#859 DocLab Founder Caspar Sonnen on Domesticating Reality, AI, & XR Distribution Experiments

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.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

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, continuing on my series of looking at some of the narrative innovations that were coming out of the IDFA DocLab, today's interview is with Kasper Sonnen. He's the head of new media at IDFA DocLab, and he's been working there since 2007 and really trying to bring together so many different aspects of the community, both from all these creative technologists, all these funders, all these academics and researchers, and just to show the work to each other as a community, but also to find new ways to bring that work into the audiences at large. Having new initiatives of having dome screenings, having showings within the train station, having showings in the local galleries, having 360 video screenings and a free area where lots of experiences are being shown. And then other ticketed areas where you have a wide variety of different experiences that were available. So I'll be talking to Casper about his journey into doing what he's doing and a bit of reflection of this year's DocLab with the theme of domesticating reality. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Casper happened on Sunday, November 24th, 2019 at the IDFA doc lab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:30.993] Caspar Sonnen: My name is Casper Sonnen, I'm Head of New Media at IDFA. I started the IDFA DocCloud program there in 2007 and that's been developing, growing, shifting, shaping, changing until what it is today, which is a new media program at a big documentary festival where we showcase immersive interactive art and storytelling.

[00:01:54.597] Kent Bye: So maybe you could give me a bit more context as to your background and your journey into what you're doing now, curating all these immersive documentaries.

[00:02:03.940] Caspar Sonnen: How far back do you want to go? My dad was a street theater maker. My mother worked from home as an artist. And I ran away from the arts as hard as I could when I was around 18, I think, to end up at university not knowing what I wanted instead. And then I think at some point I discovered film. I studied a bit of new media back then, where very bold statements were being made like actors will be obsolete in five years from now and interactive stories will liberate people from the dictatorship of the author. And I remember falling in love with early cinema around that time and discovering cinema as like a medium that I connected with and thinking all the huge statements that new media was making felt very insecure and overstated and inflated. Even though I played a lot of computer games in the 80s and I loved sort of interactive technology and all that geeky stuff, but the claims at university that were being made about virtual reality and all that thing didn't connect with me. I guess I loved the tangible thing that film was in front of me. Went into film, started an open-air film festival called Seize the Night. Ended up at IDFA at some point. I did both at the same time and I think then around 2007 as the internet was becoming increasingly a thing and I started to see different interactive works and pieces that made me rethink my initial skepticism or watch project that actually played with my skepticism and then proved me wrong. I started to feel like, hey, there's something happening here. I'm not sure if it's as promising as it sounds to be or it looks to be, but the whole sort of digital realm is really interesting and we should explore it as we are. documentary film festival and I think we should explore the relationship not just between reality and film but also the relationship between reality and technology and other technologies than film.

[00:04:19.710] Kent Bye: Yeah, last year it was almost like an accident how I happened to drop by the DocLab because I was coming back from a VRNow in Berlin. I had a 23-hour layover in Amsterdam. I was able to come in, see like five experiences, do a number of interviews, and I was really quite blown away with not only the curation of the content that you had, but I also had this expectation of a documentary, of what the documentary was in my mind. I had been going to all these other festivals and so I wasn't expecting to see something like The Collider, which was so much about exploring these elements of my power and boundaries of power over other people and playing with those boundaries and it was quite a moving experience that I had. So thank you again for bringing me out for this year's edition because I had a chance to have a few more days to be here to see a lot of the different experiences and to see the curation and the experimentation that's happening. I really appreciate how you're pushing forth not only the immersive technologies but artificial intelligence as well, but also the distribution aspect and getting these experiences that can be in a very self-contained bubble of the festival circuit and having like a space for liminal space within a train station for people to come in and actually see a 360 video or happen into an immersive art of exploring gender identities and fashion and then the dome experiences and then being able to go into somebody's home. And then these other locations that you have here with all these different projects. And so for me, I think that's the thing that I'm taking away is just how you are pushing forward the different distribution options and really trying to engage the public in a way that I think is hard for a lot of these other festivals that may not have a curatorial insight to push that forward. And yeah, just curious to hear your thoughts on that expansion, because that seems to be a pretty big shift from what I saw last year.

