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CreativeXR – Where does immersive technology go from here?

Posted 7 Feb 2019

This month we celebrated the final five prototypes created in the first year of CreativeXR and announced the second year of the programme with our excellent partners Arts Council England.

The outputs are varied and exciting. From the experimental theatrics of Fatherland and Traitor, to the blend of VR with physical installation of Immersive Histories, to the hard hitting testimonials of Common Ground and the accessibility of When Something Happens; the projects are a testament to the creativity and resourcefulness of the content makers, who are making things happen on relatively small budgets.

However, we still have a long way to go. With small budgets come compromises, and many immersive content creators are having to make difficult choices between pushing the boundaries of this new art form and the production values they would like to achieve.

Finding a balance

While studios like Dimension and Imaginarium Studios are now capable of putting out screen ready, broadcast quality assets, this still comes at a relatively high price, and the majority of companies working with budgets similar to those on CreativeXR will have to choose where to prioritise. Of course, the decision to use state of the art performance capture and high photorealism is as much of an artistic choice as anything else and it raises a bunch of questions about business model, availability and sustainability of high cost solutions and the best way to engage new audiences.

The art side of the equation argues with some justice that engagement at an emotional level does not require high production values, it just demands a great script that will draw folk in and demand their attention. There is also good scientific evidence for this, showing that lasting impressions can be created from characters in lower resolution, non-realistic renderings if the overall setting, context and script is realistic, particularly if the audio is also realistic (even if the visuals are not). There is a debate to be had therefore about whether a drive to higher and higher resolution is the best means of increasing mainstream penetration or whether a more cultural approach that engages emotions, that provokes and intrigues, that wears experimentation as a badge of honour, might be a more successful route. I have no doubt that both are effective and are working the market right now.

Helping make immersive technologies reach mainstream potential

The curious set of levers and switches that we need to pull to ensure that immersive technologies really reach the mainstream potential that they have, is fascinating to play. We have some pure technology elements to this: how good an image, how fast a render, how close to live streaming can we get?

Then we have business model elements: how low can we get production costs, how low can we get studio time, how do we get people to pay, who do we get to pay, what do they pay for and what do they get for free?

Finally, we have creative questions about what kinds of format and genre will help penetrate the massive passives of the mainstream market; will games lead the way or is that its own ghetto? Is cultural expression and artistic form the means to reaching influencers and thinkers who can be the leading edge adopters that others will follow? Are commissioners the route to market and what fickle set of parameters could possibly attract or appeal to these sometimes dilettante creatives who have their own reputations, their own passion projects and the largest possible audiences as equal imperatives?

The delights of mixed reality

If we are going to explore the delights and the potential of mixed reality, hybrid forms that include live actors, real time animation and audience participation, how can we make this really compelling for the largest audiences? Fatherland, by Limbik Theatre and the University of Portsmouth, tries an interesting new blend of live theatre audience, with audience participation in VR in an attempt to scale up the experience to a larger audience. While it engages in a completely new way and creates very interesting levels of awareness of different viewpoints, it is also quite risky. We have to ensure that we do not end up reducing our own show’s production values to the level of whether the audience participator is a nervous head wagger or has a steady gaze, since their gaze is almost the entire view of the audience as a whole.

CreativeXR as part of the bigger picture

As we look to the second year of CreativeXR, we are also conscious of acting on the same stage as a big new siblings, the Audiences of the Future demonstrators, four multi-million pound projects that have the opportunity to do something at scale, at a level of production quality previously unthinkable. So for the next year of CreativeXR, perhaps increasing the levels of risk and experimentation with how to engage or massively ramping up production values in a small bijou experience are some of the choices candidates might make.

As my colleague Rebecca Gregory-Clarke observed at this year’s Venice VR showcase, “there seems to be an interesting tussle between producers pushing hard at the boundaries of interactive storytelling, finding ever more complex and imaginative staging approaches and blurring the lines between the real and virtual worlds – and those wanting to simplify and create solid, robust experiences that are more suitable for a broad, entry-level audience.”

This is exactly the same decision that prospective applicants for CreativeXR will face this year, and ultimately the decision will be a balance between what they want to achieve creatively, the audience they hope to reach, and who they might hope to gain support from when it comes to financing the production and distribution stage. Some potential partners will prioritise accessible, high production value content above anything else, whilst others may be more keen to support riskier content. Either way, it will be important to consider this from the start.

Certainly we are excited by what’s to come because we still have so far to go and the market still needs much work to help it develop. The combination of sheer creative inventiveness, technological proficiency and innovation, and business nous are all drivers to creating successful XR projects.

Which will be the kind of stage that opens the doors to larger audiences; the theatre, the art gallery, the shopping mall, the sports arena, the holiday village or the factory? Any of these is possible – all of them deserve thinking about!