Applied Imagination Fellows Project Report: Sultan Sharrief

Project summary

Visions of a New Tribe is an augmented reality, location-based documentary that acknowledges and honors the stories of nomadic artists and unhoused citizens whose community was destroyed when the homeless encampments in Venice Beach, California were torn down in the summer of 2021. Using video footage and audio interviews from nine months on the streets, the project visualizes the imagination and ideas for social solutions from a community that is often ignored and cast aside.

This project proved to be an amazing exploration of a new form of storytelling afforded by shifting augmented reality (AR) technology. I successfully built my first standalone app using the Unity 3D game engine to prototype location-based video in AR. I was also accepted to the Niantic Lightship Developer program, and became proficient in three new AR platforms: Snap Lens Studio, Reality Composer, and Easy AR. I took the same story elements and tested the efficacy of each platform for delivering an empathetic narrative. I now have five different versions of the documentary experience, and I’m migrating them to a brand new online platform, which launched in June 2022. 

Insights, surprises encountered, and key moments in the process

There couldn’t have been a better moment to experiment with AR storytelling. During the 2021-2022 fellowship year, there were over a dozen major platform changes in the extended reality (XR) world (encompassing virtual reality, AR, mixed reality, and other immersive digital experiences) and hundreds of new AR hosting sites.

After successfully building and testing my first AR app, I realized that the biggest challenge for my project wasn’t editing and organizing the hundreds of hours of footage, as I originally thought, but rather finding the right delivery mechanism and storytelling technique in order to make sure people actually experienced the interactive documentary. So, I spent most of the fellowship year on a comparative prototyping project, using the same ten clips to find out how it feels to view a documentary while walking down the street, and what needed to be done to best honor the story.

A key moment in the process was attending Reality Hack, the XR hackathon at MIT. I was able to share one of the app builds with dozens of hackers and learn best practices for using the new technology. It helped me realize that I needed to slow down my project and focus on quality of experience, and on not speed of delivery.

How did the fellowship benefit you as a researcher and/or practitioner and/or organizer? How did it benefit your work? And how did it benefit your community?

In some ways, the wealth of this project wasn’t the final delivery of the app/documentary, but rather the depth of thought and imaginative ways my collaborators and I were pushing the edges of form and narrative in a really unique moment. In the early years of cinema, techniques like the close-up, montage, and jump cut were invented, and established a foundation for how people would view movies for the next century and beyond. Through that lens, the fellowship pushed me toward deeper reflection about my responsibilities in the moment, to avoid recreating the same problematic practices that have plagued the film industry for decades. This thought led to cohosting the first ever “Decoloniathon,” a two-day community design event in Los Angeles for twenty participants to co-creatively explore decolonization and augmented reality from an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and intersectional feminist lens. The conversations and ideas that emerged from the event were profound. This led to my collaborators and I hosting an AR salon in which we made safe space for queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (QTBIPOC) artists/designers to create alternate eco-futures through augmented reality. We plan to continue these events monthly.

What’s next? How has the fellowship shaped the path forward for you and your work?

This fellowship really helped me embrace my identity as a designer and writer. Coming from the independent film industry, one has to stay in constant motion, like a shark, to ensure that there is a steady stream of incoming projects. This puts a great focus on output and production. The same can be said for my approach to activism. Coming in, I saw myself as some combination between Malcolm X and Mark Zuckerberg. I would make socially conscious tech and media “by any means necessary,” as Brother Malcolm would say. Through my experiments and some of the mentors the CSI team connected me to, especially futurist Brian David Johnson, I realized that I could own the identity of being a Sufi-Afro-futurist with a focus on speculative design. In the past, I was always trying to rush through the design process to get to the building and making. I now see that the blueprint could be the production, and someone else could lead the construction. In this way, I might be more of an Octavia Butler meets Da Vinci—I just needed to release the auteur-ego. I look forward to seeing where this new perspective takes me and my design practice.