Learn how modern storytellers are immersing people in the worlds of their stories. Hosts Becca DeGregorio and Todd Whitney speak to Kiki Wolfkill, Rocky Bucano, and Michael Bodell.
Now more than ever, technology’s bringing an exciting and unexpected dimension to storytelling, helping artists immerse audiences in experiences that educate, engage, and inspire. In this episode, our hosts speak with storytellers and curators who are exploring these new expanded and immersive realities including Kiki Wolfkill, an executive producer at Microsoft’s 343 Industries; Rocky Bucano, executive director of the Universal Hip Hop Museum; and Michael Bodell, deputy director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.
For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast, please visit: microsoft.com/inculture/podcast
Todd Whitney: Hey, I'm Todd Whitney.
Becca DeGregorio: And I'm Becca DeGregorio.
Todd Whitney: And welcome to In Culture, a podcast from Microsoft.
Todd Whitney: This is the first episode of the podcast, so we probably ought to introduce ourselves a little bit and talk about what we'll be doing this season.
Becca DeGregorio: We are podcast producers who've told stories about all kinds of things happening in culture, so we're super excited to partner with Microsoft on a deep dive into what they've seen happening with their own technology across the cultural space.
Todd Whitney: And over the course of a lot of time spent out in the field...
Becca DeGregorio: And diving into the internet...
Todd Whitney: And dialing up all kinds of people over Skype, we've hit on some big ideas.
Becca DeGregorio: The big idea we started out with is that technology can be a powerful tool for artists and innovators to bring out a new dimension to culture.
Todd Whitney: As we looked around, we realized there was nowhere you could see this more clearly than in the creative uses of virtual, mixed, and augmented reality, and in artificial intelligence. More and more, these technologies are being used as storytelling mediums with results that couldn't have existed before.
Becca DeGregorio: Simply put, the stories told through this tech are told differently. They invite, immerse, and connect us in new ways that feel totally unique.
Todd Whitney: On this episode, we're going to show you some new ways that stories are being told, and we'll start by taking you to the Bronx.
Todd Whitney: Rocky, what's up, man? I'm Todd.
Rocky Bucano: Hey, Todd. Nice to meet you, bro.
Todd Whitney: This is Rocky Bucano. Back in the day, he was a hip hop DJ, part of the original generation of the music and culture in his birthplace, the Bronx. He's had a long career in the business and nonprofit worlds, but today he's showing me what he's working on right now, and it's bringing his career full-circle.
Rocky Bucano: So where we're standing at, it's at the very tip of the Bronx, between the Bronx, and across the bridge is upper Manhattan or Harlem. And we call it the Bronx Point just because it symbolizes where the Bronx and Manhattan intersect at. I'm going to do something pretty special for you guys.
Todd Whitney: All right.
Todd Whitney: Right now, we're standing in a big, oddly-shaped lot between the river and the highway. It's empty except for some construction equipment.
Todd Whitney: You were talking about building from a barren place. What's going to be here in five years? Describe that for me.
Rocky Bucano: What's going to be here is the Universal Hip Hop Museum.
Todd Whitney: Rocky and the others involved in the project, which include hip hop royalty like Ice-T and Kurtis Blow, they have big plans for the museum, but they've got limited space to work with. The Met in New York City has about 2 million square feet, and the Smithsonian DC has close to 3 million in total, but the Universal Hip Hop Museum, they'll have only 50,000 square feet of space to tell a 50-year story. And Rocky doesn't really want to skimp on it.
Rocky Bucano: So we want to turn that 50,000 square foot experience into a 200,000 square foot experience using technology. So being able to put on a Microsoft HoloLens device with augmented reality, where you could see, you can actually step back in time and get on stage with Run DMC or see a hologram of the Sugarhill Gang performing “Rapper's Delight” or watching Kurtis Blow perform the breaks with his b-boy dancers.
