Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles by transmedia producer Kamal Sinclair, from her research project on social equality in emerging media, Making a New Reality.
The rapid and fundamental shifts in our communications architecture are giving new life to philosophical and religious debates about the nature of reality. The tools of immersive media are becoming more refined and capable of delivering compelling virtual, augmented, and mixed reality experiences. Social media culture increasingly allows people to socialize through digital representations of themselves. Machine learning is achieving new levels of “cognition.” This zeitgeist might be summed up by the vision statement for Immerse, which asks: “Where does ‘media’ end and ‘reality’ begin?”
“Digital images become as much a part of the real world as the things we can touch and feel as they are integrated into everyday life,” observes a September 2016 report from Wintergreen Research that forecasts the future of augmented reality through 2022. “Augmented reality is a misnomer to the extent that it implies that reality somehow has something superimposed on it. Instead, the reality exists, and the digital images blend in to enhance the experience of reality, make it more understandable or more interesting. The reality is not changed, it is not made better, it is understood better.”
Not only are distinctions between the physical and the digital blurring, but “Many scientists, philosophers, and business leaders believe that there is a 20–50% probability that humans are already living in a computer-simulated virtual world,” reports Myles Udland for Business Insider. “In April 2016, researchers gathered at the American Museum of Natural History to debate this notion. The argument is that we are already approaching photorealistic 3D simulations that millions of people can simultaneously participate in. It is conceivable that with advancements in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and computing power, members of future civilizations could have decided to run a simulation of their ancestors.”
Rethinking the real
Emerging media has the potential to transport us into parallel human-scale environments, where we can traverse space and “be” in another part of the world instantly, such as using VR to attend a live concert thousands of miles away. Such technology may allow us to break out of a pedestrian reality and have a very non-human-scale experience of existing realities, such as seeing the forest from the perspective of a mosquito or traversing the length of the galaxy.
New technologies also allows us to:
- embody another person’s perspective, such as seeing both the victim and perpetrator’s perspective of a campus assault;
- provide a “smart” interactive representation of our persona for future generations, such as conversing with a hologram of a Holocaust survivorvia a natural language AI that pulls appropriate answers from a robust database of responses
- imagine fictional worlds, bodies and objects made into avatars — and more.
If a human’s individual consciousness is the boundary of his, her, or their individual reality, and if the five senses are the primary means of gathering data that informs that consciousness, and if these new media innovations provide augmentations that enable those senses to gather and input data at a level that far exceeds typical human capabilities — then are our experiences with new devices and technologies real?
In other words: Does the meaning of the word “real” need to change, as our sensory and data processing abilities evolve?
Emerging media is challenging this perception of a “solid-state” reality. Perhaps that is why we are finding there is an affinity for these new mediums by communities of people that regularly challenge the solid-state perceptions of reality, such as prayer and/or meditation practitioners from indigenous and religious communities, quantum and astrophysicists, sci-fi storytellers, and traditions that describe the real world as a “world of illusion.”
“Stories are unique in that they allow us to make sense of reality and, at the same time, help us escape from it,” observes Nayomi Chibana on the Business2community site. “By transporting viewers to the middle of a scene as it’s unfolding, virtual reality is already on its way to creating experiences that will eventually involve all five senses… . As we strive to become the authors of our own stories, let’s not be surprised if one day we have to pinch ourselves to find out whether we’re living in a dream or the real thing.”
These questions about the nature of reality become urgent when considering the proliferation of artificial intelligence systems, robotics, nanotech, and synthetic or hackable biology. The culture has imagined utopian and dystopian versions of these technologies for decades, but never have stories like Westworld been so resonant.
“For millennia, our species has understood that what helps separate us from the animal kingdom is our ability to articulate abstract phenomena, like a fear of death in the absence of an immediate cause for alarm. But is our intelligence reducible to our biology?” asks Christopyer Byrd in theWashington Post. “In the computer age, this question has assumed greater urgency since people such as Stephen Hawking have warned that unscrupulous research into artificial intelligence could pose a threat towards the human race.”
Breaking boundaries, making connections
A major subtheme in this zeitgeist of shifting realities is the newly apparent connectivity of people within and through emerging media. Social media, data analytics, and mobile technologies are making visible all the parts and particles of humanity’s body. We are better able to see our interdependence.
