EventsAugmented RealityVirtual Reality

LA Times Festival of Books 2019 Presents Speaker Series on AR and VR Storytelling

Industry leaders discuss the merging of AR, VR, and XR technology and storytelling.


The University of Southern California held the 24th LA Times Festival of Books on April 13-14. Visitors came together to celebrate “writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, musicians and emerging storytellers.” The festival grew and added the Newstory Playground and a speakers series. The new area focused on storytelling using interactive multimedia like AR and VR.

We reached out to Clint Schaff, VP of Programming and Development at Los Angeles Times. He shared how AR and VR has inspired him to produce the Newstory Playground and speaker series.

He said, “Los Angeles is the storytelling capitol [sic] of the world, and people everywhere look to California as a window into the future. That’s what [sic] the Los Angeles Times brought Newstory to its Festival of Books.”

“AR and VR are definitely at the top of the list of exciting new developments in narrative storytelling. Like any good story, AR and VR allow us as humans to alter our perceptions of the world.”

Adding, “It’s a logical and exciting extension of a book festival to look to AR and VR for even more immersive tales where we can see, feel and experience what we could only once imagine.”

Using VR and AR to Tell Stories for Social Good

Technology is evolving our world and how we connect. We can look at our phones and find AR apps that help us chat with our friends and with users around the world. VR/AR is also a medium that has power to bring attention to social issues and personal narratives.

Cortney Harding, Founder and CEO of Friends with Holograms gave a talk at the LA Times Festival of Books called “Using VR and AR to Tell Stories for Social Good.”

Harding and Accenture created a VR training simulator called AVEnueS. It’s designed to help child welfare social workers make challenging decisions. She discussed how workers can now get trained without being in the field.

As a result, users take on a role as a social worker and learn skills without real-world consequences. So, there’s some pressure but no direct impact to families if there’s a wrong choice made. VR simulators can be used to buff up our job skills and our mental resilience.

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Putting the user as a character in the story helps audiences give their full attention to it. Most importantly, the user shouldn’t be a “fly on the wall,” unless that’s the point. Little changes, like putting selection cards on a table instead of floating in the air lend to a believable environment.

Designing experiences to replicate spaces and moments in time that seem real makes for a stronger base to tell a story. To make experiences for social good, users must feel connected to characters that exist and the events happening around them.

LA Times Festival of Books
LOS ANGELES, CA-APRIL 14, 2019: People browse books for sale during the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California on April 14, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo By Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times © 2019)

Designing With Light: The Upcoming Wave of Ubiquitous Projection

The Guggenheim, Sydney Opera House, and music festivals around the world use projected AR. It can take many forms – as psychedelic art layered over a sculpture set to music; to a clock face displayed in a smart home; or with store displays projecting moving graphics on product.

Phil Reyneri from Lightform gave his talk “Designing With Light: The Upcoming Wave of Ubiquitous Projection” at the LA Times Festival of Books. Referencing Black Mirror and Ready Player One, he asked the audience to think about what the future and our homes might look like with mass AR use.

Reyneri says that society at large uses both digital products and analog products because we crave touch. This is an explanation for the shift to buy records, then to mp3s, and on to using mobile as a music device. But, he says people still want to use and hold products, not get rid of them. Which is one reason why record sales have increased even though they’re old tech.

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This also puts attention to the growing trend of blending AR technology (digital) with physical products (analog) like the smartwatch, glasses, or image projectors. Right now, mobile carriers like AT&T are starting to sell AR glasses. This kicks off the first generation of wearables to the public and a more digitized society. Will the way we view the world, our homes, art, music, education, advertising, and our lives change with AR? No doubt.

Is augmented reality going to find uses for the better? That depends on what’s made for it and for what purpose. Until then, it’s fun to watch projected AR effects transform surfaces into a different version of itself without the use of a headset.

SPHERES: The Songs of the Cosmos in Virtual Reality

In April, the world saw the first image of what was once unseeable – a black hole. Eliza McNitt, creator, writer, and director of the VR experience SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime also spoke at the LA Times Festival of Books. She discussed how she created a virtual experience that puts you at the center to become one with the universe and a black hole.

In McNitt’s talk “SPHERES: The Songs of the Cosmos in Virtual Reality,” she spoke about balancing storytelling with science. She not only had to use data and scientific facts but also had to do so with emotion and heart. She touched on making mistakes and getting help from scientists and experts in VR. This led to creative breakthroughs and uncovering new ways to tell stories about places no one could visit.

McNitt shared that all the sounds are real. Users hear electromagnetic waves, low frequency, celestial collisions, and more. When you go into the experience the sounds range from soothing to distorted and sometimes violent cosmic songs. Every planet and event has a different soundscape.

AR and VR are definitely at the top of the list of exciting new developments in narrative storytelling. Like any good story, AR and VR allow us as humans to alter our perceptions of the world.

With SPHERES users stand or sit inside a star and interact with it using controllers. They can become a supernova, sound waves, and a black hole. What was once impossible to see and to touch has become possible with VR.

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If you want to check out the first virtual reality space and music experience created by Eliza McNitt, Fistful of Stars is a must-see. It takes you on a 360-degree and photorealistic virtual journey with the Hubble Telescope that takes place in the Orion Nebula.

REACH: Democratizing Technology, Tools, and Distribution to Empower XR Storytellers

Nonny de la Peña is an immersive journalist and original storytelling expert. As the “Godmother of Virtual Reality” and founder of Emblematic, she’s a master at using XR technology to tell stories of social significance. She’s also working on a project called Beta.Reach.Love, a free platform that makes 3D images and environments accessible for all.

In her talk “REACH: Democratizing Technology, Tools, and Distribution to Empower XR Storytellers” she discussed learning to use Unity. In fact, De la Peña did so among a room of male counterparts, which was rare at the time.

Briefly, she talked of her time working with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey. As the “Godmother of Virtual Reality” she was thanked at the Oscars by Alejandro González Iñárritu after he won an award for Carne y Arena.

Passionate about making emotionally-charged VR experiences, she discussed making After Solitary. It’s a VR experience that places users into a solitary confinement cell. There, an inmate talks about how it affected his mental state. This helped give an overlooked population visibility and put attention on their human rights.

De la Peña and Emblematic have and continue to produce immersive experiences that put the user in the role of a character and not solely as an observer. These experiences are more than a night in watching Netflix at home. Rather, they bring deep attention to social issues like mental health, poverty, and the effects of war.

Users feel a human connection with her re-created events. Where other studios and experiences fear to tread, de la Peña and Emblematic bring them center stage in a personal way only VR and XR technologies can provide.


Featured image credit: Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times © 2019

Juanita Leatham
the authorJuanita Leatham
Juanita is a writer for the AR, VR, and spatial realms. You can find her gaming, listening to music, writing, and hanging out with her husband and friends in her free time.