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AR as Visual Narrative: In Conversation with Todd Berreth

Todd Berreth, a core faculty member at North Carolina State University in the Visual Narrative Cluster, knows a bit about storytelling. You could even say his life has been focused on it! A trained architect, studio artist, and designer, Berreth is a professor and professional artist as comfortable in the lab as he is in the art studio.

Working on the confluence of design and art in the realm of technological advancements in narrative, Berreth has a bird’s eye view of the ever-evolving relationship between art and technology, particularly where virtual reality and augmented reality are concerned. From his work designing immersive environments and installations to multi-sensory and interactive artworks, there is no format Berreth is not engaging within his artistic practice. We sat down with this art luminary to gain insights into the direction and impact he sees technology playing on creative disciplines, with regard to narrative and storytelling.

Todd Berreth: Educator and Multifaceted Creative

AL: Thanks for chatting with us, Todd! I wanted to start the conversation discussing your focus on narrative – through your practice(s) as a visual artist, professor, new media and design expert, and architect can you explain how an emphasis on narrative has remained a key theme?

Todd Berreth: I began to be interested in narrative early on, with a fine arts and film studies undergrad major decades ago. I was fascinated by time-based media’s ability, in film and video, to create fantastical or subtlety altered “uncanny” worlds, and the potential to build scenarios which would explore how people would react in these environments.

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Working on the confluence of design and art in the realm of technological advancements in narrative, Berreth has a bird’s eye view of the ever-evolving relationship between art and technology.

I grew up on ILM (Industrial Lights and Magic) and special effects films of the 1980’s, and I loved the stagecraft and trickery of it, the technology, computer graphics, practical effects, compositing and editing. The thought that with enough knowledge, skill and hard work, you could create these powerful evocative fictions. These new worlds that could speak to something deeper and true. Probably the most important artist to me around that time was a fine arts photographer Gregory Crewdson, who would stage and construct photographs, documenting an eerie fictional dramatic scene, disquieting like a David Lynch film. He takes “reality” and subtly alters it, to heighten or emphasize the narrative elements and potential, and create something charged and magical.

Most of those same interests have continued through my evolving professional and artistic life. Narrative generally is the way we perceive and make sense of our life, its meaning and our place in the world. Through it, we might entertain ourselves, but on a deeper level, we use it to learn useful lessons about the way the world works and to model our own self-conception and identity. Artist and designers, of course, use narrative to communicate and project these matters to others, and I love this potential power.

I’ve had the good fortune to work in a number of fields which address narrative differently– an artist might try and craft a story explicitly, perhaps with characters and a dramatic arc, depicting a particular vision of the world, but an architect, new media designer or programmer might focus on the user experience narrative, which is often non-linear and doesn’t function like a typical story, how the engineered artifact functions, allows the user to make sense of its capabilities and form, signals its structure and layout, and how it addresses needs and fits into the patterns of a person’s and communities life…how it even alters its user’s self-conception and identity.

As I teach, it’s useful to have had these different perspectives. So many of the narratives we tell, often use complicated technical systems (in digital narratives at least), computer games, mobile apps, VR and AR experiences, etc. They are dependent on the constant shifting between narrative modes, and the multiple layers of narrative embedded in a single artifact. One must shift between the art and design modes of narrative building, and consider it as a complex, interrelated system, where the engineering, structure and interfaces’ one designs, supports and is one of the foundations for the storytelling.

AL: Can you speak to your role in the greater “Visual Narrative Initiative” at NCSU? How have you informed cutting-edge insights and research in this program, from UX interaction, interactive/reactive environments and mixed and virtual reality?

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“Designers, generally, try to be synthesizers and bridge-builders, and help make connections between disciplines,” says Berreth.

Todd Berreth: I am an Assistant Professor of Art + Design and North Carolina State University, and part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers focusing on Visual Narrative. This team includes two computer scientists, an electrical engineer, two historians and myself, a designer and artist. Mostly we are interested in exploring how we will tell stories in the future, using emerging technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning, mobile devices, computer game technologies, data analytics and visualization, etc. Designers, generally, try to be synthesizers and bridge-builders, and help make connections between disciplines, formulate common visions, break down complex problems to help formulate compelling and useful solutions. So, I try and work in this mode, and enjoy being a collaborator, and try and help find common problems that we can all be excited to work on. As an artist, it gives me license to push boundaries in expression and be experimental. With the historians on our team, many of our stories then come from the humanities– human stories about the lives and histories of people and communities.

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I try and dabble in some of the domains of my colleagues, and they do likewise. One of our historians was a graphic designer in a past work life. Our computer scientists teach game design. I have programmed computer’s my entire life and enjoy playing and engineering with hobbyist electronics. These overlaps in expertise have helped us find common ground, work in diverse ways on the same problems, and generally help us make connections between disciplines a bit quicker.

I think the diversity of my background has helped me flexibly tackle a diversity of design challenges related to the Visual Narrative’s mission. I’ve worked as an architectural designer, visualization professional, computer programmer, interactive media installation artist and teacher at various points and find myself moving between modes constantly.

