SXSW is far more than an annual event where the world’s most innovative thought-leaders, rule breakers and creators from the interactive, film and music industries gather together. SXSW is a mentality. So it’s no surprise that despite the pandemic, this year’s SXSW came back bigger than ever. The festival did an incredible job at connecting global audiences across multiple platforms, including gathering us inside VRChat in a fantastical version of downtown Austin with entire street blocks and some favorite Austin venues, that were done to-scale based on building blueprints.
Since 2016, SXSW has had a dedicated track for VR/AR, giving a platform for icons like Nonny de la Peña and Chris Milk, and highlighting what creative industries should be paying attention to like 5G and volumetric capture, far ahead of other events. This year, SXSW Online XR showcased live panels, special events and even live streams of related festival content on the big screen in VRChat. And, like past years, festival content outside of the XR programming also offered relevant insights. These are the key takeaways that I found to be most valuable for immersive content creators.
Audiences want far more than basic connection with others
In the keynote featuring Priya Parker with Anand Giridharadas, Parker highlighted that a gathering should make audiences feel changed. This is an important consideration when creating social VR experiences. Meaningful connection (not just connection) with others by leveraging or creating new shared rituals, can help to achieve this.
There are rituals around even theatre-going that help audiences to feel changed. Sarah Ellis, Director of Digital Development at Royal Shakespeare Company, explained that from the times of Shakespeare to now, people still have rituals around turning up for performances. And these rituals should not be ignored when experiences are virtual. Theatres are places where conversation happens, not just the play itself. It is a social engagement. So encouraging means for audiences to engage in dialogue around the experience is key. This can happen in an immersive experience at the end of the show, or elsewhere.
Kiira Benzing is the Director of immersive theatre experience Finding Pandora X, which had its North American premiere at SXSW after winning Best VR Immersive User Experience at Venice VR Expanded. She shares that “The primary experience for Finding Pandora X is an embodied VR experience…The audience has a role to play in this production, as the Greek Chorus, and there is interactivity weaved throughout every scene. With a major responsibility to help save humanity.” While they connect with other active audience members from around the world, they leave the experience feeling like they have gone on an adventure, and saved the story world.
Hidden stories can become realities
The New Yorker’s Reeducated won Special Jury Recognition for Immersive Journalism at SXSW. The experience takes visitors inside the secret world of a “reëducation” camp in Xinjiang, China. The team behind this documentary turned former detainees’ memories and additional research into virtual reality through pen-and-brush illustrations done when the team visited the survivors. These illustrations were then brought to life through animation and spatial audio to reconstruct the experience.
Allowing hidden stories and secrets to be experienced by audiences, even when video content hasn’t been captured, empowers us individually and as a society. The New Yorker released the experience and additional interactive documentary content for free following its premiere at SXSW.
Collaborations are accelerating ways for us to create immersive experiences
Industries from live performance, to music and sports and even fashion were highlighting their increased need for immersive storytelling collaborations.
Ellis and her team at The Royal Shakespeare Company collaborated with Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast and Philharmonia Orchestra to create a live performance of Dream -inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dream, a show created during the pandemic in 4.5 months, was showcased at SXSW. They used motion capture to integrate the live performers into a magical world that audiences could see, in some cases simultaneously with the real-world performance. This is a first step into a new way for audiences to engage with their plays. Productions with environments in game engines create easy ways for fully immersive audience experiences both in VR and when the physical doors reopen. Even operas are starting to leverage the power of VR to capture more audience engagement. The “Exploding Opera – When Opera Meets Immersive Tech” session showcased the Royal Opera House’s step into location-based VR.
Panels such as “For Artists and Fans: Virtual is the New Normal” showcased the growing importance of music and immersive entertainment collaborations, even as in person concerts return. On that panel, Rebecca Barkin, Vice President Brand & Platform Design for Magic Leap, spoke about the importance of building meaningful interaction into these music experiences. “We connect through participation” she shared, using an example of fans being able to virtually play music to feel as if they have become a part of the experience.
Steve Aoki spoke about the value of collaborating with the products and platforms where audiences are already listening to their music. Right now, it’s mobile phones. Soon, it will likely evolve to wearable technology. In both cases, 5G is unlocking new ways to engage with music on their own and with others.
As Heidi Browning, SEVP Chief Marketing Officer of the NHL explained in the “Reimagining the Fan Experience Post-Pandemic” panel, major arenas have been investing in upgrading their venues to be as touchless as possible, and integrating 5G is a key element of this upgrade. This unlocks more opportunities for immersive experiences to layer into the fan experience on-site at these venues that are also used by other major leagues throughout the year, from the NBA to WWE. There is a major opportunity to create more experiences here to engage people with franchises, through to their sponsors. Kate Jhaveri, Chief Marketing Officer of the NBA, highlighted that they’re also investing in ways for fans to engage with the NBA Globally through content.
Darragh Dandurand curated and hosted a series of talks about the future of fashion. Immersive content and the tools used to create it are helping fashion brands “court and keep customers” with marketing and easy and entertaining digital ways to shop. The technology is even helping designers to design better and faster, and even to take on more sustainable practices.
