Lots of people are thinking about the future of the publishing business. But Charles Melcher has moved past that conversation. He's a perennial insider/outsider: he was a self-styled book publisher until 2009 when he found himself facing the uncertain future of print. But at that moment, he decided to embrace the future - and the core practice of the business he loved.
Five years ago, he embraced the changing landscape of human narrative and founded the Future of StoryTelling Summit(FoST), which features two full days of programming bringing together leaders from the worlds of media, technology, communications, and design to the evolving technological of storytelling.
Charles Melcher - founder and president of Melcher Media / Photo Credit: Steven Rosenbaum
"I walked into my office and told my staff we are no longer in the book business," he told The New York Times. "We are now in the storytelling business."
This year he's expanded his platform, launching the FoST Festival. The Festival featured more than 70 experiences, hands on Virtual Reality explorations - held in an empty six-story building across from Central Park at 5th and 109th Street in New York City.
At Melcher's invitation, I wandered up to the FoST Playground, and at first was a bit wary. In the past, VR events I've visited have been more technical demonstrations than visceral experiences. Let's face it, a bunch of people with headgear on can lend itself to some pretty aesthetically uninspired venues.
But Melcher is a showman, an impresario of grand storytelling, and FoST embraced a number of magical things that brought it to life. Participants entered in groups of 40, a manageable cohort, and were introduced to the future by an engaging tour guide. We were not disappointed.
Among the experiences that had the most buzz, Home: VR Space Walk had people talking. The BBC and Rewind partnered up to create this remarkably realistic NASA space walk. Created in Unreal Engine 4 on HTC Vive, this fully interactive VRX project is inspired by the experiences of real astronauts. And as one of the organizers told me, a female astronaut who came by to experience it said it was "extraordinarily real."
VR flying experience: Birdly / Photo Credit: Steven Rosenbaum
For fans of our feathered friends, VR fans had Birdly, an immersive, multi-sensory, full-body experience that lets you experience flying. With more than 75 flights to choose from, you can fly over San Francisco, New York, Paris, Rio, Greenland, the list goes on and on.
In the Two Bit Circus VR Theatre, I watched a block of four documentaries. Each had its own way of taking viewers into the story a way that was more engaging and immersive than a simple single-camera documentary approach.
In Fire Rescue, you were inside a terrifying house fire, with a gripping sense that you'd been surrounded by smoke and flames.
Simon was the story of a disabled young man who narrates his personal story to build a life that rises above his disabilities.
Next up was Toro Bravo from CNNVR takes you inside the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Both exhilarating and ethically troubling, this VR experience takes viewers face to face with the drama and the violence of this blood sport.
The final film in the series featured President Obama and his family. The National Geographic film Through The Ages: President Obama Celebrates America's National Parks provides an up-close-and-personal look at President Obama's trip to Yosemite. Seeing the park and its vast majesty through Obama's eyes provided a connection I wasn't expecting. His passion and connection with the park was palpable.
Everywhere you looked at FoST there were artifacts of storytelling, and of stories. A typewriter, a television studio camera, a phone booth, an old time television - the entire space art directed to immerse you in the past... and the future... of how we connect.
And - because Melcher embraces storytelling in all of its incarnations, both live and recorded, the space came alive with fabulous snippets of theater, music, and performance that connected people with each other, and with the art of performance.
Yes, there were people in VR experiences, but there were also sensory journeys to take, films to watch together, drawings to create, walls of images to dance to, and winged VR flying adventures to take you soaring in the air.
If you had any concerns about virtual reality somehow flattening the future of storytelling, the FoST Playground put those concerns to rest. Yes, the VR was immersive and extraordinary. But the performers, the music, and the physical space of FoST left a lasting impression and a hint of the world of stories that lie ahead.
It's a grand vision - and three hours later I left wishing I'd had more time. It's hard to imagine how they'll top it next year, but I certainly wouldn't want to miss finding out.