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TED2015

Chris Milk: How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine

March 18, 2015

Chris Milk uses cutting edge technology to produce astonishing films that delight and enchant. But for Milk, the human story is the driving force behind everything he does. In this short, charming talk, he shows some of his collaborations with musicians including Kanye West and Arcade Fire, and describes his latest, mind-bending experiments with virtual reality. (This talk was part of a session at TED2015 guest-curated by Pop-Up Magazine: popupmagazine.com or @popupmag on Twitter.)

Chris Milk - Immersive storyteller
Working at the frontiers of interactive technology, Chris Milk stretches virtual reality into a new canvas for storytelling. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Virtual reality started for me
in sort of an unusual place.
00:13
It was the 1970s.
00:18
I got into the field very young:
I was seven years old.
00:20
And the tool that I used
to access virtual reality
00:24
was the Evel Knievel stunt cycle.
00:29
This is a commercial for
that particular item:
00:32
(Video) Voice-over: What a jump!
00:35
Evel's riding the amazing stunt cycle.
00:36
That gyro-power sends him
over 100 feet at top speed.
00:38
Chris Milk: So this was my joy back then.
00:41
I rode this motorcycle everywhere.
00:43
And I was there with Evel Knievel; we
jumped the Snake River Canyon together.
00:46
I wanted the rocket.
00:50
I never got the rocket,
I only got the motorcycle.
00:52
I felt so connected to this world.
00:57
I didn't want to be a storyteller
when I grew up, I wanted to be stuntman.
01:00
I was there. Evel Knievel was my friend.
01:04
I had so much empathy for him.
01:07
But it didn't work out. (Laughter)
01:10
I went to art school.
01:13
I started making music videos.
01:15
And this is one of the early
music videos that I made:
01:17
(Music: "Touch the Sky" by Kanye West)
01:20
CM: You may notice
some slight similarities here.
01:26
(Laughter)
01:29
And I got that rocket.
01:31
(Laughter)
01:34
So, now I'm a filmmaker,
or, the beginning of a filmmaker,
01:36
and I started using the tools that are
available to me as a filmmaker
01:41
to try to tell the most compelling stories
that I can to an audience.
01:45
And film is this incredible medium
that allows us to feel empathy
01:49
for people that are very different than us
01:52
and worlds completely
foreign from our own.
01:54
Unfortunately,
01:57
Evel Knievel did not feel the same
empathy for us that we felt for him,
01:58
and he sued us for this video --
02:03
(Laughter) --
02:06
shortly thereafter.
02:07
On the upside, the man
that I worshipped as a child,
02:09
the man that I wanted
to become as an adult,
02:14
I was finally able to get his autograph.
02:17
(Applause)
02:22
Let's talk about film now.
02:29
Film, it's an incredible medium,
02:34
but essentially, it's the same
now as it was then.
02:37
It's a group of rectangles that are
played in a sequence.
02:40
And we've done incredible things
with those rectangles.
02:44
But I started thinking about,
02:48
is there a way that I can use modern
and developing technologies
02:51
to tell stories in different ways
02:55
and tell different kinds of stories
02:57
that maybe I couldn't tell using
the traditional tools of filmmaking
02:59
that we've been using for 100 years?
03:03
So I started experimenting,
03:05
and what I was trying to do was
to build the ultimate empathy machine.
03:08
And here's one of the early experiments:
03:14
(Music)
03:17
So this is called
"The Wilderness Downtown."
03:20
It was a collaboration with Arcade Fire.
03:22
It asked you to put in the address
where you grew up at the beginning of it.
03:24
It's a website.
03:28
And out of it starts growing these little
boxes with different browser windows.
03:29
And you see this teenager
running down a street,
03:34
and then you see Google Street View
and Google Maps imagery
03:36
and you realize the street
he's running down is yours.
03:39
And when he stops in front of a house,
he stops in front of your house.
03:41
And this was great, and I saw people
having an even deeper emotional reaction
03:47
to this than the things that
I had made in rectangles.
03:51
And I'm essentially taking
a piece of your history
03:54
and putting it inside
the framing of the story.
03:58
But then I started thinking,
04:01
okay, well that's a part of you,
04:03
but how do I put all of you
inside of the frame?
04:05
So to do that, I started
making art installations.
04:10
And this is one called
"The Treachery of Sanctuary."
04:13
It's a triptych. I'm going to show
you the third panel.
04:16
(Music)
04:19
So now I've got you inside of the frame,
04:43
and I saw people having even more
visceral emotional reactions
04:46
to this work than the previous one.
04:51
But then I started thinking about frames,
and what do they represent?
04:53
And a frame is just a window.
04:58
I mean, all the media that we watch --
television, cinema --
05:00
they're these windows into
these other worlds.
05:03
And I thought, well, great.
I got you in a frame.
05:05
But I don't want you in the frame,
I don't want you in the window,
05:08
I want you through the window,
I want you on the other side,
05:11
in the world, inhabiting the world.
05:14
So that leads me back to virtual reality.
05:18
Let's talk about virtual reality.
05:20
Unfortunately,
05:24
talking about virtual reality
is like dancing about architecture.
05:25
And this is actually someone dancing
about architecture in virtual reality.
05:30