Todd Whitney: What I'm hearing from Rocky is that the Universal Hip Hop Museum is going to leverage technology not only to expand on his footprint, but to truly tell stories in new ways. Now, this definitely isn't going to be the kind of place where all you get for context are little cards under each artifact or painting. Hip hop is living history. So even though you can trace the culture back to the Bronx in the 1970s, Rocky wants to meet visitors where they're already at. That way they can engage with the story and go as deep into it as they want.
Rocky Bucano: And that's where technology comes into play a lot is because, with technology, you can change content on the fly. And because a lot of it is going to be AI-driven, people are always going to want to know something different that, as curators, we didn't even expect. A 10-year-old is going to ask a different question than a 30-something-year-old or an almost 60-year-old. So as you're in there, we want you to realize that this is not just something where you're going to learn about the history of hip hop, but you're going to learn about how hip hop is influencing a lot of the stuff that's happening in pop culture and in politics and just in business in general around the world.
Todd Whitney: And the museum will be bigger than its walls in other ways too. It's going to meet people wherever they are, whether that's in the Bronx, the other side of the city, or entirely on the other side of the world.
Rocky Bucano: We live in a mobile phone world now, right? A mobile universe. So, as you're walking through and you see something special captured on your phone, basically when you leave, the museum will push content with links that you can connect to, give you access to our virtual museum so that you can get an extended story of the stuff that you walked away with that you were excited about. So, yeah, we're going to use technology to make sure that the experience is not just while you're at the museum, but after you leave the museum as well. You'll be able to take it on your phone and continue that experience even when you go home.
Todd Whitney: The Universal Hip Hop Museum hasn't broken ground yet, so a lot of Rocky's vision is in seeing the potential of augmented reality and artificial intelligence to tell this particular story. It made me really curious to see this in action.
Becca DeGregorio: So, on the other side of the country, Todd and I checked out a different museum that's going down a similar path. At the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, we got to see what an exhibition looks like through a mixed reality headset.
Todd Whitney: Hollywood Dream Machines. Worlds Re-Imagined. No roads, no problem. This mixed reality experience offers a closer and more immersive look at the DeLorean time machine.
Todd Whitney: At the Petersen, we caught this Hollywood Dream Machines exhibition, featuring iconic cars from cinema classics. Just being in the room with dozens of cars I've only seen on-screen was cool and all, but there was another dimension to a couple of the exhibits.
Museum Docent: Have you ever done HoloLens before or a mixed reality experience?
Todd Whitney: This is my first time.
Docent: Awesome. So ours features the Warthog here from Halo and the DeLorean from Back to the Future over there.
Todd Whitney: We had to try it.
Becca DeGregorio: And, Todd, I don't know about you, but it kind of blew me away.
Todd Whitney: Yeah, straight up. I've been waiting for the moment in producing this podcast where I could actually finally get to put on one of these things, and it kind of lived up to the hype for me.
Becca DeGregorio: Oh, whoa, I'm in the parking lot where the movie starts, which is very cool. It's showing the DeLorean landing right where we're seeing it now, which is very cool. I also never knew that the license plate said "Outta Time."
Todd Whitney: Right? I had no idea.
Becca DeGregorio: That's so ‘80s kitschy. I love it. The doors are opening. Can't remember if that's Marty or Doc inside.
Becca DeGregorio: Showing us around the exhibition was Michael Bodell. He's the deputy director at the Petersen. He's really into cars, even the fictional ones, and bullish on what the HoloLens is bringing to his visitors.
Michael Bodell: And so the Halo Warthog and the Back to the Future DeLorean, they play the story in our HoloLens experience, and that's called Re-Imagined Worlds. And essentially what it does is all of these films create these really elaborate worlds that, in this gallery, you have no context to, and it allows the worlds to come into our space. And so that's the biggest thing is you can see the world of ... the Halo world essentially. And you can go into the parking lot of Back to the Future and have really kind of enriched storytelling that you can't get through a vehicle plaque or a docent.
