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Smell-O-Vision Is Back (And Possibly the Future of Storytelling)

Chris Milk, Google Creative Labs, and more bring out the big guns to give us tomorrow's narrative experiences, today.
Aerial rendering of New York City for Max Rheiner's Birdly. Image courtesy of Future of StoryTelling.

Inhaling through my nose, the artificial scent of honey and apricots fills my head. I stand on the second floor of Queens' Museum of the Moving Image reading a multisensory remix of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The Smelly Version. MoMI is hosting Future of Storytelling's new exhibit, Sensory Stories, an amalgam of immersive artworks from creators like Chris Milk, Vincent Morisset, and Google Creative Lab, spanning virtual reality, experimental film, interface design, gaming, and other delightfully wacky ideas (like a children's book that can shoot delicious scents directly into your face) and I am in the center of it.


At the event, Future of Storytelling founder Charles Melcher explains, "We're trying to bring you through a journey of the senses," to The Creators Project. "Overall we're trying to bring you back into your body, we're trying to get you to have an emotional experience through story in a different way, and we're also challenging you to think about what story means." Each project in the exhibition shows you how sight, smell, sound, or touch can and will be used to tell the stories of tomorrow.

Visitors smelling “Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The Smelly Version” (2015). Credit: Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image

Smell is expressed through the scent-transmitting oPhone, which made waves in mid-2014 with a widely-covered IndieGoGo campaign, and now supports a scented selfie (smellfie?) app called oNotes. Co-founder David Edwards explained that the fragrant retelling of Goldilocks will eventually introduce a new breed of scented storytelling called 'oBooks' that could subtlely change the effects that stories have on us. One example: it can help our eating habits. "It turns out that smelling fruit—research shows—leads people to eat fruit. The idea is that kids have fun and eat better," he says. For now, this is one of the most scalable and immediately useful ideas for the custom scent machine, but Edwards has big plans, including a custom library of smells ("the iTunes of aroma"), scented fashions, and a new generation of "virtual reality experiences that are so immersive that the absence of scent feels wrong."


Screen still from EVOLUTION OF VERSE (2015), written and directed by Chris Milk, the inaugural virtual reality film from director Milk’s production company VRSE. Credit: VRSE / Future of StoryTelling

An area to devoted to Oculus Rift experiences pushes the boundaries of our already sight-centric storytelling mediums, showcasing Max Rheiner's bird simulator Birdly, Felix and Paul Studios' Mongolian journey Herders, Vincent Morrisset's immersive woodland walk Way to Go, and Chris Milk collaborative' latest, Clouds Over Sidra and Evolution of Verse. While both VRSE projects premiered at Sundance in January, and are available for download on VRSE's mobile appEvolution of Verse will be many peoples' first experiences in the virtual world, since Sensory Stories is one of only a handful of Oculus Rift events open to the public. The hyper-surreal journey from a pristine lake, through a rainbow tunnel, and into the hand of a giant baby is a great introduction to the medium: as Sensory Stories curator Yelena Rachitsky tells The Creators Project, the film is Milk's "representation of this birth of a new medium."

Clouds over Sidra, The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where the film was shot. Credit: /Future of StoryTelling

Clouds Over Sidra is a less metaphorical immersive documentary by Milk and filmmaker Gabo Arora. It follows a 12-year-old Syrian refugee on a heartstring-tugging tour through her community. "With virtual reality, you actually feel like you're in that situation, which offers a greater path toward understanding, not through intellectual understanding, but through physical body presence," Rachitsky, continues, discussing the benefits of non-fiction VR like Clouds and Nonny de la Peña's Project Syria. "Being fully immersed and not being able to escape your surroundings has a powerful effect."


Google Creative Lab's new project, the Google Cube, is one of several devices that showcase how important touch will be in future stories. With it's US premiere the 3D box introduces a "six-sided short film," directed by Steve Ayeson and Damien Shatford, which you can manipulate using a white cube in physical space. The six different storylines span the cube's six sides, as in last year's six-sided Presets music video, but the accelerometer-powered controller makes watching cubic film format that much more interactive.

This sleek white cube controls the six-sided screen. Image by the author.

"It's a very tactile way to experience a 2D visual story," says Luke Jarvis, the Future of Storytelling guide manning the installation. "Some people flip really quickly from screen to screen, more interested in the physical experience of it. Other people pick it up and find a storyline they like and follow it." I, with the latter camp, watched the full duration of the film several times to get the entire story, which involved a talking mustache, an angry couple running a box company, and a woman's surreal journey to plug in a giant extension cord. The act of being able to flip through several intermingling storylines is truly an innovative spin—pun unintended—on the way we watch movies.

Sound is one of the oldest storytelling methods around, but the code artists at Red Paper Heart are premiering their own take on the medium at FoST's exhibition called Hidden Stories. Re-fashioning the oral narrative as an the Internet of Things-style wall of audio, a cone-shaped speaker reacts to different chips embedded in the wall, gently playing dozens of audio recordings by Jay Allison and Viki Merrick of Atlantic Public Media (the same group responsible for The Moth, This I Believe, and other groundbreaking storytelling programs). Listening to each first-person narrative in Hidden Stories feels like chatting with a neighbor over the fence, or finding an old tape recorder on the ground. It roots the experience in the physical, in a way antithetical to the everyday practice of blasting music or podcasts from headphones.


A visitor listens to a story using the cone apparatus of “Hidden Stories” (2015). Image by Thanassi Karageorgiou courtesy of The Museum of the Moving Image.

Before founding Future of StoryTelling, Melcher got his start in book publishing, but began a momentous shift in mission in launching Al Gore's Our Choice app (which The New York Times called, "a showpiece for the new world of touch-screen gadgets," and earned Apple's Best Designed App award). Since then, he's become a force for change in digital media. He's launched the yearly Future of StoryTelling Summit, the Future of StoryTelling Prize, and even a website that hosts news and interviews about cutting-edge films, apps, and installations that challenge the status quo. "I was working in the oldest of media, very mature, very hard to innovate. Now everything's open, it's all up for grabs," he tells me. "I really do think we all have a responsibilty to help mold it, figure it out, use it wisely, put interesting and rich things into these new forms and help it find its voice."

When talking to him about his impact, though, he becomes much more animated over a single letter he received a few years back. "One father wrote to us and said, 'I've just become jealous of how my kids are going to grow up learning," he says. Aside from being a cool way to spend an afternoon, this is the biggest takeaway from Future of StoryTelling's Sensory Stories: tomorrow's narrative arts won't just look awesome—they'll feel it, too.

Sensory Stories opens at the Museum of the Moving Image today. For more projects from Future of StoryTelling, visit their website.



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