“Hiya! I wanna get to know ya!”
XR virtual world avatars allow for shared experience
Picture provided by NewImages Festival
“Physical contact is obviously better, so why do we need the XR virtual world?”
This might be how most people react on first hearing about XR technology. But in fact, “virtual interaction” has been playing a silent but important role in our lives for over a decade.
“Hiya! I wanna get to know ya!” This opening sentence might ring a bell to people who interacted [virtually] in various internet chat rooms during the 1990s. With the advent of the internet came early chat room screen names and email accounts, right up to today’s social media Memojis and virtual doubles. All of these digital representations of the self can be seen as digital “avatars ” that enable us to make connections with others in the virtual world.
People used to think digital avatars were just stand-ins. In any case, it’s hard to beat real contact in the physical world. But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic was raging around the world that I realized how lucky we are to have XR and avatars so that we can continue to have shared experiences.
In January 2021, TAICCA established a partnership with NewImages Festival, France’s largest immersive contents festival, and officially launched the bilateral Taiwan–France Talent Networking Program, called Taiwan x France XR Days.
What is puzzling is that with its first-rate cultural policies, France has long been a well-known leader in the VR field, and year after year French productions have won prizes in the Virtual Reality section of the Venice Film Festival. So, what opportunities does the NewImages Festival see in Taiwan?
French adviser to TAICCA Aurélien Dirler, has worked in both Europe and Asia and takes a cross-cultural perspective: “Taiwan’s creative industry set-up is not only similar to the one in France, but it also has a complete ecosystem for the immersive content industry. There are very few places in the world that are a ‘one-stop shop’ for everything you need, like chips, manufacturing, and content technology.”
NewImages Festival Director Michaël Swierczynski cited Taiwanese artist Hsin-Chien Huang’s work Bodyless, which won first prize for XR at the 2020 NewImages Festival: “This work has no language, but it allows people from different countries to enter the narrative through bodily experience.”
What enabled Huang to go beyond the boundaries of language may have something to do with Taiwan’s openness to other cultures, new technologies, and innovative content. “Many [other] markets also have excellent audiovisual talent, but it’s very hard to imagine finding another market so willing to embrace the content of the future and so eager to innovate.”
In the 2009 global hit movie Avatar, we hear the line “I see you.” After that film came out, the English phrase acquired a new meaning: “I truly feel what you’re feeling.”
In interviews with international media, director Hsin-Chien Huang has said that when we become “an other” in the virtual world, we take on that other’s full emotional and mental experience and we ourselves change, which triggers new ideas and helps us transcend our limitations.
While physical contact has limitations, virtual experience is unlimited. It is only when we experience the world through others’ bodies that we can understand differences and empathize with different kinds of experiences.
NewImages Festival Director Michaël Swierczynski (provided by NewImages Festival)
1. The most forceful imagining is the dream; the strongest narrative, immersion
[Late] French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once said that the most forceful image is the dreamscape: when we dream, our senses are alert but our body cannot move. As we lose control of our body in the real world, our dreaming brain starts to see the virtual world as more and more real.
The most compelling narratives are immersive. Extended reality environments such as AR and VR integrate reality and virtuality, so although our body is in a real environment, our senses are at work in the virtual world. Although the body is autonomous, we often look like sleepwalkers, which makes it easier to immerse ourselves in XR as we walk through the virtual universe laid out by the storyteller.
So, what kind of people are able to fully embrace virtual immersive content? Unsurprisingly, it’s “Gen C” (“Generation Covid”)—those who are still learning their mother tongue or have just entered elementary school. According to a Bank of America report, the epidemic has completely digitized human interactions for Gen C—hugs, kisses, or class attendance—all physical interactions can be done virtually.
Born digital natives in a world full of devices such as mobile phones and tablets, Gen C kiss friends and relatives through the screen and tell them they miss them from the other side of the camera. They’ve played AR games since forever and everywhere they go they hold out their phones to “catch” virtual Pokémon. For Gen C, interacting with the virtual world comes naturally, and in the near future they will come to see their digital avatars as “other selves” that require round-the-clock image maintenance and much more.
But what about adults, who do not belong to Gen C and are often more accustomed to traditional face-to-face meetings? How can immersive and interactive XR content be relevant to them?
