How not to do a jive bunny (storytelling in the age of AR)

Ben Smith, ECD at The Mill New York, shares his belief that narrative and storytelling are as critical as ever when using new emerging technologies to connect with us as human beings.

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Jive Bunny. Remember them? A novelty pop act from Rotherham during the 80’s and 90’s. Amazingly, they scored three UK chart topping number ones with their peculiar brand of nauseating medleys, combining classic rock ’n’ roll era samples with newfangled synthesizer sounds.

A classic example of technique over substance, IMHO. They took existing songs and remixed them through novel technology to create something ‘original.’ Their creations may have been new, but to me they just felt wrong. Out of context, and treated with the thin veneer of shiny new technology, all those classic songs lost their spirit and meaning. And why bother; surely advances in technology demand advances in thinking, not just the rehashing of old ideas?

I mention Jive Bunny, in all their ephemeral techno glory, because there is a danger that those of us charged with embracing the exciting array of emerging technologies in the media landscape might, accidentally, create our own versions of Jive Bunny.

Emerging technologies are those that are perceived to be capable of changing the status quo. They’re generally new, but include older technologies that are still controversial and relatively undeveloped in potential: augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), drones, physical computing, data science, robotics, geo-tagging, real-time biometric analysis, and so on. The pace of change is accelerating fast with what seems like a new technological revelation, and associated buzzword, entering our vocabulary every day.

The big-ticket item for 2018 is Augmented Reality (AR). Having witnessed Snapchat and Pokémon Go, we’re now seeing rapid AR progress with Apple’s ARKit, Android’s ARCore, and Facebook’s AR Studio. China is also entering the fray with WeChat developing its own AR platform too. Whether through mobile in the immediate future, or in consumer-ready head-mounted displays like Microsoft’s Hololens 2.0, Magic Leap, Google Glass 2.0, or Apple’s anticipated foray before 2020, AR will become the ubiquitous platform for work and life in the coming years.

Exciting stuff. Media in general, and advertising in particular, are evolving to employ AR and other strategies, as they offer new creative and business opportunities in almost every facet of life. AR promises to bring us closer to what we’ve seen in Blade Runner and Minority Report with interactive targeted ads, such as customizing the look of the girl in the make-up ad to match your learned profile. No doubt there will be widespread integration of AR with physical products and the home too. Clothing, furniture, cereal boxes/food, toys, games, and magazines, for example.

And there are countless practical implementations too. Training, industrial design, education, healthcare, navigation, museum experiences, and journalism, will all benefit from a living and adaptive layer of data that will transform the user experience.

But what about narrative and emotion?

Storytelling is old. From the campfires of ancient tribal gatherings to our mixed reality future, the purpose of narrative remains the same: to transport people, and make them feel something. This is especially true of advertising, where eliciting emotions is usually the fastest route to brand recognition and increasing sales.

Many of the new techniques in storytelling draw upon those of the past. VR draws upon the central tenets of theatre and film, while AR is a mixture of design, VFX, and site-specific theatre. These are clearly simplifications, but the point is that they are both new technologies through which we can redefine how stories are told.

Context is, of course, key. It’s incumbent on us, the strategists, creatives, producers, and artists, to create new stories and experiences that utilize the technology in thoughtful and creative ways. We need to be sensitive to the new mediums we’re embracing, and brave about the ways in which we use them. It’s not about buzzwords and technology for the sake of it, it’s about harnessing the new to inspire and move humanity

Storytelling is old. From the campfires of ancient tribal gatherings to our mixed reality future, the purpose of narrative remains the same: to transport people, and make them feel something. This is especially true of advertising, where eliciting emotions is usually the fastest route to brand recognition and increasing sales.

in more powerful ways, enabled by the technology that’s emerging.

“The medium is the message,” a phrase coined by Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan, is just as insightful now as it was when he wrote it back in the 60’s. In his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan proposes that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study. He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role, not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.

An example of VR that honours this idea beautifully is ‘Notes on Blindness,’ an immersive experience complementing the 2016 feature film about John Hull’s decent into blindness. It begins as the user is literally blinded by a sight-occluding VR headset. Accompanied by John’s scratchy voice recordings and a binaural soundscape, users are then treated to beautifully animated 3D scenes that represent how John learned to sense the world around him without sight.

Another example is STRATA, created by my friend and colleague Rama Allen, here in our New York office. STRATA is the world’s first responsive VR experience driven exclusively by biometrics. Heart rate, breathing, stress levels, and brain waves are used to remix a generative game engine world around the user. The immersive experience connects users to their own emotional state, teaching them to attain a sense of calm, and focus their mind. The goal is for a user to learn to exercise their own biometrics as a controller; the calmer they are, the higher users levitate upwards through a series of fantastical animated worlds.

Probably the most powerful and moving VR projects I’ve seen are created by Nonny de la Peña and her team at Emblematic studios. Often using real audio recordings from violent scenes, her gut-wrenching experiences transport users into shocking moments of abuse or conflict. Covering subjects like police brutality, domestic violence, and the conflict in Syria, she uses the medium of VR to elicit profound levels of empathy for the victims of these crimes. Experiencing the injustice and prejudice virtually firsthand makes turning the other cheek harder to do, and increases the likelihood of positive action.

These remarkable projects share a common understanding of what it means to be human, and a sensitivity to the medium that they embrace. I think Marshall McLuhan would approve.

As with almost everything in this sphere, they’re also technically innovative and no doubt took time to develop. New methods of storytelling require exploration, trial and error, and the room to fail without persecution. That means talking early and developing ideas collaboratively with those who are close to the means of production.

It’s my hope that, in the very near future, we can go beyond the familiar tropes found in the interruptive commercial visual and auditory signifiers of today, and into a more sensitive and considered world, expressed through the new ideas that these exciting technologies enable. This will require brave strategic and creative thinking. Not to mention a shit load of hard work.

I’m excited by the potential of these new technology-inspired arenas, and at the Mill we’re exploring them with the same verve and excitement that we did when Flame first appeared. Remember that emerging technology? In 2017, we held a two-day festival in our NY office called Move.Me – for it, we developed a series of original artworks incorporating VR, AR, robotics, biometrics, real-time rendering and data visualization, all designed to induce wonder, play, and discovery.

It’s all very exciting. There’s creative and financial gold in those shiny hills of new technology. Just don’t go and do a Jive Bunny.

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Ben Smith is an Executive Creative Director at The Mill, New York. With a long history in storytelling, VFX, and design, Ben ensures creative excellence across a broad range of projects.