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TECHNOLOGY

Gillian Ferrabee on interacting with tech

10 January 2018

Gillian Ferrabee is the former Director of Cirque du Soleil Media's Creative Lab. She outlines the pioneering use of immersive technologies by performance artists and says the arts community has much to teach business about harnessing these tools.

Video Transcript

0:06

My journey to digital technology, I would say it started even before I was at Cirque du Soleil. I was a dancer and an actor in Montreal when it was a very effervescent, innovative time – in the 1980s and 1990s. Cirque du Soleil, Robert Lepage, other innovative theatre companies, all came out of that time. And they were already beginning to play a little bit with technology – there were people who were playing with dancers in a sound space, and what did that look like. So, I think it was in our minds already.

I came in to Cirque and did what is a traditional scouting job, scouting for artists, scouting for trends in design. And the company had been asked many times whether they were going to do traditional media like movies or television. And it was always no, because at the time they were two different business models. Then media became part of everybody's lives, and they created a small experimental group that was called Special Projects, I think, which was to look at that possibility. And after a year and a half they decided to start an actual joint venture – a company within the company – that was looking at creating any kind of media product from the DNA, the creative essence, of Cirque du Soleil.

We would meet with big, very interesting companies – the top companies basically in Hollywood, because Cirque was such a big company. They were in a big disruption, they were looking for any kind of interesting, out of the box partner that might help them with that disruption. And we would always hit a point after the second or third meeting, they would ask about Cirque's creative process, versus the production process of a movie, and there would always be this moment of how different they are.

Part of my job became to both wonder about technology that had physical, interactive elements to it, and also what are the core experiences with digital tools that give you a sensorial experience.

2:02 Regaining a sense of self

The conversation about the negative impact of digital technology – I think it is everywhere and it is something that is talked about to varying degrees, but pretty consistently, in the tech world. The concerns about it. I am not by any means a specialist or a researcher, I just have my experience. What I have seen, as an artist and a creator, is that when tech is being developed there isn't enough focus on people participating creatively with the technology. It is happening more with interactive, and also with platforms where the user is putting their own content into it. There are television shows where they are open-sourcing some of the characters in cartoon animated shows and people are allowed to make their own episodes. This kind of using technology to make more creative possibilities available to people.

What I am seeing as a general rule with social media is this tendency to almost put our identity out into the virtual space. And perhaps with the generation that is born into these tools, their actual sense of self is out in the virtual world, and that is a little bit fragile. It can create a sense of anxiety. But, if we give them opportunities to express their creativity in that space and to reflect on their creativity and how that can go into these digital tools and shared virtual spaces, then they are getting their identity back.

3:32 Awakening the senses

As a dancer and live performer for 20-25 years, coming in to Cirque du Soleil, I am interested in experiences that are sensorial, and looking across what is happening in digital tools, virtual reality, and augmented reality have been the vanguards of that in the last five years or so.

They definitely seem to have more possibility of creating full-bodied experiences, because the VR embraces your hearing and your sight fully when you have the headset on and AR can involve physical movement and engagement with either the thing which is being projected into space or the surface that the image is on.

And I think it is really important for people to notice, not just for our general health as embodied beings, but also because if what we are looking for is communication and engagement – whether it is in marketing or for a government to pass a message or for a storyteller to tell a story – I experience through live performance that when a show is beautifully designed it is such an impactful experience because the person's whole body is sitting in the chair at the time of the show. And, if you see another body moving in front of you, you have a kinesthetic experience of them dancing. And if you are moved by what they are doing, you remember it in your whole body afterwards. You don't just remember it as a kind of film in your mind, you actually remember your whole body experience.

So, stories that engage people in a way that they remember them later, stories that have a message that you want a person to actually go on a journey with you and potentially think differently afterwards, if you engage the senses you have a much better chance of that working. Things that come into our mind passively ­– where we are receiving the information both physically and mentally passively – have very little chance of sticking. There were people who expressed to me that they had been to see their first Cirque du Soleil show and they remembered it the same way they remembered their wedding day. So, that's pretty powerful

5:41 Going beyond the device

What I have noticed in the time that I have been engaged with the world of virtual reality, augmented reality, it is being called mixed reality now, is a movement away from the object – let's say the headset, or glasses, or an object that is going to allow for this kind of content to be brought closer to people – into spaces and environments. So there is a VR dome that has become very interesting lately. Montreal has what is called Société des arts technologiques which is a research centre –­ one of the biggest in North America. A few years ago, they realised they were working with business and science and different communities, and they hit a wall because they needed content and storytelling to put into the tools, so they turned toward the arts community for that.

And what has happened since is that the arts community has taken this expansion away from the object – the phone, the screen, the headset – into environments. So, any window can become a screen, any ceiling can become a screen. The content and the technology is moving into our physical environment, away from just an object that we have to hold and look at. That is interesting to me because it is going to start involving the whole body. And, I think for businesses that are interested in the evolution of technology and the opportunities there, start paying attention to the arts community and what they are doing with this technology and how they are taking it out into the world, away  from the restriction of an object. 

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