Edinburgh has a new festival in town in the form of the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival, and it's taking us into the brave new world of virtual reality
Once the bleeding edge nightmare of 90s science fiction movies, virtual reality (VR) is now on the cusp of being an everyday reality. The tech is already in the wild. Last year saw the release of Samsung’s Gear VR, the Oculus Rift hit the market in March and the PlayStation's first VR device is due later in the year.
Expense isn’t even a barrier. Google Cardboard, a cheap and cheerful virtual reality set-up that plugs straight into your smartphone, is already out there too – the New York Times gave over a million of them away to their subscribers last November. You can pick one up yourself for less than a tenner. “This year VR has definitely been the big buzzword,” says Samantha Kingston, client director (and co-founder) of Virtual Umbrella, the UK’s first VR PR and events agency. In other words: VR is about to go mainstream.
VR: the next big thing in filmmaking?
The technology’s applications seem endless. It looks like it’s certainly going to be big in gaming, but it’s also been heralded as the future for other artforms. It may be the next major innovation in filmmaking. Festivals like Sundance, Cannes and Sheffield Doc/Fest have already embraced VR, giving space to the medium’s pioneering works in their programmes.
The technology could also revolutionise immersive theatre, bringing this live, local experience to a mass audience and allow these ephemeral performances to be kept forever. Facebook and Google, meanwhile, are scrambling to work out VR’s applications for social interaction.
In these formative years of the technology, says Kingston, it’s vital that the tech gets into the hands of the general public as quickly as possible. “They’re going to be the consumer adopters, hopefully this year and in the years to come,” she says, “so it’s really important in terms of developers and content creators for them to really be out there and shouting about it and telling everybody how exciting a platform it is.”
They’ll be doing just that at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. The meeting between the worlds of art and technology is at the heart of the festival’s newest addition: Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival (EDEF), which takes over Assembly Rooms throughout August, letting audiences experience the latest in gaming, event cinema, live arts and, of course, virtual reality.
While every other available space in the city is given over to the creation of cutting edge art and theatre, the same 'anything goes' ethos will be at play at EDEF, where you’ll find similar innovation and experimentation in the world of VR.
“There’s a little bit of the Wild West about the technology, so it fits in with the Fringe pretty well,” says Mark Atkin, who heads up EDEF’s 360⁰ Filmmaking Lab, which will help teach aspiring VR filmmakers the art of shooting and editing for VR. “There aren’t any rules and regulations, it’s all to be discovered and created, and it will be formed by the kind of collaborations that come together in order to create stuff. So it is a very exciting moment to be involved.”
“The sophistication is incredible”
The tech is improving all the time, and the content is just about keeping up. “It’s quite clear that the quality of what’s coming out is becoming phenomenal,” says Atkin, who also curates Sheffield Doc/Fest's pioneering Alternative Realities programme. “The sophistication, now, is incredible.”
What seems to be so appealing about VR is its ease of use. It doesn’t have the kind of barriers that, say, gaming has, where one has to familiarise themselves with controllers and rules and styles of play. “Everybody just gets VR,” notes Atkin. “It doesn't matter if you’re six years old or 60. Once you’re in it, you get it.”
This universality, of course, appeals to filmmakers. Those moving from big screen storytelling to the VR headset aren’t going to find the transition easy, though. “Filmmakers will have to reevaluate the way they write a script or film a scene,” notes Kingston.
The 360 degree filming course at EDEF is a nice entry level to VR filmmaking. The challenge is to take the skills learned there and create something truly interactive. “When you go to the cinema you see something that’s flat,” explains Kingston, “so you know you can’t see anything around you. The filmmaker is in total control of what you see. But then if you go and create a film in virtual reality you have to think about how that story is going to play out in a 360 degree environment.”
Say, for example, a filmmaker wants the person watching their film to turn their head to advance the story – how are they going to achieve that? “They have to ask themselves things like, ‘Shall I interlink some audio that’s going to make a door creak behind them so that they’ll turn and they won’t miss anything?’” says Kingston.
“It’s an incredible way of looking at it, but it’s also a really cool new form of entertainment. As a [VR] filmmaker, you have to be in the shoes of your audience member and be able to try and figure out where they’ll look. Will they look up? Will they look down? Or will they just freak out and not look anywhere?”
For people coming from a theatre background, they’re used to these types of challenges. Atkin reckons the key to filmmakers being successful in VR is to embrace some of that chaos of immersive theatre. “The people who’ve grown up in the film world, they need to let go of that sense of absolute control,” he says. “They have to think differently about composing a shot. It really is a different medium.”
A world of possibilities
Once filmmakers get their heads around the fact that audiences respond differently in the VR space, however, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, chief of which is the medium’s built-in intimacy. “Because all of your sensors are cut off while you’re in there are no distractions,” explains Atkin, “you’re totally involved in that world.”
You can’t be fiddling on Twitter or Facebook during the performance – or at least not yet, anyway. You have to be in the moment. “That’s the dream for a creative,” he says. “And that’s the payoff for these filmmakers: they might be losing a certain amount of control, but they’ve got the audience's undivided attention.”
The festival includes a VR studio, which hosts 23 short VR films. The experiences on offer are myriad. You can visit the ice-encrusted plains of Pluto, swim with dolphins or check out the art of Skid Row. One of VR's most appealing features is that it can simulate the experience of being someone else for a few minutes.
You can see through the eyes of Australian aboriginal Nyarri Morgan, and relive his experience of colliding for the first time with western technology in the 1960s; witness the London bombings of 7/7 from the perspective of Jacqui Putnam, who survived the Circle Line blast; spend time as an animated bunny fighting off an alien invasion; or live a few minutes as a zombie apocalypse survivor trying desperately to escape a horde of the living dead.
To put it another way: VR can put you directly in other people’s shoes. It’s no wonder it has been dubbed the ultimate empathy machine. And it’s no wonder that several of the films on show at EDEF choose to tackle the world concern that is in most need of our empathy: the Syrian migrant crisis. “One of the films lets you sit in a boat next to a Syrian family who are desperately trying to find a safe haven in Europe,” says Atkin.
“It changes you. It changes the way you read the news subsequently. There’s something about how you remember things from VR; memory is most powerful when it’s spacial.”
Perhaps what’s most exciting about VR is that it’s still in its infancy. How it’ll impact our future is still unknown. “In terms of consumer adoption, we’ll be learning what people want as we go along,” says Kingston. “It’s a bit like selling a helmet before you have a bike.”
What's essential, then, is events like EDEF, which let people take VR for a spin. “It’s a really odd platform to market because if you haven’t had the chance to try it, you won’t necessarily know what it’s all about or how exciting it can be. Or you might have completely different expectations of it until you put it on.”
Put on a headset and find out for yourself at EDEF.
The Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival, presented by Riverside Studios, runs 4-28 Aug at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh. For more information and tickets visit www.edef.co.uk