Theatre, virtual reality and the art of immersion



I had a hatrick of serendipitous future media opportunities recently. First off I was invited to visit the Autumnwatch set housed up at the RSPB Leighton Moss centre in Silverdale, Lancashire. As an RSPB member, Leighton Moss is my nearest centre and I visit every year in November to watch the Starling murmurations.


Seeing the mass collaboration of starlings in flight is quite an amazing sight to behold and even better when you get to see it up close courtesy of a BBC lens. What was particularly fun about this visit was that I got to join the audience for the filming of Autumnwatch Unsprung – the show that comes after the main show. What I loved was being led as a group from a hut in the woods up along a road by torch and lantern light under the stars, through the woods and up to the set – a barn in the middle of the forest. You couldn’t write a better transmedia experience – my heart was pounding in anticipation of what lay ahead and people talked animatedly as we wound our way to the set. After the show we had the opportunity to be driven back down but everyone opted to walk and watch the stars.

Night time walk at Leighton Moss

After a busy week in the city, this short night walk under the stars was a real tonic. Indeed two days at Leighton Moss was incredible. I saw excited to see five female deer, an otter and to watch the show as it was rehearsed and played out live. Interesting lots of people from across the BBC visit the set as well as members of the public – from scouts, to birders to OAPs.

I was particularly interested in the set and it’s interactive potential, with books, autumnal objects and fruit dotted about the set. You could imagine exploring the set, much as I had done but online as well as traversing three sixty views around the set, which can be shot on the new cameras that are us to create virtual reality.


Speaking of virtual reality a visit to BBC media city as part of the Future Media open evening gave the opportunity to have a tour of the Blue Room and the latest tech, that programme makers can use in programme making. I tried put oculus rift headset for the first time and watched as I stood in a virtual reality cinema or on the plains of the savannah, only to be stormed by bisons. Once the picture quality increases, virtual reality will be amazing – my heart pounded as a Bison suddenly appeared behind me.

Oculus Rift

Clearly we are at a tipping point moment with content making – and the possibilities for storytelling can become all encompassing, immersive affairs. All we need now is the ability to touch objects in the immersive world and command objects by thought, gesture and eye movement and suddenly we are in a brave new world. I wonder how this might change us as human beings and also how we might use it to change our own lives. I love the idea of virtual reality being used to imagine very different worlds. The healthcare and environmental applications could be quite amazing. And I am mindful of a paper that my colleagues at Lancaster Uni wrote about the social implications of who does the imagining. What I loved about the Blue Room is that its there for people to go along and try things out and the staff are incredibly friendly. To me, a dreamer, it seemed like the perfect job, playing about with technology and meeting people to imagine and chat about how they might use it in their practice. There were also lots of talks that night over pizza and beer about the future of media at BBC and stands to visit to meet staff who worked there. Its going to be really interesting to see how commissioning of content will begin to change as content is always on ‘noise’. Something that’s been reimagined and translated into the


My final serendipitous future media adventure was a bit more leanback but incredibly informative – a day at Film4 innovation forum, which i heard about via twitter, to hear about immersive storytelling and case studies from a range of interactive and transmedia projects. It was great to hear from Frank Rose about how storytellers are starting to be interested and influenced by brain and psychology research and how stories are an integral part of how we survive and they have an adaptive purpose in that sense. For me it felt like coming full circle – I studied neuroscience because I was interested in how the brain worked and what that could tell me about humans and society but quickly realised that storytelling was a route into understanding our human world and my next foray was working in the film industry. Excitingly the two perspectives are starting to cross over. It’s funny that we are this species that can think about ourselves and understand ourselves enough to make our world a better place, but instead we make stories about ourselves and put them out there – on Facebook, twitter and blogs. An interesting take home from Film4 innovation forum was the idea that increasingly people want fewer barriers between them and the story – they wanted to be immersed in it. There i was wondering if there might be a role for outdoor theatre when sure enough, the next speaker was John McGrath from National Theatre wales who told us about incredible theatre projects involving ordinary members of the public and actors in outdoor shows in forests and hillsides exploring life as sheep farmers and tackling subjects from democracy to immigration. And of course the actors can and do to some extent get influenced live by the audience. And the idea of using ‘real life’ as a platform, by exploring alternative realities, is suddenly back on the table. What will be interesting is how ordinary citizens, can make use of these technologies to shape and change their worlds, indeed, is this indeed desireable?


We also got a live demo from Matt Adams of Blast Theory of their smartphone app, Karen, which responds and interacts with you based on data and information that you share with Karen. This is another revolution – using personal data to drive storytelling. Again the health and environmental implications could be amazing. Yet, when it crosses over into the healthcare arena no doubt there will be an ethical minefield to tackle, and involving the public in those kinds of developments directly will be pivotal.

Aside from dreaming, I would love to experience being one of those starlings, swooping and swooning, following, then taking the lead and coming home to roost. Oh yes!

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