What role could cultural cinemas and independent arts venues play in the presentation of VR? Are our audiences interested in this rapidly evolving medium and if so, how do they want it framed?

In June 2017, Watershed set out to answer these questions by presenting four VR experiences over four days in a season called Virtual Reality Sessions. This case study, by seasoned curator Catherine Allen, sets out our approach, what we showed, and what we learnt.

Background

For all of the hype, VR is not yet an accessible medium - less than 1% of the UK population own a high end VR headset; which means that whilst we hear a lot about VR in the press, most of us do not have a mechanism to  experience the work. This has led to a growing sense from VR makers that whilst high quality, artistic content is coming out of this growing sector, it isn’t getting the audience figures it deserves. MIT’s Technology Review described the last couple of years for VR as a ‘sluggish debut’, citing lower than expected headset sales figures. From a consumer perspective this could be because non-mobile based headsets are seen as expensive, and/or because using one in your home does not feel natural - a cultural ritual for it is yet to be created.

However, there are strong levels of public interest in VR. The number of people searching for the term VR on Google spiked during Christmas 2016, and have maintained a steady state ever since. VR exhibitions like Bjork Digital at Somerset House, which included several VR art pieces, became something of a cultural moment. Long queues for VR attractions are now commonplace.


1 hour queues for the Derren Brown’s Ghost Train virtual reality experience, May 2017

In addition, the quality of the projects being made in VR is increasing and leading artists and film makers are taking up the medium - Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena was the first VR project to be included in the official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival, and this year’s Venice Film Festival featured a whole island dedicated to arts VR. Another example piece is Notes on Blindness, which opened at Sundance, is a companion VR journey to the 2016 documentary about writer John Hull, and was described as “one of the first great virtual reality experiences” by ALPHR.COM.

There is clearly public appetite and curiosity for VR that does not yet equate to the mainstream public purchasing headsets. But ‘out of home’ VR experiences have largely only been available at exhibitions, festivals, trade shows and occasionally in retail environments - where audiences often have to join long queues to see a piece and where the physical context of the work takes second place (making for less than comfortable experiences).

What we did

We set out to create a format for VR that would feel familiar and comfortable to audiences who had never used VR before.

Only 16% of the UK population have used a VR headset, so we knew that this would be likely new, and hence a bit strange, to most of our audience. By referring to the four consecutive nights of VR as a ‘season’, we borrowed familiar language from the cinema programme.

We also decided to schedule the experiences like a cinema, with a specific venue  and prebooked slots to turn up to, and chose to communicate the season in a content-first way, with no tech-y images of people wearing headsets, just evocative production stills.

“Watershed are proud to invite you to our first ever season of immersive experiences in virtual reality. Virtual reality is no longer a science fiction dream: it is increasingly an accessible reality that presents the potential for a whole new breed of cultural experience. A new generation of artists are emerging; working out how best to use this medium to create brilliant, meaningful experiences. Guest curator Catherine Allen - who is a Bristol-based VR pioneer, Pervasive Media Studio resident, and producer of Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel - has programmed this mini-season of live, immersive experiences which seek to showcase different aspects of VR's artistic potential, ranging from awe to intimacy, memory to empathy.”

You can read the full marketing copy here.

The screening of a film connects audiences to a wider dialogue about ideas, creativity, diversity and the world around us. Its impact is fully unleashed as a communal activity, amplifying the film’s intensity. A key research question for Watershed was to explore the potential of VR to foster a similarly collective experience, rather than playing to the common assumption that VR is inherently ‘isolating’. This is why each session was for six people at once, with the VR piece playing for the group near-simultaneously.

Every night we showed a different VR experience (the programme is detailed at the end). Each ‘screening’ held six audience members and was 30 mins long, which allowed for entrance, briefing, the content itself and reorientation time afterwards. The venue was a simple conference room, in which we set up six VR stations with swivel chairs.

Each session was facilitated by two experienced ushers who we trained in ‘VR hosting’. After coming out of the VR experience, groups were invited to participate in research (with a free drink). This qualitative information formed half of VR Sessions’ accompanying research project. The other half of the research project was conducted through short surveys which we gave to participants to fill in after the discussion group.

A companion piece to this document, soon to be published, describes the logistics of staging events like this in more detail, with a full breakdown of the budget. However broadly, all tickets were charged at £1.50 per head, a nominal fee designed to encourage those that booked to turn up, and to honour the fact that this was an experimental programme of very short (6-16 minutes) content, rather than a feature-length offering. We worked with two experienced cinema ushers, and took them through one training session to learn about using the technology and our approach to audience care, one tech rehearsal, and five sessions of ushering the four different programmed works. This amounted to 88.5 staff hours in total, a considerable uplift on our usual provision for cinema, and something to think about when introducing a VR programme, although of course some of that training is now in place for future delivery.

A continuous challenge we encountered throughout the process was the current lack of an existing distribution model or system for venues to screen VR. There is clearly a gap in the market here. There was also very little existing precedent and expectation on the business side around screening VR to the public. It will be interesting to see how this evolves in the coming years, especially as demand grows around in-location VR entertainment.

Something that was key to our approach to the entire project was inclusivity. We wanted to showcase an array of VR experiences that were created by a broader range of creators than is currently typical for the VR industry. My programme included two male directors and three female directors from a range of different backgrounds. Although the vast majority of the VR industry is made up of white men, I did not find it difficult curating a more varied and balanced programme. With the intention there, it is very do-able.