In an interesting analogy, Michaël Swierczynski, director of the NewImages Festival, says that watching a conventional video is like looking at a specimen: we know that time has passed, so we look at it in a disengaged way, as if it doesn’t concern us. But with immersive content we can use an avatar to play a role, and this makes our own “bodily” experience part of the content.
“This narrative method allows you not only to understand but also to live in that space and time, and to truly experience the storyteller’s ideas.”
Nowadays we are constantly exploring how to truly empathize with each other and feel each other in order to make the world a better place. Recent years have seen the rise of “design thinking” in the business field and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) in education, both of which emphasize using diversity of thought based in empathy to truly solve social problems.
Immersive content is like a window giving us the opportunity to truly experience each other’s ideas and empathize with each other.
2. NewImages Festival: Try it here first, then take it home
However, we have to face the fact that the technology is still not that widespread, which means few people come into contact with or understand immersion.
By comparison, the film industry has been developing for more than a century. And even if the Lumière brothers’ late 19th-century screening of the world’s first film, Train Pulling into a Station, scared the audience out of their seats. Today anyone can walk into a cinema and buy a ticket to support their favorite work. And with home streaming platforms such as Netflix, we can just click on any movie we want to watch.
The fourth NewImages Festival is on its way. Paris has a wealth of art and cultural events, so it is hoped that making technology more widespread will enable most French people to easily obtain hardware and access immersive digital content. Even more important, this is not just an event where insiders stroke each other’s egos. Instead, a lot of thought has gone into how to market the technology to the public.
“We want to take the same road they took to popularize video games: not just bringing people here to experience it, but also in the future people taking new image art home with them,” Michaël Swierczynski explained.
When video games first came out, people would line up in front of the huge game machines in the gaming arcade, eagerly awaiting their turn. Later on, PlayStation and other small game consoles appeared, and many people began to hook them up to screens and squeeze into little bedrooms to “battle” with friends. Later still, cloud games appeared, allowing us to team up and play with other people around the world.
Michaël Swierczynski believes that immersive content will follow the same development path as video games: “hardware becoming more and more compact, and content becoming more and more diverse.” That’s why, as well as setting up performance venues in spots with good public transport connections and department stores in order to draw people in, the festival has installed VR equipment at the exits of many Paris metro stations to put these award-winning VR works in front of people and allow passers-by to experience it for free.
This kind of effective promotion, together with the concept of “French Cultural Exception”, which traditionally guarantees freedom of creation, and the associations set up by creators, make the NewImages Festival more than just a French pioneer of storytelling that combines new technologies and new kinds of image. The festival has now become the most comprehensive immersive creative XR art festival in Europe, every year attracting creators and investors from all over the continent to seek matchmaking opportunities.
“It’s not just a festival—it’s also a market, and even more a place where industry experts can meet and exchange ideas,” said Aurélien Dirler, Adviser at TAICCA.
2019 NewImages Festival Taiwan focus, in Paris Les Halles
3. Taiwan’s award-winning director creates VR works that say everything without saying a word
To be clear, the NewImages Festival is not just about “dominating the European market” or developing a purely “European narrative style.” After all, France has long used the policy of French cultural exception to resist American cultural invasion, and film lovers all over the world today have the opportunity to appreciate French and European-style storytelling. So, the film industry is not just Hollywood.
“So, the new content cannot have only one type of story, or one way of telling those stories,” ‘Diversity’ is the key to European cinema’s success, said Aurélien Dirler, explaining that this is why France wants to step outside the European market, enter into discussions with other countries, and cooperate with Taiwan.
However, Taiwan’s past successes in hardware contract manufacturing mean it is used to playing the role of an industry chain “service provider”. But as Dirler repeatedly stressed, Taiwan is the rare country that has a complete immersive content ecosystem: “Taiwan should participate in the content industry, not just provide technology.”
In fact, Taiwan and France have already worked together on audiovisual productions for many years. Since the 1980s, famous Taiwanese directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang have been in frequent contact with the French film industry. Following the advent of VR came the inaugural edition of the NewImages Festival, Aurélien Dirler facilitated its collaboration with the Kaohsiung Film Festival to curate exhibitions and host artists' residency together. VR industry professionals in France and Taiwan have clearly been in close communication for a long time.
But such collaborations are like unconnected “points.” In order to join the dots and draw a “line” (e.g. a partnership), Aurélien Dirler believes that government support is needed. Signing an MOU with TAICCA will generate momentum for exchange, accelerate the pace of cooperation, and create a stable and long-term communication system. In the future, through TW and FR's cooperation, this can be a successful model to replicate with other partners in the world.
