Storytelling at TFI Interactive 2016 (Part One)

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On Apr 16, the Tribeca Film Institute held its fifth-annual TFI Interactive, a day-long immersive hub for virtual reality, tech panels, and interactive storytelling.

“Through TFI Interactive, we’re proud to offer creators the opportunity to reimagine the world that we live in,” said Opeyemi Olukemi, Senior Director of Interactive Programs at TFI. “As technology is ever-evolving, our program offers ample opportunity for speakers and audience members alike to generate new ideas, collaboration, and conversation.”

This year’s forum featured an expanded Interactive Playground, a stellar Conference lineup, and the long-anticipated launch of MakerSpace, a hands-on workshop that challenges audiences to engage with new technologies.

As a new addition to the Festival, MakerSpace addressed social issues through interactivity and expert-led workshops on immersive storytelling. Among the program’s leaders were representatives from Black Lives Matter, IBM, IDFA Doc Lab, and Stanford Mechanical Engineering Design Group.

Upon arriving at Spring Studios, I was ushered to the sixth floor by an enthusiastic TFI liaison who assured me that I “had to try the Famous Deaths” simulator, which had apparently stolen the show at the Interactive Playground.

Is the Famous Deaths simulator as morally ambiguous as it sounds? Yes. Yes, it absolutely is.

Participants are rolled on their backs into a mortuary freezer, where through a combination of scents and sounds they have the singularly terrifying and somewhat sickening experience of re-living the final four minutes of a famous person’s life.

At the time of my visit, participants could choose between Whitney Houston and JFK. The liaison explained to me that if you picked JFK, you would be immersed in the roar of a crowd and a scent reminiscent of car fumes, before hearing a gunshot and smelling gunpowder and blood. At other times I would have had a choice between Princess Diana or Muammar Gaddafi.

All of which leaves me wondering, what’s the point?

After such careful curation of experiences that represent the very best in VR-enabled storytelling, TFI’s inclusion of Famous Deaths seems to muddy the message.

In and of itself, the installation does not actually feature any virtual reality—no sim headset or binaural audio, here—it is simply an experiment that pushes the envelope in terms of raw immersion. But is it worth pushing that envelope if the experience it delivers reeks of exploitation? If it elevates neither our understanding of technology nor storytelling, what place does it earn in the gallery?

Most importantly, as we stand on the brink of further exploring these types of immersive experiences, what kind of precedent does this installation set for the type of content that audiences will ultimately engage with?

The whole thing felt salacious and frankly, just plain unnecessary.

Check back next week to hear about the installations that lived up to the task…