Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for virtual worlds

Wanna Try Some VR? Here’s a Guide

Lately I’ve been doing a bit of VR bingeing. While I’m not a binge TV viewer, I cannot get enough VR when the opportunity presents itself. Luckily, I’m based in Los Angeles, where new media experiments are all the rage, and my job takes me to exactly the kinds of conferences that showcase new experiments in the field.

As you’ve no doubt heard, VR is all the rage right now, syphoning start-up funding from what many believe are more worthy, though less glitzy, projects. Stanford’s Jeremy Bailenson has just published Experience on Demand, which catalogs the many uses for VR, mostly for training or therapy, and VR pioneer Jaron Lanier has just come out with a surprisingly optimistic book, Dawn of the New Everything.  Even if you’re skeptical about VR, I strongly urge you to try it out. And not just what you can pop into your Google Cardboard. Before you completely dismiss it, you need to experience it with better hardware, such as Samsung Gear or, even better, the HTC Vive.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Even if you get the chance to go to South By Southwest or the Future of Storytelling Festival (I went to both last year), you will soon learn that you’ll be facing long, depressing lines, sometimes hours long, for an experience that will last less than ten minutes — sometimes much less. Welcome to the dark side of experiential storytelling.

However, where there’s a will, there’s a way: ask questions, inquire ahead, and see if you can make reservations. IMAX VR now has 6 locations and counting: I loved Eagle Flight and Raw Data, two exhilarating multiplayer games. And museums and cultural centers offer these experiences, as well, often with a more civilized reservation system in place than conferences offer.

And then sometimes you just get lucky. While strolling through Montreal’s old city, I saw a sign saying “Luxury Rubbish:” anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t pass that up. Turns out it was the gift shop for a cultural arts center that just happened to be hosting a massive VR exhibition curated by none other than the Future of Storytelling.

Needless to say, I showed up the moment the place opened, on a day the staff recommended as a low-traffic day, and spent half a day in other worlds of many people’s making. Afterwards I knew I must share a guide to these experiences so that unlucky others can figure out which line they should get into at the next SXSW, Sundance, Tribeca or Future of Storytelling Festival.

Instead of offering reviews of quality and preference, my goal here is to give some indication of what new realities these VR pieces explore: are you interested in how VR might transform books, art, dance, games or movies? Then read on, my friend.

 Blind Vaysha, by Theodore Ushev, produced by the NFB

How might we transform literature into VR? In Blind Vaysha, the voice over narration keeps the story experience central but the innovation here is the way in which the vision theme plays out literally on your eyeballs. It’s a terrific convergence of form and content.

Broken Night, by Alon Benari, Tal Zubalsky and Alex Vlack, produced by Eko, Hidden Content and Real Motion, in collaboration with Irving Harvey.

How can we communicate the radical indeterminacy of memory? This is perhaps the only piece of VR I’ve seen that features bona fide Hollywood stars (Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola) – and kudos to them for taking the plunge. The main value of this piece, I believe, is its success conveying the unreliability not only of the traumatized, but of the eyewitness. Which is you.

Dear Angelica, by Saschka Unseld, produced by Oculus Story Studio

There was something incredibly sumptuous about the colorful looping dreaminess of this gorgeous piece featuring the voice of Geena Davis. If you’re interested in graphic novels or comics, I think Dear Angelica is a delicious example of how drawings can come alive in three-dimensional space.

Flock, by David Lobser, produced by Object Normal, with support from NYU/MRL

Flock is a social VR experience, which means that you can interact with other people’s avatars within the VR space. Thankfully, we received some really good advice before starting: instead of focusing on racking up points by pecking bugs (were they bugs?) focus on climbing inside other players’ bird heads. (Yes, you read that correctly.) What ensues is completely psychedelic and, due to extreme physical proximity, puts into question claims about the alienating and anti-social effects of VR.

Life of Us, by Within (Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin), produced by Chris Milk, Megan Ellison (Annapurna Pictures) and Made with Unity

This was, undoubtedly, my favorite experience at Lucid Realities, which probably says more about me than the piece itself. As exhilarating as a roller-coaster ride, this trip through the evolution of the human species left me completely out of breath and dying to go back in. Like Flock, Life of Us is a social experience in which you can both see and hear a friend: I found it hard to stop talking during the experience because your voice evolves as your avatar evolves, from amoeba to space matter.

