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    A conference and exhibition presented by MIT Open Documentary Lab,

    The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Phi Centre


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“In this case [of Virtual Reality], we do have a technology, but we don’t have any clear idea how to fill it with content.”

– Werner Herzog



When Time Magazine graced its cover with the awkwardly-posed oculus rift inventor, Palmer Luckey, it effectively proclaimed that Virtual Reality was the next big thing that didn’t yet have any place in our lives.  Google, Facebook, The New York Times, PBS Frontline and many others are investing heavily in Virtual Reality as a powerful new storytelling medium.  It’s capturing the imagination of documentary storytellers, journalists, artists, technologists and investors all over the world.  An industry is emerging.  Yet for all of its enthusiasts, VR has its skeptics. For all it is talked about, VR can be deeply misunderstood. Virtual reality means many things to many people: an immersive experience, a new tool for storytelling, a cluster of quite different technologies and techniques, and even an epistemological claim.  Little wonder that we lack consensus about “how to fill it with content.”


Current discussions around virtual reality blur technologies and techniques together when in fact they vary tremendously and are often considered distinct in other media. And each one has its own set of questions around the art, ethics and impact of spatial and embodied storytelling. The MIT Open Documentary Lab Virtual Reality Conference will explore the various strands of VR and their implications for representing reality, defining truths, and changing the documentary image and experience.


An exhibition of virtual reality documentary experiments including highlights from IDFA (International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam) DocLab will accompany the conference.


Debra Anderson CSO & Founder, Datavized
Dan Archer Research Fellow, Columbia Tow Center of Digital Journalism
Raney Aronson-Rath Executive Producer, Frontline
Jessica Brillhart Principal Filmmaker for VR, Google
Brian Chirls CTO, Datavized
Katerina Cizek Documentary Director, MIT Visiting Scholar
Nonny de la Peña CEO, Emblematic Group
Ersin Han Ersin Creative Director, Marshmallow Laser Feast
Rus Gant Director, VR Lab at Harvard
Scott Greenwald Researcher, MIT Media Lab
Sam Gregory Program Director, WITNESS
Fox Harrell Professor, MIT
Karim Ben Khelifa Author, The Enemy
Félix Lajeunesse Founder, Felix & Paul Studios
Michael Madary Post Doc, Universität Mainz
Cara Mertes Director, Ford JustFilms
Katy Morrison Co-Founder & Producer, VRTOV
Janet Murray Associate Dean & Professor, Georgia Tech
Marcos Novak Director, transLAB at UCSB
Robert Overweg Designer, Triple
Oscar Raby Co-Founder & Creative Director, VRTOV
Yelena Rachitsky Oculus Story Studio
Sandra Rodriguez Doc Director, MIT Visiting Scholar
Caspar Sonnen Curator, IDFA DocLab
Ziv Schneider Creator, NYU Tisch ITP Research Fellow
Barnaby Steel Creative Director, Marshmallow Laser Feast
Amy Sterling Executive Director, EyeWire
Ainsley Sutherland Open Lab Fellow, Buzzfeed
Deniz Tortum Researcher, MIT OpenDocLab
William Uricchio Professor & Principal Investigator, MIT OpenDocLab
Sarah Wolozin Director, MIT OpenDocLab

Conference Schedule

Location: Bartos Theatre, Lower Atrium, 20 Ames. E-15 on the MIT Campus Map

May 6th, 2016

  • 8am Breakfast and Registration
  • 9:00am Opening Remarks by Sarah Wolozin
  • 9.10am Keynote by William Uricchio - Putting VR in Perspective
  • 9.30am Panel - A Story In Search of a Language

    Jessica Brillhart, Ersihan Ersin, Felix LaJeunesse, Oscar Raby.  Moderated by Cara Mertes

    In these still early days of the medium, creators working with virtual reality have yet to settle on a language for storytelling.  The problem is exacerbated by competing ideas of story as an authored-structure or as a user-generated experience; and by the very different capacities of fixed 360 video and realtime 3D experiences.  In this panel, leading artists experimenting with these systems to create non-fiction VR will share insights into their creative process, their influences, and their expectations.  How do they represent reality, create narratives, and guide audiences through the story world? What are the narrative and navigational potentials of sound, haptics, visual cues and other techniques to guide audience attention?  We will explore the possibilities and challenges of documentary narratives, looking at the craft of showing, telling and working with the presence of the user in the picture.

