I always feel like, somebody’s watching me

My notes from a short talk at Immersive Storytelling Symposium at Liverpool John Moore’s University as part of the Immersive Exhibition & Audience panel. Full programme at http://immersivestorylab.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Immersive-Programme-Final-Print.pdf

As high cost points and technical complexity continue to limit consumer adoption in the domestic market, out of home VR/XR can offer the most accessible entry point for these new forms of immersive environments.

Research suggest that only 16% of the UK population have tried VR of any kind, two thirds of those who had tried VR last year did so in an out of home environment: a shopping centre, a tech conference, a festival, or an arcade for example, making it potentially one of the more accessible way to engage with an emerging technology.

However, anecdotally we were starting to understand that these environments do not always feel soopen or welcoming to those who are not from one particular minority group — in this case affluent, young, white, tech-confident people, usually male. If VR is to really flourish as a meaningful cultural medium, it will need to reach a lot further than that.

The title of my talk and one of the core problems that we all recognise in the public presentation of VR, is that you are effectively inviting someone to enter into a contract in which they will wear a blindfold, and usually an ‘earfold’, and to enter into a convincing, and often reality-supplanting reality that may compel them to move around, whilst surrounded by others who will just see an awkward person wriggling around in a plastic facebucket.

Skip to 6m45s for the bit that I played during the talk

Your consent to be viewed, photographed, filmed and publicly ridiculed seems to be implied when you don the headset in public and is rarely explicitly sought by organisers. The received wisdom seems to be that participants are best put to use creating some spectacle to drum up further custome, and to provide much needed entertainment for the people in the slow moving queues that tend to accompany such experiences.

Allow me to take you through the world premiere of my Big Map of Out of Home VR Anxiety:

Clockwise from top left, anxieties include: am I being watched, photographed or filmed, where is my bag, coat, stuff? Is anyone looking after it? Will this headset even work with the hair that I have or the headscarf that I am wearing? Will I get tangled in the wire? Will I fall over? Will someone jump out at me, or touch me in some way? What if I accidentally touch or bump into someone myself? Will it work with my hearing aid, my glasses, my wheelchair? Will this create a sense of sensory overload? What if I feel sick? What if I need to go to the bathroom? Is this a game? Will I be expected to interact or participate in some way? Is this hygienic? Is the kit being cleaned between participants, what if the last person to do this was sweaty, oh no, what if I get all sweaty? Or cry? Or my make-up rubs off on the headset?

Any and all of the above can lead to many simply opting out of out of home VR altogether. In a recent survey by EY, 65% of UK women said that they were unlikely to try virtual or augmented reality in the future. Not that they haven’t yet (currently true of 86% of women in the UK vs 80% of men) but that they were not likely to. Not ever.

With many quietly abstaining, not only is the growth of this market stunted, but the feedback loops of critical reflection on what makes a good experience are struggling to do much more than perpetuate assumptions and blind-spots around what works and what is needed. Where will we find the dissenting voices needed to drive innovation when the producer remains the same as the consumer?

So, what did we do? During my time at Watershed, I was fortunate enough to team up with an incredible team, including producer, Vanessa Bellaar Spruijt, curator Catherine Allen (now CEO of Limina Immersive) and researchers Jess Limington and Mandy Rose from UWE Bristol to undertake a very small, informal experiment together. We wanted to know if there were a way to stage arts and cultural experiences in VR in a way that was more akin to a night out at the movies. And if we could, would it feel different to those busy, noisy marketplace expo’s where most of us had had our first VR experiences?

Catherine curated a programme of four short pieces of VR (above), chosen to be distinct from one another and demonstrate approaches to arts and cultural content in VR. Watershed promoted it through our traditional channels, using language that would be familiar to cinema-goer such as ‘season’ and ‘screenings’. We offered tickets a deliberately low cost point of £1.50 to acknowledge the short form of the content, and the experimental nature of the sessions.

“We also decided to schedule the experiences like a cinema, with a specific venue and pre-booked 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.”

Curator, Catherine Allen (read her full reflections here)

“[we used] A private function room with a main entrance and a ‘back stage’ entrance, controllable lighting and shutters for the windows.”

Producer, Vanessa Bellaar Spruijt, (full methodology and review of research by Vanessa here)

Peppered in amongst the VR screenings, we hosted two directors’ Q&As, and invited all participants to join our research team after their viewings to share thoughts with us and their fellow participants and about what they had experienced over a glass of wine or a cheeky beer.

The spread of ages was slightly younger than Watershed’s average audience member, but decidedly older than is usually observed for out of home VR. The female turnout was much higher than the industry standard for VR. 48% of our participants had tried before, more than double the UK average. Of the 52% that were trying VR for the first time, 63% were women.

So what did we learn? We conducted informal interviews, and asked participants to fill out a short survey reflecting in their experiences in different ways. Some of the broad areas that seemed important to everyone were:

Since VR Sessions, Watershed and Limina have continued to work together, including co-producing the first Limina VR Weekender in December 2017. Limina have built on many of these initial findings, and those of hosted VR events around the world to develop a replicable model that prioritizes accessible audience experiences for arts and cultural VR. They are also soon to launch a platform for simultaneous viewings that has been warmly received by audiences and venues during test events, for the time and expert care given to the process onboarding and offboarding participants.

UWE Bristol, in particular the Digital Cultures Research Centre team have continued to build on a number of these early research findings. They are undertaking pioneering research in Virtual Realities: Immersive Documentary Encounters which includes a user study, currently underway, examining user experience and engagement with nonfiction VR in households across Bristol.

Watershed continues to stage VR as a part of their creative programming, and working in partnership with festivals such as Encounters Film Festival. It also supports venues and partners across the cultural sector by sharing knowledge and emerging best practice. Watershed published the findings from this experiment in the form of an article ‘Virtual Reality Sessions: Lessons learnt for the cultural cinema sector’ by curator Catherine Allen:

https://www.watershed.co.uk/studio/news/2017/09/18/virtual-reality-sessions-lessons-learnt-cultural-cinema-sector

and a blog and process document ‘Research, methods and implementation’, by producer Vanessa Bellaar Spruijt which includes a detailed methodology published under a creative commons license for other cultural organization to draw upon:

https://www.watershed.co.uk/studio/news/2017/10/16/virtual-reality-sessions-watershed-–-research-methods-and-implementation