Just where else in the world would you find a digital music pioneer, a virtual-reality virtuoso, a cutting-edge technology boss and a record-smashing astronaut all under the same roof – on the same weekend?
Abu Dhabi is very much a city with one eye on the future, so it is fitting that some of the globe’s greatest innovators are flocking to the emirate for a fantastic festival of thought.
Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend, a two-day education and entertainment extravaganza, will explore some of the most important ideas and innovations of our time at a prestigious seat of learning, New York University Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island.
The enterprising event, which will take over the city on March 2 and March 3, will feature thought-provoking talks and workshops alongside games, interactive experiences, music, art, food and much more.
Now in its second year, the festival will see the campus’ plazas and walkways transformed into a bustling street festival suitable for all of the family.
Here are some of the blue-sky thinkers taking centre stage in the capital.
A meeting of minds
Abdullah Al Qassab
The mentor, actor, entrepreneur, engineer, philanthropist and public speaker will share his inspiring journey of how he unlocked his potential and will give valuable insight into how others can unleash theirs, allowing them to be more and give more to the world around them. Committed to helping youth in the UAE, Al Qassab will serve up a motivational talk that is not to be missed.
Aubrey de Grey
Who wants to live forever? It’s a question that’s been pondered by many more folk than just legendary British rockers Queen over the years. Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of the Sens Research Foundation, is among them – and he believes the ageing process can be significantly slowed down and eventually even halted. By focusing on regenerative medicine to repair the cellular and molecular damage caused by our own metabolism, he is convinced that healthy life extension will be available in our time, leading to staggering lifespans of 1,000 years. Such a prospect opens up countless questions about morality, society, healthcare and more – and Aubrey will be in the hotseat to field your queries.
The celebrated filmmaker (see our interview) will be opening up on the future of film – virtual reality. The Bafta and Emmy award-winning director will explain how the hi-tech platform will allow directors and film producers to share new storytelling possibilities, accounting for multiple perspectives, plot lines and possibilities to get their audience even closer to the action. Could you be the Steven Spielberg of virtual reality?
The former supremo of online music video platform VEVO will tell all about his thoughts on the future of the industry, at a time when digital downloads hold sway over record sales. VEVO, founded by the big three record labels, Universal, Sony and Warner – partnered with YouTube to bring many of the music world’s biggest names, from Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber to Eminem and Katy Perry, to our computer screens and mobile phones. Hugger, who left his role of CEO at VEVO last year, will give the inside track on his career and where the genre is headed.
This appearance promises to be out of this world. Terry Virts is one of only four astronauts to ever pilot the space shuttle, has flown on a Russian “soyuz” rocket, conducted spacewalks and commanded the International Space Station. One of NASA’s greatest living astronauts, Virts also holds the record for taking more photographs from space than any other person in history. Virts completed more than 3,600 orbits of the Earth during a stellar career before retiring in 2016. Now he is landing in Abu Dhabi to give a unique insight into life in space.
Check out a body of work
Team Unlimbited quite literally lend a helping hand to thousands of children in need. The inspirational team have taken a radical approach to designing and building prosthetics for children who are missing limbs. During the festival, visitors will be able to print a 3D prosthetic and have a go at building a colourful limb themselves.
Film for four
The highly acclaimed Zikr, a virtual-reality film which you can enjoy with your friends, will be on show at the festival. The interactive experience allows groups of four to journey together into the traditions and customs of Sufi Islam. The production has been designed to bring communities together through the power of technology.
We all want to knock cancer to the canvas and one health hero is showing how the deadly disease can be defeated. Synthetic biologist Tal Danino will be displaying his unique artwork that uses dead cancer cells to prove the killer isn’t invincible.
Music to our ears
An international cast of musicians will be hitting a high note throughout the memorable weekend. Emirati pianist Eman Al Hashimi will be well worth listening out for, while Miami Band will be providing a nostalgic blast of ’90s R&B, soul and hip-hop sounds. Sal Housini, a pop singer, songwriter and producer with Greek and Afghan influences, will also be taking to the mic, along with young Yemeni oud player Ahmed Al Shaiba, Colombian singer/songwriter and student at New York University Abu Dhabi, Vera Ciocca, plus there will be a dazzling show from Saudi Arabian illusionist Badr Hazzaa.
A hub for new ideas
The Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend is being brought to Saadiyat Island by Abu Dhabi government firm, Tamkeen, in partnership with the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organisation based in Washington D.C.
John Tate, CEO of Tamkeen, says: “Abu Dhabi is an international hub for new ideas and opportunities so it is fitting that both the city and NYUAD play host to an event celebrating innovation and creativity. We are delighted to be staging this unique and vibrant event, and look forward to welcoming the community in March.”
Dhs30 (adult tickets), Dhs20 (students and 12-18 year-olds), free (under 12s). New York University Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island, www.ideasweekend.ae.
The future of film: Anthony Geffen
Alchemy VR supremo Anthony Geffen shares his hopes for virtual reality storytelling
It was the landmark moment when the pioneering concept of virtual reality became, well, pretty real. Television history was made on April 24, 2017, when the first-ever Bafta was awarded to a virtual-reality experience –and for the pioneering award-winner it is just the start of a glittering new multimedia era.
Internationally renowned filmmaker Anthony Geffen, whose diverse range of works include a series of documentaries with screen giant Sir David Attenborough and a rare sit-down conversation with Queen Elizabeth II for a documentary on her coronation, has been at the ground floor of virtual reality’s rise from flashy gimmick to the mainstream in recent years.
Geffen’s virtual-reality studio, Alchemy VR, scooped the prestigious Bafta in the Digital Creativity category for David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive VR at the glitzy awards bash, a dazzling production that has wowed viewers all over the world, from the Natural History Museum in London to the Australian Museum in Sydney.
Geffen’s love of film was sparked by watching the legendary Attenborough as a child – and he is proud that he is now standing shoulder to shoulder with one of his heroes to lead the virtual-reality drive.
Geffen explains: “I was one of those kids who was fascinated by watching things like the Apollo missions and David Attenborough on TV.
“I started out with the BBC and have done a lot of big documentaries, including working on 11 David Attenborough films in all.
“I have been fascinated by technology and felt it could be used to tell better stories. I set up Alchemy VR to look at virtual reality in a different way, using it alongside proper storytelling. It is an immersive experience.
He continues: “One of the first films we did was David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive VR, which won a Bafta. He has been very excited about working with VR as it takes him to a new audience, as not everybody watches TV anymore.
“It is great to have his support as I think you need to have figureheads like him and we have also worked with people like Dame Judi Dench and Simon Callow.”
While VR is currently an event experience, with people visiting museums and theatres to see it in action, Geffen expects rapid technological advances to soon bring it into people’s own homes.
He adds: “In the future, it is an experience that we want to deliver into people’s own homes. The technology isn’t quite there yet. It is an incredibly exciting media.
“Seeing is believing. Our films allow people to get up close with the Munduruku tribe or into space with Tim Peake.”
Geffen is looking forward to promoting the media platform in Abu Dhabi, a city where he feels progressive ideas are embraced.
“There is a lot of interest in the UAE,” he says. “They are very interested in new technology. It is a place that is still quite young and is always looking to the future.”
The future is now – and it is becoming a brilliant reality.