International Storytelling with AR: An Interview with Asad J. Malik

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology are tools with growing prominence on the world stage. Virtual reality technology allows the participant to enter a new reality that is digitally created. Augmented reality, on the other hand, projects “computer-generated enhancements” within an existing space, allowing the participant to interact with the digital enhancements within their own realities.

From The New York Times’ 360 Video to the United Nations UNVR project, VR projects have been embraced as a storytelling tool by many organizations.

However, while VR storytelling has been done effectively by some, it can also be deployed poorly, like Mark Zuckerberg’s VR tour of Puerto Rico in which a cartoon avatar of Zuckerberg toured the devastated land.

To gain a better understanding on the benefits and flaws of VR and AR storytelling with international stories, I reached out to Asad J. Malik, founder and head developer of the AR project Asad and Assad, which explores the Muslim experience in America as an “Augmented Reality interactive documentary” project. As the viewer walks into a space, they will be able to “meet holograms of numerous human beings” talking about their experiences with Muslim identity.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Would you give a brief introduction about yourself, and your project, Asad and Assad?

AM: I am from Pakistan and have been in the United States for the past three years. I have been working for almost two years on augmented reality. I started focusing on and realizing the whole concept of holograms, where removing barriers might keep two people from being separate or distant. I started focusing on bringing images from two distant parts of the world, to juxtapose two realities. I did a project called Holograms from Syria, and displayed them in places in the US, and the impact for people to see those images. The most recent project I am working on is Asad and Assad.

Q: Did you decide to do Asad and Assad in AR immediately, or did you consider other artistic mediums beforehand?

AM: All my work from the last year and a half started not with “this is the best way to do it,” but the other way around. VR is the medium of choice… What is special about this medium is that it makes me deliver the message in a more powerful way.I consider myself someone who is exclusively working in augmented reality because I am interested in messages I’m sharing and other people to share. But one of the drawing forces is to explore storytelling in this new medium as well, and how we give these stories create an impact.

Q: What is the benefit of large groups and people like you doing these projects in AR instead of other artistic mediums?

AM: In this case, as I said, half the work is what AR means and what the potential of it is. But at the same time, if you talk about NYT 360, at the end of the day what most people are engaged with is 360, and you talk about in a virtual reality context. The reason why augmented reality is so special in my opinion is that because you get to bring a representation of another human being to your space, and you want your space to be real. Like your space is a reality, and something that’s ultra-real happening somewhere else, your brain perceives that as much more real, so that’s what we’re kind of trying to focus on. Even as an art medium it really puts a lot of pressure. Crossing barriers that are real and physical is like having more freedom as a representation.

Q: What do you perceive as the greatest difficulty in doing all this work in AR instead of doing it in a more traditional format?

AM: There a lot challenges. One of the challenges is that the best practices aren’t established yet. When you’re trying to tell the story you’re not only worried about the content, but the tools and figuring out how to tell the story in the most effective way. It’s a huge challenge, without a doubt, and keeping that in mind there also a lot of little things that are challenging. There is a certain amount of imagination that comes into play when you’re describing something in text versus when you’re explicitly showing it. That’s always the case, with any photographic medium I suppose, you’ll run into that difficulty.

Q: What’s the next step, the next project to build off Asad and Assad?

AM: The intention is that we are trying to work on an augmented virtual reality platform which would allow journalists, journalism students and others to be able to create holograms like this and create interviews that can be displayed from a mobile phone app, that could be on the HoloLens and Oculus. The idea is that just on your smartphone, you can download an app and put a hologram in your room that can then experience and explore, add more and more people and stories into this app that is constantly growing, and our goal is to have every human on the planet. That’s the next step.

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