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Venice and the Island of VR

Posted 8 Sep 2017

Digital Catapult’s Virtual and Augmented Reality Technology Lead, Rebecca Gregory-Clarke, shares her thoughts and aspirations for immersive technology following her recent visit to the Venice Film Festival 2017.

Not so long ago, putting on a VR demonstration meant turning up to a venue with a box full of unruly equipment and hoping that somebody had allocated you a desk near a plug socket.

This couldn’t feel further from the truth at the Venice Film Festival this year, where VR has not just been given a spotlight, but its very own island. Inhabiting a huge, previously abandoned building, the space has been transformed into a collection of installations, “stand-up” experiences, and a fifty seat VR theatre showing over thirty experiences between them.

Every touch point, from cable management to smartly dressed staff felt polished and carefully orchestrated, underlining the shift in experience from the flaky tech demo to an art form deserving of a gallery style experience.

Visits from the Italian Culture Minister, the President of the Biennale and members of the official Venice Film Festival jury seemed to confirm this, sparking great excitement amongst the set of attending international VR content creators. And, with the inclusion of a VR section in the Venice Production Bridge Gap-Financing Market, it’s easy to understand why.

Overall the content was varied and of high quality, the setting was very business-like and, once the initial excitement of being transported into virtual reality by boat had settled, there were four notable observations that I made about the set of experiences brought together on the island of VR.

1. Complex productions are pushing the boundaries (and budgets)

Production techniques are becoming ever more sophisticated, and there were a number of hybrid productions blurring the lines between my usual understanding of 360° video and ‘true VR.’ Greenland Melting, from FRONTLINE and NOVA with Emblematic Group, as directed by Nonny de la Peña, is a great example of this. It uses a combination of 360° footage, photos, linear video, volumetric video capture, and photo-realistic CGI. Accordingly, content budgets generally appear to be increasing, with the median budget being sought as part of the Venice Production Bridge being around £510k.*

2. Mixing virtual with reality

Amongst the most impressive showings at the festival were the experiences that combine virtual reality with physical installations.

Some of these are effectively set decoration, setting the scene before you enter the virtual world. Others, such as Alice, The Virtual Reality Play (by Mathias Chelebourg and Marie Jourdren) and Draw Me Close (by Jordan Tannahill, a co-production between the National Film Board of Canada and the National Theatre, UK) choose to hide most of the real-world elements from view, subtly, and sometimes unexpectedly, introducing props, smells, or real-life actors to blur the virtual into the real in an incredibly effective way.

As a participant in this virtual theatre, it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what’s expected of you, as the interaction paradigm changes considerably between each experience. On one hand this is actually very encouraging because it shows that methods of engagement are diversifying. On the other hand, it is a reminder that understanding and guiding the user journey through this world is still a fascinating and vitally important area of research that needs to run in parallel with this creative experimentation.

Generally speaking, the experiences that really stood out were those that clearly transition the user both in and out of the virtual experience – whilst making their interactions within the experience feel as intuitive as possible. The next challenge, however, will be to do all of this at scale, as one-on-one experiences with an actor are not easy to expand into multi-user exhibits. That said, it is also the personal element that helps to make it so special, so I look forward to seeing what form this next iteration will take.

3. Shared viewing proves its value

Scaling up these experiences so that many participants can immerse themselves in the content simultaneously is not just a question of good economic and logistical sense, it is also a key element of audience enjoyment.

Being a “solitary experience” is a charge that often gets levelled at virtual reality. Among the most notable opponents of this theory is of course Facebook, who bought Oculus Rift. Mark Zuckerberg believes that VR could be the next “social platform,” and is working hard to encourage social applications whereby users can enter a shared virtual world in which they will simultaneously interact with both the world and each other.

Alternatively, there’s another approach where people are permitted to simultaneously view the same content, even if the experiences themselves aren’t linked. During a viewing of Chromatica (one of the Biennale College Cinema VR entries, directed by Flavio Costa) in the VR theatre at Venice, a number of audience members spontaneously broke out into applause at the end. This is not something I have ever witnessed before for VR, but I found it incredibly encouraging on a number of levels. Beyond simply being an expression of appreciation for an individual piece of content, this also feels like an unmistakeable sign that the audience feels they are sharing an experience together. Applause, for any kind of content, is rarely something one does sitting alone at home on the sofa; it tends to be something that is done as a collective. The fact that this audience felt compelled to do so implies that they don’t feel as cut off from the world as one might think.

I would also cite the amount of conversation that is generated immediately after the headsets come off as a positive sign of engagement, and it made me think of a showing of Doom Room (from Makropol) that I experienced earlier this year at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. This is a multi-participant, half VR, half immersive theatre experience in which around six people can enter the experience at the same time. For me, the most memorable part of this was the fact that, having gone into it with five complete strangers that I hadn’t shared a word with beforehand, we all came out of it gushing with thoughts and questions for each other. The fact is that interesting content, no matter what the medium, makes us want to talk about it, and this could in fact provide a very powerful way of gauging the impact the content has on our audiences.

4. Leave them wanting more

The final noticeable trend evident at this Venice gathering that I wanted to highlight is the number of experiences that end with “to be continued.” This demonstrates a tendency to build ‘pilot’ content that is intended to be part of a larger piece of work, rather than one-off experiences.

Sensible, as it demonstrates a trend to start building content into repeatable, episodic content that will hopefully drive engagement beyond the initial experience, and open the door to the development of new ‘formats’ that audiences might start to recognise.

Secondly, building a pilot is clearly a good way to help secure a further commission, in much the same way is it does for TV. You see as little as a year ago, when VR content was at an earlier stage of experimentation, most pieces were seen as one-off demos and there was relatively little chance of further development. However, the fact that more and more creative teams are now going down this route is perhaps a sign that confidence in the form of the content, and ultimately the potential for further commissioning is increasing within the market. It will be interesting to see how many of these will have gone on to create further episodes or full-length features by this time next year.

Lastly, leaving your audience in suspense at the end of the episode is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and is another great way of testing the impact that content has on its audience. Put simply, how many of the participants leave the experience dying to know what happens next?

The sun will shortly set on VR island 2017, but the exhibition has certainly served as a great benchmark for both cutting-edge artistic content, and the way it can be effectively curated and displayed. It has certainly left me wanting more, and I look forward to seeing how content makers, commissioners and festival organisers will respond over the coming year.



*Venice Gap-Financing Market: Book of Projects