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From Virtual Reality to Interactive Documentaries: ‘Sensory Stories’ Showcases Immersive Storytelling

From Virtual Reality to Interactive Documentaries: 'Sensory Stories' Showcases Immersive Storytelling

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Conceived and organized by Future of Storytelling (FoST), “Sensory Stories,” a new exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in New York City, will introduce audiences to innovative new methods of engaging with visual narratives.

The exhibition, which will run from April 18–July 26, 2015, provides a unique and enthralling experience, showing off fascinating new technologies and demonstrating their storytelling value in the process. The 17 works featured range from virtual reality narratives to interactive journalistic accounts.

A New Way to Tell Stories

“One of our goals .. is to bring the newest technologies to the community to inspire them to think about how they are going to use them,” explained FoST founder Charles Melcher at a press preview for the new exhibit. “The focus of this show is to explore the technologies that are bringing us back into our bodies — letting us experience stories in a visceral, multi-sensual, personal and participatory way.”

Melcher’s fascination with the technologies on display in “Sensory Stories” stems, primarily, from their connective value. “You can get literally immersed in a new world. You can see what it’s like in someone else’s eyes,” he said. “My hope is that all of this leaves people, one, turned on and excited to go out and create stories in new ways; two, [getting] a sense of where technologies are headed — that there’s a whole big world coming with storytelling potential; and three, feeling excited about being alive.”

Navigating New Technologies

The storytellers featured in “Sensory Stories” are, according to Melcher, budding artistic pioneers. As he explained, “At this stage with these technologies, they have something to say, and they have to figure out how to use the technology to actually say it. It’s like the early days of any medium … [where artists] were inventing the content and the form at the same time.”

The experiences of those behind the long-gestating project “Bear 71” certainly echo that sentiment. Planning an eight-year chronicle of the life of a female grizzly bear, directors Jeremy Mandes and Leanne Allison came away with a lot of footage, but without a clear idea of what to do with it. As producer Dana Dansereau remembered the thinking around that time, “It was like, this isn’t a movie — but it’s something.”

By combining their striking visuals with interactive technology, the “Bear 71” team came away with something immensely impactful. With a map of the forest on a big screen, and with the bear’s movements being tracked as a dot, participants of the story can zoom in at any point via tablet and observe the goings-on at the selected location.

It’s a fragmented, immediate way to tell the story, observing how animals and other people play a part in it across different sections of the forest. With the bear’s first-person narration playing through the experience, Dansereau explained the goal: “We wanted to contend with this idea of ‘What is natural?’ and to really live with this bear, as she lives.” 

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Creating a Visceral Experience

One of the most arresting projects in the exhibition is “Clouds Over Sidra,” a narrative told through virtual reality in which a 12-year-old girl tours her Syrian refugee camp. Commissioned by the United Nations, the project is unparalleled in impact: the experience is at once intimate and haunting, as we’re quite literally immersed in the classrooms, kitchens and recreational spaces of this community. 

When speaking about “Herders” Melcher said that the sensation of experiencing its story was deeply affecting. “[Virtual reality helps in] the way that humans understand the world,” he explained. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know what it was like to sit in a tent in Mongolia and have dinner with a Mongolian family.'”

“Pry,” from Tender Claws, is another story that viscerally connects its content to new technologies. In this interpretation of a Gulf War veteran’s struggle to evade his memories, the audience — via touch gestures — has the ability to open and close his eyes, and either come up against what he sees or what he thinks. The conceit behind this experiential story can be summed up by a simple question: what is it like to be detached from your world?

“We wanted to challenge the concept of the eBook … and do an intervention of how people use touch gestures in a way that’s intimate and more sympathetic to the character,” co-creator Samantha Gorman explained. “[The way] the story and the interface evolve together is what felt right. We were thinking about ways to go back in thought and memory in this type of storytelling, in a way that’s fragmented but evocative.”

Gorman conducted interviews and research for a full year in order to strike the perfect balance for “Pry,” and said that doing so made her “very empathetic” in regards to the constant anxiety felt by veterans. Indeed, as the story progresses and the soldier loses sight, the evocation of tragedy is more pronounced because of the audience’s implicit relationship with the story.

READ MORE: How Virtual Reality Technology is Changing Documentary Film

Reaching Far and Wide

Of course, Melcher and those behind “Sensory Stories” are hopeful that the broad audience that MoMI attracts will allow these storytelling methods to build in prominence. He added, “I think it will be eye-opening for people who have no tech background.”

But with “Sensory Stories,” there really is something for everyone. There’s “Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The Smelly Version,” the first-ever oBook which emits related smells as one reads the classic fable. Short films such as “Google Cube -— Untitled” and “Possibilia” allow the audience to shift between simultaneously-occurring action as a way to more profoundly invest in stories of, respectively, mystery and romance. And you’ll definitely want to know what equates victory in Copenhagen Game Collection’s “Dark Room Sex Game.”

Some of these stories will resonate deeply, while others should wildly entertain. But cumulatively, Melcher hopes that they point to the future: “It’s an effort to bring a new community together.”

“Sensory Stories” will be shown at the Museum of the Moving Image from April 18 to July 26. Click here for the full program of the exhibition.

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