Versions Conference Asks Tough Questions About New Realities

It's a new era for virtual-, augmented-, and mixed-reality spaces. 

Courtesy Flickr.

Versions, NEW INC and Kill Screen's shared conference on virtual-, augmented-, and mixed-reality, returns anew for a second edition this February 25–26––and it promises to tackle some of the toughest questions the industry will face in the coming years.

Per the website's description, this year's edition, thematically titled "'Facing Reality," takes a "frank look at the current pitfalls, design gaps, and technological limitations of these emerging tools, as well as how artists and technologists are persistently working to advance them in service of a dramatically new cultural form."

The conference comes at a unique moment for the industry, as tech giants like Netflix and Google continue to power ventures in new reality. Just this week, Mark Zuckerberg announced that former Google executive Hugo Barra will be departing from Xiaomi Corp. to helm Facebook's virtual reality initiatives. Hulu, meanwhile, launched a new virtual reality music series with the help of musician Lil Wayne.

Among the speakers invited to participate in this round's workshops, panel discussions, and keynotes count artist Claire L. Evans, Lucasfilm's content strategist Diana Williams, and Tribeca Film Institute's senior director of interactive programs Opeyemi Olukemi.

Take a closer look at the program below.

1. Who Owns the Future?

From left: Mark Zuckerberg, Hugo Barra. Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.


On one hand, VR, AR, and MR currently offer a wide open playing field. The story of these new tools and what they’ll mean for the future of entertainment, education, industry, and communication at large has yet to be written.

But the fact remains that the barriers to entry are many: equipment, cost, and technical know-how, in addition to the standard requisites of creativity, time, and space. The means to make, distribute, and access content remain frustratingly out of reach, redrawing a digital divide that influences the kinds of stories we tell, who gets to tell them, for whom, and how. As we explore the bounds of VR, AR, and MR, how can we better democratize these new technologies? And what’s at risk of being lost if we fail to do so? 


2. Being There: Agency and Storytelling

Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.

Agency, the capacity for viewers to explore a scene at their own pace and feel as though they are truly present within it, has long been a space for creative exploration in the gaming industry and, more recently, in the world of immersive theater. In considering how to translate agency into the world of VR, designers have pinpointed the gaze—how it is controlled by the author and wielded by the viewer—as an an area ripe for invention.

This panel will assemble leading experts to discuss how we can best design for agency in virtual environments, what kinds of stories and formats work best, what new interfaces need to be invented, and how we might navigate the inevitable tensions that emerge between author and viewer.


3. You, Me, and Everyone We Know


Courtesy Pixabay Creative Commons.

Humans are social animals and, since the beginning of time, we have been developing technologies that allow us to better communicate with our fellow humans: speech, the written word, print, photography, radio, film, television, and the internet have all fundamentally altered the way that we interact with and understand each other.

The coming wave of AR, MR, and VR is poised to do the same but has been slow to deliver on the possibilities of social experiences. Some believe that social integration is crucial for these emerging technologies to truly take off (see Pokémon GO). Others see potential for these tools to help us become more collaborative, especially remotely. This panel will examine how digital reality might bring us closer together—or not.  


4. Sensing Stories

Courtesy Pexels Creative Commons.

So much of the excitement around VR has been based around what we see. This makes sense, as humans are predominantly visual animals. But at what cost? Immersion and presence aren’t only expressed through our eyes but through our ears, nose, fingertips, tastes, and sense of balance as well.

Sound designers, cooks, dancers, and masseuses know as much about taking us on a journey as anyone and yet we rarely consult their expertise when designing for VR and AR, much to our detriment. In this panel we will explore how our senses interact to create the illusion of physical presence. How might our senses be manipulated into creating new versions of reality? What are the risks of sensory overload or de-sensitization? How might our senses evolve with this new stimulation?


5. Living in a Simulation

From Black Mirror. Courtesy YouTube Creative Commons.

Simulations have a lot to teach us. From myth to fiction to magic, forms of virtual sleight-of-hand have helped us imagine the future, and interacting with simulated virtual worlds allows us to develop a deeper understanding of the complex situations and multi-faceted stories of today. We can see what life might be like from the perspective of someone with a vastly different lived experience, learn a new trade, or train for a high-stakes job, for instance.

But what happens when the simulation becomes all too real? What happens if we can’t take the headset off? Or better yet, if we think we’ve taken the headset off, but we haven’t? By asking what is real, we can begin to examine what is not.

"VERSIONS: Facing Reality" is a new realities conference that will run at the New Museum from February 25 through February 26. 

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