The importance of virtual reality storytelling with an LGBTQ narrative by Jamie Starboisky, Festival Director of the Queer Media Festival
Virtual reality is not a new idea but the technology driving it has made such significant advances since the 1960s when people took to using the Sensorama machine, which looked much like an arcade machine, to immerse themselves into the story. Now with new games computer chips and software to run the demanding technical specifications I found whilst walking round VR Congress, the UK’s annual virtual reality conference in Bristol, that I was more absorbed into the story than I have ever been before. Gone are the pixelated graphics, simply designed sets and lack of narrative, now I was experiencing artistic creations in VR such as the Dear Angelica story, created by an artist using the Oculus programme Quill, to hand draw the images that emerge in front of me once my headset and headphones are fixed on. So clear are the results that I am tempted to reach out and try to touch the virtual furniture in the bedroom.
Tim would like to explore forgotten LGBTQ stories from the past in VR
One lecture at VR Congress that really had a lot of impact on me was Professor Mel Slater’s, from the University of Barcelona, who has been doing research on body substitution in virtual environments and the change it made in the participant’s implicit bias. Basically he had discovered that when being in VR with an avatar, the virtual representation of you in the immersive story, that was of a different race then that resulted in, after undergoing tests before and afterwards, with the participant’s positive association of words to that race increasing. The bold statement here is that VR made people less racist! This could have big implications if someone was to create a VR story about a transgender person of colour especially a trans woman, who we have noticed are the members of our community that are most often victims of hate crime.
Dare thinks everyone especially the LGBTQ community needs their story told in VR or they won’t connect with the technology
Before I headed to Bristol I had spent three days in London at the National Theatre Studio, as branching out into creating my own stories I had successfully applied to join the Crossover LGBTQ Media Lab, after being inspired by all the great storytellers at my previous Queer Media Festivals. Now it was time for me to produce my own work and so 2017 has been the baby steps needed to branch out into using the new forms of media, digital and discover new ways to tell powerful and meaningful LGBTQ stories.
The lab was organised by Mark Atkin the director of Crossover (above centre) who described the initiative as being for “creatives seeking professional development and new collaborations whilst addressing lack of LGBTQ visibility in the digital workplace and digital media itself.” The lab was welcome to non-LGBTQ applicants but all projects needed to have a focus on LGBTQ issues or seek to raise the visibility of LGBTQ characters/issues within digital media. Mark had found through his work producing immersive content such as Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel (see below for the trailer), that there was a lack of LGBTQ visibility in VR stories, and this three day lab was designed to kick start the careers of people who had the beginnings of an idea they would like to pursue through digital storytelling. Three days and several pitches later I had formed a tight presentation for “Full Picture” that on the last day was the VR story I was to pitch to a panel of six media professionals.
Yinka thinks that digital storytelling helps marginalised communities come together and connect globally
It is not until I stood up and pitched “Full Picture” that the full power of the story I was asking them to take an interest in flowed through me. Gone were the previous awkward days where I had pitched the story idea to Mark and his team of mentors and revised the idea again and again. Now I was stood in front ofnew people and my Powerpoint slide of images was ready. Without giving anything away my VR story idea is historical and set during the AIDS crisis but focuses on the caregiver not the patient. After an amazing reception from the judges which included people from Channel 4, Dogwoof and Sheffield Doc Fest the journey with “Full Picture” and its creation as a VR story has only just begun. Watch this space!
One thing you do learn with VR is the emotional power a story that is that immersive has, and at VR Congress there was a panel discussion about the need for ratings on VR stories just like there is with films, as many people on the panel agreed that developers seem to like to produce scary VR stories just to show off its emotional power. Another is the point-of-view through a VR story is very important as great thought needs to be given as to whether you are embodying someone, hearing a narrator to guide you through the story, have visual clues or are a witness or onlooker with no virtual form. All of this can deeply affect the story and the emotions the participants have during it.
Here are examples of virtual reality stories that have made an impact on me especially the Dear Angelica story with is so poignant, powerful, beautiful and so very artistic. When you take off the headset after viewing these stories which can be around 7-8 minutes you feel like you are left with a memory or an experience. With VR you are really there and unlike online storytelling you don’t have a red x button to click to close down the story. Whilst you can take your headset off many people forget and don’t realise and there is a clip on YouTube of a grandma taking out a gun and shooting at the shark in the TV because her VR experience felt so real.
Following the training with Crossover and the wonderful exploration into digital and virtual reality at VR Congress, it was to my excitement to find out that I’ve been selected for Manchester International Festival’s #Creative50 development opportunity. I’m looking forward to experimenting and creating my digital response to their programme of amazing events in June’s #MIF17.