Quite fittingly, this year’s summit on new technologies and interactive media was hosted in the city’s oldest chapel on the second day of Sheffield Documentary Festival. What better place to explore the effect of immersive medias and virtual reality (VR) than a chapel, used for the remaining 360 days of the year to connect humans to a supernatural reality? With sunlight shining through the stain glass windows and electronic beams projected onto the big screen, each of the twelve speakers delivered a distinctively original presentation on technological ‘crossovers’. These ranged from Ram Devineni’s discussion of his augmented reality comic book Priya Shakti, designed to change perceptions on gender-based violence in India, to Gabo Arora’s analysis of how VR has the potential to change UN diplomacy in conflict zones. Such comprehensive coverage meant that both cyber-geeks and doc-folks alike left the 8-hour summit buzzing with new ideas.
The term ‘interactive media’ is incredibly broad and before today’s summit I was quite oblivious to all its functions and forms. I knew things had come further than pushing a red button on a remote control, or calling up a premium number, but I hadn’t grasped quite how far the medium had come. Today, online apps are making more money than the whole of Hollywood’s box office and in the film world one thing is clear, the lines between documentary and interactive media are becoming increasingly blurred. Mutations of interactive media are often born out of technological innovation, but these changes also arise from a strong will to find new ways to tell challenging stories. Underpinning the day’s conversation was an unswerving conviction that VR holds the potential to educate, entertain and engage audiences.
What became immediately clear in the first half of The Summit was how new technologies are frequently used to communicate a direct, political message. Ram Devineni’s augmented reality comic book, Priya Shakti is an extraordinary example of the pedagogical use of technology in immersive storytelling. Provoked into action after hearing the words of a police officer, who proclaimed that “no good girl walks home alone at night”, Devineni created the mythical heroine Priya based on interviews with Indian women who had experienced rape. As a fictional figure of feminine empowerment and social change, Priya was created by, for and about Indian people. Her story has been told to hundreds of thousands of 8-14 year olds and has helped to transform the debate around sexual violence in India (#standwithpriya). Nadia Denton outlined the development in apps, gaming and web series in Africa, showing just how subversive these forms can be. She introduced the audience to Chopup’s satirical web series and the recent web-doc Pearl of Africa, about Ugandan transgender experience. Known as the mobile phone continent, with the largest youth population and its rapid economic growth, Denton demonstrated how Africa is a fertile space for development in digital technology. Navid Khonsari spoke about video gaming, the fastest growing interactive entertainment medium in the world. He presented his game 1979 Revolution, in which you are put in the shoes of an Iranian revolutionary and challenged to survive the revolution. References to 1970s pop culture and documentary photographs of the war reinforce a heightened sense of this reality.
The second half of the summit took us into the realm of virtual reality. As filmmaker Thomas Wallner pointed out, when early masters of cinema first saw the cinemascope they spoke of the potential for an immersive 360˚ film. In 2015, it seems we’re returning back to the origins of cinema in order to fulfil this dream. Wallner’s recent immersive project Polar Sea 360˚ demonstrates how far the documentary form has come, from the first ever documentary Nanook of the North, to this immersive project exploring the same Inuit habitat over a century later. The online version of Polar Sea 360˚ slips seamlessly from interactive explorations of the arctic environment to a more traditional presentation of documentary footage. Wallner’s work takes the interplay between the two forms to new levels, and various of his other projects incorporate VR. The next speaker Philip Harper described the effect of VR: “I felt that I was in conversation with an alien. My brain couldn’t accept that it wasn’t real”. Several speakers elaborated on how VR technology actually works, while others brought the conversation back to the potential use of VR as something more than entertainment. Take, for example, Nonny de la Peña’s Project Syria, whose slogan is ‘the civil war in Syria may seem far away until you experience it yourself.’ A bit like Khonsari’s 1979 Revolution, projects such as Project Syria bring the user strikingly close to the experience of war. At a time when obtaining visas to enter or exit the country is near impossible, this immensely imaginative technique helps to convey people’s lived experience in Syria and the surrounding refugee camps.
After all this discussion of virtual, hyper, technological, immersive, new, mediatised interactivity, I was left wondering why we were all sitting in a chapel musing on augmented versions of reality, rather than going for a walk on the scenic Yorkshire moors, or simply taking a closer look at unadulterated pure reality. Then came the final presentation, which directly responded to my yearning for an unadorned visceral experience that didn’t rely on visual effects, or even vision itself. May Abdalla presented The Reality Reality Show, a lo-fi augmented reality experience which had the whole audience blindfolded on the floor, eating a tangerine, and listening to descriptions of a blind man’s experience of the world.
11 presentations and a panel discussion down, I left the summit with a strong sense of how virtual reality can provide individuals with vivid embodied experiences of other people’s lives and how it functions as a machine that makes us more human. With 25 million VR machines predicted to be in use by 2015, we can now seriously begin to consider its potential use as a radical tool for pedagogy and storytelling. And with Sheffield Documentary Festival’s Interactive Exhibition, you can experience the otherworldly powers of technology for yourself.
By Dorothy Allen-Pickard