Audience Findings

The Watershed VR Sessions attracted a majority female audience - 59%. This gender balance is against the VR grain, according to a ComRes & Wiggin LLP survey only 39% of UK adults who’ve tried VR so far are female.

63% of those who’d never tried VR before attending Watershed’s VR Sessions were women.

Most people booked a ticket because they were interested in both the content AND the technology (56%). Despite making the VR pieces the focus of our communications, only 8% of attendees said that they booked for the content alone.

18% of participants experienced discomfort during their VR experience. Wires and heavy headsets were cited as reasons for this. 37% said they felt ‘extremely comfortable’ and only 11% of people felt self-conscious whilst wearing the headset. In discussion afterwards, many put down the group experience as a factor in their lack of self-consciousness.

Audiences who experienced the Oculus Rift pieces described their sessions as more comfortable than audiences who experiences the Samsung Gear VR pieces.

96% of respondents would like to see more VR programmed at Watershed.

Themes

Gaming & audience expectations

When we asked audiences about what their perceptions of VR were, before they’d heard of VR Sessions, the majority cited ‘gaming’. This chimes with Ipsos Mori’s 2016 survey results where 60% of people surveyed believe that VR is mainly for games. Speaking with our participants, it became clear that in terms of inclusion, the issue with this prior assumption is that it can put off people who don’t identify as gamers, as they assume that there won’t be much content for them.

Many participants said they were ‘surprised’ that this non-gaming content even exists for VR, describing this realisation as ‘refreshing’ and ‘exciting’. While VR Sessions’ focus on non-gaming, experiential VR was generally considered by audience members a good thing, for the handful of people we talked to who were gamers, several found the minimal interactivity in the pieces somewhat frustrating. On reflection, this insight is very helpful as it can help with future market positioning. These conversations indicate that it is likely to be more effective and valuable to market VR seasons like this to the early majority: both non-gamers and casual gamers.  

Privacy and vulnerability

We asked how people would feel if we had put the VR sessions on in the open Café/Bar area. The answer was always one of surprise that we would even consider it, when so many people would be able to see them. One participant, for instance, said, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a bar. I wouldn’t have moved about as much”. Some audience members said they wouldn’t have been able to fully let themselves go, while a few said that if it was in a bar, they just wouldn’t have done it at all.

When someone puts on a VR headset, they are vulnerable. They’ve temporarily loaned out their ears and eyes to the illusion of another reality. Our takeaway from this strong, unanimous audience opinion is that privacy is the least we can offer audiences.

Length of experience

Most of the audience members were happy with the length of the VR experience they’d just been in (even Natural Reality 2:1, the shortest piece at six minutes). They felt it was convenient that it would fit it in with other evening activities around Bristol city centre. The fact that VR was described as ‘potent’ and ‘intense’, means that short experiences were considered just as good.

The few who raised objections at shorter lengths of experience were people who had spent a significant amount of time travelling to Watershed (30 min +).

A collective experience

The audiences highly valued the VR Sessions as a group activity with the facilitated research conversations afterwards playing key part of this. In addition debate and discourse continued into the bar and throughout the evening. The collective focus of the VR Sessions format not only helped participants feel less self conscious, but it also served as a jumping off point for sharing ideas and making meaning

❤️  Side note: VR Sessions felt especially popular for this purpose with people on dates. From first dates to married ‘date nights’, these couples seemed especially pleased they’d picked VR Sessions as a part of their evening. ❤️

Conclusion

There are, of course, improvements and tweaks that we could have made to the VR Sessions format. However, 96% of our audience wanted Watershed to put on more VR. This to me says that the core concept worked.

Our findings from Virtual Reality Sessions suggest that a fruitful initial context for experiential and narrative VR is existing cultural venues, especially with thoughtful curation and a robust live experience format.

VR Sessions Programme:

Wednesday: Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel
Oculus Rift. Directed by Oscar Raby for the BBC
Live through the memories of a rebel in Dublin's 1916 Republican uprising.
[Note: Catherine Allen was the BBC producer of this piece. You can find out more about our creation process here]

Thursday: Through You
Oculus Rift. Directed by Lily Baldwin and Saschka Unseld
Through dance and performance, this opulent 360 degree experience places you at the heart of a lifelong romance that has endured decades: from the 1970s right through to the 2040s.

Friday: Dancing with Myself
Samsung Gear VR. Directed by Jane Gauntlett
A first person, virtual reality retelling of a September evening filled with friends, food and seizures - offering a window into the epileptic life of the piece's creator, Jane Gauntlett.

Saturday: Natural Reality 2:1
Samsung Gear VR. Directed by Dorothea Gibbs
Get swept away from the Bristol city centre and onto the coarse, untamed wilds of the Norfolk coast in this gorgeous VR art experience about presence, nature, and the very personal relationships we have with our devices.

This report was commissioned by Watershed with support from Film Hub South West & West Midlands, part of the Film Audience Network, awarding funds from the National Lottery.

Related reading:

Virtual Reality Sessions at Watershed – Research, methods and implementation by Vanessa Bellaar Spruijt

Virtually Useful - a series of short reads from Studio Managing Producer, Verity McIntosh aimed at creatives with an interest in VR.


Studio themes