[00:06:12.078] Caspar Sonnen: Well, I think it's great that you picked up on that, because I think the team and the festival as a whole, it was quite a struggle to how do you sell tickets to someone's real living room? How do you deal with insurance and liabilities in those types of situations? How do you sell tickets for a single person event? Like, there's a lot of practicalities involved that I think for us as festivals are a challenge, specifically if we're festivals that are built to cater to a single developed medium like film or something else. That said, I think we're far from the only one doing these types of experiments. I think it's just the thing that we did this year because we moved from a beautiful location where we had everything in the same space, but for years we're struggling with the fact that we had to choose do we do one or two room scale experiences How do we get 25 sensors into one room without conflicting? Like this physical space wasn't enough as immersive media at the same time is demanding more physical space increasingly. So we started just looking for a bigger space. That's how it started. And as we were doing that we found that every space we found suited certain works but didn't suit other works. We found spaces that were very art spaces but that we felt this doesn't do justice to more experimental works. This doesn't do justice to works that are more playful. Sometimes there's works that we feel make a lot of sense to professional industry audience. Sometimes it's works that have been at other festivals already, and we feel like, do we then not show them because of the premiere situation and the limited resources we have? Well, actually, these are works that have proved themselves at other festivals. So we need to figure out how to present them to a larger, wider audience. Maybe a festival new media exhibition is not the right place for that, because people who are a bit thrown back by complex terms like XR, that nobody really knows what it really means, they just want to see a film, they just want to see something amazing, they're not there to see tech. So if you put that inside Central Station, where a lot of people walk by, that was the experiment. Like, let's see what happens. And it's been very scary, I must say. Because we didn't know if it was going to work, but I think if we as festivals don't experiment with business models and these types of things, then how can we demand institutions that have a year-round presence to just do this instead? I think there's a real big gap between museums and other exhibition platforms that work year-round. and festivals. Like I think for festivals it's silly to the amount of resources that we put into having a big performative piece, a big immersive theater piece run for 10 days for, what is it, one person every 20 minutes or something and then you have a hundred people see it at the end. all industry, because the audience comes second, that doesn't make sense. However, putting those pieces in a theatre, that doesn't work in most cases either, because the theatre world doesn't know them yet, or these works are too experimental, or in the end only a hundred people from the inner circle of interactive and immersive saw it, but that connection is not made enough. It's starting, but I think we as festivals should start to reach out more to partners in physical reality, so to speak.

[00:09:44.095] Kent Bye: Well, what was really striking in hearing you talk about some of these dynamics was the 360 video is a phenomena that within the VR industry, I think, has been discarded by a lot of people, even people still to this day claiming that it's not VR. So you did an experiment with doing a whole public screenings of 360 videos in the train station here in Amsterdam. And so maybe you could talk about, like, what did you find?

[00:10:06.537] Caspar Sonnen: I think within new media we're all so impatient. Everybody is impatient to discover what a technology can and then we, like myself did when I was at university, we take what's in front of us and we rush to a decision. Is this useful or not? Is this fun or not? Is this art or not? Is this there yet or not? And I think 360 video is a really good example where you can see it was one of the first things to take off because it was easier to adapt to for people in different industries like filmmakers. It was easier to distribute, etc, etc, etc. And at the same time, it's highly limited if you compare it to room-scale VR or other forms. All that means that we sort of say, like, well, it's very limited to compare what we can do in a room-scale setup. That doesn't mean that it's necessarily not an interesting medium or an interesting form. A book is very limited, too. A piece of paper is very limited, too. Doesn't necessarily mean that we should throw it away if we compare it to, I don't know, a video game. It's just that we need to figure out how to tell stories in it properly. and maybe it's just a transitional medium and at some point computational photography and room-scale VR and everything merges into one big beautiful thing. We see the steps are being taken. But for now, if I'm honest, if I look at the last five years, there's been a few really beautiful pieces made in 360 video that I would love to see 10 years from now. There's a lot of pieces that we get that I feel, wow, there's someone doing something here that really makes sense and I would love to show that to a wider audience. That part, for me, I think we need to separate the discussion, is 360 video the most exciting form of VR, from is this individual piece of 360 video worth it to show to a specific audience? If it's worth it, and if there's more than one, maybe it makes sense to do a little VR cinema. That's sort of how we try to look at it. We try to follow the latest things, be open for the most advanced avant-garde experimentation in both technology and artistic experiments. But at the same time, I think we should not forget the little steps that have been taken and to follow them through here and there. Even now, when you hear people go like, yeah, the funding in Immersive is going down and down and down because AI is coming up and the funding is going to AI, just pause for a second and think what that means. All the things that we've been building over the last five years, when the DK1 came out, when VR became accessible to small groups of developers and artists, the festivals that have started to emerge, masterpieces like Notes on Blindness that were there, How do we sort of go like, yeah, let's now all move on to AI? I'm not saying that we're doing that, but you can see that the industry is shifting like that. And I think it's really important to connect to Silicon Valley and large parts where the funding lies for these things. But I do think it's also really, really important to nurture an independent space where immersive art can not just peak to generate the hype in the beginning and then either die or become a commercial format. I think we need to start looking at it just like we do with documentary or like we do with visual art as something that is part of a society. We need art as a society, not just visual art, not just paintings, not just films.

