First-Ever Open Immersion Residency Expands Conversations in the VR Space

By Eric Weiss ● October 25, 2016 17:00

Kimi Maeda. Photo: Juan Camilo Palacio

Virtual Reality is often presented as a hardware challenge, as if programmers and engineers are the sole gatekeepers of the medium. That bias means a skewed focus on what VR can do, rather than asking creators about the messages they want to share.

Open Immersion, a lab exploring immersive VR storytelling, was developed by CFC Media Lab and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) with funding from JustFilms | Ford Foundation. Its aim: to reclaim the VR space for artists. The inaugural event brought together six First Nations artists in Canada with six artists of color from the American South, most of whom have little-to-no prior experience with VR, to a residency in Toronto from October 11 to 19, 2016. The first two days were devoted to knowledge gathering. Then the 12 residents were placed into teams and asked to create three original VR stories as part of an intense week-long laboratory.

The intensive nine-day residency also encouraged the Open Immersion residents to approach VR with no preconceptions about the medium and to challenge the unexamined ideology that Silicon Valley takes for granted.

“The feeling in California is that VR is ready to break commercially, so all that matters is commerce and market. The conversation here, on the other hand, is about much deeper issues,” said Michael Naimark, a media artist and researcher who often explores "place representation" and was one of the lab's keynote speakers. “It’s not just philosophy. It’s informing what [artists] are going to make.”

Michael Naimark. Photo: Juan Camilo Palacio

“Whether it was puppeteers, visual artists or theatre actors, it was fun to hear those voices in VR,” said Nyla Innuksuk, an Inuit filmmaker and one of the few residents with prior experience in VR. “It’s great for artists, programmers and coders to work together. It’s interesting having creative conversations with tech people.”

Those conversations also demonstrated the value of alternative perspectives. VR is deeply personal, both in terms of what the viewer brings to the experience and what the experience gives back to the viewer. That raises legitimate ethical concerns. How does one avoid re-traumatizing viewers with potentially triggering subject matter? How does one make sure they respect the viewer (and the subject) when bringing them into a VR experience?

Such questions are essential because they prevent one from doing real harm. Unfortunately, tech insiders are unlikely to ask them, thanks to the widespread belief that VR is an inherent good. Artists engaging with personal narratives are far more likely to examine these issues.

“How do I tell intense, emotional stories in a way that doesn’t minimize reality,” asked Jacqueline Olive, an award-winning filmmaker and one of the American residents at the lab. “We learned that we could do live capture video. We could use animation. We’re representationally creating that world in a way that gives people a sense of the experience.”

Jacqueline Olive. Photo: Juan Camilo Palacio

For Olive, that kind of multidisciplinary thinking is ideally suited to the abstract design space of VR. “When you’re not used to pushing the limits, you can be very regimented in what you do,” she said, emphasizing the shortcomings of a purely technical approach to VR. “You try to recreate the world literally, as opposed to looking at an interpretation of the world and spaces.”

That’s why inclusivity is both a moral and an economic imperative for VR. VR is so personal, which means that one needs diverse artists to speak to different life experiences. Open Immersion responds to that demand – it is an effort to create VR material that matches our nuanced understanding of the world we inhabit.

“When you’re telling a story, your audience – their experiences, their lives, their visions – should be represented in that space,” said Olive.

“Outlier ideas are the ones that are going to be least visible and least entertained,” added Naimark, arguing that VR will fail if diverse voices are excluded from the conversation. “If you look at any medium, that’s where the good stuff has always come from.”

That was certainly true during Open Immersion. Though the mood in the room was often skeptical, it became more enthusiastic over the course of the week, as the residents embraced VR as a unique and powerful storytelling tool.

The takeaway is that the tech sphere needs far more artists and creators from a variety of different cultural backgrounds, artistic disciplines, ideological orientations and lived experiences, because no one perspective can encompass the entire human experience. The conference ended with calls for greater access to ensure that the VR conversation continues to evolve.

“In Canadian Indigenous communities, we don’t have the same access to content or even Internet access compared to the rest of the country,” said Innuksuk. “Work on that. Make [VR] as accessible as possible, and then diversify the voices telling the stories.”

Visual board drawn by Aaron Williamson

Olive, meanwhile, suggested that the development of common terminology would make it easier to discuss VR with everyday civilians. Since this second wave of VR is still in a nascent stage, there is an unprecedented opportunity to shape the language of VR in a way that incorporates a multiplicity of voices from the onset.

“I’d like to redefine the origin story of VR,” said Olive, who will continue her work with VR after the conference. “If someone like me had been one of the initial influencers, the telling of that story could be very different. There needs to be more voices in the process.”

Open Immersion began to move past letting marketers and technologists alone dictate the vocabulary of the virtual landscape. By creating Open Immersion, CFC Media Lab, the NFB and JustFilms | Ford Foundation reiterate that everyone’s experience is worthy of exploration, and that inclusive perspectives are an imperative, not a novelty, of the platform. VR is complex because people are complex, and VR will be incomplete until it embraces that complexity.