As virtual reality becomes more widely accessible and mass adoption may just be around the corner, we all wonder about the implications of these new technologies. As an arts institution with a passion for interactive storytelling, it’s a natural fit for the Phi Centre to partner with a like-minded academic institution that can examine these questions from a different perspective and with a complementary approach.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open Documentary Lab does just that, bringing together storytellers, technologists, and scholars to explore new documentary forms with a particular focus on collaborative, interactive, and immersive storytelling.
With the Phi Centre as one of its main partners, its upcoming event, Virtually There: Documentary Meets Virtual Reality is a conference and exhibition presented by MIT Open Documentary Lab, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Phi Centre, in collaboration with Telefilm Canada and the Talent Fund. Taking place May 6 to 7 in Cambridge, MA, Virtually There will explore these and other questions while featuring some 20 documentary VR experiments from Sundance, IDFA, MIT and the National Film Board of Canada; speakers (including Raney Aronson-Rath, Executive Producer of PBS’s FRONTLINE and Félix Lajeunesse of Montreal’s Felix & Paul Studios); and four workshops including Introduction to Cinematography for VR by Rus Gant, and Reframing: Interactive VR for non-fiction by VROTV (Oscar Raby and Katy Morrison). Highlights include the world premiere of the collective VR experience The Enemy Project, an NFB and OpenDocLab project.
“We wanted to do a conference about virtual reality because it’s become so popular and everyone, whether you like it or not is forced to think about it,” says MIT Open Documentary Lab Director Sarah Wolozin (with whom Montreal audiences are familiar from her participation in the Sensory Stories conference at the Phi Centre last summer.)
“Being a university, we’re a good place to convene people, have them step away from their day-to-day jobs, really think about the issues and also learn a lot. It’s so new, there’s so much unknown about it, there’s so much experimentation happening rapidly that the adoption of [VR] has been really fast… There are ethical considerations, there are questions even about what it is – all these different techniques, from 3D scanning to game engines to video all being lumped into one.”
The Virtually There partnership between the MIT Open Documentary Lab and the Phi Centre also builds upon the synergy between the visions of the two unique institutions.
As an arts and culture centre, our focus at Phi is generally more on investigation through exhibition and experience – as indicated by its permanent Virtual Reality Garden installation and such previous interactive exhibits as Sensory Stories. As a university research centre, the MIT OpenDoc Lab has the resources to explore meaning and implication from academic and cultural perspectives, which ultimately adds context to all exhibitions and experiences, from both a curatorial and audience point of view.
“It’s a really nice, common vision; to understand, share and educate people – and to discuss it,” Wolozin agrees, pointing out that Phi was Virtually There’s first main partner, a joint endeavour which enabled the conference to happen. “You’re showing this thing, you’re seeing this VR, what are you seeing? What is it? What impact is it having?”
Which begs the question: as the OpenDocLab’s director, who made documentaries before joining MIT, what does Wolozin herself hope to discover at the conference?
“I’m hoping to learn a lot,” she says. “I’m curious about the process. I’m also very interested in the future and where it’s going, and hearing from our researchers about artificial intelligence and new technology and the architecture of it. I feel there is so much more to learn, and what a great opportunity to learn from people who are making it and who are studying it and having them all together in discussion.”
The conference will be live streamed.