[00:13:38.323] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, your, I guess, underlying theme for this DocLab 2019 was domesticating reality. And I know we've had a number of conversations about that as a theme. And I think just that term, I had a lot of problems with it. We can dive into that. But after seeing you present about it and get a little bit more context as the origin of the theory of domestication, I can understand why you would want to use that, and it makes a little bit more sense to me, but maybe you could just sort of unpack that a little bit. Like, domesticating reality. What does that mean?

[00:14:11.925] Caspar Sonnen: I think it's a title. Every year we choose a theme that we choose before we make our selection as a loose term that sort of sparks something within us as a team. Like we make the program together with the team, together with Matinke Vermeer, Annabelle Troost, a bunch of viewers, Pien Fisser. There's a whole team that we make the program with.

[00:14:34.280] Kent Bye: Do the people submitting know what the theme is? Or is it, okay, so it's sort of a secret what the theme is, but then people are submitting

[00:14:41.810] Caspar Sonnen: Yeah, no, it's just like the film festival part, we just get hundreds of submissions every year and we chair a pick from there. At the same time, as just as this fun thing, it's just fun to have this dot on the wall that says like, what do we see happening? What interests us? And the theme is always very loose and it's always very multi-interpretable. Like last year it was humanoid cookbook, because we wanted to play with sensory things like food and smells and tastes. We felt it was fun to do that and explore that for a year. A humanoid cookbook in a sense we saw this sort of man-machine. We love to look into human behavior. That made sense. This year we felt like we're moving to different locations. We're actually physically exploring what it means to exhibit this stuff in a much deeper, more elemental way this year instead of going from what we have to actually looking what we need. making us realize we're not the only ones doing this. Artists are doing exactly the same thing. Other institutions are doing exactly the same thing. Planetariums are figuring out, should we do these huge expensive upgrades of our technology to follow the developments and trends in dome projection? However, at the same time, they're like, we need to show different things to different audiences than just stars to children. Everybody's sort of exploring and looking that way and we actually started from the word dome. Like we wanted to do something at a dome, that was going to be one thing. It was like dome, something with domes, something with the relationship between the living room, our houses, public space, the way that digital technology and physical reality are merging, converging. All that brought us to something with domestication. And then I googled domestication and I stumbled upon domestication theory, which is an alternate theory to look at technology, at the adoption of technology, than the traditional commercial way of looking at technology. Like the traditional way is we have in Q1 we have X amount of headsets sold of a specific technology. And then in Q3 we sell that many, we extrapolate that probably it's going to be huge in the next five years and replace everything. What I love about domestication theory is that it says it's not just about the amounts of devices sold, it's about what people do with it and how they actually incorporate it into their everyday lives and live with it. And I thought like a really key part of that is 3D printing. I think if you just looked at amounts of 3D printers sold, it took a long time before people started to realize that 3D printing probably is not something that everybody's going to have in their living room right now. But they would have made that realization a lot sooner if they would have looked at what the first people who bought 3D printers did with it. They printed five keychain holders and a little statue and then it just lay there, probably after a few weeks. I'm not saying 3D printing is dead, by the way. 3D printing is evolving and it's becoming a different thing. But just in that sense, I think it's a really... Domestication theory for us was really interesting. Also because it describes the three phases of a technology being... First, it's the discovery, sort of the euphoria, when something is marvellous and magical. Second phase is not utopian or dystopian, but actually the both at the same time. Which to me was very... Like, I really loved that because it made me realise that's exactly what happens. We love and hate a technology at the same time. We always think that we love it first and then we hate it, but it actually happens at the same time. Social media, we were all excited about like civic uprising that was happening, power to the people, people getting to the streets, thanks to social media platforms, finding each other, regrouping. Making a fist against like finding all that was super exciting and at the same time we were also Realizing that we were starting to get stuck in filter bubbles with people with like-minded people and that that was doing something to us That happened at the same time. It wasn't first the one and then the other and the third phase is transparency It's just when it disappears and we all just use it and we don't think about it anymore That was something where we felt like, hey, this makes sense if we look at how something like 360 video was magical. And then I think everybody who saw the 360 video three times didn't have vertigo anymore and didn't go like, oh my God, I'm in an airplane or in a hot air balloon. However, does that mean that it's dead? Actually, it devolved. And I think one of the realizations we had with domestication theory is actually these are cycles. Like, after phase 1, 2, and 3, you can actually go back to phase 1. VR did that. Like, VR came back to phase 1 when the DK1 came out. To different people, something new happened. You can then be like, well, we've seen that before in 1990, but I'm not sure that was the right thing to say at that point. I think we should look at it again and see not just that a single technology like VR cycles, but also see VR doesn't develop on its own. Alongside it, 3D televisions were dying because that wasn't taking, but it actually where they connected VR happened. And then if you expand that and you look at like different developments, not just in media, but different technological developments across the board, how these go through these different cycles at their own pace and where they converge, that's where the interesting things happen. And that's why it's so complex to follow this space. That's why It doesn't make sense for me to make a new media program and say, we are looking at VR, or we are looking at AI, or we are looking at interactive storytelling. You have to look at all of that. Podcasting, to me, even though that's completely normal now and it's nothing new anymore, is just as much part of this space as biometric technology. They're just in a different moment in their cycles.

