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Chris Milk Talks Empathy in VR, the Commerce of Art and Waiting for The Holodeck

Chris Milk Talks Empathy in VR, the Commerce of Art and Waiting for The Holodeck

READ MORE: Future Tense: Sifting Through the Patterns of VR Storytelling at Sundance

Over the past few years, the multi-talented, multi-hyphenate artist Chris Milk has evolved from an interesting artist telling compelling stories through music videos into a visionary wunderkind, a celebrity technology prophet of sorts, proselytizing a virtual future in which machines, as he famously posited in his popular 2015 TED Talk, might be the “ultimate empathy tool.” 

Milk’s ideas about the potentialities of VR for building bridges of empathy that have the power to unite and better humanity, along with his passion for his subject, were pivotal in setting my own producing direction down the VR rabbit-hole. I wanted to interview him, to pick the brain of the man who’s both captured public attention and put on spotlight on the issue that maybe what we do with this emerging tech is more important that the tech itself. During Sundance last week, I got a the chance to sit down with the artist himself to chat about this brave new virtual world we’re exploring. 

Empathy in VR is one of the biggest buzz-phrases of this year’s Sundance, a trend you might be said to have started with your 2015 TED talk. What about story in virtual reality makes it different?
With other mediums, there’s a window that you’re looking through, a portal into the story about the people who are “over there.” Not that you can’t feel empathy in cinema, but it’s still about “those people over there.” My premise is that there’s something hardwired into our DNA, that we as a species came and evolved from caves and clans and tribes, and therefore we as a species care more about the things that are local to us, than we care about the things that are “over there” from us.

Virtual reality, more than any other technology to date, allows you to feel local to that other person. Instead of a story about those people over there, now it becomes a story about us, over here. And we’ve never really had that before, certainly not at [this] scale.

What might the greater societal implications might be, if your theorizing on the potential for VR to allow humans to connect with each other’s experiences more deeply through virtual reality than they have before proves true? What would a world connected by more empathy be like?
If you look at all the technology we’re interconnected with every day, all this complex technology that connects humanity, it actually doesn’t connect us. It doesn’t really feel like you’re emotionally closer to people, because you’re constantly sitting next to people, but instead of connecting with you, they’re connecting to their Facebook and they’re tweeting bullshit, and not really connecting human to human at all. And virtual reality is a technology that could actually allow you to connect on a real human level, soul-to-soul, regardless of where you are in the world. 
Virtual reality’s the first medium that’s jumping the translation gap. If I’m reading words on a page, my mind’s imagining what the words are saying, my intellect is embodying it. In VR, the technology’s interfacing with your senses, even though right now it’s still in its very raw form. And whereas in most mediums it’s your consciousness interpreting the medium, in VR your consciousness is becoming the medium, because the technology is feeding your senses stimuli that’s allowing your brain to feel like this is really reality.
And if you scale out from there to where the medium goes, if you incorporate the other senses and you have those other senses at their full fidelity, then you have a world that’s indiscernible from this one. Not tomorrow, but ten years from now, or twenty. And then what do you do with it? Well, there’s a lot you can do with it. And as with all mediums, you can use it for good or you can use it for evil.

How will growing acceptance of VR impact how Hollywood creates entertainment? 

