16 October 2017
Michael Grotenhoff is inspired by virtual reality: The director and producer uses his films to conjure up interactive experiences. He is convinced that digitalisation is changing our world as fundamentally as the invention of the printing press.
Producer, director, head of Creative Development at Filmtank, Berlin branch, shareholder in Filmtank and Apollofilm, creative adviser to the Interactive Media Foundation (IMF)
What project are you working on at the moment?
My work is currently focused on “Deltas“ - a five-part TV documentary and interactive virtual reality expedition to the most stunning river deltas in the world. The VR experience takes the viewer into the middle of the unique ecosystem of the Amazonian rain forests and makes them part of the exotic wildlife. Another major task is “Bauhaus spirit“ - an international cross-media project for the 100th anniversary of the legendary Bauhaus school in 2019. We’re currently under a lot of pressure to complete a VR installation that will translate the man-machine-dance experiments of Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, which were themselves visionary in their day, for the digital age.
The “digital transformation” is a common theme throughout your filmography - why is that?
Since very early in my career I’ve been concerned with the question of how digitalisation is changing all our lives. This change is at least as fundamental as the invention of the printing press was back in the Middle Ages. I’m also interested in the way modern information technologies are connecting the world - on societal, social and political levels: What opportunities does this present - and what risks? I’m just as worried about war in cyberspace as I’m fascinated by the profound changes and opportunities of digitalisation when it comes to education and training.
“The digital transformation is at least as fundamental as the invention of the printing press was back in the Middle Ages.“
What new technology excites you right now?
I’m very caught up in Virtual Reality at the moment - this technology is paving the way for completely new forms of storytelling that haven’t yet even been developed. What excites me is that I can be beamed right into the heart of historical events and travel to places, take on roles, see from different perspectives and experience things that I would never otherwise get to experience.
And what about technology that hasn’t yet been invented?
I find the holodeck from Star Trek a very attractive idea. It’s high time that someone actually built one. And then there’s time travel. What a dream - or perhaps also a nightmare - it would be to be able to travel in time and space ...
How networked is your home?
If anything, my journalistic investigations have made me cautious as far as the total networking of my home is concerned. But that doesn't mean that I’m anti-technology. On the contrary. A lot of things are making everyday life easier. For instance, it’s practical to be able to stream music wirelessly through my home speakers - even though I know I’m just a little cog in the huge algorithm machine that’s recording my user habits. And yet, I'm trying to be careful with how my devices communicate with the outside world. I’ve made sure that my home network is encrypted.
“I’m simply not disciplined enough just to go on a digital detox.“
Are you personally worried about a cyber-attack?
When the global ransomwareattacks encrypted a lot of home computers a few months ago, I started to take a critical look at links before clicking on them. You can quickly infect your computer with a virus that controls it remotely and, for instance, recruits you for a botnet that then goes on to launch an all-out attack on some IT infrastructures.
Our TV documentary “netwars“ shows how vulnerable our country is in the age of full digital networking. Hackers can for example infiltrate our energy systems via smart home networks and trigger lethal chain reactions. Blackout - the collapse of the energy supply in not just Germany but throughout Europe - is no longer the stuff of science fiction but is a real possibility.
We’ve established that this is being made possible by, of all things, the ecological flagship policy: The digitalisation of the energy revolution. Our research shows just how vulnerable those technical systems that represent the future of our energy supply really are. Smart meters, routers, wind farms and solar power systems - all these could be dangerous weapons if malicious hackers were to succeed in penetrating the networked systems.
Which apps couldn’t you live without?
If anything, I’m somewhat conservative when I’m out and about and mostly use news apps like Spiegel Online, n-tv, BBC News and NY Times. I actually only need Facebook and WhatsApp for professional communication purposes. If I need to communicate sensitive stories, I prefer to use Threema.
Do you understand Snapchat?
I have some professional dealings with it and know how Snapchat works and what you can do with it. But I’ve noticed that I have no interest in chasing after every digital development, as the half-life of new applications is often short.
When were you last offline for 24 hours?
When I was in the Amazon rainforest, out on a shoot for the TV series and to take virtual reality shots - deep in the jungle. It was great and didn’t hurt at all to be far away from any broadcasting aerials for days on end.
A holiday without Wi-Fi - is that a dream or a nightmare?
A dream that rarely comes true. I’m simply not disciplined enough just to go on a digital detox, although I can get along just fine without digital stuff.
The “Profile” series is a new format of #explore: Here we want to regularly give a voice to exciting and inspiring people from the digital scene - to researchers, bloggers, start-up founders, entrepreneurs, hackers, and visionaries.