A Virtual Reality Experience with Chris Milk at TED 2016

As anticipated, Chris Milk had a unique virtual reality experience in store for conference attendees at TED 2016. Here’s how he began his ground-breaking presentation:

You’re about to participate in the largest collective VR viewing in history . . . We are all going to watch something at the exact same time, together.

Using Google Cardboard, a set of Urban Ears headphones and a special version of the Vrse app for each person in the auditorium, Milk took 1,200 people through a collective VR journey that included an idyllic landscape, a flight over New York City and a refugee camp with children. For Milk, it was not only an opportunity to show what Vrse studio has accomplished, but to notch another first in VR development – to have the largest audience in history participate in a communal virtual reality experience.

Chris Milk’s Work

Chris Milk - The Treachery of Sanctuary
Chris Milk, The Treachery of Sanctuary

First, some background for this moment at TED. Chris Milk was a renowned music video director who began exploring emerging technologies to create interactive digital experiences. His piece, “The Wilderness Downtown” (2010) was done in collaboration with the Canadian indie band Arcade Fire, Aaron Koblin and Google. Viewers create a personal video by putting in an address from a childhood home. Using data from Google Street View, CGI and satellite imagery, the band transports viewers back to their childhood residences, and asks them to leave a postcard for their younger selves.

If you haven’t experienced the film, take a few minutes (it’s short) and go do it. The Wilderness Downtown is both wildly creative and thought-provoking. What message would you leave for your younger self?

In 2012, Chris Milk created the interactive art installation “The Treachery of Sanctuary” which we had the opportunity to experience at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program this January. It’s a remarkable work, and was well worth our hour wait outside on a snowy plaza in Park City, Utah.

The piece uses Microsoft’s Kinect to help project an interactive image of your body on three separate panels of a triptych. In the first, you disintegrate in flocks of birds, representing birth and inspiration. In the second, the same birds tear apart your shadow, conveying the self-doubt, mistreatment and challenges encountered in life. In the last panel, your projected shadow sprouts gigantic wings and as you flap your arms – slowly at first, then more forcefully – you rise up to the sky, transcendent. It is the full circle of the human narrative, in spirituality, life and art. The experience impacts you both visually and emotionally.

Vrse and Vrse.works

As Chris Milk’s work developed, he shifted to VR, pushing the boundaries of a new medium. In 2014, Milk and Aaron Koblin founded Vrse and its sister company Vrse.works. Vrse is now one of the leading virtual reality content centers and Vrse.works has developed partnerships with filmmakers and directors. They’ve worked with the United Nations, The New York Times in developing its NYT VR project, and produced the award-winning “Clouds Over Sidra.”

Virtual Reality Experience at TED 2016

Chris Milk at TED 2016
Chris Milk takes a photo of the TED2016 audience as they use Google Cardboard to watch VR. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

At TED 2016, the founder of Vrse tried something new in VR. He undertook what his company called “the largest simultaneous virtual reality experience in history.” With Cardboard VR viewers and a dedicated app, over 1,200 attendees simultaneously went through the same virtual experience together. It was new media, virtual reality, and public art performance combined into a single event.

This was like the beginning of cinema and the shift from the individual viewers in nickelodeons to the large-scale movie palaces (over 4,000 were built between 1914 and 1922). But instead of an upscale building with sculptures and amenities, our shift is electronic, a communal moment created by viewing a shared app. Digital instead of physical, befitting an entirely different medium.

As Chris Milk said to the audience at TED,

VR is going to play an incredibly important role in the history of mediums. In fact, it’s going to be the last one. I mean that because it’s the first medium that actually makes the jump from our own interpretation of an author’s expression of an experience, to us experiencing it firsthand. In all other mediums, your consciousness interprets the medium. In VR, your consciousness is the medium.

When you put on a VR headset, virtual reality can be a powerful yet isolating experience. But as Chris Milk proved at TED 2016, VR is also a communal experience, one that can be simultaneously undertaken by an entire auditorium of people. Like going to the movies, everyone’s in the same room, except that each viewer has their own screen and headphones. The outcome, a shared moment in virtual reality, a glimpse into the future and what is to come in social VR experiences.

And yet it was profoundly different from anything we could ever imagine in a visual medium. The audience was not following a filmmaker’s interpretation, but actually stepping into their world. Experiencing it firsthand. The power of the medium shifts from author to viewer. You select your own perspectives, you construct the narrative through your own experience. The story becomes your own.

This was a remarkable event, one that will be more than a simple footnote in the history of a new medium. Chris Milk has shown that a virtual reality experience can be a social experience. With this latest presentation, it is no longer about what is technologically possible in VR, but about the places we as human beings want to go.

The Audience During Chris Milk's Presentation at TED 2016
The Audience During Chris Milk’s Presentation at TED 2016