Fragments, by Asobo Studio and Microsoft Studios Global Publishing

How might Augmented Reality be used for gaming? This is the first time I’ve ever used HoloLens, augmented reality glasses that mapped game animations into my physical space. I love the idea, but it was clear from the outset that seven or eight minutes isn’t enough time to get a feel for the plot, the characters, or the rhythm of game play. Try, if you can, to get some serious time with Fragments so that you actually have time to piece them together.

Home: Immersive Spacewalk Experience, by Tom Burton, produced by BBC Studios and Rewind

What does it feel like to be in outer space? I had sweat rings after this experience, which tasked me with making a repair on the outside of a space station and finding my way back into the station afterwards. Needless to say, I panicked and died, which I heard was the fate of most. The seeming artificiality of the environment in outer space maps beautifully onto the artificiality of the VR experience, which is one reason I think Home had one of the longest wait lists at Lucid Realities.

The Island of the Colorblind, by Sanne De Wilde, produced by IDFA and Brakke Grond


I wouldn’t call this a virtual reality experience, but a fascinating experiential art installation that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the science of color or the possibilities of place-based, interactive storytelling.  Like Blind Vaysha, one reason this works so well is because the story itself is about the nature of vision. Watch your eyes trick you.

RIOT (prototype), by Karen Palmer, in partnership with The National Theatre Immersive Storytelling Studio and Brunel University London


What happens when your facial expressions control the experience? I first heard about RIOT at SXSW but I had to wait several months before I had a chance to try it out in Montreal. Instead of choosing options from a menu, the application uses facial recognition technology to determine how you would react during a riot. I left this one wishing I could do it again with different expressions.

While this may seem too sci fi to be true, get used to it: immersive storytellers will inevitably adopt tools like these. Distracting hand controls will be a thing of the past.

Blindfold, made in partnership with the Committee to Protect Journalists and The Center for Human Rights in Iran.


How would you respond to a violent interrogation? This sinister experience puts you in the shoes of an investigative journalist; your answers determine the fate of your brutally beaten friend who sits right in front of you. The experience is made more compelling by your ability to respond to the interrogator’s questions by nodding or shaking your head. Like RIOT, Blindfold allows us to imagine what it will be like to have a more embodied entertainment experience: in this one, the feeling of being seen by this ruthless interrogator is chilling.

Tilt Brush, by Google

How might we turn gestures into art? I used this truly delightful application in a friend’s house. If you get any pleasure out of pure color and giddily dancing around, then this is a must for you, too.

CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible), by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Emmanuel Lubezki, Mary Parent and ILMxLAB


By far the grandest VR experience I’ve ever had, Alejandro Inarittu’s large-scale Carne y Arena is a multi-room experience intended to give you the chance to walk in the shoes of immigrants crossing the Sonoran desert. A giant room filled with sand and a powerful wind machine help conjure the physical experience in a way that approaches participatory theater. After the VR experience ends, you enter a room filled with the true stories of the people you encountered, further blurring the line between virtual and real. No wonder it won a special Oscar.

Through You, by Saschka Unseld and Lily Baldwin

How might a dance performance be captured in VR? This live-action love story focuses on a pair of dancers, which reminded me repeatedly of Wim Wenders’ Pina, a poetic 3-D documentary film about the influential dancer/choreographer, Pina Bausch. Both experiences were simultaneously exhilarating and heartbreaking. Through You offers the additional advantage of giving us a peek at how VR can be used for pornography. Given the option, I’m not sure who would choose 2D over VR.

Transference™, by Ubisoft and SpectreVision


What would an interactive movie feel like? I heard a couple people yelp before I tried out this experience, which involves (spoiler alert) a very scary guy with a gun in the basement. Making your way through this grim scenario requires patience and problem-solving. Only a sample was available at Lucid Realities, but the entire experience includes multi-branching narratives in which players can affect the fates of characters.

Tree, by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter of New Reality Company, in partnership with Here be Dragons and Droga5

How might VR be used to increase empathy? When the goggles and the backpack came off, people were occasionally in tears. It’s hard to explain how emotionally moving this experience can be, since becoming a tree in a rainforest doesn’t exactly suggest epic drama, or even much movement, per se. But there is something magical about growing tall as the tree, and feeling your arms transform into limbs that you can shake and sway and use to shoo away exotic creatures. But the kicker for me (spoiler alert!) was the intoxicating aroma: it turns out that the backpack is loaded with timed scent diffusers, which tackled my primordial brain and took me there like nothing else could. If complete immersion is the endgame of entertainment, this VR experiment takes us closer to it.

