LAS VEGAS— A little bit of Johnny Carson, Bill Clinton and Frank Underwood showed up Monday at the AT&T 2016 Developer Summit.
Nah, not really.
It was just Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey up to his old impersonation tricks.
The star of House of Cards, Usual Suspects and American Beauty entertained hundreds of attendees with lively stories about the changing dynamics of the entertainment industry, touching on everything from the power of mentorship to the importance of staying innovative amid changing times.
But Spacey — who started off his talk by asking the simple question “What exactly am I fucking doing here?” — expertly tied together his main theme of the importance of storytelling with where things are headed in technology. As far as Spacey sees it, the two are absolutely intertwined, and that could unleash new forms of storytelling that we can’t even imagine.
“The good news is with the emergence of all of these new platforms and new technologies, there’s never been more opportunities to create and consume stories that stand out from the crowd,” said Spacey.
And where does the Juilliard-trained actor see things headed?
He’s especially excited about the emergence of virtual reality, one of the technologies that’s getting prime attention at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.
He’s certainly a believer in VR — a big believer.
“Now, virtual reality, I must admit, has had its false dawns in the past, but I think we are now at the moment where it is portable, it is affordable and the graphics are of such high quality that they don’t get in the way of the experience or the storytelling,” he said.
Spacey said that virtual reality is already being used in medical applications and sports, noting that the Dallas Cowboys even used it this season to enhance the training and performance of football players, to which one audience member shot back that “they still suck.”
Spacey laughed, and launched into a hilarious Johnny Carson routine about the audience taking over the show, before jumping back to his interests in virtual reality. He continued:
“I truly believe that VR will be a quantum leap forward for storytellers, just as the motion picture was a century ago. You know, it is hard for us to imagine now, people’s reactions what they were when they saw film for the very first time. There is this famous story of the first filmmakers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, who were screening one of their first movies in Paris in 1896. It was a 50-second silent film of a locomotive entering a train station and the audience that watched it was so overwhelmed and terrified by the moving image of a life-sized train coming at them that the screamed and ran to the back of the theater. But in VR, there is no way to hide from that train. Virtual reality is completely immersive. You step through that window and you are in a different world.”
And stepping into those new worlds could have dramatic impacts on society. Spacey said that virtual reality will allow people to gain “more understanding” by allowing them to live in a world that is not their own. And that is immensely powerful.
“I have always believed that the acting profession, and many other disciplines in the arts, are deeply humanizing professions, because it is that much harder to be without empathy if you are forced to step into someone else’s shoes, to wander around in someone else’s ideas, to tell someone else’s story. So, if you change someone’s behavior by what they see, and what they can experience as if they are actually there, if you can effect your feeling and thinking, you can amplify their understanding, and then imagine harnessing that kind of power in the service of the story.
“Imagine the immediacy of being right in the thick of a horror movie or a romance, and I am not talking about porn, although that is going to be pretty popular too. I sometimes wonder, by the way, how we would have applied virtual reality if it had been around earlier in my career. In Superman Returns, you might have explored the fortress of solitude with Lex Luthor right by your side. In the Usual Suspects, you might have caught yourself trying to stay quiet so that Keyser Soze did not find you, or how about the big showdown at the end of David Fincher’s Seven where Brad Pitt is in the middle of nowhere screaming: ‘what is in the fucking box?‘ Well, if you dare, you could open it, and look inside it yourself. The technology has arrived, and now it is up to us to see how we can apply it, not just in video, but also through so many technologies that exist now or that will emerge that we can’t even imagine.”
In order to keep pushing himself into these new arenas, Spacey last year appeared as villain Jonathan Irons in the video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
“I took this role in part because it was a first, but also because I wanted to learn how the technology works,” said Spacey. “I think through interactivity and immersion, this to me, is the next frontier and this is what truly excites me.”
He added that “we need to have the courage to try new things,” embracing technologies in new ways to incorporate the viewing audience to enhance or devise plot twists. That audience immersion in the story is what gets him truly excited about virtual reality.
“I am interested in any technology that chips away at the barrier that has long separated the storyteller from his or her audience,” said Spacey.
GeekWire follow-up: Kevin Spacey on the changing dynamics of Hollywood, and why the movie industry won’t fall into the same trap as the music business
Editor’s note: A big thanks to Kyle Kesterson of Freak’n Genius for providing the photos for this story.