Reflections on Content vs Technology — XR’s false polarity

In April 2019 this blog jumped out of the ethereal 1s and 0s that make up the internet and out onto the hard surfaces that comprise the real world. Trajectory Theatre settled upon its first live discussion topic, one that has been banded around a lot by XR commentators who tend to fall into two camps: those who claim that the technology is not yet good enough and focus on improving this will drive XR to the next level, and those claiming that until we put our efforts into creating content that resounds with our audiences, develop the first killer app or make the Wii sports of XR we will be stuck in a quagmire.

Trajectory Talks Event, London 2019

This is the conversational paradigm that dominates the XR ecology. Our goal? To find a little nuance in the no-man’s land between each camp. We formulated a debate to frame the discussion, starting with immersive theatre maker Andrew Somerville and performer and director Silvia Mercuriali coming up to bat for content.

Content

Mercurali has been using technology to create immersive experiences for well over a decade. The show that incited this avenue of research was Pinocchio (2006), in which participants were driven around against the backdrop of a real environment, whilst a myriad of devices manipulated this surrounding for the purpose of the narrative. The radio was high-jacked, sirens blared from hidden speakers and a smoke machine faked engine trouble. These low-tech solutions created a sense of realism when correctly framed within a story that drew the audience in; more advanced tech would serve no purpose in developing this immersion. However, it’s in Mercuriali’s later work with Il Pixel Rosso that we really see these concepts reach fruition.

And The Birds Fell From The Sky

In And The Birds Fell From The Sky (2010) video goggles were combined with haptic interaction and instructions were used to ensure the participant stayed in line with the video point of view. In this way the performance was able to imitate the experience of XR immersion 3 years before the release of the Oculus DK1, effectively using content — in this case Autoteatro (a form of instruction based performance) — as a means to bridge the shortfalls of technology. The way Mercuriali makes work is indicative of a configuration in which content will move forward and take us all with it.

Hidden Technology

Somerville’s work with theatre company Difference Engine has done a great deal to define his own understanding of the content and technology paradigm. To view these concepts at a base level we can understand that a chair is no less a piece of technology than a VR headset, and sharing an anecdote with a friend is no less a piece of content than a 1,079 page novel. Throughout the course of theatre making new technologies have always emerged. The electric lights, the microphones and auditorium seating are significant technological additions. These ubiquitous modernisations are unseen, and work for the purpose of making the stage show more visible, more audible and more available. In Somerville’s own words “technology is at its most powerful when it gets out the way”. This is evident in prior works from Difference Engine, which often required great feats of technology to make them work but which were not predicated on being tech-driven experiences.

Technology Rules

Myself (Roderick D. Morgan, Trajectory Theatre) and Jack Straw, Director and Developer at No Ghost, were charged with defending the case for technology as a central driving force for accelerating XR. Throughout the long history of what we can consider XR, technologies have manifested as a response to the desires of the populous, not to fill the needs of the content creators. Conversely, those creators were inspired and enabled by that technology.

Flight Simulator

As a starting point in this retrospective view we can reflect upon the stereoscope and its more recognisable modern ancestor, the viewmaster. The point of this device was to transport us to another place, and the specifics of that place paled in comparison to the act of transportation. Thomas Furness’s super cockpit project — a military funded flight simulator — spanned two decades and the ‘content’, as much as it can be considered content, remained very much the same. The driving force for continued investment was the development of the flight experience: to make it as real as possible. Moving forward into XR’s youth, the failure of the 90’s VR blip was due to a single factor. Despite the quality of content such as Mario, Sonic and Wolfenstein, the technology simply wasn’t good enough.

Show Me The Money

At present there is a defined market for XR and it is determined by socio-economic status. This has not been dreamt up by a marketing firm, though they are very much aware of it. Those who have money can access XR, and those with specific access requirements must do so at a premium. There are methods and considerations that makers can engage with to create a modicum of inclusivity, however the brunt of this work is being done by the manufacturers.

New ways of making headsets has dropped the entry price of VR from around £1200 in 2016 (£450 for the Oculus Rift CV1 and the remainder on a VR ready PC) to £300 in 2019 (Oculus Quest standalone headset being released in the next few months). Denser pixilation on displays has made it possible to aid those with visual impairments. A range of input devices allow individuals with specific physical needs to interact as easily as those without. Through the development of new technologies we widen the great tent of XR.

