This NYC Pop-Up Arcade Lets Visitors Experience Firsthand the Future of Storytelling

It starts this weekend in Manhattan

"Traveling While Black," a 360-degree documentary that debuted at Sundance, is one of several virtual reality experiences on display. Future of Storytelling
Headshot of Marty Swant

Some of the most compelling new story formats like virtual reality and immersive theater aren’t always the most easily accessible. They’re expensive, they require a lot of space, or they’re complicated to set up. But a new pop-up “story arcade” in New York is making a range of technologies available to try—if you have the time and a little extra cash.

This weekend, the Future of Storytelling, an organization of technologists and creatives, is opening a temporary space where visitors can try out more than a half-dozen experiences from around the world. Housed in a floor of the Starrett-Lehigh Building on Manhattan’s west side, the one-month installation is open to the public, but FoST also wants it to be a destination for agency teams and brands to imagine what’s possible with new mediums.

“This is an exciting moment for the evolution of experiential storytelling, that we’re witnessing the ability to use these immersive technologies like haptics and AI to allow people to fulfill a longtime dream of being able to be in the stories,” said FoST CEO Charles Melcher.

Adweek got a preview of the the story arcade this week, and indeed, the experiences aren’t passive. For example, in “Chained: A Victorian Nightmare”—a VR experience co-produced by Here Be Dragons, independent creator Justin Denton, and MWM Immersive—visitors participate in a VR version of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carole” while interacting with real-life period actors and digital ghosts. However, instead of Ebenezer Scrooge, each audience member is invited to discover their own past, present and future.

Frederik Duerinck's "blanket" of heating and cooling technology adds sensory layers to an audio story about how comets travel around the sun.

While some of the experiences are entertaining—such as Wolves in the Walls, which debuted last month at Sundance—others cover heavier topics such as racism and police brutality. One piece, “Traveling While Black,” explains the risks African-Americans took during the Civil Rights era while traveling through the American South. The 360-degree film, directed by Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams, the first African-American director to win the award, includes an emotional interview with Samaria Rice, who recounts the horrific moment she learned her 12-year-old son Tamir Rice was killed by police while on a playground in Cleveland in 2014.

The arcade is much smaller than some previous FoST events, such as the annual FoST Summit, where 500 leaders from various fields convene for a two-day conference showcasing dozens of pieces similar to those at the arcade. Past sponsors have included Microsoft, which also uses FoST internally for consulting purposes, such as for Microsoft’s annual event for 450 employees in marketing and other departments. FoST also plays a role in a smaller three-day program with a few dozen Microsoft employees called “Storytelling in the Digital Age.”

“The boundaries of storytelling are so many, and technology always plays a role in human insights and learning,” said Susan Betts, senior director of brand strategy at Microsoft. “The more technology evolves, the more possibilities are created for people to find connections in and with storytelling. I love what FoST does to nurture this exploration and how to use tech to push the limits of storytelling more and more.”

This multisensory experience uses VR and custom perfumes to tell a story about the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Melcher, who spent the first half of his career in book publishing before pivoting to immersive media several years ago, knows firsthand about the challenges and opportunities that come with new storytelling formats. He said audiences want to be more engaged, interacting with a story rather than just passively watching it as they can only do with a two-dimensional format.

“You become the canvas,” he said. “Instead of streaming something on a screen or connecting it to a phone, all these pieces have you be the one that the story is unfolding on and through. … We’re past the stage where people want to just watch and listen.”

The arcade opens Saturday and closes March 24. Tickets each cost $100, with only 20 distributed for each one-hour time slot to ensure there’s enough time and space for everyone. And while it might sound pricey, Melcher said it’s like paying $15 or $20 for each experience. (FoST splits the revenue with the companies on display.)

“You can’t underestimate the effects of letting consumers get literally hands-on when you’re working in technology most people aren’t familiar with,” said Yoni Bloch, an Israeli musician and CEO of the interactive entertainment company Eko who has worked with FoST in the past. “Interactive entertainment can seem conceptual and abstract until you get to experience it for yourself. Then, suddenly, it’s the most natural and intuitive thing in the world.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.