The Future of Storytelling Festival is not about how to tell stories — it’s about living them.
The three-day event going on this weekend is as broad as it sounds. Open to the public for the first time after starting as an industry conference, the explosion of virtual, augmented and mixed reality meant people are getting more involved with their media, but the latest technologies may not yet be accessible to them because of cost or space.
“These are all efforts to put the person formerly known as the audience in the middle of the story,” says Charles Melcher of Future of Storytelling, the company behind the festival. “They have agency, they have control, they have something to do.”
The hub of the festival is inside the Africa Center in Harlem, where 50 projects (25 of which are world premieres) display the cutting edge of virtual reality technology, from gaming to creating art and education. Pick up a Tilt Brush and you can draw things in 3-D space; watch a first-person film in which you’re an android trying to fit into a world where you’re never quite human enough; or live an actual dream most of us have had as you fly, totally free, over Manhattan as a bird.
The festival also partnered with immersive story projects already flourishing around the city, from theater groups like Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More” to escape-the-room games and Madame Tussaud’s revolutionary “Ghostbusters Dimension.”
And if the entry fee is a bit steep, come to the festival on Sunday for free family-friendly activities including a group virtual reality experience, 3-D printing, art walks, live performances and more.
In a way, Melcher says this new method of storytelling is just getting back to how stories were born: around fires, with one person starting and others jumping in with asides, interrupting or adding jokes. Music used to involve everyone in the group, whether it was playing an instrument, singing or dancing — not sitting silently inside a concert hall.
“We’re undoing thousands of years of what’s happened after we started writing stories down, and we’re coming back to something that is much more in our nature,” says Melcher.
To skeptics who may see all this technology as making us more isolated, Melcher points out that virtual reality may actually be making us more human.
Take, for example, the 3-D experience “Easter Rising,” which plunges you into the body of a 19-year-old Irish revolutionary on the day Dublin erupted in a violent push for independence. The narration uses words from the man’s own journal, with the 360-degree virtual reality experience putting you inside crumbling shelters with crying children, then on the streets dodging bullets from British forces. It’s a history lesson you’re not likely to forget.
“I think [virtual reality] is as profound a shift as the invention of the printing press or the alphabet,” says Melcher.
“Stories are a way that you get to feel what it’s like to be somebody else and help us have empathy for one another and understand the human condition. These new types of technologies are just going to amplify this ability.”
And while you’re certain to experience something mind-blowing at the festival, it’s only the beginning of what this technology is capable of. Melcher compares it to the video camera, which like film cameras sat on tripods for decades before cinematographers figured out how to use it for better dramatic effect.
“When new mediums are invented, we tend to use them the way we use the old,” he says. “We’re so at the early days of where this is all headed, it’s as if we’re in the first five minutes.”
Future of Storytelling Festival
Africa Center,1280 Fifth Ave.