Virtual reality: a beginners’ guide for the arts

Award-winning Catherine Allen, Director of Limina Immersive, and producer on two of the BBC’s first VR experiences, tells Eleanor Turney how arts organisations can start to experiment with the possibilities of virtual content.

Eleanor Turney: What is VR? How would you define it?
Catherine Allen:
 There are different definitions of VR. Some people would say it has to be a room-scale experience in which you can move around, with an animated feel built by a games engine. Other people would say that 360 video counts. My view is pragmatic – if it simulates another reality, place or time then it counts as virtual reality, and I’d say that a headset is really the only way of doing that.

It can be as simple as a Google Cardboard operated by a phone, right through to these super-realistic environments where you can move around and interact with objects. There are whole-body data suits that use motion capture to know where you are in the room. For arts organisations, it’s good to be pragmatic, because that’s how audiences are. They aren’t engaged in the technical definition, they care whether feels like another reality and whether they’re getting a worthwhile artistic experience.

ET: Why should arts organisations be interested in VR – what potential does it have?
CA: There’s a lot of ways to get benefit from VR as an arts organisation, and I think lots of them are untapped opportunities. If you have a venue, you can exhibit some VR – you’ve got people already engaged with what you’re doing, so curating a series of experiences for them that are in-line with whatever themes your organisation tends to explore, is a great way in. It doesn’t require producing something new, you can find some work and license it from the creator, set up a space for the experience, getting the equipment and setting up a booking system. It means you can learn about audiences before embarking on making your own work. If you haven’t seen much audience response to VR it’s really hard to understand the medium, so I’d advise observing people using VR and starting there.

Then there’s creation of new work. Say you’re a dance company or a theatre company, the work can be captured in 360 video, or wearing motion capture suits and then put into a games engine like Unity or UnrealEngine. For that you’d want to partner with a developer or commission a developer in making the content. At the very least, you can buy a Samsung 360 camera for about £200 now, and if you’ve got a Samsung phone you can preview what it’s filming and it comes with editing software.

You can make 360 degree videos really cheaply – these cameras are aimed at the consumer market, so they’re pretty straightforward to use. Even without a Google Cardboard, 360 video can be really interesting and effective. It can be used for marketing purposes, or you could do 360 screenings within an exhibition you’re running already, or if you had a theatre show on you could sell Google Cardboard and then recommend content, including your own videos.


A woman using the My Name is Peter Stillman VR experience
A woman using the My Name is Peter Stillman VR experience

ET: Do you have any advice for marketing this kind of work to new audiences?
CA: In terms of marketing, we’ve found that if you use generic pictures of people in headsets, it attracts people who are coming for the technology rather than the content. You wouldn’t market a film by showing picture of people sitting in a cinema looking at a screen, so don’t do that with VR. You want to market the content not the technology. If an audience is new to VR, of course they’re going to be curious and want to experience the technology, but if you want them to keep coming back and build an audience culture around the content, it’s important to focus on the content in your messaging. That’s how you get repeat customers.

ET: Can you give some examples of arts organisations that have done interesting things with VR?
CA: BDH, a creator and developer in Bristol, made a Bosch app, where you fly through his painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. When we took it to Warwick Arts Centre, we sold specially-designed Google Cardboards with scenes from The Garden of Earthly Delights on them. People really liked that, and it came with instructions for how to download the app and use it at home, so they could take that experience away with them. If you were an art gallery, you could do something like that – sell a Google Cardboard in the gift shop.

There’s the stuff we do at my company Limina – for example we ran a VR weekender at Watershed in Bristol. We ran it as a festival, with difference sections, including one that was mainly dance, and one with pieces on refugees and migration. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery had an exhibition called Thresholds, by Mat Collishaw. That was room-scale VR where people could move through the space and experience a photography exhibition from the past.

The National Theatre have been doing VR stuff for a while, and supporting artists in producing work. They have an incubator space where they provide mentoring and support for people making VR that has a relationship with theatre. They’ve also done VR things to accompany shows. When they had Wonder.Land on, there was an accompanying VR experience. There were installations in the lobby where you could go down the rabbit hole. That was positioned around an existing event, which made a lot of sense. And of course 59 Productions’ created My Name is Peter Stillman (a Space commission), a prequel type VR experience to their staging of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which toured with the stage production so audiences could experience it before they went into the show.

For the heritage sector, Yorvik in York made a really interesting Viking VR experience as part of a bigger exhibition. You popped a Viking mask on and experienced what it was like to be a Viking. It looked really fun – you just hold the mask up to your face without having to strap it on, which makes it more accessible and less scary for people!

ET: And what are the pitfalls to avoid?
 Those are some successful ways of doing VR, and there are ways I would not recommend. Setting up one VR headset in your bar or lobby, making people queue to use it, and then they have their go surrounded by everyone else in the queue watching them, is very common. People, when they’re in VR, feel quite vulnerable and anxious. It needs to feel like a safe space, and people need to feel comfortable and looked after. They need to know things like, is their bag going to be safe, can they bring kids along, is it going to ruin their fancy hairstyle? These are very practical questions that you need to answer! That style of demo is not very inclusive.

When we’ve got audience feedback before, we’ve asked how people would feel if the experience was set-up in the corner of the bar rather than an a timed, separate experience to book in for. The majority of people said they wouldn’t do it, especially women. I think there’s something around feeling observed and vulnerable. It’s a bit like wearing a blindfold and noise cancelling headphones but knowing that lots of people are around you. By putting it in a private space without a big queue, it’s more inclusive, because it’s aimed at people who might be anxious or self-conscious.

When you’re asking someone to do VR, you are asking a lot of them. You’re asking them to give up their sense of sight and sound in the physical world. So you’ve got to have respect for the people offering to do that and make sure that briefings are really thorough, and that they know what to do if they don’t like it, if they want to come out. You need somebody there to look after them.

ET: Where would you recommend people start, if they are interested in VR?
CA: Starting with 360 cameras can be a good way to get going. Have a play, really, and start thinking about things spatially. Also, just do some VR! The more you do the more you’ll understand. You can hire headsets and a computer – an Oculus Rift, for example – and have a play. That’ll cost you about £150 for a day, and you and your team could spend time getting immersed in the content that’s out there, seeing what you like and what you don’t like. You can think about the kinds of experiences that might work in your organisation.

Before embarking on a journey into VR and spending lots of money, it’s important to try some things out and not just assume that it’s a techno-novelty. It’s the birth of a new art form, a new medium, and in my view it’s equivalent to the early years of cinema. It’s worth investing some time and energy into understanding it – and it’s fun!

Catherine Allen is the Director of Limina Immersivewhich curates VR for arts venues. She was part of the BAFTA VR advisory team, and has judged VR for Sheffield Doc Fest, Encounters and Raindance film festivals. She also led the creation of two of the BBC’s first VR experiences.

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