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Analysis: Immersive tech in film festivals (2020)

Analysing immerisve tech in film festivals

It is not lost on anyone that the best year for immersive film festivals came at the same time as the global pandemic. Locked inside and bubbling in boredom, VR users popped on their headsets and escaped their four walls into a new dimension of enjoyment and art. External factors pushed teams to double down with their digital offering.

The results? A stellar year for film festivals that included strands in immersive. Raindance Immersive, Venice Film Festival, and London Film Festival (for the first time this year) presented different and interesting perspectives on how to do a festival. All had great ideas, and all have lessons to teach others on future events.

The art itself was spectacular; Agence is a personal favourite, for example. But for the industry to develop, it must take a customer-focused approach to deliver its film festivals – or risk erecting harsh barriers for anyone new top hop in.

Exploring the Raindance Embassy. Photo credit: Raindance Immersive.
Exploring the Raindance Embassy. Photo credit: Raindance Immersive.

VR Chat, Raindance Immersive, and Venice Film Festival

Let us start with VRChat. The platform had several major benefits that helped with the construction of film festivals. The first is the ease of deployment; creating a world in VRChat takes less time, making it easier to create fully realised worlds for people to wander around in. It also helps that worlds can be built via Unity, a platform with a large developer-base to tap into. The easier it is to deploy sophisticated and creative worlds, the better for time-restricted organisers.

The approach also means that it was easier to add little easter eggs; I chuckled when I found the hidden speakeasy in Raindance Immersive, for example. These hidden nooks and crannies add a new kind of life to festivals that should continue in future iterations. If festivals should seek to replicate real-life events, the hidden gems should be included as well.

Another is ease of access. Accessing the platform is seamless compared to its rivals, where people can access new worlds without the fiddle of alternative platforms originally built with other uses in mind. It also helps that VRChat already has a vibrant community that festivals can tap into.

Both teams at Venice Film Festival and Raindance Immersive used VRChat in creative and compelling ways. Wandering down the streets of London and taking selfies was a lot of fun, prowling the area with my custom avatar. The same goes for Venice Film Festival; entering the festival via gondola was novel, but great to set the mood for the event. When people cannot attend themselves, adding quirks give more life to the location.

By comparison, London Film Festival featured a platform built from the ground up for the event. Viewers wandered into the Thames to view the experiences via its platform, known as The Expanse, to view all the content. The strength of the approach is full and complete control of the development process, creating a world which can match the exact specifications of the team. The result is a great experience; I felt like I was roaming around a great hall of artistic experiences, like going to the lower levels of the Tate Modern.

Is there a ‘correct’ approach? No. Deciding between platforms is always a balance between pros and cons, regardless of the final product. But based on the performance this year, VRChat has significant benefits for future iterations.

Paper Birds. Photo credit: Raindance Immersive.
Paper Birds. Photo credit: Raindance Immersive.

Accessing immersive film festivals

2020 was a great year for increasing the prestige of immersive film festivals. Hideo Kojima, a decorated star of the video game industry, sat on the panel during Venice Film Festival to judge awards. London Film Festival, one of the biggest in the world, opened its XR strand for the first time this year with a long view to support it in the future. After several years of Raindance Immersive and Venice Film Festival leading the charge, others are following suit with a lot of support to back them up.

With the additional support comes new ways to access the festivals, via standalone or tethered VR headsets or via websites themselves (for 360-degree videos). While it opened options for people to step in, there is still a general confusion among people on how to access the experiences. Lack of knowledge and unclear directions meant that it was more difficult for people to access everything on offer. Leen Segers, CEO of LucidWeb, agrees: ‘The audience is required to… get on the right track to access the festival WebVR gallery. On mobile or desktop, it is simple; just click the URL and your default browser opens. But for VR headsets, there are several steps required to enjoy the VR festival in the most convenient way. It’s a complete new user journey, full of interesting UX/UI challenges we look forward to further investigate & resolve based on the feedback we have received from the audiences of both GIFF and EA.’