“The positives of emerging media [include] the interconnectivity that we all have with each other,” says interviewee Moira Griffin, the executive director of production at the FOX Networks Group Creative Labs.
Sarah Wolozin, the director of MIT’s OpenDoc Lab, emphasizes that the major difference between traditional broadcast media and emerging media is that the latter is designed within the most intricate and complex network in the history of manmade things. Not only does the Internet allow for dynamic, multimodal communication, but it takes aspects of traditional media and completely breaks traditional scope and scale. For example, improvisational storytelling is not new — but designing a transmedia campaign with 10 million people improvising inside (and co-creating) a storyworld brings an unprecedented scale to these art practices.
Further, this enhanced vision is exposing our common points of unity (i.e., data visualization projects such as We Feel Fine or I Want You to Want Me, making our universal emotions, wants, and needs visible), as well as our social ailments (i.e., the easy publication of witness-captured media, exposing everything from police brutality, to the violent exile of LGBTQ youth from their homes, to totalitarian attacks on citizens). Suddenly we have access to rich pools of experiences that can be shared on a large scale.
The last overall observation on media innovation from the past few decades that arises from interviewees is arguably a trend that has been in process since the very beginnings of story and the human experience: convergence. Boundaries between genres and platforms are breaking down, interviewees observe — along with those between the real and the simulated, the human and the machine, the audience and the maker:
- The way I see the media landscape going is a convergence toward most, if not all, content being entirely platform agnostic. The important question is really what form does the content take: Is it interactive? Is it episodic? — Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List
- At Pigeon Hole Productions, we’ve shifted our speech from talking about games or film as specific mediums and just started referring to media production. Everything has converged and story worlds exist across all mediums. This is precisely why we have embraced world building as a solution. — Joseph Unger, founder Pigeon Hole Productions
- I always like to be in dialogue with people after making something, whether tech or film. How are you using it? What does it mean to you? How would you change it? What do you want more of, you know? … I think breaking down those boundaries with the audience is really exciting and has been something that’s increasing for the past eight years. — Nancy Schwartzman, artist, technologist, and activist
- What I love about VR is that it is a combination of so many different kinds of industries and types of creative art. There are people coming from interactive installation art and projection mappers. People from film are connecting with people from computer sciences and game makers. It feels like this culmination of all the past media and we’re figuring out how it all works together. It’s definitely still at those beginning stages when it comes to content, but it’s growing so quickly. — Yelena Rachitsky, Executive Producer of Experiences at Oculus
- We [Madison Wells Media] develop content in four arenas: live theater, television, film, and emerging media technologies, mostly at this point in VR. I don’t look at it as a monolithic media landscape; I see it as bite size pieces that pertain to the businesses I run. All of them have a common theme, which is development of content and IP. The reason I develop on four different platforms is that a few years ago I noticed, as an independent film producer, that it was getting extremely difficult to get films made. There’s this odd thing that’s happening. There’s a lot of money out there. It’s not about being able to get the film financed, actually, it’s the distribution that’s the hardest piece in independent film. It is easy to get your film financed, hard to get your film distributed, and even harder to get your film seen even if it gets distributed, certainly theatrically. So, I was in the midst of all that when I discovered VR and started to develop the idea of cross-platforms.” — Gigi Pritzker, founder of Madison Wells Media
The main difference between the past and the present is the rate and complexity of convergence. The human communication architecture tends to evolve through the convergence of technologies, cultures, knowledge silos, and forms. The current convergence is blurring the lines between tech, gaming, film, the spoken word, dance, literature, music and sound design, theatre, visual art, perception science, architecture, physics, psychology, sociology, biology, religion, and medicine. Practically every field of knowledge is contributing to this convergence.
With wired cities and homes, ambient data, immersive media, screenless computing, holograms and environment aware devices, the question “Where does ‘media’ end and ‘reality’ begin?” is increasingly difficult to answer. However, a new class of storytellers, technologists and artists are making work that tests the boundaries.
The Making a New Reality research project is authored by Kamal Sinclair with support from Ford Foundation JustFilms and supplemental support from the Sundance Institute. Learn more about the goals and methods of this research, who produced it, and the interviewees whose insights inform the analysis.
Gurupriyan is a Software Engineer and a technology enthusiast, he’s been working on the field for the last 6 years. Currently focusing on mobile app development and IoT.