On Alternate Realities: Big ideas at Sheffield Doc/Fest

I’ve been lucky enough to attend three different Sheffield Doc/Fest festivals, and always been so impressed by its progressive showcase of forward-thinking alternate realities programming.

Virtual and alternate realities are often a such an imaginative, immersive and impactful way to tell the stories that matter – it’s been great to properly digest this year’s programme over the past couple of days. Here’s a few of the highlights:

Alternate Realities: Interactive Exhibition

The festival’s Interactive Exhibition will showcase a range of interactive docs that you can play with, touch and experience. You can be among the first to see some mind-blowing cutting edge technology which has not yet been shown by to a public audience. Here’s what in the programme:

The Enemy uses augmented reality technology that uses the camera on your phone to superimpose life-sized characters into the room right in front of you, in this case a member of the Israeli Defence Force and a Palestinian fighter. As you move towards and around them, they react to you, talking about who they think the enemy is.

The USC Shoah Foundation’s New Dimensions in Testimony invites you to have a conversation with the scanned image of a holocaust survivor powered by sophisticated natural language processing software that allows you to ask him questions about his experiences and get a natural response.

The festival will set up an Empathy Station to test how bias can be changed through empathy. Games have finally grown up and games developers are working with documentary producers to allow us to connect with documentary stories on a level where you experience the narrative as a participant rather than a viewer.

In This War of Mine: The Little Ones you can discover what it’s like to be a child struggling to survive in a war-torn city. Antariksha Sanchar is India’s first major video-game, a beautifully-crafted experience in which you follow in the footsteps of a young mathematician learning to make sense of the cosmos.

Walden, a Game simulattes the experience of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau as he goes back to nature at Walden Pond. It’s a game in which you are rewarded by reading literature and discovering the natural world.

Two Billion Miles puts you in the shoes of a migrant trying to find a safe haven in Europe. You see the results of decisions you make about the journey played out in actual news footage showing the stark reality for many thousands of people over the past few months.


#Hacked: Syria’s Electronic Armies invites us to become a journalist investigating the ISIS cyber war. The festival has some beautiful interactive documentaries in which artists invite us to play and explore.

John Lennon: The Bermuda Tapes takes us on a boat with Lennon as he travels to Bermuda with his son Sean, a journey of renewed creativity which resulted in his Double Fantasy album.

In Avatar Secrets, Canadian interactive film-maker Ramona Pringle analyses online identities in today’s connected world.

A Polish Journey retraces the steps of a Polish migrant to Britain after the Second World War. The festival has a couple of art installations as well.

Trick or Treat : Bhai-O-Scope takes us into the curious world of India’s unregistered street doctors while Undoing Time looking at the American prison system through the products of the prison industry.


The Alternate Realities Summit

On Sunday 12 June 2016 the Alternate Realities Summit (previously The Crossover Summit) will be taking place at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It promises a day of panel talks and playful presentations from some of the smartest minds in news, documentary, digital storytelling and virtual reality.

Fascinatingly, the festival is the first to have an Android keynote speaker, Bina48. This is not to be missed! Anyway, the festival programme tells us:

We kick off the Summit morning session ‘Robots, Androids and Avatars Live’ with a series of keynotes and practical demonstrations from intelligent machines and their human companions: social robot Bina48 debates love, war and the universe with Ramona Pringle, Dr Stephen Smith presents virtual Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who answers all your questions about his experience in real-time, NAO gives us a brief history of robots and iCub helps us to see beyond our own eyes with telepresence experiments.

Back by popular demand, our VRfternoon sessions explore the impact of virtual reality on factual storytelling. Google’s very own Principal Filmmaker for VR, Jessica Brillhart kicking off post-lunch proceedings, with her latest insights from the frontline of VR making. We will be delving into the advantages and potential pitfalls of binaural sound, investigating how journalism works in virtual reality, sharing what the VR community can learn from immersive theatre, analysing whether virtual reality can increase our empathy levels, as well as launching a new VR film from the United Nations.

I’m particularly interested in Dr Stephen Smith’s keynote talk, showcasing a New Dimensions in Testimony; ground-breaking natural language software that allows audiences to have a “virtual encounter” with the recorded image of Holocaust survivor, Pinchas Gutter, who responds in real time, powered by complex algorithms providing realistic conversation. I saw a trailer of this project at UCL last year, and this kind if work has the awesome potential to transform storytelling and archives of the future.

static1.squarespace.jpgAlso, really looking forward to the United Nation’s VR film launch. This will be a mass viewing of the organisation’s latest VR film; all about gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where factions fight over the country’s mineral resources. After the viewing, the project’s director Gabo Arora will be interviewed by Francine Stock of BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme.



If virtual reality and pushing the boundaries of factual reporting is your thing, then highly recommend visiting the Sheffield Doc/Fest website to explore for yourself.


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