people over time and I feel like for some people their answers will change and they'll grow and they'll evolve and so their life is like this unfolding process and then depending on what we talked about within the context of the conversation, then often that will color and flavor whatever the ultimate potential of immersive storytelling or virtual reality will be within their answer. And I think just the same, as you live your life, you're embedded into your context of your life of whatever is unfolding, and that when you're asked to recall a very specific memory, you're now in some ways doing this time travel of going back and bringing back your past and you're creating this context of you're now all of a sudden bringing a new dimension of yourself into this immersive experience, which, you know, they're really trying to architect these contrived situations and behaviors where you're being guided and you're feeling very obedient to just, you know, listen and trust that you're going to be taken on this journey. And you're really surrendering over to that magic circle and see whatever is arising. and that you are operating within these sets of rules, and that when you start to have these various different interactions, then you start to see what is emerging for you. So for me, I was kind of in this very vulnerable place, and so I sort of went through that experience with that very specific experience of, you know, being rejected in a certain aspect of my life. And then as the controller, I'm asked to recall a memory where I have undue power or influence over somebody else. And so my memory of that really colored the experiences that I had in the second time. And the really trippy thing was I was starting to unpack and talk about those two memories and how they were actually really connected to each other in a way that I had never really even realized before. It has a lot to do with communication, asking for help, self-worth, just this real place of vulnerability. And, you know, as I do the podcast. It's often difficult for me to ask for help and to receive help because when I have had power over people, it hasn't always ended in the best way. And so I guess there's a certain amount of this kind of existential fear that I had that didn't really emerge until I had gone through this whole experience. So I think that there is something really powerful for being able to create an experience that is asking the users to really bring a part of themselves into the experience. And in some ways, what they're saying is that the more you put into the experience, the more that you could potentially get out of the experience. but that every time they are bringing these two people together you're getting completely different interactions with different people like no two times are going to be the same and so you have these different interactions and connections and the you know the whole metaphor of the collider is that they're trying to smash these people together within this context of this experience and that they want to see what is emerging and see what kind of dynamics of how these different people are interacting with each other and to see how there's a little bit of mystery. You're being asked to be put into specific situations and you're evoking these different memories and playing them out in different ways. And there's a bit of mystery where there's not complete information exchange. But the thing that came up over and over and over in this interview was they're really trying to speak to the body and really trying to create these embodied metaphors to be able to talk about these different aspects of power dynamics because they're asking you to explore power by actually physically moving your body around and there are certain situations when I was outside as a controller and I'm like moving my hands around and I really did feel like I was like puppeteering this human being and it was quite a trippy experience and also you know made me quite uncomfortable because I recognized the vulnerability of this person in VR not fully being aware of me. And there's a certain amount of really trying to care for his experience. But the moments when I was starting to like open up the filing cabinet and to be faced with this opportunity to explore all these different varieties of messing with this person that's in VR, it was such a powerful moment of like drawing some firm boundaries in terms of not wanting to explore any of these things that they put all these different opportunities And, you know, they're trying to create that tremor of possibility and that May was saying that they were really trying to find out ways of speaking directly to the body. So to create these different tensions and releases, just like in different ways of building narrative tension. in some ways you're using your body as this platform for narrative tension of trying to create situations that are maybe going to give you this sense of unease and then they're going to release it but the other thing is that you're like wearing these headphones and so you're being guided throughout this entire experience and this whole thing is about you having this power relationship to this person that you're interacting with but yet at the same time they start to deconstruct their own power that they have over you as the audience member and they start to call attention to that. So in some ways you are stepping into this magic circle where you're just kind of following the rules and listening to the narrator and you're just trusting it and then all of a sudden the narrator is asking you to like question their own authority by like saying hey what happens if we change the voice to a male voice, does that switch the way that you are trusting what is happening in this situation? And I actually did find that I felt less trust when they started to switch to different contexts. But, you know, they were just asking you, can you really trust us in these different situations to be able to really be guiding you? And as I take a step back and I look at all the different care that they were giving to me throughout their experiential design, you know, they're really doing an amazing job of both onboarding, having the experience, and then having like a whole separate private room where the whole intention for this entire kind of embodied experience was to, at some point, at the end, to be able to collide with each other and start to unpack and talk about what they had just experienced together. and to allow people to really kind of explore all these various different things that they experienced together. And that, you know, in some ways, if you know each other already, then it could be a real launching point to dive into all sorts of deep memories. And I've actually found myself talking about my experience to other people who didn't go through it. So I was able to like really unpack a lot of these other different dynamics and dimensions of the different memories and experiences that came up as I was going through this experience. I really see that this type of experience like the Collider is what I would call more of a yin archetypal journey. It's more about exploring your own sense of embodiment and emotions and your relationship to other people and it's less about you going on this like hero's journey's quest and it's more about you discovering something new about yourself