Todd Whitney: Michael told us that cars really bring out something in people. They occupy a special part of our imaginations. Visitors to the Petersen are primed to go deep, so anything the museum offers that can get audiences inside the cars in novel ways, that's a really huge win for them.
Becca DeGregorio: More and more, audiences want to see stories extended. I don't think it's an accident that one part of the HoloLens experience at Petersen involved a vehicle from Halo, a video game enterprise, but also a universe that's been built out through various storytelling mediums.
Todd Whitney: Video games are an interesting example of how technology can change storytelling on a fundamental level. They're really driven by whoever's playing. The game throws you into a situation, and you move yourself through it. But as games have become more sophisticated over the last few decades, with better graphics, better sound, and more intricate game play, they've turned into one of the most dynamic mediums out there for storytelling.
Becca DeGregorio: Microsoft was at the forefront of this with Halo, the bestselling and beloved Xbox franchise. Halo started as a video game, but almost from the moment it launched, it was clear it would become more than that. I spoke with the person at Halo whose whole job is to keep the plot of the franchise ticking within the game and beyond it.
Kiki Wolfkill: I'm Kiki Wolfkill. I am the studio head for transmedia at 343 Industries, which is the game studio that does all things Halo gaming. So what it means for me as head of transmedia is I'm responsible for sort of all of the storytelling and universe expression around the games. And so, for us, it's not just game building. It really is universe building, and that's completely technology-driven. And our ability to create these worlds and make them richer and richer and more immersive and more believable through the years and through the decades is really founded on our ability to evolve our game engine. It all comes down to how do we create a believable universe that our players and viewers can buy into because then it becomes part of their history. It becomes part of their worldview. Halo exists as a universe in the future for them. And so we take that really to heart, and technology really powers our ability to bring that world to life. Halo is an 18-year-old franchise now, so the world-building now is very different than it might've been even 10 years ago, but for us, it really starts with this mythology of who the Master Chief is, what is the state of humanity in the 26th century, and our world is really built around this idea that anyone can be a hero.
Becca DeGregorio: In Halo, the protagonist is Master Chief, a super-soldier who's humanity's last hope against a dark alien force. His backstory is hinted at from early on in the games and expanded upon in other mediums Kiki and her team work in, like graphic novels and TV shows. But within the game itself, the character has had to evolve while still allowing gamers to play him.
Kiki Wolfkill: It's really interesting to develop that kind of arc in a video game because so much of who Master Chief is is what the player brings to him.
Becca DeGregorio: How do you develop a character that's playable, and where does the storytelling go from there? Are there limitations to making a character that people can place themselves in?
Kiki Wolfkill: Video games as a sort of narrative device and art form has certainly evolved so much in the last 15 years through technology, through being able to have higher-end graphics. And for a while, we sort of chased how do you have the highest fidelity cinematics in a game because that was sort of the technology path we were on. And then, once we got there, it was we don't really want to sit and just put story in front of a player and have them passively watch it, especially when they've just come off playing as the character. And so then it started to become how do we weave narrative into the first-person experience so that it's not just us telling them a story, it's the player getting to experience a story. How do we not have the player feel like we are dictating too much about him through the game? But also, how do we tell enough story around him that we can help the player develop sort of that player fantasy? And so a lot of it comes from environmental design. A lot of it comes from the characters around the Chief or around the main protagonist and how they respond. We provide a loose path of where you get to and how you get there and what tools you use, and what strategy you use is really your own. And because we have this idea of sandbox play, there can be a lot of really organic moments that happen, right, that we don't plan for, but that the player can sort of trigger on their own. And so, for us, it's always delightful because we'll see videos that players have created of things that we never designed, right? But we created a sandbox that that lets those moments happen. There are times when we need to take the camera away from the player a little bit in order to move the story forward, but our goal is always to have the player feel like they're propelling the story forward.
Becca DeGregorio: Yeah, my brother did something very specific with that sandbox idea in high school. He made a video for AP Psychology class on Halo, like traveling around the world to describe different concepts that he learned in AP Psych.
