Written By: Daniel Honan | Photography By: Meghan Brosnan
The fifth annual Nantucket Project will transport attendees to another dimension.
Every year The Nantucket Project faces the same challenge: how to stimulate its audience by exploring ideas in breathtaking new ways. Last year, for instance, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange appeared onstage in the form of a live hologram. So how do you top that?
“We’re going to transport our audience to Africa via virtual reality,” says Tom Scott, who co-founded The Nantucket Project (TNP) in 2010 with Kate Brosnan. What that means is five hundred people will put on virtual reality (VR) headsets and watch a film that will immerse them in different settings in Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. The headsets use motion-tracking technology, so when you turn your head you can experience a 360-degree field of view. The headsets also create an illusion of depth through the use of 3-D stereoscopic imaging. As Peter Rubin wrote in Wired magazine, virtual reality technology “hacks your visual cortex.” In other words, the experience will actually trick your brain into thinking you’re in Kenya.
TNP’s film will be one of just a few VR films ever made. The nascent technology is still many months — if not years — away from mainstream adoption. Virtual reality is currently being used to create both the cheap thrill (and possible motion sickness) that results from virtual roller coaster rides as well as therapeutic treatments for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Scott sees VR as a transformative vehicle for storytelling. “We hope the film will change the audience’s perception of Africa in a pretty radical way,” he says.
The Africa VR film premiere is one in a series of spectacles planned for The Nantucket Project’s fifth installment, taking place September 24th through the 27th. “I’m not a big fan of conferences,” says Scott. “I prefer to describe what we do as the ‘Cirque du Soleil of ideas.’” The circus is an apt comparison. The Nantucket Project, after all, is held under a large, airy tent on Nantucket Harbor. The TNP team works all year to create the experience that happens inside the tent, a celebration of ideas that features music and dance, an original film series and talks by notable speakers like this year’s headliner, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
“We look for the best speakers on earth,” Scott says. “When they ask us, ‘What do you want me to talk about?’ our answer is specific: We want you to give the talk of your life.”
Scott is no less demanding of his staff. “He is always pushing us to do the best work of our lives,” says TNP chief operating officer Jenelle Ferri. “It’s inspiring, and sometimes really annoying.”
“We want to be the best in the world at what we do,” Scott explains. “We’ve been doing TNP for five years now. But we’ve been doing work that’s perfectly analogous — producing live shows, producing films — for much longer than that.” Scott says the strength of TNP lies in storytelling, and that will be on display more than ever at this year’s event, dubbed tnp5. “Every year we try to push the boundaries a little further and redefine what a conference can be,” Scott says. “It’s our mission to live on the edge, both in term of using new technologies as well as exploring fresh new ideas.”
In addition to the Africa VR film, another original film set to premiere at tnp5 will explore entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk’s mission to colonize Mars. “A few years ago, people thought Musk was crazy — and many still do,” says Scott. “But the fact is he’s planning to go to Mars and he might just make it. Our film will show what this will mean for humanity.”
It is precisely this desire to pair big ideas with revolutionary story-telling techniques that makes TNP not so much a conference, but a circus of ideas. Consider the live hologram of Julian Assange, for instance. It was the first time that the technology had ever been used live, and the world took notice. “It was actually one of the biggest stories in the world for a few days,” notes TNP co-founder Kate Brosnan. “It really gave us a taste of what our impact could be.”
As it turns out, the hologram story was just the tip of the iceberg. After last year’s event, TNP released the first film in the Harbers Storytelling Project, a film series created in partnership with Harbers Studios. The film was inspired by a talk at The Nantucket Project by Larry Lessig in which the Harvard professor advocated for fundamental changes in election funding. The film was viewed 3.5 million times online, surpassing the combined number of views of all of Lessig’s talks at the TED conference, where Lessig is considered an “All-Star.”
While the TNP team continues to dream big about creating impact in the wider world, tnp5 also promises to have a more direct impact right here on Nantucket. The main catalyst for this will be Richard Saul Wurman, the founder of TED and a member of TNP’s advisory board. Wurman will moderate a special session at the First Congregational Church on Centre Street. TNP hopes to fill the church with hundreds of local Nantucketers who will be exposed to Wurman’s conference-within-a-conference that is dedicated to “finding the future first.”
Wurman will ask an eclectic and accomplished group of visionaries to “leap forward immediately to five years from now” and offer “a prediction with gravitas of what they think is going to happen within their narrow area of expertise.” Wurman then plans to involve all of the speakers in an improvised conversation in which the presenters will question each other on the predictions they’ve offered. “Inviting Saul to host this mini-conference in this venue allows us to really expand our reach into the Nantucket community,” says Brosnan. “It’s something you can expect to see us doing a lot more in the future.”