Philip Ellis
Tech / Innovation
The Next Great Art Form : 3 Insights From VRUK

You’ve heard of AR and VR. Now get ready for XR. It’s short for extended reality, and it’s the phrase-du-jour at VRUK 2017 in London. Essentially, XR refers to the work being done by designers and developers to combine VR and AR technologies to create a fully realised experience.

All of which is to say, they’re simply working on better ways to use the technology at their disposal to tell better stories. This is hardly new. As visual artist Michael Takeo Magruder puts it: “Cave paintings were virtual spaces, using the technology of the time.”

“VR and AR are exactly like any other type of art form,” says Tom Fenwick-Smith, Creative Director at REWIND. “They’re specifically created to evoke an emotional response within the person who views it.” There is, however, still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding exactly where this new art form fits into our lives. Here, at least, are three questions to which we do know the answer.

Designing virtual spaces is not an exact science… yet.

“When you’re making VR, you very quickly end up in a place that’s quite philosophical,” says Kim-Leigh Pontin, Creative Interaction Director at Sky VR Studios. “The only reality we know is through our experiences, which we construct through our senses. We take those senses, put them together, and project reality inside our minds; there’s no such thing as an objective reality. So you can create an experience that feels more ‘real’ than reality.”

“I’m really tired of simulation,” says Magruder, comparing it to a digital photocopier capable of replicating analogue things and making them cheaper and more accessible. “But what about the experiences that are inherently made for VR?” He asks. “I don’t want a simulation of something I can do in real life. I want an experience I can’t have in the physical world. As an artist, that’s where I hope to get to — but that depends on the technologists.”

Magruder believes that the key to VR isn’t photorealism, but rather finding a different kind of comfort level. “Thanks to computer games, there is a 3D virtual aesthetic that feels very natural to us,” he says. “If you build within that paradigm, it’s easy to get a user to participate and suspend their disbelief.”

A number of speakers also alluded to the sometimes-overwhelming detail in immersive experiences, which throw so much stimulus at the viewer that they don’t know where to look, and consequently don’t know what to feel. Pontin believes that VR designers would do well to take cues from animators, who can provoke all kinds of emotional responses from viewers with little more than two dots and a line. “You don’t need every snowflake rendered in hi-def,” she says. “Start with the emotion, and go from there.”

VR will enhance, not replace, other art forms.

“The audience for opera and ballet are dying. Literally. We have to reinvigorate that.” So says Tom Nelson, Head of Audience Labs at at the Royal Opera House. The way he sees it, VR isn’t a usurper to performing arts, but a brand new tool which can be used to make theatre more accessible, and bring it to a whole new audience. The job of the Royal Opera House remains “maintaining that magic on stage,” he says. “If we can find ways to translate that magic to people on their own terms, it can only be a good thing.”

“Immersive technologies can change, evolve and challenge our art forms for the better,” he says. “These art forms have to adapt to new technologies to mean something to audiences today.”

“Innovation is what theatre and arts organisations should be about,” says Nelson. The Royal Opera House has access to the world’s best seamstresses, shoemakers, designers and prop-makers; why shouldn’t this excellence extend to technology? “We have to be this very porous, open crucible for innovation on all levels,” he says. “Just look at the games industry in the UK, and how it’s been a world leader… there are fantastic storytellers there we could be leveraging.”

But it isn’t just about what VR can do for theatre; Toby Coffey, Head of Digital Development at the National Theatre, believes the performance world holds all kinds of talent that can help VR developers create better immersive experiences. He cites the writers, designers, directors and actors who are all used to working in spatial environments and producing content that is viewed and experienced from different angles. Just as VR can add an extra layer to a theatrical experience, so too can centuries of craft help to make virtual spaces more emotionally engaging.

One thing that Coffey has learned while overseeing VR activations at the National Theatre is the importance of “decompression time” after an intense experience. “You can’t just take someone on that journey and then throw them out on the street afterwards,” he says.

We’re still waiting for the first great VR ad.

“The best way to kill an interesting new medium is with really shitty marketing,” says Zone Digital’s Dan Harvey. And that’s where we’re at with VR; plenty of mediocre content out there, but brands doing genuinely engaging experiential work are thin on the ground. “Two years ago you could get some easy PR wins for being ‘first-ish’ in this realm, but now PR and media coverage of VR is in this trough of disillusionment,” says Harvey. “The hype has been taken over by AI, so you have to do some shit-hot VR now in order to get any attention.”

“There’s a gold rush mentality right now,” says Coffey. “It feels like there’s going to be a VR bubble like there was a dot com bubble, with people not realising what the form is, and just charging money and doing rubbish work. It will flounder and the find its own feet, and you’ve got to let it do that.”

Case studies of excellent branded VR content are rare, but there are creators who have started to figure out how to use the unique propositions of the medium to craft memorable moments. Dean Johnson, Head of Innovation at Brandwidth, recalls the best piece of scripted VR content he has ever seen was a “good cop, bad cop” scenario from Funny Or Die, which placed the viewer in the position of the person being interrogated. While not an ad, Johnson says this did engage him in a way that little other VR content did; the characters maintained eye contact throughout, and it held his attention for the full seven minutes. “If you’re going to keep my attention through great scripted content, I will have a positive experience and tell other people,” he says.

It’s crucial that brands figure what’s going to be technically possible before they start over-claiming. You should explore, you should push limits… but you also have to work with VR professionals at the earliest stages. And it’s equally important to realise, speakers emphasise, that tech for its own sake is never the answer, and that some brands will have no reason to pursue VR.

“Even if you do a huge activation, that’s great — but where do you go from there?” Asks Sam Kingston, co-founder of Virtual Umbrella. She notes that just convincing people to put on a headset during an activation is hard work — and so really, you should only be doing that if you know you’re going to be able to take their breath away.

“Some brands still want to make VR just for the sake of it,” she says. “Some brands find it’s not a good fit for them – and that’s fine!”

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