Cambridge, Massachusetts: Storytelling is perhaps as old as civilization itself, and much like the latter, it has evolved over time. Weathering tech storms from the Internet and mobile world, the art form has mutated, but survived. So on 18 November, when the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, announced setting up of a new Centre for Future Storytelling, there were mixed reactions, partly owing to the lab’s reputation for being “futuristic” and also because of people’s strong attachment to the art of storytelling itself.
Technology tales: Ramesh Raskar of the Centre for Future Storytelling showing some of his new-age cameras. Seema Singh / Mint
But one of the co-directors of this new centre, Ramesh Raskar, who recently joined MIT from Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories and also heads a group called Camera Culture, argues that Media Lab is not futuristic and is often thought to be so because it tries to create completely new things, rather than work on incremental technologies.
In an interview, he explains what this centre, with a $25 million (Rs121 crore) funding from Plymouth Rock Studios, intends to do and how he thinks the entertainment business in India could leapfrog to an entirely new model with “interactive” and “social” storytelling. Edited excerpts:
So, what is the future of storytelling?
We want to make sure storytelling is democratized, social and improvisational, and for that we want to create tools and platforms that can be diffused into society. Steven Spielberg and James Cameron became who they are, the great storytellers, because they had access to the right resources and were surrounded by the right people. Compare that with the music industry, which until recently required that you have the studio, equipment et al. to release your CD. But that has changed now…you can put your CD on MySpace and become famous overnight. How can we do that for storytelling, moviemaking…
Where does YouTube fit in all this?
YouTube is an example of part democratization but most of the clips don’t have the context. By creating new tools we can empower individuals to become master storytellers, whether for the audience of one or a billion. The audience of one could be your daughter, and the story could be fiction (trying to put her to sleep) or real (sharing some experience with her).
What leap in technology would this require?
It could be as simple as you take your flight back to Bangalore and your baggage is delayed, which can be pretty annoying as it happens but could make for a good story once you settle and decide to narrate to your family. But now you don’t have the tools to do this. If we had a camera that was taking the movie all the time, maybe your bag was smart enough to know where it went and so on, then you have this much networked environment which is automatically writing the story. Technology does the bookkeeping and additional software pieces together the story.
How much of this is already developed?
These are very high-level technologies. For instance, instead of 2D there’ll be 3D cameras; cameras that can analyse your expression and emotion by looking at thermal imaging, or those that can do digital refocusing and use even out-of-focus pictures. Then we have displays, 6D instead of 3D, which not only changes the viewpoint (which happens in 2D or 3D) but even the light position. We have built pieces of these (technologies)…as it’s not one system that solves the problem. It’s like speech recognition—still not solved but people have made sufficient progress in the last 20 years to get very close to make it happen. So, I’m saying it’s 20 years to go from now.
Is that the time frame for the ‘future storytelling’ to arrive?
Yes. Right now we have funding for seven years and have only one partner. But we’ll get more partners. You look at the history of Media Lab—in the (19)80s it was multimedia; in the (19)90s, it was bits and atoms, and now it’s about intimacy of humans and technology. We don’t work on multimedia any more; we want to work on something that’s far in the future.
Will this give rise to a new form of visual art, say holographic TV?
Of course. Holographic television is something we are working on. But think how photorealism in painting was a hot topic 200 years ago and when camera came around, creating photorealistic painting became boring because cameras could do a much better job…that totally transformed the field of paintings. The way camera made photorealism painting obsolete, we want to make the next device that’ll make today’s camera obsolete and boring.
You also work on personalized camera…
It’s a somewhat vague concept—in future you’ll be wearing it all the time, recording all the time…
But why would I want to record everything all the time?
It’s like saying why do we need (a) 24-hour news channel? People want information, especially about themselves, and process that information for value addition—for measuring one’s productivity, well-being, health, or even for keeping in touch with loved ones.
Media Lab is famous for working on futuristic technology, which doesn’t quite pan out in the real world. How realistic is this—crowd sourcing if I may call it?
It is crowd sourcing, and it is happening. In visual media we call it ‘visual social computing’. When (adventure aviator) Steve Fossett’s plane went missing in Nevada last year, we saw this happen—everybody was trying to find a piece of the puzzle.
Do you think Bollywood will be interested?
We are very keen to collaborate with Bollywood and early next year we’ll make a formal trip to India to strike some deals. Seeing how India has leapfrogged the industrial revolution to enter the service model, or has taken to mobile telephony, I think the entertainment business there can come up with a completely new form of storytelling. Bollywood, because of its decentralized nature, is in the right position to propagate new forms of “Indian-style” entertainment. Moreover, storytelling is not only about entertainment—news, education, social messages, interpersonal relationships—are all part of storytelling.
So, this is not a centre for future moviemaking. News is a big aspect of it as we already have a Centre for Future Civic Media here. We’ll play a complementary role in building tools for news in local communities.
Tools again…can you demystify ‘tools’ and ‘platforms’?
Usually when you do research, you don’t create the back end and front end. Research lies somewhere in the middle, pushing the edges of these two ends. So, a tool would be how to add intelligence to a mobile phone camera or a mobile phone display or to the software so that you can tell the story of your delayed baggage. Maybe a camera that is constantly recording, has an accelerometer (an instrument for measuring acceleration) which looks for the shake of it, a software that processes images and does facial recognition. Maybe there’s a platform that tells you—when you are telling the story—what next to show depending on who’s in the crowd or what your emotion is.