Got some VR you’d like to recommend? Please send your favorites my way via


Talking About the Culture of Technology with Katina Michael

I had a wonderful conversation with Katina Michael, professor of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong, and editor in chief of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. She wanted to have a chat about my forthcoming article on “Technologies of Taste,” which explores the social impact of recommendation engines. But the conversation ranged far beyond that topic, touching on the behavioral biometrics of game play, the privacy implications of Samsung TVs that can listen to your conversations, and the attention economy as a “zero sum game.” Clearly, I may just have to fly to Australia to continue this conversation in person.



Fashioning the Future


When I saw a recent piece about success implanting a worm’s brain into a Lego robot, I immediately thought of William Gibson’s most recent novel, The Peripheral.  Placed simultaneously in the near future and another one 70 years further away, characters traverse the time gap dropping into low-fi or high-fi versions of that Lego robot.

I’ve always enjoyed Gibson’s obvious interest in the ironies that emerge when physical bodies blend into virtual realities. Gibson’s brand of virtual reality is never disengaged from a suffering body. A common complaint among characters in The Peripheral, and his earlier novel Pattern Recognition, is jet lag. One of the many clever conceits in The Peripheral is that traveling back or forward in time, to another point on the space/time continuum, can only be done in real time, in different time zones, in a persistent world ticking its way to different versions of the future.

In Gibson’s cyberpunk extrapolations, technologies that seem miraculous in our present moment always reflect the inconvenient limits of human capacity. In the distant future of The Peripheral, the supercomputer that allows the wealthiest hobbyists to fiddle with people’s real lives in the past is of unknown provenance. No one seems to know how it works or who created it, though everyone presumes it’s Chinese.

Likewise no one knows how an extremely powerful predictive algorithm that aids police in preventing crimes works – apparently because it’s self-taught and no one kept track of its accumulation of datasets. When “the Aunties,” as the system is called, makes a prediction, it has the taint of mindless unscientific human gossip. It’s the gut instinct gone hyperdigital. Read the rest of this entry »

New Media & the Holocaust

As we recognize the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we can’t help but consider what’s changed … and what hasn’t. After the recent attacks in Paris there are renewed worries about how we communicate the Holocaust to new generations, especially as the ranks of survivors and witnesses dwindle away.

Media and technology are always leveraged in one way or another for educating, historicizing and memorializing, but with subject matter like the Holocaust, the stakes seem even higher that we get it “right.”

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s landmark film that introduced the Holocaust in all its murderous horror to an entire generation. The Shoah Foundation invited me to participate in a conference that reflected on the film’s impact while looking at new media and other new technologies that can be used for testimony and memorialization.

Much of my recent research has been on the social impact of social media and so I was excited to explore how these new technologies, and the valuable data they produce, can be leveraged by Holocaust scholars.

As with all new technology, there’s a great deal of anxiety about its social repercussions, and particularly how it should be used to tell stories about something as highly charged as the Holocaust.

Recently, I’ve been focused on measuring the impact of media, which I regard as a tremendously powerful educational tool, particularly when it’s embedded within compelling stories. I believe that films like Schindler’s List play a very important role in our culture, introducing people to topics that most would prefer to avoid, and triggering conversations – around dinner tables, beside office coolers, and in the media – that give us an opportunity to face history and decide what we will learn from it.

Having worked in the entertainment-education video game industry, I have first-hand experience developing and evaluating the effects of interactive media. It seems abundantly clear to me that multiple media forms can be – and should be – mobilized to help people develop a more nuanced understanding of complex subjects such as the Holocaust.

Not everyone agrees. There have been decidedly mixed responses to a project at USC that creates full-body, interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors. Unlike the Tupac Shakur hologram at Coachella, the Pinchas Gutter hologram responds in real time to questions posed by a live audience. Read the rest of this entry »

Imagining the Future of 3D Printing at Fractal


Ever since I started doing research on fashion design and copyright, I’ve been tracking the progress of 3D printing technology. The disruptive possibilities of this technology are abundantly clear in the fashion sector, and so I was thrilled to receive an invitation to attend fractal, a very unique conference in Medellin Colombia, where a diverse group of experts was asked to facilitate conversations about 3D printing, synthetic biology and other bleeding edge topics.