  • 11.00am Deniz Tortum - Embodied Montage
  • 11.20am Ziv Schneider - Virtual Glue: The Many Futures of Our Past
  • 11.40am Brian Chirls - WebVR: Accessibility, Democratization and the Future of the Immersive Web
  • 12.00pm Lunch
  • 12.45pm Hive Pong Experiment
  • 1.00pm Caspar Sonnen - What VR can Learn from Interactive Storytelling and Collaborative Art

  • 1.20pm Rus Gant - ``Black Rock`` an experiment in long-form documentary VR
  • 1.40pm Fox Harrell & Karim Khelifa - The Enemy Project: Using Virtual Reality for Conflict Journalism and Engendering Empathy
  • 2.00pm Panel - Looking Ahead: The Virtual Documentary

    Nonny De La Pena, Fox Harrell, Marcos Novak, Robert Overweg. Moderated by Raney Aronson.

    Over the years, documentary has taken many forms across different media, and this panel will consider its future in the context of virtual reality. What’s ahead in terms of Artificial Intelligence and responsive VR systems?  What will happen to the collective experience that once characterized documentary on other media platforms? What scenarios might we anticipate at the borders of immersion, affect and ethics?  Are there transformative technologies on the horizon that will change the reach of VR, the way that the smartphone enabled the public to represent itself through widespread access to video?  What new documentary capacities can be realized or even imagined as VR continues to develop?  And what challenges and consequences should we consider in this most vulnerable of storytelling spaces? Panelists at the cutting edge of their fields will share their research and insights. 

  • 3.30pm Coffee Break
  • 3.40pm Debra Anderson - Real Data in Virtual Worlds
  • 4.00pm Michael Madary - Exploring the Ethics of VR
  • 4.20pm Amy Sterling - BrainVR: Exploring the Mind's Complexity in New Dimensions
  • 4.30pm Yelena Rachitsky - Seeding the Virtual Future
  • 4.40pm Panel - Implications of VR Documentary: the Ethics, Neuroscience, and Impact of Virtual Reality Experiences

    Dan Archer, Sam Gregory, Janet Murray, Michael Madary.  Moderated by Katerina Cizek

    Virtual Reality technology offers the promise of “just being there”.  But this truism evades questions about the ethical and cognitive implications of creating non-fiction experiences that simulate and approximate realities. Does VR risk reducing experiences to visual reenactments while offering faux redemptive experiences? With the perception that VR delivers “directly to the brain” and bypasses cognitive and sensory firewalls, are we also bypassing critical faculties? What are the claims of neuroscience behind VR and future technologies? What are the ethical concerns around the truth claims that this new technology is an “empathy machine”? VR is being heralded as a platform for a plethora of therapies, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the logical misuses of VR are disturbing: torture and bullying, amongst others. This panel examines the impact of what VR shows and what it hides, and poses questions of transparency, accuracy, collective experience and representation.

  • 6.00pm Closing Remarks by William Uricchio
  • 6.15pm Reception


Location: 3rd floor, 20 Ames St. E-15 on the MIT Campus Map

Sign up for one of the four workshops if you want to dig deeper into VR techniques and technologies. Tickets are sold seperately.

Major Sponsors


Special Thanks


Virtually There: Documentary Meets Virtual Reality

Conference | May 6th, 2016 | $175 (includes exhibition), $30 (Student)
Bartos Theater
20 Ames Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
Exhibition | May 6th and May 7th, 2016 | $20
Lower and Upper Atrium
20 Ames Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
Workshops | May 7th, 2016 | $50
3rd Floor
20 Ames Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
Questions? Email us at virtuallythere@mit.edu