[00:20:49.412] Kent Bye: Yeah, and one of the big focuses of this year's festival was, I think, artificial intelligence, a number of different pieces, whether it was just 2D videos of exploring robot embodiments, interacting with people in a nursing home, or looking at categorization of how AI looks at things and looks at art versus what Mechanical Turk people look at and try to categorize the same thing, or artificial room, where you're trying to kind of play with the human captcha and having these interactions where you're trying prove your humanity, but then questioning what does it mean to be human and the sort of automatic editing where you have all these different scenes and how does AI make sense of those scenes and then can that be either to assist or do automatic editing and so but it seems like that AI is still coming up in terms of still very nascent I'd say and going to AI conferences it feels like it's about ten years lag or five to ten years at least of what the most cutting-edge AI is out there and then It kind of takes a while for artists to start to implement some of the stuff that's out there. But just curious to hear some of your thoughts on AI, where you see it starting to fit in into the doc lab.

[00:21:57.428] Caspar Sonnen: I think I'm always very uncomfortable to talk about AI because I didn't study computer technology at all. I have a very, very basic knowledge of coding or things like that. My knowledge is mostly from observing creative technologists, how they talk about things like AI or seeing them cringe when someone says the phrase, we built an AI that And they go like, an AI doesn't exist. You used machine learning to build a little. I think, like VR, we love to obsess about the definitions of things. What is the right word? What's the right terminology? Is computer vision AI? Is machine learning AI? What does it mean to be sentient? I think those are all, on a philosophical level, super interesting discussions. On a technical level, I like to be told which words I should use. I think the artificial room one test that we've done here with the National Theater and Ontroerend Goed, the Flemish theater company, to me encapsulates a lot of what I find very interesting about the excitement around AI these days. Maybe to quote Alexander de Vriens from Ontroerend Goed, I think at some point he said when we asked him to develop a work about AI, the question we asked him was like this really almost silly mundane question like could you make a theatre play and replace the actors with AI? And he took it literally and started exploring that and started exploring what does AI do? How far can I push it? What is possible today? He's a non-technical person at all. And at some point he came back and he said like, it can do a lot less than I thought. And at the same time he said like, but what interests me even more is that I expected it to do so much more. It's like, why do we all over exaggerate what AI actually can do already? Like a lot of the algorithms were written in the 50s and the 60s. Like a lot of the hype around AI is just basically that we have a lot more data and a lot more processing power. And no, it's not less creepy. But I think what they're interested in is why do we react to this as human beings in this way? Why do we both exaggerate what it can do and both underestimate what it can do? What is that? And I think that's where art becomes really relevant, because it can put a mirror in front of us, not just a window to what this technology can be in the future. Ooh, the robots are coming, or yay, we will all be living a luxury life because robots will do our work. No, it's actually putting a mirror to us, like why are you so obsessed about AI? What intrigues you so much about AI? Why do you talk so unkindly towards a voice-operated machine? Is it to emphasize the fact that you're smarter than the machine? Is it to emphasize that the machine is working for you and not the other way around? What is this? Artificial Room One is a first test at exploring that, and I'm very happy you got to see it, because it's one of those that only one person every 15 minutes got to do. But I'm very happy that we, right now, it's part of our R&D program with MIT, and we're going to develop it further. We're exploring that right now with the National Theater. So it's a project that I'm very happy with how the experiment turned out.

[00:25:25.517] Kent Bye: So for you, what are the either biggest open questions you're trying to answer or open problems you're trying to solve?