Photo by stephan sorkin on Unsplash

New Developments

In the last few months a number of significant announcements have pointed towards what the future of XR will look like. Google recently presented their plans for a new gaming platform Stadia: a cloud console that can stream triple AAA PC game play to any device. This along with products like Geforce Now (another cloud rendering service) and the role out 5G networks points to a future in which processing for XR devices is removed from the hardware. Head mounted displays that need only consist of a visual display and a receiver could become smaller, more comfortable and perhaps even fashionable.

And we can’t speak about fashion in the tech sector without mentioning Apple. The brand is famous for sitting back and watching the market. Though the rumour mills are constantly churning as to what is happening inside Apple HQ there are a few things we know; patent filings and the purchase of several AR and VR firms tells us that work in this area is ongoing. Reports suggest that the company is planning to release a combined AR and VR headset in 2020. Even if this product is simply on a par with the rest of the market we can rest assured that an entry into the ecology by Apple will be a major boost.

Computers with Brains

Beyond these significant commercial movements in the industry, brain-computer interaction through Electroencephalogram (better known as EEG; better better known as putting sensors all over your head) is also subject to ongoing research, with the close contact required by a VR headset offering accommodation for these sensors. This advancement will enable us to interact with the virtual space beyond the limits of our human body, ultimately transforming the paradigm on which our content is currently based. Imagine an experience that flowed like a stream of consciousness rather than plodding forward in a linear fashion. This is the possibility that technology unlocks, a feat that content cannot accomplish on its own.

The Debate Continues

With the lines of each side drawn in the sand it was time to break apart these arguments and attempt to glue them back together in the form of a cohesive answer. To do this we employed the fishbowl format, in which members of the audience can displace a member of the discussion panel in order to question, retort or submit knowledge for the consideration of the room. Fortunately our room was more than willing, and they came prepared.

Trajectory Talks Event, London 2019

Oh, Wow!

Due to its position as a novel medium, XR is currently still endowed with the element of wonder. Subsequently, content creators do not need to work as hard to garnish high praise from an undiscerning audience. The technology itself takes centre stage engendering this awe, but an audience can only stay uninformed for so long. We run the risk of entering a crisis of quality if we rely too heavily on this, especially as there is currently not a clear and present layer of critical review for this kind of work, and online coverage is often lacking.

Prophetic Porn

In the recent history of VR there is one industry that’s pushed at the edges of innovation, and that is porn. It often acts as a predictor of trends and an innovator of techniques. The early work of 360 point of view film-making was carried out by porn producers. And this techie-porno exchange goes both ways, according to Wired’s Peter Rubin:

“VCRs, CD-ROMs, and even streaming video owe much of their early market penetration to the fact that they made watching porn more convenient and more private.”

We have seen the same happening with VR. In 2016 as many as 78% of VR headset users had tried VR porn (newswire.com). This shows us, that at least in this observable microcosm, that when content and technology work symbiotically uptake and innovation come naturally.

It’s important to note that both these pillars are fundamentally informed by a higher principle, that of money. In the creation of content what we can set out to make is limited by the resources available; the technological leaps are confined to the funding that can propel it. Certain tech can make work cheaper, and smart artistic decisions can patch shortfalls in the machinery. Ultimately however they are slaves to the same master and the return on investment — in whatever form that takes — is an undeniable factor looming over every theatre-maker, game-creator and innovator.

The Future is Unwritten

No doubt the most succinct analogy, evoked on the night of the first #TrajectoryTalk by Nigel Bristow, is that of the electric guitar. In the pursuit of creating an amplified guitar that could compete sonically with growing orchestras during the big band era, instrument makers aimed to perfectly recreate the fidelity of the acoustic sound. However, this is not the sound associated with electric guitar music. King, Berry, Hendrix, Page, Cobain all took this technology and manipulated it to make their message heard. Through this experimentation a new form emerged. A conversation between technology and content was allowed to evolve, and in the warm damp creases of failure new ideas bloomed.

Your Turn

We want to continue seeing the subjects that shape the XR industry being interrogated by the community. We all have expertise and experiences that can and should inform the discourse and so we would like to see you, as a reader with at least some interest in XR, at our next event on 27 June 2019 in London. Tickets are free and can be booked via Eventbrite.

Afterword: It’s important I point out that this blog post was informed by the attendees and speakers of the April 4th, 2019 Trajectory Talks event. I wish to offer my most profound thanks to Laurence Ashcroft, Jane Gauntlett, Elaine Wong, Charlotte Whitbread, Jo Kerr, our speakers and those who attended, without whom the event and this blog would not possible.

Authored by Roderick D. Morgan, Director and Producer Trajectory Theatre