Storyhack 2016: Theatre meets virtual reality at The Old Market | TomTech
The Old Market’s #TOMtech series launched this week with Monday’s StoryHack conference, which succeeded in that rare feat of bringing a world class line-up to a truly collaborative space and format. The event was hosted with an incredibly light touch – moving through talks, revolving panel chairs and finally separating the audience into working groups to do what they were there for – to ‘hack the story’.
Opening with the New Radicals section meant that the day began not only on an inspirational high, but also with three of the leading minds in VR laying out the context for its participants. If you don’t live in the world of ‘digital’ you’d be forgiven for failing to notice the Zeitgeist about to happen, with several of Storyhack’s commentators noting that we now stand in the ‘punk era’ of VR.
Virtual reality has been the dream of the future for decades. It’s been said that it’s “about to happen” before, and one can only cringe when looking back at 1980s and 90s attempts at market creation – when VR technology meant giant head seats, a maze of wires; and certain nausea. In fact, just two days ago Apple CEO Tim Cook came out in favour of augmented reality (AR) as the far bigger market; claiming that the VR experience is too “closed off” and inhibited by the headset to ever become mainstream.
Whether VR, AR or MR, the StoryHack conference was highly self-reflective about the need to create a common language capable of bridging the gap between arts, commerce and technology. The Zeitgeist we are now talking about is best described as ‘mixed reality’ according to Marshmallow Laser Feast’s Robin McNicholas; who showed no mercy towards the marketing language behind the industry, joking that the “experiential sector” has led him to sell himself no longer as a “creative technologist” but the far more glamorous “experience architect”.
Along with the challenges in redefinition is an issue that now rules the global discussion of VR – the ‘content drought’. With the release of HTC Vive three months ago, the company also announced a $10 billion content development fund; part of what McNicholas calls a “gold rush” in the USA. An incredible amount of money and resources now exist, but are centred in Silicon Valley and Hollywood; which even hosts BAFTA’s VR consortium.
The problem, according to #TOMtech’s James Turnbull, is that old development models can’t possibly answer the challenges presented by new technologies. A top-end game might take 5 years to make, and a film production 3 years – it’s the art project model – innovative, exploratory and short-term – that will really form the testing ground. In facilitating the VR Project Labs this month, this is exactly the testing ground that #TOMtech is trying to create – in what may very well be a first for any UK theatre.
#TOMtech’s recent projects have been ground-breaking in approaching the questions around VR that even a billion-dollar industry is stuck on. Chief among these is the question of storytelling in 360, which is in urgent need of conceptual exploration on both ‘tech’ and ‘arts’ sides of the perceived divide. The challenge of breaking down a habituated, linear story structure seems to be a source of great anxiety for traditional industry models; especially Hollywood, if Steven Spielberg’s recent comments are anything to go by.
Traditional models of research and development are insufficient for the new possibilities of ‘mixed reality’, and this is a fact that The Old Market are UK leaders in coming to terms with. James Turnbull’s aim with the #TOMtech Project Labs was to create “breathing space” for artists simply to philosophise and experiment around these new concepts. Over the course of the Brighton Digital Festival, this has included the ongoing Lab 360; a group of artists creating a ‘hacked’ manifesto for making art in 360, and three highly experimental commissions due to reach the stage next week: Pattern Recognition, SuperEverything and Hacked on Classics.
After a fascinating week of discussion and experimentation at The Old Market’s VR Lab, I am left with two conclusions; both sources of great inspiration for the future. The first is the ‘punk’ movement around VR – which could not be better demonstrated than by Simon Wilkinson of CiRCA 69, who put together his ‘Slave to Mortal Rage’ just five weeks ago with local coders in Sarajevo. Not only has he proven himself a pioneer in artistic ‘transmedia’ work, but one gets a sense that he is acutely aware of the democratising potential of open-source software like Unity.
A little less punk, but far more local, are the proposals around creating new hubs for ‘horizontal collaboration’ between artists and technologists. The presence of Digital Catapult’s Richard Scott at Storyhack presented a serious invite to create this culture here in Brighton, and the organisation is now inviting applications for two VR residencies at their centre, along with a VR meetup launching at The FuseBox on September 29.
Emily Yates is a freelance journalist specialising in arts, psychology and digital. Follow her on Twitter @MsEYates