I don’t think most of the people working in VR right now have their heads wrapped around VR yet. There’s a lot of people running around saying “Oh, I’m a VR __________.” I’m very happy for lots of people to be really interested in it, but what I want to see is actual great works coming out of it, that inspire others and that bring audiences that keep wanting to come back for more experiences. I think there’s a little bit of a danger of a hype machine that puts forth a whole bunch of experiences that aren’t great, and then a whole bunch of audience comes and don’t have great experiences. And having a bad experience in VR is like having a bad experience on a roller coaster; you may not go back to that amusement park again.
Can you be more specific, for those who may not understand the technical issues?
Well, it’s problematic, imagining, say, opening it up to the masses to record VR video. Look, if you grab a VR camera and you run around your kid’s birthday and you share it with the grandparents across the country, the grandparents are gonna throw up, watching that footage, you know? Not really desirable.
But Hollywood, where presumably they understand those aspects?
In terms of Hollywood, now? That’s a business built upon the business of telling stories to make money. We’re kind of like in that early experimental stage where anything’s possible, and the format has a lot to evolve before we can actually tell stories in the ultimate form of virtual reality. And by the way, it’s not just about creating a “virtual reality movie” in the same way that it wasn’t about making a cinematic play, or a radio book, even though that’s what every new technology does, is try to shoehorn the previous technology into it.
At your company, Vrse, you’re focusing on both the story and the tech. You feel it’s imperative to do both in this field, to have the two sides push and pull against each other?
I certainly think it’s the only way to build a company in virtual reality. Aaron (Koblin), my co-founder and I, both come from backgrounds of tech and storytelling and more. I live in Los Angeles and do lots of stories on film and other mediums and he lives in San Francisco and worked for Google there. But we’ve been working on projects together for many years, taking basically every new technology we could try and find, and auditioning it to see what new and weird and different kinds of stories we could tell. 
How do the projects you have here at Sundance this year explore telling story?
“Treachery of Sanctuary,” the big installation we have here, is four or five years old now, it’s one of my personal installations. That’s something that was an experiment, it was like, this is immersion and full fidelity. It’s full fidelity because it’s shadows. I can’t do photorealistic real-time rendered fidelity, but I can do it if I’m only representing a shadow, and not the actual world. So it’s full fidelity and interactivity, which is where I want to get in virtual reality. The premise is that this is a new medium that requires a language of storytelling and a format that’s as yet undefined. The things we’re making now, we’re gonna laugh at in another hundred years. We’ll be say, “Oh, that’s so quaint, how cute, look at that. They sat there on a chair and rotated around and looked at things.”
In 15 years, the method in which they do it, I wouldn’t put money on that. But whatever the delivery system, you’ve got full fidelity of all of your senses, you’re able to tell stories that can branch into any direction that you have complete agency and control of. 
The holodeck?
You asked me what the final form is, to me that’s the final form. The final form is all senses, full fidelity, full agency, first person. I mean just look at it, that’s obviously where it goes. It may take ten years, it make take twenty years, but that’s where it scales eventually.
Let’s look at it compared to the beginning of film. At the beginning of film you were looking at low resolution, black and white. No sound, silent. But a person then could look at those films and say, well, our world is color, so this should be color. Our world has sound, so we should be hearing sound with it. The resolution should be better. But you could scale it out and think where we would be now. You might not have known then what a feature film was, but you could think about the technology and scale that out. And likewise you can take the technology of this and scale it out in the same way, and that’s where you end up.

But ultimately, it’s more about the story you’re telling with that tech. 
Yeah, about what kind of stories do you tell with that medium? Because the first thing you’d have is basically just a world without consequence, and that might be fun for a minute, but it’s not going to be fun for long. I would think that as all other mediums that we’ve invented before, at first they’re used for spectacle and then they’re used to tell stories, because stories are part of our DNA too, as well as how we resonate with humanity at large.
But Hollywood…someone’s gonna make a “VR movie.” And it will be fine. Or maybe not. Who knows, maybe it will even be good. But what it’s not going to be right away is the ultimate form of virtual reality. Making a bunch of promos for asteroid movies and robot movies is not a business, that’s just an advertising thing. For it to become a real medium, it needs to be something that people are willing to spend money on. And I have no problem with that, I think it’s a great thing. Because the more that happens, the more money flows into this world to make new and exciting experiences for people to have, and to evolve the language of storytelling and the format needed to support those languages of storytelling.

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival

Kim Voynar owns Lateralus, a production and consulting firm focusing on biz dev, strategy and content in the virtual reality space. Lateralus is currently developing projects with avant-garde music collective The Residents, Will Calhoun (Living Colour) and other artists, consulting with VR start-ups, and working with Virtual World Society, a non-profit organization founded by the “grandfather of VR,” Dr. Tom Furness. Prior to becoming obsessed with the art and tech of immersive storytelling in virtual spaces, Voynar was a film critic for a decade, covering the film festival circuit and independent cinema for Movie City News, Cinematical, IndieWIRE and Variety. She co-hosts The Daily Buzz public radio show/podcast at Sundance and SXSW. 

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