Venice VR: State Of The Art

A year has passed since my first trip to Venice VR; the new element of the Venice Film Festival which has grown steadily in the last three years. Last year’s exhibition set the bar high for the professionalisation of the exhibition experience. This year the expo came back with gusto, with over 40 pieces on display on ‘VR Island’ and a total of 21 companies taking part in the Production Bridge – the marketplace event where teams can pitch to an array of interested investors. With so much to see at the exhibition, and a noticeably larger and even more international crowd congregating around it, the once abandoned little island of Lazzaretto Vecchio didn’t really know what hit it.

Venice Film Festival - LogoFirst off, I was of course very happy to see a strong UK presence, which included content from Sky, the BBC, Breaking Fourth, and our adoptive Tiny Planets, who have spent time at Digital Catapult over the last year. The marketplace also featured new work from the National Theatre, and two companies supported by our CreativeXR programme, Limbik Theatre and Up Creatives, who did us proud as they pitched for further investment for their projects.

Musing about this festival in relation to last year, it seems that no sooner have we set a new standard for how these things should be done – we’re pushing the boundaries all over again. One more year of progress translates to an exponential leap in ambition for some, and this year saw a noticeable increase in live-action VR hybrids, multiplayer experiences, free roaming pieces involving backpack computers, full body tracking, vibrating floors and the occasional haptic chair.

On the installation end of the spectrum, widely lauded pieces included The Horrifically Real Virtuality, DVgroup’s latest offering featuring an appropriately surreal encounter with Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi and Umami, Tiny Planets and Novelab’s tale about rediscovering memories through food.

The Horrifically Real VirtualityOn the more stand-alone end, the BBC and Anagram’s Make Noise, which marks the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK, features simple but very effective interactions triggered by your voice. Baoab Studios’ Crow: The Legend is a great example of how a small amount of agency and embodiment can go a long way; including you within the narrative without you having to drive it.

Penrose Studio’s Arden’s Wake: Tide’s Fall, Atlas V’s Battlescar, and Breaking Fourth’s Lucid also serve as great examples of how a good story, well executed, even without interaction can be incredibly effective and accessible.

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 in part reflective of the different audiences that producers are making a play for. Whilst the latter is probably more friendly to a wider user base, and is likely to have online distribution as it’s ultimate goal, the former is perhaps better suited to the kind of highly motivated, spectacle-seeking audiences who willingly seek out obscure locations and part with (often significant) amounts of money to spend an evening locked in an Escape Room with some people they hopefully like. Of course, they both have their merits and challenges – one suffers from a lack of installed user-base, and the other is challenged by the investment and logistical headaches to overcome in order to run an installation at significant scale.

A hot topic of debate at an industry panel, hosted by Venice VR programmer Liz Rosenthal on distribution and monetisation options, about which she recently wrote an article for Digital Catapult, was around the success and failure of location based entertainment (LBE). Eddie Lou, Founder of Sandbox Immersive Festival in China discussed the failure of the ‘first wave’ of arcade experiences in China over the last 2-3 years, and cites the low quality of content and overall experience as a key factor. Marcie Jastrow, SVP of Immersive Media at Technicolor, on the other hand, points to an earlier point of failure of dedicated location-based venues, and says that the real problem is getting people to go at all. It is difficult, she explains, to
convince people to go out of their way to find such an experience if they don’t really know what it is, and therefore don’t have the confidence that it will be worth their while. She suggests that the answer is not in building ‘VR Cinemas’ but in finding the places that already have the greatest footfall, and building content for that particular audience. “Go somewhere where there are thousands and millions of people, and all you’re looking for is 1% to have their ‘aha’ moment” says Jastrow, pointing to the relative success of the Periscape VR installation at JFK airport in New York, which is reportedly breaking even. Her point is clear; “find the distribution channels before you make the content.”

PeriscapeVRThis brings us to an interesting, if not entirely new, debate; are we creating art, or are we creating an entertainment business? And more to the point, can we have both? This conversation stretches into all corners of the creative world, of course, but it is an interesting one to be having at this stage of our immersive evolution. If we are focussing more on commercial sustainability, then certainly we can afford to be a lot more ruthless about working out where there are
opportunities for finding these ready-made audiences – whether they be museums, shopping centres, airports, or music festivals. But then there are those that would argue we don’t yet know enough about what works to be limiting our artistic experimentation in this way.

Looking around at Venice, there are some experiences that seem to fall more obviously into one or other category, but not all of them. I personally see the value in both, but in any eventuality there is one obvious and universal truth; you need to know who your audience is. Whether you’re targeting the masses, or going for the most niche audience of megafans, as long as you know them well, understand what they like and know how to find them – then you’re off to a good start. Experimentation is great as long as we are learning something from it, because in the end, whether your heart is in business or artistic
expression, we all want the same thing – a sector that can see out the so-called ‘winter of VR’ and sustain itself long term.

Venice VR represents another fascinating peek at the way these audiences of the future may be whiling away their time, and I look forward to seeing how this debate about LBE and commercially successful experiences may have moved on by this time next year. I also can’t help but wonder, given recent product launches, how much augmented reality (AR) storytelling we might see in the festival circuit over the coming year, and I can’t wait to find out.