Hoping to shake-up the typical conference format, the instigators behind fractal – the intrepid Viviana Trujillo and Hernan Ortiz – decided to invite the audience to use “design fiction” to spin stories of the future that would reveal the key social, cultural, political and ethical quandaries that accompany the adoption of new technologies. The facilitators were a fascinating group: Reshma Shetty , an MIT-trained synthetic biologist; acclaimed artist and director Keiichi Matsuda, whose augmented reality installations have been featured at MOMA and the V&A, and Paul Graham Raven, a speculative fiction practitioner who uses narrative to solve engineering problems in the UK.

In addition to telling stories about how homes might be made out of living things and how augmented reality applications will fundamentally change the contours of our self-presentation to the world, we tackled the topic of 3D printing. Read the rest of this entry »

Artifical Intelligence, Gender & the Uncanny Valley

Spike Jonze’s new film Her has sparked some fascinating conversations about artificial intelligence, gender and how we might traverse the uncanny valley we experience when real worlds and virtual worlds overlap.

Liat Clark from Wired contacted me for a great piece about AI virtual assistants and he asked me why it was that Hollywood usually depicts friendly AI as female and threatening AI as male. I think that, even though we may be more aware of gender stereotypes and how limiting and self-destructive they can be, it doesn’t mean that we don’t invoke them in the stories that we tell about ourselves. We humans are caught in some very deep cultural grooves: we still tend to associate a helpful, nurturing creature with feminine characteristics and an aggressive and destructive force with male characteristics. To reverse that association would only result in reinvoking it: everyone would notice that it was “backwards.” In that respect, storytellers cannot help but invoke the tropes that define us – particularly when they’re weaving tales about artificial versions of ourselves.

Clark was also interested in why Hollywood tropes about love and romance always seem a bit retro, lagging behind the current zeitgeist. I think that the representations that define our popular culture are profoundly disconnected from reality and are more likely to reflect a marketer’s hunch about what a particular demographic craves rather than what real living people actually want. One reason I’m so excited about the prospects for social media is that it gives marketers and media companies better information than they’ve ever had before about what animates us, what preoccupies us, and what we care to share (this is the topic of one of my TED talks). I think marketers, advertisers, programmers and creators of entertainment content will need to respond to increasing pressure to supply what audiences actually want – rather than producing hackneyed stories based on primitive stereotypes.

Clark turned out to be much more skeptical than I was about just how far we can go with AI. As my friends well know, I am borderline obsessed with the possibilities of the singularity, and so I’m convinced that we’ll be able to make life-like versions of ourselves in my lifetime. For better or worse, I believe that we’ll make AI that conforms to our current notions of perfection, whatever those happen to be at the time. I also think we will undoubtedly change our definition of perfection the moment we think we’ve achieved it. We’re sort of predictable that way.

The broader question may be why we are so obsessed with humanizing technology in the first place. There’s a great scene in Prometheus in which the robot Michael (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) puts on some protective head gear which is entirely unnecessary for him. When a human asks him why he bothers, he says it’s because humans are far more comfortable with creatures that act and look like them. Bingo. Yes, we quite capable of empathy, but we are also deeply self-involved creatures, hard-wired for self-preservation, and anthropomorphism is a crutch we’ve been using for millennia.  Our virtual assistants and the robots we engineer will no doubt reflect our knee-jerk discomfort with anything elementally different from ourselves.

Tribeca Film Festival: The Art of Networking

Ironically, these pencils were a big hit at the Tribeca Film Institute's super-high-tech Interactive fest.

Film festivals are tricky events to navigate. Of course they’re about art and commerce and, for some reason, all too many filmmakers are uncomfortable with that combination. Despite the entertainment industry’s craven reputation, there are plenty of people in it – not just indie movie types – who long for something pure: complex aesthetic objects that will transport people to new places and new ways of understanding this world and the many alternate realities we’ve crafted for ourselves. That idealism, and the understandable longing for money and attention to achieve that dream, is prominently on display at fests like Tribeca. And yes, a lot of it is about glad-handing and hitting as many cocktail parties as possible (as well as standing next to the right person at the red carpet premieres), but more and more these days, it’s also about figuring out how to make movies do that the networking for you. Filmmakers who’ve managed to crack the social media code have, indeed, mastered the twenty-first century art of networking.