(Laughter)
05:37
So, it's difficult to explain.
Why is it difficult to explain?
05:39
It's difficult because it's a very
experiential medium.
05:42
You feel your way inside of it.
05:46
It's a machine, but inside of it,
05:48
it feels like real life,
it feels like truth.
05:50
And you feel present in the world
that you're inside
05:53
and you feel present with the people
that you're inside of it with.
05:56
So, I'm going to show you a demo
of a virtual reality film:
05:59
a full-screen version of
all the information
06:03
that we capture when
we shoot virtual reality.
06:05
So we're shooting in every direction.
06:08
This is a camera system that we built
06:09
that has 3D cameras that look
in every direction
06:12
and binaural microphones
that face in every direction.
06:15
We take this and we build, basically,
a sphere of a world that you inhabit.
06:17
So what I'm going to show you
is not a view into the world,
06:23
it's basically the whole world
stretched into a rectangle.
06:26
So this film is called
"Clouds Over Sidra,"
06:29
and it was made in conjunction with
our virtual reality company called VRSE
06:33
and the United Nations,
06:37
and a co-collaborator named Gabo Arora.
06:39
And we went to a Syrian refugee camp
in Jordan in December
06:42
and shot the story of a 12-year-old
girl there named Sidra.
06:46
And she and her family fled Syria
through the desert into Jordan
06:50
and she's been living in this
camp for the last year and a half.
06:54
(Video) Sidra: My name is Sidra.
07:00
I am 12 years old.
07:02
I am in the fifth grade.
07:04
I am from Syria,
in the Daraa Province, Inkhil City.
07:06
I have lived here in the Zaatari camp
in Jordan for the last year and a half.
07:11
I have a big family:
07:18
three brothers, one is a baby.
07:20
He cries a lot.
07:23
I asked my father if I cried when
I was a baby and he says I did not.
07:26
I think I was a stronger baby
than my brother.
07:32
CM: So, when you're inside
of the headset.
07:35
you're not seeing it like this.
07:38
You're looking around through this world.
07:40
You'll notice you see full
360 degrees, in all directions.
07:42
And when you're sitting there
in her room, watching her,
07:47
you're not watching it through
a television screen,
07:50
you're not watching it through a window,
you're sitting there with her.
07:52
When you look down, you're sitting
on the same ground that she's sitting on.
07:56
And because of that,
08:00
you feel her humanity in a deeper way.
08:02
You empathize with her in a deeper way.
08:06
And I think that we can change
minds with this machine.
08:11
And we've already started
to try to change a few.
08:17
So we took this film to the World Economic
Forum in Davos in January.
08:21
And we showed it to a group of people
08:26
whose decisions affect the lives
of millions of people.
08:28
And these are people
who might not otherwise
08:32
be sitting in a tent
in a refugee camp in Jordan.
08:35
But in January, one afternoon
in Switzerland,
08:41
they suddenly all found themselves there.
08:47
(Applause)
08:52
And they were affected by it.
08:58
So we're going to make more of them.
09:00
We're working with the
United Nations right now
09:04
to shoot a whole series of these films.
09:07
We just finished shooting
a story in Liberia.
09:09
And now, we're going
to shoot a story in India.
09:12
And we're taking these films,
09:15
and we're showing them
at the United Nations
09:17
to people that work there and people
that are visiting there.
09:19
And we're showing
them to the people
09:22
that can actually change the lives
of the people inside of the films.
09:24
And that's where I think we just
start to scratch the surface
09:29
of the true power of virtual reality.
09:32
It's not a video game peripheral.
09:36
It connects humans to other humans
in a profound way
09:38
that I've never seen before
in any other form of media.
09:43
And it can change people's
perception of each other.
09:46
And that's how I think
09:50
virtual reality has the potential
to actually change the world.
09:52
So, it's a machine,
09:58
but through this machine
we become more compassionate,
10:00
we become more empathetic,
and we become more connected.
10:05
And ultimately, we become more human.
10:11
Thank you.
10:16
(Applause)
10:17

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Chris Milk - Immersive storyteller
Working at the frontiers of interactive technology, Chris Milk stretches virtual reality into a new canvas for storytelling.

Why you should listen

Chris Milk is a visual artist who has created music videos for Kanye West, Arcade Fire, Beck, U2, Johnny Cash, Gnarls Barkley and many more. He is known for weaving artistic and technological innovations in pursuit of the next great platform for storytelling. Milk's acclaimed interactive projects include Wilderness Downtown (with Arcade Fire), The Johnny Cash Project and The Treachery of Sanctuary. His interactive installation artworks have been showcased at the MoMA, the Tate Modern and museums around the world.

Milk's most recent contribution to the art and tech frontier is as founder and CEO of the virtual reality company Within (formerly Vrse). In collaboration with the New York Times, Zach Richter and JR, Milk created two VR films, Walking New York and The Displaced, which were distributed along with Google Cardboard viewers to 1 million NYT subscribers in 2015. He has also collaborated on VR projects with the United Nations (Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace), Vice, SNL and U2.

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