[00:25:33.742] Caspar Sonnen: I think one is, I think the whole tech world, the tech art world is going through this very interesting existential crisis. I think 10 to 15 years ago, we were in phase one in a way. Everything was marvelous and exciting and it was slightly dangerous, but there was a lot of playfulness. There was a lot of undefined, open-ended answers. I think now we're at a stage where there's no question about the dark sides of technology. There's no question about how technology has been affecting our physical world. And I'm not talking about everybody falling for deepfake videos. I don't think that's the biggest scare. Just the fact that we've lost control in many cases of our institutions. Public transport versus commercial transport. There's a lot of examples where we can see the dark impact of post-capitalist digital disruption. On the other side we can see that it's not as easy to say like let's all go back and pull the plug from the internet and live in a farm again. Look at what's happening in Tehran or in Russia where like pulling the plug on the internet is becoming actually a means to control people. It's taking away the opportunities that the internet provides us. It is part of the fabric of everyday life and reality these days. So I think A big, big question is how do we use this? How do we play with this more responsibly, without it becoming just serious, without losing our sense of wonder? And I think, what kind of art do we want to make? Because I do think that interactive art, art that makes us interact with each other, look at ourselves, is something that is deeply meaningful, whether it's performance art in the 60s, or filmic experiments, or interactive theatre, or technology-driven stuff in the immersive field. I think those are very valuable types of experiences. How we continue with this is a big question. How do we do this in a way that it's less about the shiny new technology, less about, look, here's the newest thing. How is it more about connecting deeper with wider and broader audiences? How can we make better projects instead of just making demos for hardware companies to sell their devices? I think those are questions that we need to answer not just within the arts community but collectively with the industry, with those hardware companies. I'm seeing really good things happening there. And I think it's to quote Monique Simard who was here at the conference. I think she framed it really beautifully when she said like when we discover a new technology it's like we find a new flower and we or we find a new bug or we find a new animal and we put it under a microscope and we dissect it and we see what it can do and how we can play with it. But if we want to know what kind of future media we want, maybe we shouldn't just dissect and zoom in, but maybe we should zoom out and think, what kind of forest would we like to have in 2035? and then see which animals should we play with, which leaves should we bring together, how should we play towards a better society, towards a better art world, towards more interesting experiences. I think that's something we kind of forget sometimes as we're so immersed literally into what we do, to look at it from the other side. And again, I've said this a bunch of times, but I think a great example of that is looking at For instance, if we want to make better AR, if we want to develop this shiny new AR goggle, if we want to ride that wave, we should not just look at what AR can do, we should look at audio walks, we should look at existing examples of meaningful things where it actually makes sense to put another layer on reality. The work of Duncan Speakman here, Only Expansion, is a great example of that. His work is, on the one side, too old-fashioned for the current generation of AR glasses, or at least it's not too old-fashioned, but his work is nothing new. He's been doing this for a long time with cassette tapes. At the same time, it's still what he does this year with Only Expansion is too advanced for certain AR glasses. It's still custom-built technology. However, if I was working at an AR glasses company, I would definitely want to see that work and go like, that's what our glasses should support. Instead of going like, well, is it in the right format to fit our app store? As much as I understand that question, as much as I think that other approach is also valuable, like let's see what's out there and how we can distribute it to new platforms like new AR glasses.

[00:30:23.621] Kent Bye: I know you have to run off here, but I just want to ask quickly, just curious to hear your thoughts on what you think the ultimate potential of all these immersive technologies and immersive storytelling itself, what they might be able to enable.

[00:30:37.506] Caspar Sonnen: Well, I think because they are fluid and because they require a more active role of the person consuming it, to a certain extent interactive and immersive pieces to me can be characterized by what you put into it becomes part of the work. If you put a lot of curiosity into it and you start looking for things, you get a lot of curiosity out of it or you maybe bump into the edges if it's not built well. But I think there is an interplay there. That same interplay happens in a film or in a book where the author tries to predict what you think and what you feel and plays with that. but in an interactive piece sometimes you bring something of yourself. If you look at a seemingly simple installation like Vast Body by Vincent Morissette, the way that it invites you to dance with it, is done in a way that the actual meaning of the piece lies as much in the beautiful execution of the motion capture technology. It lies as much into that as it lies in your own response to it. The sort of experience of walking in and going like, so what does this do? It mimics my body, it replaces my body with that of another body. Okay, I flap around a little bit and I see, okay, I get what it does and then I stop moving and it stops working. And that feeling you have like, oh, did I do something wrong? Did it stop working? And then you realize it's actually, slowly you start to realize it's designed in a way that it only works if I play with it. There's no AI there. It's just technology that makes you personally as a human being realize, I feel awkward dancing in front of a television screen and a Kinect camera or a different type of technology. And you start to realize, but it was actually was, even though I was like, ah, I get it. It actually was fun. And it's actually sad now that it's away, now that I'm not moving again. And then you start moving again. And you start to look at what it does. And you start to look at actually what it projects on top of you. and it starts to get another layer of meaning. That's what an interactive work does. That's what I love to see more of.

