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How immersive technology and culture can help create a better future

 Creative director and co-founder of ALLFUTUREEVERYTHING (AFE), Monika Bielskyte (left), during a panel discussion at C2 Montreal alongside interviewer and executive producer of the National Film Board of Canada, Hugues Sweeney (right). Photo by Kirubel Mehari.


C2 Montreal invited creative director, Monika Bielskyte, to discuss the future of virtual reality

C2 Montreal is an international conference that gathers visionaries and innovative thinkers from around the world for a three-day event filled with panel discussions based on creativity and commerce. This year’s edition of the event, which ran from May 23 to 25, featured a talk given by Monika Bielskyte on virtual reality (VR) technology and how it might help create a better future.

Bielskyte is the founder of ALLFUTUREEVERYTHING (AFE), a company that designs and builds futuristic virtual worlds using computer-generated simulations of three-dimensional images that people can physically interact with. For example, the company creates simulations of how cities will look 50 years from now.

Bielskyte is a creative director at AFE, specializing in immersive technology such as augmented reality, a technology that uses goggles to superimpose computer-generated images on a user’s view of the real world. She also works with mixed reality, which merges the real and virtual world to produce new environments, and she creates VR prototypes.

For Bielskyte, creating these futuristic virtual worlds offers a way to possibly change our future.“Why I am interested in speaking about the future is because it gives us this necessary distance to look at the present with fresh eyes,” she said during her C2 Montreal talk. “But ultimately, it’s always about the choices that we are making today because there are no answers, only choices.”

According to Bielskyte, the prototypes designed and created using immersive technology and media can have a direct impact on our culture—which influences our reality and eventually our future. And although artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a more common component of immersive technology, she said, it doesn’t really help improve our world or our future. “We’ve been designing into AI the failures of humanity,” she said. “So our AI will fail as we fail.”

For this reason, Bielskyte designs virtual futures that depict how culture and humanity can be utilized to improve the world. “I am interested in showing how cultures of the world can cohabit and enrich each other rather than fighting each other,” she said. This idea of cohabitation and collaboration has been a focus of Bielskyte for a long time.  “From a very young age, I realized that everything is truly connected,”she said. “What interests me is to find how cultures affect each other, because no culture is self-contained.”

The idea that technological innovation without humanitarian revolution leads to a dystopian future is part of what drives Bielskyte’s focus on culture in her virtual prototypes of the future.“Technological change is much easier than cultural change, but if culture doesn’t change, nothing does,” she said. “We’ve been a little too focused on technology. Technology is important, but it’s truly just an extension of ourselves—it’s a tool. Technology is not good or bad, humanity is.”

During the talk, Bielskyte also tackled some misconceptions she said people often have concerning VR. “Technology/content companies haven’t done a great job in marketing this new technology and these new ideas,” she said. “[Virtual reality] is mostly perceived as an entertainment gimmick.” The ideas Bielskyte discussed about VR, in comparison, were not about entertainment, but rather about building a glimpse into the future and broadening our horizons with tangible experiences. VR is a world where people no longer sit in front of a computer to get a glimpse into another world, she said. Instead, they become immersed in other realities. “It’s about leaving the rectangular screens behind and stepping into a space where the world is our desktop,” Bielskyte said, describing a world where VR simulations would allow users to feel like they’re truly experiencing another reality.

According to Bielskyte, when immersive technology becomes the new common form of communication, it will cause major changes to our view of reality. “When most of the content we consume is no longer something that we watch, but truly something that we are in—is it just virtual? If it can cause real physical damage, is it only a simulation?” Bielskyte asked the audience. “[Mixed, augmented and virtual realities] are in some way as real and as impactful as real experiences might be.”

Bielskyte also spent part of her talk delving into the storytelling aspect of immersive technology. “People are only at the beginning of learning how to tell stories through interaction [with the audience], and VR does not exist without interaction,” she said.

At the moment, VR simulations are set up in closed environments, such as small rooms or booths, which Bielskyte said is an example of how old media habits are still being applied to this new medium. Instead, she encourages more creative thinking in the development of immersive technology—particularly VRs that interact more thoroughly with the real world. “The digital world will soon enough be meshed with the physical in such a way that our reality will be the transparency that we choose,” she said.

This distinction between reality and virtual reality, however, is more significant in the Western world, Bielskyte said. During her extensive travels, she has learned that places like Central and South America have different perceptions of what is real. “With my Colombian friends, we can shift the conversation about physical experience to dreams, to art, to shamanistic and psychedelic experiences in a blink of an eye—all of these things in their culture are real,” she said.

These varying perspectives of virtual reality are why Bielskyte said she enjoys teaching workshops on immersive creativity around the world. “I can definitely say that the students I had in places like Rio de Janeiro and in Bogotá come up with ideas for virtual reality that are not only equally good as the projects that are being pitched to me in Los Angeles or Silicon Valley—they are way more inspiring and way more interesting,” she said.

For Bielskyte, creativity is the key to developing immersive technology that will truly help humanity. “Humans are creative animals, and it’s only through creativity that we might find ourselves in a habitable future,” she said.  

Recently, some of Bielskyte’s work has extended to creating participatory story worlds for Hollywood, including the design and prototyping of the world in Ghost in the Shell. She is also working on a project called Future Nation, which aims to bring fictional worlds from Hollywood into the real world. “It’s about imagining these fictional futures for actual places, for real countries, cities and geographic regions—to help the policy-makers imagine how they could build a better future,” she said.

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