For FIVARS Founder Keram Malicki-Sánchez, VR is the Future of Storytelling: Interview

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For VRTO and FIVARS founder Keram Malicki-Sánchez, the true potential of virtual reality lies not in cutting edge game development or film making, but rather in building on a fundamentally human experience: storytelling.

The Canadian-born actor, director, musician, game critic and futurist has spent his life connecting with others and sharing stories through one medium or another. In 2015, Malicki-Sánchez founded FIVARS, the Festival of International Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories, as well as VRTO, a series of conferences that invites keynote speakers from academia, Hollywood, and other tech industries to share ideas about this new technology.

But Malicki-Sánchez’s foray into virtual reality is more than just dipping his toe in a new art form for the sake of trying them all; the Canadian-born artist views the ever evolving medium of virtual reality as something entirely different than what has come before. Through Geekpr0n.com, I had the chance to speak with Keram over the phone before FIVARS 2016, where we talked about the festival and this notion of VR allowing storytellers to reach audiences in completely new, visceral, and undeniably human ways.

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Photo by: Peter McCabe / Design by Samuela Frontini

What does FIVARS offer that other film festivals or VR conferences don’t?

VR relies on your personal experiences in life to fill in the blanks. So a lot of this immersive media stuff can create ques for us about stories that we create in our minds and from our own experiences.

But FIVARS is a stories festival. It’s not a VR film festival, it’s a VR stories festival.  And each piece that we select introduces its own unique mechanic. Now that’s a really tall order because you wonder how many mechanics there can be, but we try to identify ways in which each piece attempts some kind of experiment of how to break the form and teaches us something new about how [VR] can be used.

So the short answer is, FIVARS looks for unique, and innovative storytelling with immersive media, and it looks for unique or novel mechanics for each piece.

Wow. I’m interested in this idea of “stories” instead of short films or games. The idea you call these works stories…the heart of the festival really seems to be storytelling and the human experience and themes like that.

Yeah, one of the things I’m pretty excited about is that this year we’ve got pieces that are really down to earth, human stories. There’s one piece by Lilian Mehrel called “Invisible” which takes you through three different storylines of a museum security guard, a mother of twins who is also trying to be an artist, and a trans girl. And each of them is invisible to the people in their environment but there’s some way that they all connect and see each other in the piece.

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Nima Dehgani’s piece “Decompensation,” has five different stages that you move through, and each one represents a different phase of the refugee experience. And that’s accompanied by a rear-projected wall that gives you more information about each station and each phase you’re moving through.

I haven’t experienced a lot of AR or VR “stories” so much as I have games, but I’ve got to imagine there’s a level of empathy you don’t really experience through other mediums of storytelling.

Yeah, one of the observations I made is that you can take a – first of all let’s make the distinction that what happens in VR is that you are wholly involved in that experience. Whether you like the experience or not, you can’t multitask because you are literally wrapped in that world. You can’t look at your phone, you can’t look at the radio – it’s a unified, singular experience, so that’s actually interesting in itself, that there’s no other medium that forces you into singular focus, right?

And also, I found out that you can take very boring and innocuous subjects. For example In our piece Gotthard 360, it’s about the longest train tunnel in the world in the Swiss Alps. And it’s a really boring subject to just go through a really long train tunnel. But somehow where you’re in the middle of it and have the agency to turn around and look at it, and even be in the point of view of somebody who’s been on a ride through the longest most boring train tunnel in the world, it reminds you that what’s happening in immersive media is that you’re not encountering it from an intellectual perspective. It’s not a prefrontal lobe type thing, its’ actually coming at you from a visceral, experiential perspective.

Right.

And that means, like reality, you’re being hit with all kinds of data at all of your senses, and only processing the stuff through the filter that you have built into you. So what 360 is doing is bombarding you with data from all sides – and you’re processing it only through your own filter- whatever narrow, tunnel you’re looking at it by which way you turn your head. So that means for otherwise boring and innocuous subjects, we suddenly can have a new form of attention and people can put themselves in a position they otherwise might simply ignore if it was out on television or YouTube. That alone to me is what creates that empathy than more than just this feeling of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Right and not only that, but multiple people can interpret these in different ways, and that in itself is a very cool form of storytelling.

Yeah, because it disrupts traditional editing and it disrupts the exclusivity of a traditional frame, right? So all of those controls directors had in traditional cinema have been removed. One thing about FIVARS is that we’re curating more…let’s say more effective or more potent experiments over others. There are certain ones that just kind of repeat the same things over and over…then there are ones that are more compelling, perhaps.

A year ago, everything was like ‘hide and seek,’ you know? you would spin your head around and spin in your chair just to find where the action was. And people would really exploit that, they’d go ‘oh wow you can put the action everywhere!’ so you’d have people looking around for the main action. But we’ve learned most of the time you want the point of interest to be front and centre, with secondary information on the left and right and tertiary information supporting it right behind you. So even when you’re doing traditional tv editing now in 360, rather than have a reverse shot right behind you, they actually do a hard cut right in front of you and add secondary information right behind you.

How do you tackle introducing newcomers to this whole new medium?

Yeah I mean it’s a nuanced and complex emerging art form with its own grammar. And the way i want you to approach FIVARS is not to think “okay cool everything here is going to be razzle dazzle’ like Disneyland where everything there is perfect. FIVARS is really there to experiment, and to try to break things, and to try and test the farthest reaches of what this medium is about. Because it really is not just a reskin of 3d, not a reskin of tv, and its not a reskin of games, and i don’t even think its a hybrid of tv and games. I think its a unique, holographic format that we have to respect and explore for as long as possible.

And as long as we can keep it changing and moving, that’s why FIVARS will be there, to exist for that sole purpose.

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Stay up to date on the latest FIVARS and VRTO happenings via FIVARS.net

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