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BSS2016: Storytelling for the Future

The Senior director of interactive at the Tribeca Film Institute, Opeyemi Olukemi has a pretty swish job, exploring developing tech and opportunities for its application in creating and sharing stories.

Olukemi runs the Tribeca Hacks, a programme of workshops linking up all manner of participants to collaborate on stories that interest them.

“Storytelling’s new MacGyvers” was a description of the participants, a timely reference as Olukemi was presenting in the same week the American TV revamp of the 1980s TV show went to air.

“I promise I won’t be boring,” Olukemi said, sharing a brief selection of slides of things that had influenced her, from family to the twin towers. She noted, “I was in high school when 9/11 happened,” which makes you realise that she’s probably a pretty serious over-achiever if she’s already heading up Tribeca’s exploration of the future.

“I’m somewhere between storytelling and technology,” Olukemi said. “We used to call it film but we don’t any more. The end of the film is the beginning of something different.”

Describing the hackathons as “adventures in storytelling, technology and social change”, Olukemi outlined the key elements – a short time frame, a mix of artists, scientists and programmers – and noted that of the programmes Tribeca has run, 95% of projects initiated there have gone on to completion outside of the events.

Olukemi offered a brief history of interactivity, noting cinema as a major development in that it engaged more than one of the senses, sight and sound. Computer gaming added touch.

Moving into an overview of the state of mixed media, transmedia and interactive, Olukemi presented brief overviews of a selection of (mostly documentary) projects. Some were essentially a record (interactive Hollow, about US communities that are dying because more people leave than stay) and Question Bridge.

Question Bridge

“In the last 15 years we’ve kept story at the centre but with greater input from a broader range of participants,” Olukemi said. “Now it’s in a space where the community is a participant as well as an audience.”

Olukemi cited some projects with a more direct purpose than documenting, such as Indian comic book, poster, mural and online campaign Priya’s Shakti, which educates Indians about rape and offers support for survivors. This month the organisation has launched Priya’s Mirror, which addresses acid attacks.

Moving into VR work, Olukemi stressed that she didn’t believe that all projects were natural candidates for transmedia or VR exploitation, and that as some material worked better in a linear form we should examine our reasons for wanting to deliver in a particular way.

She discussed sensory integration (how to fool the brain) and the potential uses for that. In his NZGDC keynote earlier in September, Google’s Noah Falstein had addressed some of the practical challenges of achieving successful VR, such as how to fool the brain without inducing vomiting.

The Void

Olukemi stuck with projects aiming to have a direct impact on participants, citing Brett Gaylor’s data-driven Do Not Track, Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy, which tries to create the experience of being a different person, and a project which is fooling the paraplegics’ brains into delivering messages to limbs and generating movement. She noted that nobody was walking again as a result of the experimental project. As it’s early days for such work, the possibility of delivering signifiant improvements in people’s ability to combat paralysis isn’t off the table.

The Enemy

On a more philosophical note, Olukemi posed the question: Who has the opportunity to create in these environments with these technologies?

She acknowledged a real tension between those who see VR, AR and other such advances as tools that can do great things for humanity and those who see them as a profit centre.

It’s a very fast moving space to inhabit, but it’s also not without risk. Scientists have now discovered that experiences can inform DNA and that information can be passed on to next generation. So, while it might be that nature does more of you programming than nurture, Olukemi’s in a space where everyone’s keen to find out what’s next, but is herself inclined to promote caution.

Regular use of tech “does rewire your brain”, so we need to understand it, not just for its direct effects on an individual, but also on society and particularly children who are the first generation growing up with all this tech.

“When you get into algorithms and smart technology,” Olukemi said, “it can be used for purposes that aren’t in the general public’s best interests.”

Olukemi also suggested that the best way to offset those impacts was to share the tech, the algorithms, “because the power disappears when everybody has it”. That’s a big ask, however, of companies that have invested heavily in R&D and have an obligation to shareholders. Olukemi acknowledged that in addition to the support it received from philanthropic organisations and foundations, some of Tribeca’s work in this area was funded from Silicon Valley.

“Every two years the landscape resets because of the tech developments,” Olukemi said. “It’s still possible to get in at the ground level and gain an understanding of AI.”

Tribeca is trying to deliver more hackathons, in places where the organisation hasn’t yet run them. It’s also trying to establish a fund to support projects.

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