[00:32:54.792] Kent Bye: Anything that's left unsaid you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:32:59.600] Caspar Sonnen: I think the only thing that should be said is that I think it's really a formidable task to make an interactive work and I think every year when we have the program here and all the artists are here and seeing this incredible variety of types of artists and types of collaborations that made these works happen, creating the space for that is something that we should work harder on because I think it's New media is nothing new and I think there's a lot of amazing artists working in this space. Figuring out how we can connect these existing artists with new talents as the technologies change and everything I think is something that we shouldn't underestimate. we should keep working at that. But the only way that we can actually be agile enough and be flexible enough to deal with the next changes that are happening every day is if we stop being so rushed about what's the next big thing and just embrace it. This is interactive, immersive stuff. On the one side, we don't need to define it. Let's be open and playful. And then at the same time, but we can't just be playing in a corner somewhere. We need to start really connecting with more than ourselves. We need to figure out how exhibitions at festivals can be seen by more than just the inner community, because otherwise it will be suffocating. That's the hopeful thing I find. Right now we're at a stage where you can see the dark side of technology taking over, at the same time It is possible these days to make a beautiful interactive project and reach millions. It's much easier in that sense. It is much easier to find like-minded people. It's much easier to find the right collaborators. So that would be my thing.

[00:34:44.886] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Kasper, I just wanted to thank you for all the work that you're doing here at DocLab and for helping to bring me out. This is one of my favorite conferences just because it's the creative community coming together, a lot of people thinking deeply about the theory and practice and the arts and really pushing the medium forward. So I always love to see what you've curated. And with the whole team here and what you've been able to pull off, it's super impressive. And all the projects you're funding as well, there's a lot that's happening here. So yeah, just thanks for all that you're doing and for taking the time to sit down and kind of unpack it a little bit. So thank you.

[00:35:14.523] Caspar Sonnen: Well, thank you for understanding what we do, even if we don't ourselves.

