RIOT is part of a wave of narrative experiences that use technology to activate specific emotions. At FoST, there were projects meant to make you feel intimacy or even -- purportedly -- fall in love. If storytelling is about eliciting human emotions, Melcher said his goal is to find examples of technology augmenting that process to create "sensual media."
"It's a kind of storytelling that reminds us of the sensory joy of being alive," he said. "And I think that's a direct response to a lot of technology which has for many years been doing the opposite, disconnecting us from ourselves."
"I believe that if you're fearful or angry often your narrative in life doesn't get to reach a conclusion."
In RIOT, the primary emotion Palmer plays with is fear. "In my opinion, fear is the most powerful emotion," Palmer, originally from London, said. "If you're calm, your narrative will play out because I believe that if you're fearful or angry often your narrative in life doesn't get to reach a conclusion."
It's a recurrent theme in her work -- how to face fear head on, and move through it -- that comes in part from practicing freerunning for the past 13 years with international group Parkour Generations. An earlier project, Syncself, was a parkour simulator using an EEG headset to measure participants' focus. If their brainwaves didn't show concentration, they'd fail to make their leaps.
In the same way Palmer has managed her relationship with fear through parkour, she wants RIOT to help people understand their emotions. "I would like them to get an insight or confirmation into who they are," she said. Though RIOT is filmed from a first-person point of view, it's not as much about connecting with another character as learning about your reaction to pressure. You have to confront not only how you feel but also, crucially, how your emotions are projected to others. Research shows that the majority of communication is nonverbal, and it doesn't matter if you feel calm should the cop think you're angry and bring out his nightstick. RIOT is about understanding your subconscious, involuntary emotional expression and learning how to regulate it.
Palmer likens RIOT to a "gym of the mind" where you're "programming yourself," and it's easy to see its pragmatic uses in conflict training or any other preparation for a fight-or-flight scenario. It's a contrast to much storytelling, where your emotional openness to wherever the experience leads you -- say, to be frightened in It or warmed in The Big Sick -- enhances the enjoyment. In RIOT, you have to steel yourself. Like a traditional movie director, Palmer is still trying to manipulate your emotions. But you have to push back or you don't get to see the ending.