Written by Sheila Leddy

I recently attended IDFA and spent a lot of time at the DocLab Expo: Seamless Reality. With over 30 installations, about a third of them virtual reality projects, I was able to really explore different approaches to virtual reality and interactive storytelling. The DocLab Interactive Conference on Sunday and the smaller summit the next day provided an opportunity to go deeper into this field and to hear from creators and leaders. The programs were designed to spark discussion around the range of projects and approaches to storytelling currently being used but also to explore and learn about what is on the horizon.

As I learned through Fledgling’s work with the Interactive Impact Working Group last year, the field of interactive and immersive storytelling is rapidly growing and evolving. We do not yet know the business models that will support the work or the distribution platforms that will be most effective at delivering content to audiences. And, there are many questions surrounding how stories are told and by whom. But, what is clear is that there is exciting and interesting work being done in VR, games and interactive documentary that is incredibly powerful and has the potential to play an important role on many social issues.

What was interesting to me at IDFA was how diverse the projects were—from VR projects like Waves of Grace and RecoVR: Mosul, a Collective Reconstruction to interactive documentaries like Life on Hold, Highrise: Universe Within and Fledgling grantee the Quipu Project. This diversity means that as a participant you don’t always know what is expected of you. When we think about traditional film, this is not an issue. When you go to a screening, you know what to expect. You may be surprised by the story or the artistic approach, but as you take in the story, you are typically a passive viewer. With VR and interactive documentary, you are expected to engage in a different way with the story itself. Sometimes that means moving your body around, sometimes moving your gaze, and sometimes choosing how to click through a web-based documentary, and in doing so, choosing how a story unfolds. In some cases, you may be asked to add your own voice. This level of engagement is exciting; it has the potential to bring us closer to the story, and with VR in particular, we are immersed in it. It also means that we need to pay very close attention to how we prepare the audience.

At Fledgling, we have spent a lot of time thinking about outreach and engagement for documentary films and we often work with filmmakers to help them shape what happens “when the lights come up” because we know that that is when there is an opportunity to move folks to deeper engagement. With interactive and VR experiences, creators need to think about not only what happens when the experience ends but also what happens before it begins. How, if at all, do we prepare participants for the experience they are about to engage in? And, while we should not expect that every interactive or virtual reality project wants to have a social impact, for those that do want to move participants toward deeper engagement around a particular issue, there is need to think about how to maintain or channel that engagement after the experience ends. In my mind, many of the questions that are asked when shaping an impact strategy for documentary film also apply to interactive and virtual reality projects. However, the answers to those questions need to recognize and appreciate the power of the form, the depth of the engagement, and whether it is a collective or individual experience. This truly is an exciting time in digital and visual storytelling as creators continue to experiment and push the boundaries of what is possible, providing even more ways to engage people on important and complex social issues.

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