However, South Korea and Japan—also Asian countries—clearly have advantages in the audiovisual industry and their levels of technological development are comparable. So why did France take the lead in working with Taiwan? If you have seen the Taiwanese artist Hsin-Chien Huang, who won first prize for XR at the 2020 NewImages Festival with his Bodyless, you will understand why French new visual art circles have set their sights on Taiwan.
A former engineer, Hsin-Chien Huang grew up hearing his mother’s stories of state surveillance during the White Terror in Taiwan. But when in later life she developed dementia, she gradually forgot everything she had told her son. Huang thought that even if her brain no longer remembered things, perhaps her other sense organs still retained traces of the past. So, he combined his mother’s memories into a virtual VR image that would enable her to revisit the past through the senses of sight and hearing.
Bodyless uses the perspective of an elderly political prisoner to portray belief, religion, and folklore during the era of martial law in Taiwan. As the elderly man dies, the viewer turns into his ghost—walking through scenes of origami lotuses, Taiwanese opera, ordinary family living rooms, a prison, and other familiar settings from his life.
“Even though Huang’s work is wordless, it allows people from different countries and backgrounds to enter the narrative through bodily experience and get a natural ‘feel’ of that period of history.”
Michaël Swierczynski’s relationship with visual media began in college and has continued through his career. He stresses: “Just like Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s achievements in film aesthetics, Hsin-Chien Huang’s achievements in VR aesthetics are also quite remarkable. Neither audiovisual nor gaming—it’s a unique VR style that has reached the realm of artistry.” After giving the compliment, Swierczynski repeatedly underlines that this is not flattery.
How was it possible to achieve the universality of “being without language, but saying everything”? Swierczynski observed that it may be linked to Taiwan’s openness to the cultures and innovative content of Asia, Europe, and the United States. “Many other markets also have very talented audiovisual creators, but to find a market that is willing to embrace the content of the future and has a strong desire for innovation—I find it hard to see these characteristics in other countries.”
4. Conserving our ancestors’ visual memories and retrieving Taiwan’s visual history
TAICCA Chairperson Ting Hsiao-Ching was unsurprised by these compliments because she has often heard them in conversation with future content technology stakeholders in the European and American markets over the past few years.
“In Taiwan the food on our tables is complex and varied because Taiwan is an immigrant society, a liberal democracy. In the same way, our ethnic identities and cultures are very diverse and there are no ideological taboos, so there are no boundaries in our visual narratives.” And these are decisive competitive factors in the content industry.
However, compared to major cities in Japan or Europe that seem like “living fossils” with old quarters that are hundred[s] of years old, Ting Hsiao-Ching realized that when you look back over Taiwanese history, you see that with every new generation of rulers, the city gates changed and visual memories were broken. The Taipei City that our ancestors saw may be completely different from the Taipei City where their descendants live today.
“This is the collective absence of Taiwanese society. We need to use immersive XR video narratives to retrieve what sustains us culturally.” Just as director Hsin-Chien Huang has used VR images to give us his mother’s oral history, our ancestors’ visual memories should also be “visually reconstructed” through immersive content. In this way, we will retrieve the visual history of Taiwan.
(Left) Aurélien Dirler, advisor of TAICCA and (right) Hsiao Chin Ting, Chairperson of TAICCA)
2021 TAICCA and NewImages Festival will have its first edition of TW x FR XR DAY fully online programs soon on 8th to 9th June, will have 12 selected Taiwanese talents represented to join this extraordinary networking program between France and Taiwan.
The selected Taiwanese talents are as fellow:
- Awu CHEN / Head of Experience at AmaVR
- Danieo CHEN / Redbit Pictures
- Tung Yen CHOU / Very Theatre Company & Very Mainstream Studio
- Tami XU / HAFTIX FILMS
- John HSU / Yahoo Taiwan
- Yuan An CHAN / ET@T
- Ami WU / Moonshine Animation
- Baboo LIAO / Theatre diretor
- Pei Ying LIN / Nau-Tai Delusional Studio
- Han Hsien PENG / Sound Depth Studio
- Ian Pan / Fun2 Studio
- Pochen WU / Digital Art Foundation
- Hsing Jou YEH / ET @ T
*Join the 8th June online workshop at 9am CET / 3pm CST(Taiwan Time)