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Caspar Sonnen founded the DocLab as a part of the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2007 after a period of being really skeptical about some of the early overstated and inflated claims of the transformative power of interactive storytelling. He was turned off by hyperbolic statements like “actors will be obsolete in five years” and “interactive stories will liberate people from the dictatorship of the author.” Sonnen fell in love with cinema, and started programming the open air film festival called “Seize The Night.” He eventually started to see some interactive work that proved his skepticism wrong and forced him to reconsider the potentials of the digital realm, and this emerging fusion between reality and technology.

This year’s informal theme for DocLab was “Domesticating Reality: How we shape technology. How technology shapes us,” which came about as Sonnen was thinking about the implications of expanding into multiple exhibition venues including a dome as well as someone’s private home in the experience Look Inside. He starting thinking about the common threads between all of these contexts that were converging ranging from domes to living rooms, and came across the phrase Domestication, and then subsequently to the “Domestication Theory” of technological adoption where it goes through a series of phases starting with discovery & integration, there are some significant shifts within the environment and general behaviors, sometimes there’s a moral panic phase where it’s simultaneously good and bad, and then eventually the technology disappears and becomes so ubiquitous as to be invisible.

I had a chance to catch up with Sonnen at the IDFA DocLab 2019 where we talked about expanding the exhibitions into the dome at ARTIS-Planetarium, 3 shops in Central Station, the Eye Filmmuseum, Compagnietheater, walking tours around Amsterdam, someone’s private residence, and the new main location and central hub at Tolhuistuin. We also talked about the theme of artificial intelligence as there were as lot of theatrical projects exploring this topic in 2019, as well as starting to think about a vision of the future media ecosystem that they want to cultivate by 2035 and what needs to happen to create that.

Finally, Sonnen made a seemingly simple but profound point that really stuck with me. He said that the fundamental character of an interactive piece of work is that the more you put in, then the more you should get out. A normal, authored, linear piece typically doesn’t change or adapt based upon how you engage with it, but interactive media has the potential to respond and react to your inputs. If you query an interactive system for curiosity, then hopefully it’ll be able to satisfy your curiosity through what you get back. He cited Vincent Morisset’s piece Vast Body 22 as an example of an experience that only works when you interact with it. It’s a Kinect camera connected to a TV screen, and it replaces your body’s motion with a still image of a similar pose, but only as long as you keep moving. As soon as you stop, then the experience freezes and stops working. Sonnen says that this simple principle is the essence of all interactive pieces of work, and I definitely had a direct experience of this both with Vast Body 22 as well as with Look Inside

I had a great time at DocLab, as I think it’s one of the most cutting edge and experimental contexts to be able to push the limits and boundaries of what’s possible with immersive and interactive documentaries. I’m grateful for the team at DocLab for flying me over to Amsterdam to be able to participate in the DocLab Conference, to see almost all of the pieces of work, and to help to document the work there by doing 17 Voices of VR interviews totaling over 12.5 hours of coverage. That said, the work that I’m doing here is still primarily supported through my Voices of VR Patreon, and so if you’re enjoying this coverage, then please consider becoming a supporting member.

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