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‘Exploring the Future of VR Distribution’

Hugo Gernsback's 1963 television eyeglasses anticipated virtual reality / Boing Boing

It is mid June and I've just returned from another inspiring and educating Doc/Fest at Sheffield - filled with films, talks, debates, networking drinks - and maybe most interestingly - world class VR. The reason that I put emphasise on VR is that even as a film enthusiast, I hardly ever come across opportunities to experience it. Hence a post, inspired by a panel discussion at the festival, about the future of VR distribution.

Every June the festival’s VR strand called Alternative Realities brings to Sheffield a selection of world class VR and AR works. This year the festival also had some panels and discussion sessions related to VR including a panel titled ‘Exploring the Future of VR Distribution’. To sum up the fascinating conversation I decided to collect my thoughts on this blog post.

The panel consisted of the following people

Greg Ivanov from Google Daydream

Nicole Jackson from The Guardian VR team

Tillman Scheel from DDD60

And as a moderator Catherine Allen a VR producer who is behind the amazing Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel, which was actually my first ever VR experience at the festival one year ago.

One of the most interesting points raised by the panel was the lack of knowledge of audiences. Due to VR still being very niche and in the beginning of its development, there was a sense in the panel that no one knew who VR is really made for. In the film world, the importance of audiences can not be emphasised enough, but for VR that is very different - the infrastructure of distribution must be in place before products can be segmented to a narrow audience like we are used to doing in relation to film and TV products.

Some important steps to build this infrastructure have already been taken. Google has experimented with accessible devices like Google Cardboard and 360 video is now supported by all major video outlets and devices. However, the panel agreed that for a true VR experience, the proper headset was needed, and there is still some work to be done for that to be accessible to the masses.

Allen, who works in producing and curating VR raised a point to shift the perspective on VR distribution. Instead of 'to the masses' approach, VR can be experienced as an event, and those can be profitable. She had been curating VR for a Bristol based event that aims to offer the VR experience as 'part of a night out'. According to her the exhibitions have been hugely popular, selling out entirely with long queues. This was my experience in Sheffield too - the VR exhibition was pretty much booked throughout the festival!

Naturally VR is expensive to make, so for the industry to grow and break into profit, it will eventually need to scale up the distribution. But to introduce the art to new people, exhibitions are a good way of doing that, especially if those exhibitions manage to break into new ground. There was a sense in the panel that exhibiting VR at a film festival is inevitably 'preaching to the converted'.

Another interesting topic in the panel was a question of boundaries. As the film industry constantly fights over windows and day and date distribution options, one would assume that an emerging technology such as VR would build itself to be open and exclusive of such artificial boundaries. Unfortunately it is not, as with any emerging technology, companies such as Google need to sell their devices and to be able to do so, they partner with sites like Guardian for exclusive rights to their content (they have that agreement in place). Whether or not this 'windowing' will inevitably hurt the industry and turn off the potential audiences until a critical mass of good content is available in every device, one can only wait and see. In my own opinion, it seems like the industry needs one huge game hit to change the landscape. Similarly as Pokemon Go managed to lift the profile of AR, a game could scoop the market and introduce a must-have headset to the masses which could later open the play field to other non-game VR content.

Another opportunity that VR can provide at its early stages is publicity. Jeff Orlowski's new film Chasing Coral, about the vanishing coral reefs, had a lot of footage shot underwater with 360 cameras. As a marketing hook, a VR piece was created to accompany the film. At Sheffield, the VR piece was exhibited at the Alternative Realities exhibition, while the film was playing at the festival. I didn't manage to see either of them, but would love to hear about how they related to each other, if anyone did!

I am not aware of how Chasing Coral will be distributed in the UK, but I can't wait to see VR being properly exploited in film marketing. Especially considering how enthusiastic the public is to attend VR exhibitions, I can imagine there to be potential. (Especially when the BFI Distribution Fund can be imagined to support such an experiment.)

I know this post barely scratched the surface of distributing VR. There were definitely many other great points raised at the panel so what I might do is refer again to my 5 pages of notes and come back with a second edition to this post in the near future. Exciting times though! I really wanna see more VR.

To finish off though, here are some trailers to the works that I have seen in Sheffield..

Fossil Hunting in the Gobi

I really loved this one as it used archive super creatively to put together a VR piece. Amazing! Also I have a weak spot for Mongolia and the Gobi desert after visiting it in 2013.. I mean wild horses everywhere!

First Impressions

This Guardian piece is documentary, journalism, film and VR all together. It puts the viewer in the perspective of a new born and navigates the viewer through both physical and mental development of a baby.

Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel

Animated historical piece from the previous year. They say VR can truly make you feel empathy and I agree with this piece. Being present and looking at the world from the POV of a participant, a soldier, was pretty terrifying. I am glad it was animated as that allowed me to keep at least some sort of distance to what was happening. Great experience though!

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