Kiki Wolfkill: I love it.
Becca DeGregorio: And I just feel like you should know that.
Kiki Wolfkill: That's so awesome. But you know what, there's so many stories like that and that gets back to that idea. That comes back to us as part of our universe.
Becca DeGregorio: Kiki wasn't working on Halo at the very beginning of the franchise, but she did play it. When Halo Combat Evolved came out in 2001, she stayed up all night playing. I asked her to remember back to that first night and asked what initially drew her in.
Kiki Wolfkill: I loved the sense of discovery in the world, that connection with the Master Chief and that sense of empowerment I felt immediately. And then on top of that, sort of landing on the Halo Ring for the first time, seeing the world open up, and really just wanting to get out there and see more. It was a world that felt recognizable to me and relatable, but also otherworldly. And so it was really that combination that drew me in.
Becca DeGregorio: Can you talk about how emerging technology can help fill out more of the story that you can't do in the game?
Kiki Wolfkill: We've played in VR, which as a narrative device, I love. And I think what was so amazing with VR is, even though we're a first-person shooter, and people feel like our worlds are so immersive, there's nothing like actually stepping into it and standing next to an eight-foot-tall alien. We've played with AR. We did a HoloLens activation at E3 for Halo 5, which was incredibly fun because a lot of the Halo universe does show up as holograms. The more we can bring a player or viewer into it and the more they can sort of experience it outside of the game, it really just rounds out the world for them.
Becca DeGregorio: How far can the world of Halo expand in a storytelling sense? And what role does technology play in pushing that border, or does it even play a role?
Kiki Wolfkill: I would definitely look at the Halo universe as infinitely expandable. And I say that because it really is built on a foundation that we can just keep evolving and building on. I think the longevity of it comes down to how well we can continue to tell stories, and that's really about craft and not about longevity of any of the ingredients. And we feel like we have decades of stories to tell. And the other part of it is the universe will expand and shift. So what Halo, from a storytelling perspective, looks like 10 years from now is likely very different, but hopefully still grounded in those beliefs and pillars that we have. We have always thought about Halo as an innovator in the entertainment and video gaming space, and technology is what lets us do that. Whether it's advances that we're making to our game engine, whether it's starting to play with new technologies, we will always look to try and craft a differentiated experience. And those experiences are often built on new technologies that are coming online, so that's super important for us. We have to be able to tell good stories. We have to be able to tell great stories, no matter what the medium is. And all of our storytelling sits across both analog and digital mediums, and that will always be the case, but we also always have to be able to tell an amazing story and be able to craft that world for our players, regardless of whether it is an analog or digital experience or whether technology is a part of it. So they kind of go hand-in-hand. There isn't a world where we imagine Halo as a purely analog experience. It is a world where players need to participate and feel immersed, and more often than not, that's going to be technology-based.
Todd Whitney: A great story is a great story, and it's always going to be able to touch people and connect with them. But we get the sense that a lot of these technologies, that they're not just gimmicks. They're really trying to create the space for people to really get into them, to immerse themselves and truly explore a story.
Becca DeGregorio: It's not that AR and VR are better storytelling mediums or that tech will inevitably become the best way to tell any story, but there's something to be said about the user experience of storytelling that gets this immersive. You, the audience, and your world merge with the story. The line blurs, and that presents new impact and maybe deeper understanding with narratives that could have never been imagined mere decades ago.
Becca DeGregorio: To learn more about all the people and stories featured in this episode, visit microsoft.com/inculture. There you can spend a little more time in the Petersen Automotive Museum and read more about how mixed reality is bringing stories to life in new ways. There's a whole page on the site dedicated to innovative uses of the HoloLens that's definitely worth checking out. We also invite you to follow us on Instagram @MicrosoftInCulture. In Culture is hosted by me, Becca DeGregorio and Todd Whitney, produced by Jordan Rothlein, and edited and mixed by Nat Weiner. Original music by Angular Wave Research. In Culture is a production of Microsoft in collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York City.