and potentially even having this like transformative experience, which if you're trying to be put in as the protagonist of an experience, and that's like the ultimate goal of any good story is to have the person that's going through it go through some sort of change. And I think they're trying to have you go through that change, which is a radical approach. And so I think that a lot of the things that were happening in the collider, I expect to see a lot more of just because I feel like it's like super impactful to be able to go through these contrived situations with other people. and then to focus it on the connection and the conversations with that person afterwards to have different levels of mystery or you know being surprised or caught about it and that it's almost like this ritual you're going through this embodied ritual that is non-verbal and then at the end you get to tell the story of what happened to you and you're almost like reading what happens and these different experiences as this microcosm of something deeper that's happening within your life and that that's what they're creating is like this contrived situation that is a microcosm of maybe some deeper pattern that you have and that is what I found in myself of like this exploration of either having somebody have power over me or for me to have power over somebody else is that I've got all these sort of issues around power and control and that I'm terrified of it and that it makes it difficult for me to ask for help or to ask just even for Patreon donations, you know, this level of asking and needing help. So I think that, you know, the future of using your body as the platform to be able to go through these different embodied interactions that are in some way speaking about these deeper metaphors or archetypes of these different themes and dynamics that are happening in your life. But, you know, you may be able to step into a character so you're able to tap into some aspect of your being. But because it's like these different rules, you're kind of like slipping into another reality and being able to explore something that may actually be still true about who you are as a person. And then as you come out, you're able to gain this new insight about yourself and maybe have a little bit more fluidity of loosening those rule structures that you have in your life. And I feel like that's generally what all these different immersive experiences are doing is that it's allowing us to step out of these normal social structures that we have ourselves in and be able to actually kind of explore and play around and, you know, do it in a way that is actually very like vulnerable and risky in certain different ways. I mean, I can imagine a million different ways in which an experience like the collider could go horribly wrong, but that really just trusting people that you're going to do the right thing. And I think there are different ethical implications here because, you know, as the controller, as you go through this, there's certain ways in which they have you eat a cracker. And as you're eating the cracker, it says, oh, well, your mouth is now this dry. Now it's this dry. Now it's this dry. And I'm like, in this moment, like, they can't be possibly measuring the level of moisture in my mouth. I mean, they don't have any sensors in my mouth. How could they possibly be doing that? This is not real. But it gave me this sense of unease of like, well, maybe they are. But it overall, it gave me this sense of like, you are being watched and you're being monitored and you're being surveilled. And in that moment, you are in the process of about to be in a situation where you are watching other people. So in some ways they're trying to like cultivate this sense of empathy of like, you're about to be in this similar situation, but also we're watching and we also are monitoring things just to make sure that if things go completely off the rails, they may need to step in and intervene if things go horribly wrong. But what you tend to see in these types of context of film festival is that people are more than willing to kind of step into these magic circles and to play by the rules and not to break the rules to push the limits of the experience, which, you know, sometimes will happen in some of these immersive experiences. But within a context like this, I think generally people are pretty obedient to be able to follow all different rules, because generally it's a better experience when you do that. So that's all that I have for today and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the voices of VR podcast And I'm about to go to San Francisco. I'm going to a UN women There's a film festival that is happening at GoPro on Thursday, May 16th 2019 and then this weekend is actually going to be a awakened futures summit, which is the consciousness hacking it's exploring the cross-section of psychedelics meditation and technology and Then the following week, I'm going to be going to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. They're having a workshop in New York City where they're bringing together neuroscientists to be able to collaborate with different game designers. And then I'm going to be giving a talk at Augmented World Expo and then going to VRTO and giving the opening keynote there. So I've been doing a lot of traveling over the next couple of weeks. It's like to six different conferences or so. So I've recorded over 100 interviews in 2019, and so hopefully I'll be able to have a little bit of a break here soon to be able to start to really go through all these other conversations that I had at Tribeca. I got a chance to see all the different experiences and do a bunch of different interviews, kind of unpacking lots of different stuff. So lots of interesting narrative innovations that are happening there. So this is independent community media. I'm completely supported by my Patreon listeners and I was talking about in this episode how it's difficult for me to ask for help and it's hard for me to ask for help. I don't like doing it. I kind of go through the same pitch at the end of each podcast and it's very difficult to ask for money for what you do. But at the same time, this is the model that I think is the most ethically sound. That's the way that I want to do business. I just want to not have to worry about having to do consulting or to be working or collaborating with people that I'm covering. I just feel like that's too much of a blurry conflict of interest that I really just want to be supported by my listeners. The Patreons dip down to about $1,700 and it really needs to be up to around like $2,400 or even up to $3,000 for me to be making a comfortable living with all of the different travel that I'm doing. It takes a lot of time and energy and I need help. It's hard for me to ask for help and I need your help and support from Patreon. It's a listener supported podcast, and I want to live in a future where we have lots of different independent creators who are working and doing their passion. This is my passion to be able to record these different types of interviews. And so if you enjoy that and want to see it happen, and you want to live into a future where we can all be doing our deepest passions, then please do consider becoming a member of the Patreon. You can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.