[00:35:21.673] Kent Bye: So that was Kasper Sonnen. He's the head of new media at the IDFA DocLab. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, the last thing that Casper had said about, you know, how he starts to think about interactive media, it's something that actually really stuck with me. And I started to think about more and more simple thing, which is just like the immersive and interactive is that the more that you put in of yourself, the more that you get out. So if you have a lot of curiosity and you put curiosity into an experience, then you should get back at like some sort of reward for that curiosity. And to a certain extent, life is kind of like that. You know, the more you put in, the more you get out. And so what is it about that agency and that participatory nature of interactivity so that the actual piece that you're creating is able to be dynamic and be able to take in that input and respond to it and be able to focus on different aspects of what it means for that person, their character, their context, and to be able to make the story much more active and participatory? So that's the challenge of this whole work of interactive and immersive media. And he says it's a formidable task for anybody to try to do this. It's like really quite impossible. And so you're really at the bleeding edge of technology. There's not a lot of conceptual frameworks to be able to really understand what you're doing. And it takes you looking at a lot of different work, being able to see work and be able to talk to other people about it. And I think that's the community that Casper has really been cultivating here. And I think the group of people that come together, the amount of different theoretical perspectives and the cutting edge of artists, they have a number of different initiatives to actually commission different pieces of work and to fund work. They have whole different funding models for people to come in and start to pitch and have funders come in there and help support different projects. So you have creators from around the world coming in to pitch their projects there at the doc lab. They had a whole doc lab conference where people come together and start to exchange different ideas and get to try to present different conceptual aspects of it and the range of different ways of where they had the different experiences. So they had the dome experiences, which I thought was a great addition this year. One of my favorites there that I saw was Fractal Time, which was this amazing spatial geometric exploration of these fractal geometries within this dome experience. It was really quite immersive and one of the most impressive dome experiences that I've seen. Also enjoyed climate crimes and I talked to Michaela French about her journey and that's one of the interviews I'll be coming up here soon the fast body 22 actually had a really good experience with that and then I found out sort of the more Sort of questionable ethical issues of being able to kind of broadcast what was happening within this closed room room. But to kind of elaborate what Casper was saying, in my experience of the vast body 22, I walked in and, you know, you walk and you see a screen and you move around and then you stop and then it stops having any sort of interaction, it's kind of freeze frame. So then you realize, okay, now I have to move and kind of play around. And it turns into a little bit of this game of You are moving in different body positions and it's trying to match your pose and try to put on top of it this strobing of other people's embodiment. And so you see your embodiment, but as you move, you're kind of like rapidly shifting through other people's embodiments. And you're trying to see if you can break it, see if it can be in different positions. And you know, there's a pretty wide range of different positions that they have you in. And then. you're kind of flipping in and out of these different embodiments. And like Casper said, when you stop, it stops working. And I had a very similar experience of that where, you know, on the surface, it's very simple, but that type of mechanic where is really encouraging you to experiment and play around, I found that it was starting to get me to kind of move my body in a way that I wasn't expecting. Now, I think the ethical issue there is that, you know, you're in this dark room and you're having this experience. And, you know, I had no idea that all of this experimentation that I was doing was being broadcast out to people outside of that little private context. And I think, I don't know what the right answer is for that of the disclosure that as you're doing this, you may feel like you're in this private closed room, but you're actually like broadcasting out this into the public. There's this kind of weird shift between having a private experience and having the freedom to be able to kind of play around and experiment versus having whatever your experiments are doing to be able to be broadcast out to the general public who could be doing any variety of things like videotaping it or whatever. So got some feedback from other people who had some issues with that. And I think in terms of the ethics of what is the relationship between the producer and the audience, that seemed to be testing that line a little bit. And like I said, there is a certain amount of advertising or just trying to give you a sense of what this experiment might be. And when I did it, I didn't see anybody else go into it. I had just a fine experience of not knowing about what it is and I didn't need to. But in some ways, having that outside, it may be a spoiler for other people. So it may actually diminish your experience of having that same level of discovery. You may look at it and think you understand it without having to play around with it. So I think there was a certain joy of being able to discover it without having that. But that ethical issue of having a broadcast was a whole other issue. And I just wanted to mention a couple other experiences that, you know, I didn't get a chance to do interviews with folks there, but just kind of wrap up some of the other experiences. I was able to see well over the 30 of the 40 different experiences, almost all of them. There was some of them that I didn't get a chance to see with the dome experiences. But they did a great job of helping me to see the different experiences as a press. There's a whole press day that I got to see a whole wide range of the experiences and able to get tickets for a lot of these hottest tickets. So like the artificial room one, as well as a look inside, very honored to be able to be able to see that and to be able to unpack it. Like you said, it's not an easy thing to sell a ticket to somebody's living room and to deal with all the liability issues that come up with that and they had to Explore what's that mean to start to sell a ticket for one individual into somebody's living room? But you know some of the other experiences that I wanted to just comment on is the the far away from far away from the National Film Board of Canada was this experiment of taking something like the Instagram stories or snapchat way of when there's video and you tap to kind of progress well and this was a version where they kind of had multiple timelines where a story that's unfolding. And so you can listen to the story, but you can tap through a number of different scenes. And so the number of video scenes is longer than the audio. And then as you sort of interact with this, you're able to do different actions on your phone. Well, in this case, it was in a big giant screen, but you're able to interact in a way. And with the spatialized timelines, there was like, I don't know, a 25 minute experience where You know, I went through all of it and I could see how it's a way to transform long form content in 25 minutes, maybe much longer than most people spend on the phone watching a video. But if you have different ways of interacting with it, I felt that that was an interesting experiment. Now, the thing that I would say is that the content is written in a way that is poetry. So the level of literary written content as it's being spoken to you is so dense that it's sometimes you have to almost give it your entire full attention. But if you're in the process of trying to like play with the video editing and move it forward, then you have this engagement that comes from that interactivity, but also it has a certain amount of cognitive load where it's difficult for you to pay attention to the interactions that you're doing at the same time as the narrative, at least. That was my experience with that. There was a little bit of conflict But at the same time the interactions were engaging enough that I that actually did finish the whole story So the far away from far away is an interesting experiment that was coming from the National Film Board of Canada I was able to talk to a lot of the other people