Keram Malicki Sanchez is Executive Director at VRTO Virtual & Augmented Reality World Conference & Expo, and founder of the VR/AR Festival FIVARS in Toronto. Keram talked with VRrOOm about his festival and his vision for VR/AR creation.
Can you briefly introduce your background, how you came to VR/AR and what particularly motivates you for organizing VR/AR festivals?
I grew up in theatre, acting, and interactive text video games. My mother was an anchorwoman in the 70s on a Latin American news program in Canada and fought for decades to bring multiculturalism, and better representation of women and visible minorities to North American media. My father had an actual library of thousands of books and brought us to listen to symphony orchestra and theatre and it was in his library that I found books about perception and ontology and architecture. I ran an independent record label in the 90s and was the frontman for a culture-jammy punk cabaret band. Later I felt that the avant-garde and the subversive moved into the indie game development space and I launched IndieGameReviewer.com in 2008. All of these things set me up to run a festival like FIVARS the way that I do.
When I built FIVARS I pitched it as a festival that was primarily concerned with UX - at the time none of this had been figured out:
- how many people could you put through in an hour
- what would the public be willing to pay per minute?
- how much concurrent content did an audience even want? (we found out that after 40 minutes or so, the majority tap out or are "full")
- how do handle hygiene
- how do you eliminate lineups?
- how do you address privacy and discretion while also -
- maintaining the social allure of a festival, and even the schadenfreude - do you offer a separate option for the socially anxious vs the extroverts?
- how many experiences are too many and too few? what is the definition of a VR or AR story? does it extend to CAVE environments, projection mapping, non-electronic contexts?
All of this was half the equation. The curation was the other half - searching and researching content from all over the world, organizing and contextualizing it, applying meaningful filters without falling prey to any form of tunnel vision. It has been an endlessly fascinating endeavour that pushes all my faculties to their limits.
The previous festival edition in figures, key highlights (people, works, events)
FIVARS launched in 2015, and we were technically the first story-specific VR /AR showcase festival in the industry. While Kaleidoscope was an excellent and touring showcase of all manner of VR works, I was more interested in putting pressure on the question of what a story is in immersive, embodied, spatialized media - something that would break stride with the logic of Syd Field and Robert McKee.
The first year, we were asking people on YouTube if we could rip their videos and stitch their 360s video together. We were getting stuff from Felix and Paul and from Deep Inc. We were getting video games and Walking Simulators, and we were having a bit of a hard time finding enough material that others had not already covered. We then worked with WthoutABox.com (now an Amazon company) to add the option of VR and AR submissions to their system; we spoke with their developers and explained the many formats and how we could address accepting such media. (WithoutABox is used to receive digital assets and press kits for such festivals as TIFF, Sundance and even parts of Cannes).
That year we had a piece from an unknown director whose piece "Intimate Strangers" had cinema-style edits and even a dream sequence. The reverse shots required that you spin around in your chair to see the current speaking character. It was a fascinating piece, although some of the edits made it all seem quite tedious were this to become the standard practice for "VR storytelling." We reported back to the creator what the audience reaction was - sort of a 60% positive review. This director went on to make two more pieces - Knives and Rose-Colored. Rose Colored just won the Lumiere Award from the Advanced Imaging Society for best Live Action VR. This sort of back and forth between our audiences ratings (we ask for a score after every single seating) and the content creators has helped, I hope and believe, to improve future projects.
By year three we had over 300 entries from over 20 countries. Every year we set the festival in a different venue with a different layout to understand what works better or worse. Our ticketing system, co-designed by Joseph Ellsworth in our first year, is still paper-based and can be expended like coupons at a carnival. Meanwhile, in 2017 we piloted an LBE central control system being developed by eOne. We are always testing at every level and iterate and question those systems that are working.
We make a lot of mistakes. We try to learn from them.
What are your programming criteria? Why?
I look for something I haven't seen before. I look for technology, formats, exhibition approaches that ask a new question. What I don't want is a bunch of reskins of the same old idea of sitting in a chair and spinning around. But even that criteria is now quite dusty. The industry is amazing - the content creators are not merely adding another movie to the Netflix queue, there are truly trying everything and anything. Byt the same token, I am not too cool to believe that a heart-stopping wallop can't come from a simple, single take, locked off camera 360 videos. I recently saw Diamanda Galas speak and she lamented the loss of funding for the development phase of a work- that part where we are asking questions, trying things in different ways, with no clear resolution for the final product or even target medium. I think this is an important step that may often be overlooked. ON the other hand, there is also something to be said for something that is not overwrought, too careful, that captures lightning in a bottle. There is no blueprint - but typically, when something resonates, it is universal among our audiences.