One of the things that really attracted me to this group, and this research domain, concerns the melding of the physical and the digital worlds enabled through AR and VR, and generally through the pervasiveness of digital technologies in our lives …it seems one of the most important design challenges of our day. Regarding AR/VR…how can the narrative empathy-enabling potential of these mediums be realized? How will it change the ways we physically live in communities and the ways we socially interact? Will we continue to be siloed into polarized thought-space? If we project things forward, will we all be living inside narratives, what will those narratives be and how will we feel about that?

Narrative Choices within Fine Art and Commercial Art

AL: How do you see visual narrative evolving in graphic design and commercial arts vs. the fine arts? Do you anticipate similar or different trajectories and why?

Todd Berreth: I’m not quite sure, it depends on how you define visual narrative. Fine art generally pushes the boundaries and experiments with the narrative potential of emerging technologies a bit before it is synthesized into the practice of commercial arts. At the same time, so many of these new domains are expertise intensive and require teams of experts to develop projects, crossing so many professional disciplines. Some of the most innovative and compelling interactive VR and AR narrative projects are developed by large commercial groups, and/or artists who also have an active commercial practice, someone like Chris Milk and his studio WITHIN.

AL: What influenced your shift from architecture to Visualization Technology? Can you speak a bit to that career transition? Was it a part of a larger shift in the arts and technology ecosystem?

Todd Berreth: Ultimately, the shift was consistent with the direction of my long-term interests, I was less interested with the construction of actual physical buildings than imagining potentials of a digital constructed world (internet, virtual worlds, technology infrastructure (pervasive displays/sensors), etc.), co-existent with the physical constructed world, and how the two would increasingly begin to mix (beyond screens on our desk or in our pockets), and how that would affect our lives and environments and the stories we tell. Basically back to the 1960’s, and the visions of groups like Archigram or architects like Cedric Price. That was something I began to be interested in at architecture graduate school in the early 2000’s. I changed careers from architecture formally in 2008, with the recession; the construction market crashed, and it was obvious that it would be a tough go as an architect for a while.

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“One of the things that really attracted me to this group, and this research domain, concerns the melding of the physical and the digital worlds enabled through AR and VR, and generally through the pervasiveness of digital technologies in our lives,” says Berreth.

About the same time, I received a job offer to work as a research programmer and designer at Duke University, in their Visualization Technology group. They had one of the few immersive VR facilities in the country, a six-sided VR cave. This was state of the art VR before commercial head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift. They were also developing large-scale public displays, before they became pervasive in every corporate lobby or airport. It was a wonderful opportunity, and I was able to transition to interaction design, and work on some enjoyable collaborations with artists and researcher across Duke.

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My lesson regarding careers is every artist or designer should have at least a couple of marketable skills, in different industries, to fall back on, but more positively to leverage to work toward your dream job.

AL: How will visual narrative play an increasing role for the wider public outside of arts and culture? Will it inspire new audiences to encounter the arts?

Todd Berreth: I think more and more media outlets, journalism for sure, are using visual narrative more commonly. Think of the rise of data visualization, infographics and creative mapping used to parse complicated stories or issues. Our entertainment, especially computer games, are pervasive and visually rich, and engage the user with narrative, and even encourage emergent community driven narrative (think MMOs).

I don’t know if it will inspire new audiences to encounter the arts, but VR can potential allow people to access art they might not have otherwise.

AL: It can be argued that Fine Artists have had mixed success working in AR/VR. Do you think the art world is overdue for a shift in firmly embracing these new technological frameworks – why or why not?

Todd Berreth:  Honestly, the technology for VR is still a little ungainly, clunky and tethered by wires or hindered by a large set of goggles. It’s tough to encourage sustained or repeated engagements, especially since museums and galleries are social experiences, and very few people want to stay publicly isolated for that long. The venues then for this type of work are more in the private sphere, at home — there probably needs to be new venues for distribution and gallery models besides the Oculus or VIVE store. Many artists are probably resistant to thinking of themselves as app developers. For AR, the common interface is a smartphone, and some mystique is lost looking through a phone. I know I want to put my phone away when I go into an art space, but that’s probably a generational thing.

Another issue that has always plagued interactive digital media art is collectability. The work is developed and exhibited on a technology platform which obsolesces and is very difficult to maintain for posterity, to some extent its transient. For every new media these documenting for posterity and archiving issues need to be worked out.

AL: Looking ahead, what are some new technological developments that you are excited about in visual narrative coming down the pipeline?

Todd Berreth:  Right now, I’m just excited that people are chipping away at the usability issues with AR and VR hardware and software. When we move to untethered, lightweight devices, there might be even more adoption of the technology. I’m more excited by AR right now, and can’t wait to see if the Magic Leap light field display lives up to the hype.

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About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is an independent curator and art critic based in New York, NY. The founder of Antecedent Projects (2014), a sustainable urban curatorial consultancy investigating site-specific heritage, and is Editor-in-Chief, ANTE. Mag. Lambert manages ART360 by Orangenius, an immersive, 3-D art viewing experience, and serves as Managing Editor, Artrepreneur.

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