Skip to main content

Immersion, Integration, Interactivity! Tribeca Insights

By Patricia Aufderheide

Interactivity ruled at Tribeca's Innovation Week, whether at Games for Change, the scruffy gamers-for-good conference that was folded into Tribeca activities this year; Storyscapes, the showcase for interactive projects; the mobile apps hackathon; or the all-day Tribeca Interactive Day conference. It even shone at the Disruptive Innovation Awards, where the business folks run things.

Links between the old world of linear storytelling and the interactive one are still evolving at Tribeca. At Games for Change, while Tribeca's Jane Rosenthal optimistically said, "We're all in this together," gamer speakers said things like, "Movies, the most important medium of the...20th century!" The Entertainment Software Association rep made a point about the rising importance of games by saying, "Once House of Cards' Frank Underwood is a gamer..." Storyscapes, the mobile hackathon and the TFI Day conference were standalone events, whose links with the film festival were hard to determine from the outside.

But there was plenty for mediamakers to learn.

One common theme was: Listen to the users, and take notes. At the interactive conference, keynoter Kenyatta Cheese nearly did headstands making this point. Your users are now your collaborators. And that's a good thing. "The most profound shift in entertainment is the visibility of the audience," he said. New Art Axis' Wendy Levy admitted to discomfort at ceding control—"Successful collaborations always come with a sense of loss," she allowed—but she argued that the rewards, such as the storytelling provoked by the photographic project The Oakland Fence, were unattainable any other way.

Speaker after speaker in panels and conferences argued the need for research. Whether it's a game or a film, don't try to help people without getting their own opinion about what the problem is. E-line Media's Alan Gershenfeld provided advice as useful to filmmakers as gamer designers: Understand the constraints your potential users have for adoption; your movie or game or interactive media may be great, but does it fit into the slipstream of their work, their lives, what they care about?

Another big and related takeaway: This isn't about tools, but relationships. As experiential designer Tom Igoe noted, "The things we make are less important than the relationships they support." Learning games designer Errol King argued that you're building communities with platforms, such as Beta.

But tools are useful, when you have an idea of what you want to do with them. Sympler lets techo-idiots edit video into finished works. lets people provide instant, aggregate-able feedback without elaborate polling hardware. Beta takes a lot of the pain out of coding.

Measurement for social impact continued to drive everyone crazy. While funders are eager for better metrics, some filmmakers chafe at the idea that everything their art accomplishes can be measured. But the conversation is getting more sophisticated. In gaming, a team including researchers Ben Stokes and Tracy Fullerton created a set of categories that they hope to add to via crowdsourcing to better direct the conversation. In interactive documentary, as Mozilla's Ben Moskowitz pointed out, data provides creative opportunity—crucial feedback to foster real and better conversations with users.


From Circa 1948, created and produced by Stan Douglas and the Naiutonal Film Board of Canada. Courtesy of the Naitonal Film Board of Canada


Interactive documentary, the most spectacular examples of which were on display at Storyscapes, is still an expensive and experimental medium, but a fascinating one. This year the push was for immersion. Canada's National Film Board, the best funded outfit for the medium in the world, came in with an ambitious project, Stan Douglas' Circa 1948. An elaborately programmed iPad experience, it was also, at Tribeca, a room where you could spookily inhabit a virtual space and hear ghosts talking to you about a lost past in Vancouver. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the virtual space was that users could visit without added hardware, such as Oculus Rift (which was also on display). Nonny de la Pena's Use of Force showcased the power of immersive media to dramatize and create empathy, in the story of the murder of an undocumented immigrant by border control agents. Nathan Pennington's Choose Your Own Documentary, in which a standup comic (Pennington), with help from documentarians, takes audiences on a choose-your-adventure narrative, had the virtues of live performance combined with video and polling technology.


From Nonny de la Pena's Use of Force. Artist: Alexa Bona Kim


Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor of Communication Studies in the School of Communication at American University, director of the Center for Media and Social Impact there, and author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).