about the experiences and I'll be covering other ones, but I just wanted to highlight some of those. I mean, just the other comment that there was a number of different videos that were being projected out and themes around artificial intelligence. And there was a whole evening about artificial futures, talking to different people about artificial intelligence and the whole artificial room one. I was able to talk to one of the creators, Alexander, about that and unpack it a little bit more. So yeah, just glad to see that they have this collaboration with the MIT Open Doc Lab to be able to explore what is the future of AI and storytelling is going to be and starting to commission different works with theater makers to really interrogate, you know, what's AI mean and it was interesting to hear that alexander had all these expectations that were very exaggerated but yet at the same time understated in terms of what it could actually do so somewhere in the middle of thinking it could do a lot more versus you know being surprised that it could do so trying to deal with that gap between what the perceptions are and what the reality is and how art could be used as a mirror to be able to help create a story or an experience for us to understand a little bit more of the complexities and nuances of where the whole future of artificial intelligence or machine learning or whatever you want to call it. So some of the other things, uh, he's talking about domesticating reality. So the whole theory of domesticating reality of these three basic phases of like this initial discovery and euphoria. And then there's a bit of the moral panic that comes, uh, he described it in a presentation earlier that it's both the most amazing thing, but also you hate it. So you, it's both the good and the bad, and you love it and hate it, the dialectic of the technology. And then eventually it gets to the point of you just, it's completely transparent and it just disappears. It reminds me of a misattributed Gandhi quote. I'm looking at the Snopes article of the Gandhi quote that is misattributed. It looks like it was a union leader, Nicholas Klein in 1914, who has a closer version, but the misattributed version to Gandhi is so well known, I'm just going to say that because I think it's better. but it's first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. So you kind of go through these different phases of being invisible and then you're being ridiculed and then you're actively being fought against and then you just, you know, then you win. It feels like maybe a similar kind of dialectic that happens when it comes to technology where, you know, reminds me of the hype cycle from Gartner when you have this peak of the hype cycle of the expectations and then the trough of disillusionment where you hate it and love it, but there's all these sort of moral panic and How is this going to like destroy society? And then eventually it just gets integrated into the fabric of society. Then it eventually just wins. So the technology diffusion curves, I'm a big fan of the Gartner hype cycle, as well as Simon Wardley's model, where he looks at different levels of technological evolution and technological diffusion curve. So the diffusion out into the world and the evolution of the different iterations in the cycles. The technological evolution is a little bit of what Casper was talking about, about that cyclical nature where the DK1 will come out, and then the DK2, and then the CV1, the first consumer version, and then the Oculus Gear VR, and the Oculus Go, and then the Oculus Quest. And so there's all these different iterations and permutations of it that then starts a new levels of the platform as it gets out there. And he says, it's like new levels of that cycle. And I do see that cyclical process, but I don't know if it's necessarily tied to each platform iteration, but maybe larger cycles of it going through this phase of, as things come out, it goes through different types of cycles. So the domesticated theory was something that was a big operating principle for him this year. And yeah, just to take a step back, you know, I just, you know, they're really doing a lot of experimentation with the dome content. You know, there's a lot of planetariums showing educational content to kids with stars and trying to figure out if they need to upgrade their projection systems to be able to actually show some of this more artistic content. I know the ayahuasca experience was a super popular one, especially the VR experience, but there was a dome version of that, that. It was created as well. So to see how, you know, you go into these domes and maybe have this whole mandala like shamanic experience and wasn't able to see that version of it because that was on the last day that I was leaving. But just to think about ways of creating artistic content, that's going to just bring in a completely different audience. A lot of what Casper was saying is that unless they as a film vessel start to experiment with this, then how can they expect museums and people who run the domes and planetariums, how can they expect them to do this type of experiments? For them, it's a lot more risk. So in terms of trying to prove out the content to drive different audience demand for these different types of experiences, And just to see that they had different storefronts within the Central Station in Amsterdam where these like luminal spaces where these abandoned storefronts to be able to rent those out and actually have these immersive experiences and have people walk by and kind of fall into it. So just really cool to see how they're starting to find new ways of reaching out to different audiences. The Eye Museum was right next to this main hub of location this year. there they were showing the VR version of the ayahuasca and they actually had like a whole museum exhibit it was in the context of a museum you go in there and there's also art on a wall there's different music you can listen to so before you sit down and watch this like 25 minute virtual reality journey of an ayahuasca trip You have the opportunity to kind of get more context about what you're about to experience and see a little bit more about the cultural practices, see some documentary footage from the Amazon, listen to some of the music from the people, people looking at some of the art from the director. So lots of different, interesting things to look at while you're waiting to actually go in and see the experience. So finding ways of dealing with those different throughput issues, super exciting to see what they're starting to do in terms of, you know, evolve this process for how do you actually show and distribute this content? Because there's lots of things that are imperfect about this process. And the doc lab does the approach where I think at the beginning of each day, they open up tickets that you can come and get. So you go and you have to show up and get different time slots for different tickets. And there's also more of a drop in area that's free where you get to see lots of stuff. So you can go there. get the ticket for the stuff that you're able to see, then kind of see the free area. So yeah, just thinking about like different ways of handling the throughput issue, because obviously there's always different content that only a limited amount of people can see, and the demand is always higher. And so, you know, how do you deal with being able to show this in a way that breaks out of the bubble of this small group of super enthusiasts who want to go there and see everything and find a way to distribute out the tickets in a way for lots of people to be able to see the work that they're doing. I'm super grateful that Casper and their team was able to bring me out to Amsterdam. They flew me over. I helped to moderate a discussion there during the day, trying to tie together a number of different presentations. And yeah, just to have me there to help witness what was happening and help document it and talk to the number of different creators that are there. And yeah, I'm just super impressed with the level of experimentation and what's happening with how they're thinking about the documentary as a medium and exploring out into all these technologies, bringing in artificial intelligence, doing different experiments there, having different artists look at what can AI teach us about what it means to be human. And yeah, overall, that's like one of my favorite conferences of the year, just because it's just bringing together a very interesting mix of people and the types of work that they're also very interesting as well. And I think, you know, lots of people are thinking deeply about this medium, what it means and where it's all going. 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 if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a license-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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