Events, Inspiration

A Guide to the 2016 Future of Storytelling Festival


Future of Storytelling arose from the ashes of the old-school publishing industry like a phoenix. Charles Melcher, founder of Melcher Media, saw the digital writing on the wall in 2008: e-readers, smartphones, click-driven content, and blogs were changing the way people were reading, and how stories were being told. It was a time when many in the media, publishing, and business worlds were trying to figure out how to adapt and evolve. “I was having the same conversations as everyone else who was struggling to figure out how to turn this even playing field of 0s and 1s into a powerhouse for communications and storytelling,” Melcher says.

Melcher’s solution was to turn a lot of smaller conversations into a bigger one — one that would allow storytellers of all kinds to work together to forge a way forward. “That was the inspiration for starting the Future of Storytelling Summit,” he explains. “To get different people who are all coming at this from different angles to collaborate and cross-pollinate and get to know each other and share best practices.”

The first Future of Storytelling summit, a gathering of thought leaders across industries — tech, business, entertainment — took place five years ago. Over the course of one day, 300 attendees shared their insights about the current state and future of stories. Now, the summit has become an annual two-day event with 500 attendees and over 2,000 applicants. It became so popular and influential that the Museum of the Moving Image even asked the organization to put together a touring show. It was that show, attended by over 45,000 people, that made Melcher realize there was a much bigger audience interested in what his organization was exploring.

And so, the first The Future of Storytelling Festival was born.

From October 7 to 9, the festival took over The Africa Center in New York City, offering over 75,000 square feet of storytelling experiences, including virtual reality, augmented reality, and interactive games. There were also multiple analog experiences at various satellite locations through the city’s boroughs, and many panels with some of the greatest storytellers in the world. “It’s our first time to open up the kind of curation that we do for the summit, and democratize it for everybody,” Melcher says.

The motivation of the festival, however, isn’t just to grant audiences access to stories and storytellers, but the other way around, too. “We want to celebrate the changing nature of the audience. We live in an age when mass media, or certainly some of it is two-way,” says Melcher. “We’re just at the early stages of figuring out what that really means, and figuring out how to cede control as creators to the audience, how to create the opportunity for co-authorship and agency amongst the people formerly known as the audience.”

That desire to cross-pollinate (ported over from the summit) is also why the festival doesn’t just offer more analog storytelling (escape rooms, live-action roleplaying, immersive theater), but made sure even in the digital realm to highlight VR and AR storytelling beyond simple entertainment. “We consider our friends in advertising and marketing, and our friends in gaming, and our friends in the more traditional forms like film and television and publishing, all to be just as legitimate in terms of being storytellers,” Melcher says.
That’s an important point for the Future of Storytelling founder, who believes industries, conferences, and summits can become to siloed in an era where barriers between storytelling industries have become more fluid, and capable of inspiring each other. “I’m a big believer that those happy connections or sparks that happen from people from very different disciplines, when they get together in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, can lead to the kinds of breakthroughs that will drive the consumer demand and adoption for these new technologies,” says Melcher.

That’s what he ultimately hopes the Festival of Storytelling summit — and especially now, the festival — will help achieve. “There’s so much that’s happening, and it’s happening so quickly, and FoST is really there to help the community figure out these new tools, and the new way that we’ll tell stories.”

Festival Highlights

With so much being offered at the FoST Festival, we thought we’d ask Melcher for some of his personal recommendations. We also followed up with some of our own picks.

Melcher’s Picks:

Flock: A Holojam Experience by David Lobser
“This is one where 20 to 30 people can put on a VR headset and simultaneously flock together like birds in a big space. That’s really fun, and I haven’t seen that done before.”

Home: VR Spacewalk by Tom Burton (BBC)
“You’re an astronaut on a space station and you’re going out to fix something. There’s a full haptic chair, and it also picks up your heart rate, and that plays into the story. There’s multiple endings, so you’re getting sort of biofeedback, or biometric feedback, fully.”

Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel by Oscar Raby (BBC Learning)
“It’s a man’s personal story of, in his youth, being involved in an uprising. It goes between you hearing the story and you being a character, living the story. What I love about it is that it does have some interaction with just some simple head awareness, like the context awareness of where you’re at. You look around a corner at one point, and there’s somebody shooting at you, and you pull your head back, because you’re being shot at. There’s something called the duck test: when VR is really working, if somebody throws something at you, you duck, physically. That one really passes that. It also is a beautiful window into how history will be taught.”

Our Picks:

This immersive experience isn’t just unique for putting you in the middle of a protest that turns into a riot. The story is entirely controlled by your emotional responses, which are monitored by facial recognition software, artificial intelligence, and neurological activity tracking.

Rain or Shine
A beautifully animated story about a young girl who has magical sunglasses that make it rain whenever she puts them on. The story is controlled by your ability to explore the environment with your smartphone (or VR gear), and it adapts to your experience.

Late Shift
This immersive narrative is pegged as the world’s first cinematic interactive movie. It’s a Hollywood thriller by way of Choose Your Own Adventure. Controlled by a tablet, phone, or Apple TV, you steer the story with real-time decisions that can ultimately result in seven different endings.

Star Trek: Bridge Crew
Who hasn’t watched Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation command, “Engage” and secretly wished they too could be a member on the Enterprise’s bridge? Well, now you can, with this experience that allows you to group with friends in both real and virtual space to go on a special mission for the Federation.

Close Your
Close Your has a simple, but ambitious, concept: you’re living a person’s life from birth to death. The hook? The game monitors your eye movement, and every time you blink you skip forward seconds, months, or years in the person’s life.

These eight experiences may just be the tip of the iceberg of what’s available at the Future of Storytelling Festival, but nonetheless hint at the exciting ways the festival’s programming explores where stories may go in the future: interactive, immersive, and cutting-edge. Attending the festival seems like it will provide the rare opportunity for most of us to get a glimpse of what tomorrow may bring.

Check out the festival website for details about what else was included this year, and stay tuned for info on the organization’s next event.

Header image courtesy of the Future of Storytelling