Because of these barriers, festivals should consider providing a step-by-step guide for brand-new people, making clear which experiences are available where.

On-site alternatives are critical for accessibility as well. Comfort is everything for VR and having on-hand staff to troubleshoot issues is a major benefit compared to at-home alternatives. While the global pandemic made this more difficult, London Film Festival provided a model for safety with COVID-secure protocols in place within the BFI. The first time someone tries VR is perhaps the most important, as it colours their view of the landscape. By making the first go as good as possible, the positive repercussions are immense; something that the team at London Film Festival fully understood. (If you wish to learn more about accessibility in this area, I highly recommend this report from the folks at East City Films).

Other alternatives include using VIVEPORT and Oculus TV to deliver festival content. HTC has been an ardent supporter of the immersive arts, supporting both Venice Film Festival and London Film Festival to get the experiences in people’s hands. Browsing VIVEPORT and Oculus TV was straightforward, and the platforms should consider taking further steps to support festivals via their distribution services.

The Devouring Hub. Photo credit: Raindance Immersive.
The Devouring Hub. Photo credit: Raindance Immersive.

Improving quality over time

Festivals saw some amazing strides in 2020. Raindance Immersive did their first virtual version and smashed it out of the park with an immersive and enjoyable world to roam around in, alongside its (as usual) quality range of selected experiences. The same goes for London Film Festival; running the XR strand for the first time this year, the festival presented quality XR experiences throughout October 2020.

Michael Salmon, Founder of KRAKED and Associated Industries, is a judge at Raindance Immersive this year, with thoughts on the quality of XR this year: ‘I am very proud to have been a juror for this year’s “Best Immersive Wold” award, as far as I am aware it is the first time a major festival has recognised virtual world-building so directly. As my fellow judges and I spent 5 hours straight completing The Devouring, a stunning VRChat world that is nominated for 5 awards (including best Immersive Game and Best Multiplayer Experience), it occurred to me that I have never felt closer to my fellow players in a game before. Spending hundreds of hours in VRChat has been an inspiration, so many of the world builders who have been nominated for awards at Raindance are new to game development.

‘It has been interesting to spend time with ‘traditional’ VR creators (we are a few years in, I guess I can use that term now) in VRChat and see the impact these shared spaces is having on them. These are worlds where users live their own stories, as well as the ones they are told, no two trips to a world, are the same. These are worlds where people don’t pass on memes they role play and embody them. These are worlds where passionate people spend hundreds of hours building a community. There is a form of participatory culture growing in VRChat that is, in my opinion, the future of storytelling in VR. You just have to dig a little deeper than the sometimes toxic surface.’

While the pandemic forced may events to go virtual, others took it as an opportunity to try out new ways of presenting content. By and large it worked well, and the next steps are to iterate on the approach to make it as seamless and painless as possible.

In my view, the most important factor to any festival is the audience experience. Not the content, or the platform, or the prestige; it is the experience of first-time users who don a headset for the first time. The barriers to immersive tech are mostly linked to UX, and how easy it is for them to access what is out there. Designing immersive experiences for the audience is notoriously difficult, and it will take years of iterations and development to get it right. In 2020, the community made some immense strides.

Key lessons for immersive film festivals

With all that said, here are my thoughts on the key learnings for future festivals:

  • Pick your platform wisely. I would prioritise accessibility over graphical fidelity, which would already be compromised by developing or standalone VR headsets.
  • Build for accessibility. Design the user experience so that it is as easy and painless as possible for users to enter the festival. Compromise on this, and risk losing customers forever.
  • Add quirks to immersive worlds. The added flairs add life and fun, which makes it enjoyable to discover and interact with.
  • Test the platform as much as you can. Festivals cannot risk glitches on launch day.

Disclaimer: HTC has kindly sent me a headset to see Raindance Immersive. Additionally, I worked on London Film Festival as a freelance festival publicist. I strived to ensure both facts have not influenced my views, and the article was checked by colleagues to ensure a fair and balanced argument.