I thought it was terrific that Tribeca devoted an entire day of the Fest to a conference on interactive media. The event was held in Frank Gehry’s gleaming IAC building, in front of an impossibly long wall of screens. The shallow wide room was packed from start to finish with a mix of digerati (I was thrilled to meet Christina Warren the entertainment editor for Mashable) and people who’ve been toiling in the traditional media trenches all their lives. The implicit goal was to figure out how to make sure that filmmakers learn how to adapt to an increasingly interactive media space – something more easily said than done. These days, film projects of all sizes are expected to have some sort of online presence, not only for the purpose of promotion but for something far more ephemeral: audience engagement. There are generally no accepted standards to measure the latter, but it usually means that you’ve managed to convince passive potential audience members to take an active role in promoting, extending, or even reimagining the film itself or its subject.

For all too many filmmakers, a transmedia campaign includes a basic formula: a Web site, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and the coup de grace, an iPhone app. Much to the consternation of app developers like Michelle Byrd from Games for Change, creatives working in traditional media industries often assume that audience engagement just happens on these platforms: as long as you build it, someone will come. But take a quick look at all the apps you’ve installed and don’t use on your phone, and you’ll recognize that even scoring an install doesn’t necessarily lead to one iota of “engagement.”

Learning how to port linear, narrative art forms over to interactive platforms is a tremendous creative and technical challenge. Read the rest of this entry »

Avatar & the Sweet Delights of Horror Films at the Experience Music Project

During a recent trip to Seattle, I finally had a chance to visit the Experience Music Project, Paul Allen’s eccentric Frank Gehry-designed museum committed to Allen’s passions: rock and roll, digital technology, science fiction and the geekier side of American pop culture. A little tear welled up in my eye as I drifted through the somber Nirvana exhibition, but the highlights of my trip were to be found in the Sci-Fi wing of the museum.

The highly interactive Avatar exhibition was a delight to experience:  I was not the only one who had a hard time tearing myself away from the interactive table-top, which allowed you to shuffle through cards that triggered the retrieval of multimedia resources on the making of Pandora. I was also smitten by the fact that they let museum visitors try out Jim’s handheld virtual cameras, which he used to shoot scenes with actors after they already went home. It reminds you how magical motion capture really is, and I’m sure it puts the fear of Jesus in actors who thought they could never be replaced. I’m sure the gadgets installed at the museum are dumbed-down versions of Cameron’s cool invention (the zoom button felt like something circa 1972), but wow – it’s a brilliant way to give fans a taste of the creative process behind something they love.

I also could NOT wipe the smile off my face as I wended my way through the exhibit devoted to horror. Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror starts off with a descent in a soulless spiral stairwell, lined with pictures of people screaming. Once you land in the exhibit you realize that all those people are visitors who visited the “Scream Booth,” which gives everyone an opportunity to screech like Janet Leigh or Drew Barrymore. Such fun.

I also made an idiot out of myself in the “Shadow Monsters” interactive installation. As you move various parts of your body at various speeds, your projected shadow is transformed into a variety of monstrous forms. It’s pretty addictive but, man, I was little disappointed that I couldn’t get a decent shot of my monstrous shadow. I would have frightened you.

Storytelling, Communication Technology & Augmented Reality: Interviews at Fractal’11

[Fractal’11] What’s Up Interviews / Entrevistas en What’s Up from Universo Fractal on Vimeo.

I was interviewed by a youth-skewing local TV show called What’s Up? during my stay in the magical city of Medellín, Colombia. This video includes my interview about the impact of communication technology and storytelling, as well as commentary from James Alliban, an augmented reality app developer. Enjoy!

Let Me Infotain You

Click on the image to see an animated version of this art by Sykotik Scarecrow.

In April of this year, I attended Fractal’11, a truly unique conference in Medellin, Colombia, that explored the convergence of fiction, art, science and technology. The event was the perfect forum for me to talk about my winding career path, which began in an English PhD program, meandered through a Web start-up and an international multimedia company and deposited me, quite happily at the Norman Lear Center

One of the many fascinating themes of the conference (I explored several others here) was the appeal of infotainment, material that serves two seemingly unrelated purposes: to occupy attention agreeably (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines “entertainment”) and to transmit practical information that may just contribute to your survival. 

My talk about Entertainment as Virtual Reality focused on the ways in which entertainment – catchy pop songs, video games, movies, opera, toys, etc. – could be understood as simulations, little virtual reality machines that allow us to test our ideas about the world in safe, artificial spaces. Regardless of how distracting a cultural object may be, it is also a powerful transmitter of information about our world, and it can have a surprisingly profound impact on our lives well outside the movie theater, concert hall or American Girls store. Read the rest of this entry »