Forest Tribe uses 5G connectivity and haptics to create immersive digital experiences
As founder and CEO of Forest Tribe, Debbie Bandara connects her background in artificial intelligence with a lifelong passion to design immersive theatre experiences.
In 2000, when Debbie first studied artificial intelligence and machine learning at Sussex University, the technology was still in its infancy. However, in the years that followed, Debbie wanted to dissect how people learn, inspiring her to become a primary school teacher and explore supported learning techniques through creativity and play.
“When I taught and interacted with different audiences, they would engage in different ways, but it was through guided repetition and open discussion that engrained their learning patterns,” said Debbie Bandara, founder and CEO of Forest Tribe.
“For children, play is the best way to learn and increase their awareness of the world we live in.”
Through teaching, Debbie also understood how physically disabled and neurodiverse children develop learning skills, communication and interaction. She looked for practical ways to engage their creativity through careful co-ordinated immersive techniques.
Forest Tribe is an award-winning theatre company that produces immersive digital productions that captivate audiences with interactive storytelling.
Debbie Bandara created Forest Tribe to produce highly interactive theatre experiences for inclusive audiences with digital elements including holographic gauze to create 3D theatrical illusions.
Able to reach groups with limited access to traditional theatre venues, Forest Tribe can bring the entire immersive experience to homes, theatres, schools, libraries and galleries, with interactive storytelling and activities that transfix young audiences and continue to inspire their play, long after the show ends.
We’ve come to a point where we can implement AI machine learning, in a way that is purposely driven for social and technical good. 5G and haptics allow us to reach even further, to audiences that would not necessarily get access at all.Debbie Bandara Founder and CEO of Forest Tribe
Born out of the pandemic, New World reaches audiences unable to access arts and creativity.
In 2020, when COVID-19 forced schools and theatres into lockdown, schoolteachers quickly reached out to Debbie, hoping she could find a way to engage with the children remotely.
The question arose: “How can we create something artistic that incorporates technology?” Debbie explained.
Forest Tribe’s immersive digital production, New World, uses purpose-built props with haptic responses to the audience interactions, incorporating all senses – visual, auditory, smell, taste and touch – with kinaesthetic learning to create a multi-sensory experience.
New World transports the audience deep into a lush rainforest to encounter an Amazonian tribe, where they hear distant bird calls, feel ripples of water and the sensations beneath their feet, smell the forest decay and taste the fresh fruit from the forest.
With its low latency, 5G also offers the potential to reach several venues simultaneously, offering a shared communal experience
Digital Catapult has a strong support ecosystem that links across several sectors. There’s a real sense of wanting to support small and medium-sized enterprises for investment, while ensuring a diverse and inclusive approach.Debbie Bandara Founder and CEO of Forest Tribe
Forest Tribe joins Digital Catapult’s Creative XR programme to push the boundaries of interactive storytelling and technology.
In 2020 Forest Tribe joined CreativeXR, an internationally-recognised acceleration programme for immersive creators in the arts, culture and entertainment sector.
Developed as a partnership between Digital Catapult and Arts Council England, CreativeXR supports creators in developing their early-stage concepts in virtual reality, augmented reality, immersive audio, haptics or any XR technology experience.
Through the programme creators gain access to industry mentors and workshops, as well as Digital Catapult’s Immersive Labs and 5G Testbed, helping them advance from research and development to real-world deployment.
Due to COVID-19, Debbie and her team had to complete the programme virtually, but this did not affect the benefits of CreativeXR. “I don’t think I’ve experienced such a well organised, clear structure and communication,” said Debbie.
“Digital Catapult had the same understanding of the level of work we needed to do. I could focus solidly on the project and receive an equal level of attention to detail. This allowed the delivery of work to be harmonious to our audiences.”
Forest Tribe embraces digital technology to produce inclusive and compelling theatre productions that connect with all audiences.
Forest Tribe has a clear, strong digital strategy for its future. The company is currently in talks with Sci-Tech Daresbury, a state-of-the-art innovation centre in Cheshire, with plans to develop a haptic design platform and incorporate AI into its storytelling tracking.
Further afield, conversations are underway with autism schools in the USA and theatres in Sweden, with a vision to create immersive experiences for local communities.
With continued support from Arts Council England, Forest Tribe is hoping to achieve status as a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) and remains focused for the business moving forward.
As immersive technology ventures into the metaverse, Forest Tribe sees the potential in virtual reality for the future, but its focus remains on haptics and embodied movement.
“We’re looking to branch into VR, but we have to make sure the current hardware is tailored towards the particular needs of our audiences, there is still much to develop and innovate” Debbie explained. “The metaverse must be clearly diverse, so there is an urgency to ensure ethics is fully established.”
“As an organisation, Forest Tribe aims to promote a more inclusive, fair, equitable set-up for future theatre shows. There is certainly space for Forest Tribe to reach new audiences in the metaverse as well,” she added.
In November 2021, Debbie Bandara won the CEO Award at the Digital Catapult Awards, which celebrates UK technology innovators at the forefront of our digital future.
“It’s wonderful to see that a small company in the north-west of England that’s creating digital work for children and families with particular learning needs, has been recognised,” Debbie said.
“It is clear to me that Digital Catapult has a ‘zeitgeist quality’, which is definitely pioneering that trajectory excelling the UK’s economy within the Creative Industries.”
One of 6
companies awarded a 2021 Digital Catapult Award
leading innovation centres and autism schools