Future of Storytelling, Part 1

Back in October I attended the Future of Storytellng’s FOST FEST which is a two day event hosted this year at the Africa Center in East Harlem. There were over 70 interactive VR exhibitions you could walk up to and experience first hand in a space they referred to as a “virtual reality playground.”

Let me make this clear, I’m completely sold on tech. I am an eternal optimist and tend to overlook tech failures and missteps and focus on the next thing. I allow myself to be this way because there seems to be no deficit in the number of doubters. Let’s just say, I’m a true believer.

My first stop at FOST FEST was a communal experience called Flock in which I walked around a large empty room only seeing what a VR headset wanted me to. The room’s dimensions had been programmed into the VR software, so solid-matter walls were represented graphically. There was no crashing into walls at this party.

Specially outfitted VR headsets and Beats headphones for Flock.

Specially outfitted VR headsets and Beats headphones for Flock.

In Flock, you don headphones, a VR headset with little antennae sticking out (which lets software position you in 3D space) and feathers on your arms (which enables you to look ridiculous). Everyone participating is a bird in your flock. While the idea of the program is to encourage participants to “fly” together, my group did not. The experience was none the less memorable.

One of our hosts explained that because we were birds, there could be no talking, only squawking. He then looked at me and asked if I’d like to be the first one to step into the room. I don’t remember if I said “yes” or just speechlessly took the gear from his hands with a big dumb grin. If anyone offers you an opportunity to be the first to walk into a virtual room, you take it.

The actual space was cool, unlit and all concrete. High above my head was an exposed ceiling with loose wiring dangling from it. However, when I put my headphones and VR headset on, I was instantly transported into a bright ethereal forest populated with flying bugs I was encouraged to “eat” by walking into. A delightfully composed pixie chime would jingle with every insect I consumed.

At first, I walked around with small, careful steps as I adapted. Soon enough, another person (bird?) joined me. She was a very enthusiastic squawker, so I tried to avoid her. She was represented by a large floating bird head. I’m generally not shy, but squawking made me self-conscious. As more people (birds?) started to join us, I found myself squawking out of necessity to avoid bumping into anyone. I eventually grew to appreciate our squawk crash avoidance system.

Unfortunately, VR doesn’t lend itself well to timed sessions. Just when I got the hang of things, my time was up. This must have been the day’s theme because most all of my experiences were cut short right when things were getting interesting. Not fun.

By the end of my flock’s journey, the room was filled with floating bird heads (people?). No faces, no clothing, no details to identify anyone. All socio-economic symbols gone. Everyone looked the same. I was surrounded by real people and I could not make a judgement call on any of them. I momentarily had a pure feeling of community I’ve never felt before. It lasted for a few seconds before one of our hosts asked us to remove our gear, and just like that, the feeling was over.


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