In the end, I and my submissions panel don't pretend to know the answers. We may have things we like (and by no means do we all agree on these preferences) but we are often surprised by what pieces end up clicking with audiences. Sometimes we outright disagree with the people's choice awards, and so in year two we created the Grand Jury prize, apart from the people's choice, and then in year three, we added the Impact award.
What kind of works would you like to present to the audience that you can't yet, and why?
Brit Marling (near-reality The OA, Another Earth), David Lynch (subconscious tone) or those for world tells the story whether it is through transgressive observation (Agnes Varda) or by design (Fellini, Tarkovsky) wherein you are capturing the world as a witness. (or video games likes Steve Gaynor's "Gone Home" or Nina Freeman's "Cibele."
I want to see roomscale, multiuser worlds that take a different pace than anxiety, action and horror. I want to luxuriate in the mise en scene and the time and place. I want to see users interact with each other and roleplay and find stories that emerge from within and between them. Paul Darvasi and I geek out on Gone Home for example and he did a great talk at VRTO about space as narrative and The Art of (Un)Structuring Spatial Narratives - VR doesn't have to be the protagonist and drive anything forward. Maybe it is just the setting, rife with possibilities that our humanness uncovers and extrapolates, or experiences.
I will follow up on this theme with you in a future article (intimate stories in hyper-reality and LBE settings) but in 2017 we premiered City of Ghosts from director Olivier Asselin that was designed as a city-wide Augmented Reality theatre with human-scale volumetrically captured performances.
Do you think VR has a better chance to escape the standardization of Hollywood, or will it be, again, big studios deciding what the audience will watch for the sake of money-making? Are there successful recipes to help indie devs reach the mass?
I think that Hollywood is way behind in understanding how to use VR. They are still approaching it as moving trailers+. I do think though, that sponsorship, diegetic product placement and other kinds of ads will form an important subsidization model - so, more like selling soap ads in the 50's TV more than a Paramount will be the more important and practical model while the larger business models are worked out.
I think we are trying to solve how to stabilize while standing on shifting tectonic plates, however. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies may factor into the way things play out as well - provenance, real-time capture, social resonance will become more established as currencies of their own.
What could be done better to allow more people have access to quality VR/AR content?
VR is a pain in the ass. It is an elective object. It is full of friction. The engineers, designers, manufacturers need to continue to improve the onboarding experience, the setup process and the long-term comfort and hygiene issues. Already every year we see improvement. Inside out tracking will be a huge boost to ease of access in this regard, and I love how the Acer flips up. But we need it tetherless, we need parts to be replaceable and modular so we can implement custom upgrades like a PC, we need more harmony and less fragmentation, UI and control standards. Much of this will come from iteration and the sacrifices made by the early adopters and of course the inventors, investors and risk takers.
What is your vision for your events in the coming 10 years and beyond? What are you trying to achieve overall?
I am hoping to set a standard of quality, diversity and exploration. I want to prevent VR or spherical video projects from becoming a cliche. However I can, I will explore ways continually meddle with expectations but also, and perhaps more importantly, to give experimenters and these bold adventurers a place to showcase their work, find audiences and support so that they can continue to work and experiment. I want to help give a platform to the global community so that they don't feel that they have to make a certain kind or even quality of content to be accepted. In fact, I sometimes allow a piece in that might be technically provisional at best, bad stitching, poor locomotion, but teaches us about how an approach may be a bad way to proceed. Meanwhile, sometimes there very same pieces introduce a new concept that we haven't seen before. I am not worried about something being slick, but instead that it puts a crack in the wall.
We will be launching a FIVARS channel on Samsung VR soon but that of course only represents the passive spherical component of our festival. There are still so many unknowns and the worst of it is the state of distribution and monetization. There are many questions about these problems and I have had some excellent discussions about solutions, but that is not in place yet. I am interested in how the blockchain and timestamping provenance and identity on the ledger will factor in.
To wrap up, what is your philosophy for VR creation?
Virtual Reality is not a format. There is a reason we are reaching into a format like this. I think we are yearning to go deeper, to go beyond. To connect within and without. To go beyond the surface. While design standards and practices would be very helpful, from a content standpoint, it should not be taken as a natural progression from TV or 3D, and similarly, it should not be seen as a stepping stone to AR. VR is many things, like the world we inhabit together and those universes we contain within - it can be defined by anything, and it can be as much a listener as a speaker, as much a paradigm and question, and as much a context as a mystery. I feel that in its best form, VR is a quantum field - it's a suggestion that invites our imagination and our sense-making faculties to fill in with our own imagination and unique qualities. FIVARS is the pursuit of that dynamic.
See FIVARS.net for history, pics, and previous selections
FIVARS 2018 Submissions are now open
Visit http://bit.ly/fivarswab to submit your VR or AR story today.