Communities as the new storytellers
The panel “Indigenous Storytellers: New Tech, Timeworn Tales” brought together leaders who use immersive technologies to share the history and correct the misconceptions around indigenous people. Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO of Return to the Heart Foundation, highlighted that authentic storytelling needs more genuine allies. She explained that “sharing indigenous worldview is critical right now” and it is essential that we think standard approaches “holistically and collectively.” Gloria O’Neill, President/CEO of Cook Inlet Tribal Council, is part of the team behind the game Never Alone. Culture and values are what leads to the development of content for projects that she works on. To achieve this, she employs true community collaboration where inputs are gathered from community Elders, youth and storytellers, and decisions on the creation of the content are made with the full community perspective in mind. This responsibility for how stories are brought to the world, from their content to how revenue is distributed, also generates authenticity in the stories that are created. When developing immersive content, consider the community that can help to bring it to life, and how the story can impact them.
Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios’ Space Explorers: The ISS Experience’s ADVANCE episode premiered at SXSW. In addition, was part of the panel “Stepping into Space: The ISS Experience” where I spoke with part of the team behind the immersive experience, including astronaut Dr. Jessica Meir. She described how she had a hand in creating the authentic reality that audiences can visit. The community of astronauts living on the ISS were empowered to also capture unplanned moments and conversations.
The SXSW and VrOOm teams created the SXSW Online XR world with community at the core of their vision. Blake Kammerdiener, XR and film programmer for SXSW, knew that the only way to create an authentic yet fantastical virtual downtown Austin, his team must design for and with the communities that are a part of it. The team went far beyond building classic venues at scale. They celebrated and integrated the street art and murals from real life, by collaborating with local artists. Performers, and even the local weekly paper and founding sponsor The Austin Chronicle found value in being a part of the space shared simultaneously by festival goers around the world. I am personally grateful for how the world made having shared stories about visiting SXSW 2021 together, possible.
Giving audiences a voice in an experience can impact their own stories
It is one thing to feel a certain way or click on a button when living through a story where choice is involved. But speaking up to create in an uncomfortable situation change takes courage. Passengers: Her & Him is a VR experience where audience members’ gaze and voice influence the story. What’s different about other interactive experiences, is that what audiences must do is more challenging than typical narrative-driven in-game choices. The Passengers: Her & Him Director Ziad Touma explains “With The Passengers, we wanted to immerse the user in the mind of each character to really live their experience from a first person’s point of view, not only by hearing their inner thoughts and seeing their memories, but also by helping them achieve their goal. The viewer is therefore active and is able to change the course of the storyline depending on who they look at and if they speak or not. … That feeling of agency might increase our sense of empathy towards fictional characters because the user feels a deeper connection and responsibility towards them. Hopefully, that experience can be later applied in real life to empathize more with strangers and see the world from someone else’s perspective, hence reducing the judgment and stereotyping we might have towards people we don’t really know, unless we walk in their shoes.”
While this may be more common place in VR training, giving users courage and practice to speak up in story environments, can have an impact on their own stories, as well as their communities’, in the real world.
Immersive space details are critical for characters to emerge
The “Psychology in Architectural Design” panel highlighted the importance of understanding how spaces and their visitors are connected. While this was not part of the XR programming, I feel that studying architecture is especially relevant for immersive world builders. A well designed space is one that considers all types of personalities that may visit, and not just the basics of the setup. Tamie Glass, Interior Designer and Professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, highlighted the importance of designing around the intention of the space. So, do not design a space simply because that is how it looks in typical real-world scenarios. Design an immersive space based on the intent of the experience – from the digital walls to the interactable décor that may engage introverts and extroverts differently. The design can encourage audiences to get into the characters that you would like to emerge in your story world.
Joel Anderson, Architect, Director of Design and Sustainability at Cushing Terrell explained that “Buildings are just the physical foundation of context that everything is built upon…. The individual success is ultimately determined through their interactions with society…Society occurs on top of this platform of architecture.”
Paper Birds was a part of the SXSW Virtual Cinema Spotlight. It is a beautiful immersive experience that masterfully uses virtual set design and evolving scale to conduct how audiences feel throughout moments of the story. The lead character is a boy with incredible musical talent, on a journey through a world of darkness. The variance in sizing, lighting, details and appearance and disappearance of the spaces that you visit along his journey create a sense of connection to both the boy, and his world.
In addition to virtual spaces, understanding how people interact with physical spaces such as 5G-enabled sports venues or malls can also help to guide how creators develop immersive content for them.
Showcasing the future we’re heading towards… as a wake-up call
There were a handful of VR experiences showcased at SXSW that explored the realities of how humans are harming the world. Samsara takes audiences to a point in time when our environment is destroyed based on how we have treated the earth, animals and each other. Visitors become one of the artificially evolved beings that have evolved into a new species with a shared memory and perspective on time and life.
Once Upon a Sea is a beautiful yet haunting experience that integrates actual footage of the lowest place on earth – the Dead Sea region. It showcases how this important place for many both emotionally and physically, is disappearing.
When audiences can live through losing something so incredibly important, these wake-up calls may inspire positive change.
World building through play
The “Developing World-Building Games Amid A Pandemic” session highlighted the value of play when building interactive content. Play is not just for the audience. Thorny Games Co-Founders Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalıoğlu spoke about developing games from the perspectives of characters, by imagining how characters may want to interact with their environments. The play should find ways for the intent of the space to be met. So just as players of VR theatre like Finding Pandora X can impact how the immersive story comes to life, game creators can also step into the shoes of their future audience to build for how they may like to play, ahead of audience testing.
Laura Mingail is an award-winning marketer, strategist and thought-leader in the entertainment space. She founded Archetypes & Effects to provide organizations in storytelling industries with impactful strategy, marketing and business development support. She is also a contributing author and media commentator focused on innovative forms of storytelling and technologies.