Volume Six: THE WORLD OF VIRTUAL REALITY
in conversation with Tom Millen
Here is a snap shot of a conversation we had with the wonderful Tom Millen from immersive media specialists Crossover Labs. Last year they curated the online festival Electric Dreams which we were lucky enough to be a part of. They created the BBC’s first original VR commission - Easter Rising, and are consistently working at the cutting edge of new performance technology, producing AI driven interactive films, 8 live cinematic documentaries, and conferences all over the world.
Hope you enjoy!
Madeleine: I think one of the most standout things about Electric Dreams was the variety of different disciplines that you managed to curate in one space, was there a particular discipline that you found worked really well?
Tom: The task that we set ourselves [when programming] was that there had to be an element of storytelling going on, and that it had to be live and interactive. It had to make you feel like you're part of an audience. For the few things that we included that weren't so interactive, I think they didn't work as well. Interactivity, liveness and connection with people through the screen was the most important thing, and they were definitely the most successful both from an audience perspective, and in terms of numbers of people wanting to do them and sign up to do them.
Madeleine: What is it about it being interactive you think?
What does that unlock in an audience's head if they're not in the same space?
Tom: Well, there's a couple of things. I mean, literally, just from a practical aspect, if it's live and interactive, you can't just say, “Oh, well I’ll just check it out when the recording comes online” We're really noticing the fatigue now [and how] numbers for online webinars [etc] are really beginning to drop off. I think people are just sick to death and everybody knows that the recording is going to get released afterwards, and then they’ll just flick through to the bits that they want to see.
Madeleine: Do you feel fatigued? Some people could view it that we’ve had a saturation of stuff being put out digitally, or do you feel there are still things to explore?
Tom: I don't think there’s saturation and I think that it's going to continue. I think there’s a kind of magic that this form has that others don’t, which is absolute remote participation across huge distances that nothing else can quite achieve. I think there's so much more, there's so much to be explored.
Madeleine: I think I would be remiss in this conversation if we didn't touch a little bit on the world of VR, because I feel like it's been circling on the edges of people's excitement or consciousness for quite a few years. I read recently an article comparing VR to 3D films as an example of something we thought would revolutionise the industry but that maybe hasn’t taken off?
Tom: You can find just as many articles saying that the pandemic was the making of VR. To be honest I think what was happening with VR was that everybody thought that it was cracked, that VR in the home was not the way that it was going. Everything was going to be location based experiences that you'd go to a theatre or a gallery, or some kind of VR arcade that was curated in order to experience it. It was becoming more and more theatrical, and multi sensory and… expensive basically (laughs).
And then the hype train kind of ground to a halt [with the pandemic]. But it's not like, all of that was lost, because there had been so much work done on volumetric capture & performance capture, so that you could have live actors in a space with participants in headsets that [companies like Tender Claws] just took all of that work that had been happening and did it remotely. They did The Tempest [through their VR experience The Under Presents]. And you go in, and it’s six to eight people in an audience and one live actor. And it's beautiful. You were like the silent actors in their stage play. I think they play Ariel pretty much all the time. And then you play the other parts, and you'd play through The Tempest together. And it's amazing. It's really beautifully done and absolutely live because if you want, the whole audience could just start picking up the virtual brooms and start lobbing them at Ariel and she's able to, react to that and it feels magic. It's kind of like playing D&D but in VR and in someone's very beautifully crafted world.
Madeleine: I love how in every artistic conversation I have, at some point it goes to Dungeons and Dragons!
So what is it for you that still excites you within VR?
Tom: I think it’s the ability to experience completely un-imaginable worlds or stories. I'm always really disappointed, when people want to tell a [realistic] story. I think that VR’s potential is basically the things that you can't even comprehend or imagine, to really mess with the possibilities of time and space, to craft visuals and narratives that haven't ever existed, or been able to exist, you know? There was an early experiment by an artist called Memo Acten, called Fight. What he does is very simple; he basically puts two different visual feeds into either eye of the headset, you just can't do that in any other way, other than with VR, and basically the whole piece just becomes a fight between the left side of your brain and the right side of your brain, trying to work out what the hell it’s seeing. Absolutely everybody has a completely different experience when they go in there, not just because they're looking in different directions but their brain is making different connections. And I think that's fascinating.
Madeleine: My final question is how optimistic are you feeling about the future of the arts industry?
Do you feel like we're going to learn and move forward and take artistic inspiration from the last 18 months?
Or are we just gonna go back to what it was before?
Tom: I don't think we’ll go back, I don't think you can. I think what’s really exciting and I hope we don't lose is collaboration between lots of different practices. That's another thing that always excited me about VR, because you have a whole load of people coming from very different worlds, all working together on these immersive pieces. People naturally think that it's filmmakers, but it isn't really. Filmmakers find that they need a theatre maker, or a dramaturge to tell them about how to tell a story in space all of a sudden. And then it's a completely visual world, so you need to work with artists in a way that neither of those people have ever worked with artists before. And I think that's fascinating. And then working with technologists, using technology in interesting ways to tell stories.
And, I think that that is probably the most exciting thing for me. And I hope that we don't lose it.
I think as we go back to live, those lessons about telling stories with technology and being more open to using platforms and technology are really going to change things. There will probably be an influx of hybrid shows, or even just live shows that let you use your phone in an interesting way.
I think the concern is probably that we've had 18 months where new entrants have been completely unable to make their start. No fringe festivals, nobody taking a punt on shows, no live venues where you can just pop up and do your show. Like, I think that that's probably the biggest worry. And we might have lost some awesome talent within that. So there needs to be some support from festivals and institutions and things to focus on the new entrants, I think.
The best thing is that now people don't think if it's online, it has to be free. Like, I'm glad that we got over that early on in the pandemic, because everybody was shoving loads of stuff online for free and realising that they weren't reaching the audiences. But when you start charging; it feels like I’ve bought a ticket, I'm setting that time aside, and I'm going to put an hour aside to engage with it. Just because it's online doesn't mean that it has to be free. Like, in fact, if you pay for something online, you should get like a premium product and you should feel looked after. And it's bespoke and it's there for you to enjoy. I think then when you've done that, you kind of go in with an expectation that you are going to enjoy it and I think you feel more open and kind of, it's just a more comfortable space.