In the future, you won’t just consume stories by watching a movie or tuning into a podcast via earbuds. You’ll be standing in the middle of them—maybe you’ll even be able to see the blurry tip of your nose in front of you—with panoramic vision, perhaps a sense of smell, and maybe even the slight feeling of vertigo. “Originally stories were living things,” says Charlie Melcher. “It was a dialogue, something you could interrupt, or physically respond to.” Melcher thinks that sort of interactivity is exactly what the future holds.
Some of these new physical effects—surround vision, a sense of depth perception, vertigo—are vividly felt in virtual reality films. In particular, this year’s Sundance Film Festival, filmmakers showed off a range of VR experiences that left viewers with everything from unsettling emotions to a sense of awe. Yet for all the hype around virtual reality, relatively few people have experienced it. So if you’re in New York, you should go visit Sensory Stories, at the Museum of the Moving Image. (If you’re not, don’t stress: the exhibit will travel after it wraps up July 26.)
VR is only part of the Sensory Stories exhibit, which was curated with Melcher’s Future of Storytelling, an annual summit of tech people and creators showing off the latest in storytelling and communications. The other micro-exhibits include tablet games, like a scent-emitting Goldilocks game by oPhone, and physically interactive displays, like Google Creative Lab’s Cube, an oversized, remote control block with a phone hidden inside. The phone’s sensors talk to a laptop hidden in the room that’s playing six different weird, grainy films simultaneously. Each side of the cube correlates to one plotline, so by turning the cube over in your hands, you choose which narrative you watch.
Collectively, these stories signal a shift from passive viewing to something more active. “It’s a relatively recent thing in history that stories became objects,” Melcher says. “These new types of stories are moving us into something more physically interactive, more multisensory, that reawaken our bodies and senses.” Here’s what to expect.Birdly Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image
Birdly is probably the most sensational of all the projects at Sensory Stories. It’s a full-body VR experience that lets you fly over—and in between—Manhattan’s buildings. You saddle up, face down, on a seat that’s like an inverted dentist’s chair, and slip your arms over plastic wings. A fan blows wind against your face as you flap your arms and nudge your hands left or right to navigate, soaring in and around the monolithic New York skyline.
To say Birdly is convincing is to shortchange its effect. I’ve never been afraid of heights or of flying, and people who are have always confused me. That didn’t matter: my kneejerk reaction to Birdly was put me down, put me down now. Your awareness of the museum and people nearby vanishes and the wind almost gets knocked out of you. It takes a second, but once you’ve settled into your flight, assured you won’t plummet to the concrete earth below, the trip becomes poetic. “Many of us have at some point in our lives dreamt of flying. That exhibit is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling that way,” Melcher says.
Evolution of Verse, the first VR film from Chris Milk’s VRSE production project, conjures up a similar sense of flight. There’s no narrative, just miles of lake and mountainscapes on all sides. Towards the tail end of the short film, you realize the lake is falling away below you, while you float up in the air. It’s much gentler than the all-encompassing feeling of Birdly. With Evolution of Verse, taking the VR goggles off is like waking up from an exceptionally good dream.Is this the movie theater of the future? Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image
You’ll Feel Profound Empathy.
One of the most oft-discussed qualities of VR is its ability to implicate you in what you’re watching. It’s an odd (or maybe titillating) side effect of watching VR porn, that suddenly the people in the film seem like actual people, not just performers.
Likewise, in the quiet and scenic Herders, by Félix and Paul Studios, you might catch yourself trying to stay quiet to avoid disturbing a Mongolian family silently eating their dinner. And in Clouds over Sidra, it’s all too easy to catch yourself smiling at the kids walking by you. The short documentary, created by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora, and commissioned by the United Nations, follows Syrian refugees, mostly children, in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. Sidra is the name of the 12-year-old girl who narrates. The film takes you from Sidra’s family’s tented home, where her mother cooks for her and her siblings, to her school, to the school gym, and to rocky, muddy outdoor environment where she and other kids play. Sidra’s narration is brave but wistful, as she describes things she misses about Syria, and the accommodations they make while they live in the camp. Melcher describes the opportunity for all storytelling as “having one person try and express something about the human condition to someone else.” In Clouds over Sidra, the feeling of homesickness is palpable.“Hidden Stories.” Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image
You’ll Be Part of the Improv.
Melcher’s convinced social changes will also affect the types of stories we tell. “I’m a big believer that we are leaving this age defined by the alphabet,” he says. “We all learned to read and write, and that creates a certain kind of order, a linear hierarchical order. We are in a process literally of transforming from an alphabet mind into one that is networked, that is more based on connections between things rather than hierarchies.” Our stories could very possibly change as well.
In this instance, “networked” stories could mean something more game-like. Indeed, Birdly already approaches game status, given that the viewer controls the direction of flight and has to dodge buildings. And, like a game, danger is built in: in Birdly, it’s totally possible to crash into one of the skyscrapers.
Even at Hidden Stories, which is less stunning than something like Birdly, the story gets experienced exponentially rather than linearly. It’s a spin on radio storytelling, where dozens of objects are drawn on one of the walls at the museum. Behind each image—like an ice cream cone, or a Band-Aid—are sensors. Put another sensor-filled cone up to the object, and it unlocks a cache of audio tidbits on that object’s. Listeners can record their own snippets that then get woven into the narrative web. It’s a tidy metaphor for how stories might develop in the future more broadly. The subject is still a single, concrete thing. But the experience is something totally new—interactive and multisensorial.