You’ve booked your hotel; flight tickets ready and you have thoroughly researched the schedule and favourited “the not to be missed events” on the SxSW GO app- you are ready my friend. Careful planning is the key to a successful SxSW right? Well to a point. As Austinite Bijoy Goswami pointed out, what you cannot anticipate is SXdipity. Bijoy has dedicated an online page The Austin Equation explaining “Serendipity SxSW Style” and it goes something like this:
Create and enjoy SXdipity
Serendipity: discovering something awesome while looking for something else. i.e. penicillin.
SXdipity: discovering something awesome while looking for something else at SXSW.
Incidentally if you visit Bijoy’s page he delivers an interesting talk on what makes Austin unique where he describes it as being a place where communities plus experiences equals scene. In affect creating a place where you can be yourself.
Now there was always going to be a strong immersive focus to this year’s experience but I also wanted to hear as much music as possible and Plato said it best when he said, “music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
“music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything”
Image by Rafaello Sanzio
Highlights amongst musicians heard were Yola Carter, Soak and Mavis Staples, a legendary American rhythm and blues, gospel singer, actress and cicil rights activist. As well as all the other bands in bars and busking guitarists - all with one thing in common - playing mighty fine music.
One of the standout keynotes was listening to David Byrne talk about “Reasons To Be Cheerful” and his movement to redefine the global spotlight way from negative to positive action and impact. Reasons To Be Cheerful is a kind of remedy and therapy, where Bryne started collecting good news. A lot of the good news originates at a local level where “hope is often local and change begins in communities” echoing Gandhi’s mantra of “be the change you want to see.”
Reasons To Be CheerfuL
by David Byrne
I was also impressed by René Pinnell from Kaleidoscope and his panel on a New Model For Funding Art & Entertainment Projects. I absolutely empathised with the roadblocks faced by content creators where the current funding model is simply not repeatable. René and his team are doing some amazing work in this space and his SxSW talk is well worth the thirty-two minutes watch.
The charismatic Charlie Fink launched his AR book Convergence during SxSW with contributions from many leading industry experts. Convergence is a world wind dive into key issues and use cases for, lets call it XR and I love the notice at the beginning “This book is out of date - it was out of date the day it was written. You cannot catch lightning, or disruption, in a bottle, but you can see it…We merely glimpse the future as it recedes into the past.”
Northern Ireland always pulls out all stops for SxSW and this year was no different. On Sunday 10 March I was honoured to be a member of a panel exploring “The Future Of Screens,” with Cathy Hackl XR Influencer and Futurist; Warren Bell Development Producer BBC; Aurelien Simon Executive Producer Emerging Technology The Mill; Alex McDowell Director World Building Institute USC and chaired by Nigel McAlpine Immersive Technology Lead Digital Catapult.
The first question explored the ramifications for content makers and immersive technology companies in the race to find the ultimate future screen; and asked whether we the audience, are ready for Ready Player One? The answer broadly was a lack of clarity around the future of screens BUT an implicit need to learn from mistakes of the past; to future proof in terms of ethics and to hold transparent the values that dictate the journey ahead. The remaining hour focussed around content, production values and engagement; hardware will VR slowly sink into AR?; who is getting the balance right?; distribution and connectivity - will 5G matter?; the audience and what drives adoption?; is story still king and enterprise versus entertainment, which sector is more important and/or should be given more focus?
The focus on Future of Screens links back to incredible work being undertaken in Northern Ireland by Professor Paul Moore and Professor Frank Lyons from Ulster University, who along with Queen’s University Belfast and other industry partners, have secured a prestigious UK Arts and Humanities Research Council - Creative Cluster R&D award of £13 Million from the UK government for Future Screens NI. As Visiting Professor in Immersive Futures with Ulster University I am excited about the collaborations and the potential for work of high and long lasting impact. My focus is on the intersection of creativity, technology, innovation, diversity, health, wellbeing and storytelling - because this is where the magic happens.
This trip came about as part of the UKRI US Immersive Mission Delegation to San Francisco and SxSW19 from 6-13 March 2019 showcasing and exploring opportunities for R&D collaboration between the US and Creative Industries Clusters Programme. In total eleven different clusters from across the UK were represented. We were fortunate enough to meet representatives from Facebook, Oculus, ILMxLABs at Lucas Films, Unity and HTC Vive. The tour extended to experiencing the interactive arts and entertainment space Onedome in San Francisco and if that was not enough we were hosted for a reception by the British Consulate General in San Francisco Andrew Whittaker.
VR Cinema is always a focus for an immersive enthusiast and I have always found it interesting that people willingly engage in private experiences in a public space by covering half of their face and disconnecting not only visually but also spatially including the audio senses. I do wonder about the patience of the VR gatekeepers at these events having to repeat clear on boarding instructions to each and every person - everyone looked absolutely fried by the end of the day. In spite of this, I love VR Cinema and these are just some of my highlights.
Runnin with Reggie Watts, directed by Kiira Benzing and producers Adam Rogers and Ana Miren Achavalwas, was one of the most joyful VR experiences at VR Cinema in SxSW. Built around the song Runnin by Watt’s band Wajatta, they use volumetric capture and photogrammetry, to create 3D meshes, which are then used in game engines and VR AR MR environments. The result? Pure unbridled happiness.
Last Whispers directed and produced by Lena Herzog was an incredibly powerful and profound VR sound sculpture on the celebration of extinct and endangered languages. It was haunting in its impact and I think its because the recordings of people speaking and singing these languages form an archive in itself - where these digital footprints are the first and last time we will hear the “place and belonging” of these dying languages. The work is a lyrical poem that celebrates the diversity of human expression.
A question I kept at the forefront of my mind during the VR Cinema experiences was what are the merits of the experience or story being told in VR - would it have worked equally well in a 2D format and there were some experiences that had high friction in VR, were novel in concept but added no value, in fact caused a distraction by being in VR. One example of this is Chronicles Of A Vanished City, director Jorge Caballero, composed entirely of letters and based on journalist stories located across seven streets in 1940s Bogota. I found moving forward clunky and uncomfortable, with mild nausea at the end of the experience. I think the idea is highly original but was it more effective and impactful for being in VR? I don’t think so.
Eleven Eleven was immersive VR theatre featuring six interwoven characters. It is not interactive and yet it is clever and effective, although not new as a concept. Eleven Eleven is set during the last 11 minutes and 11 seconds on a planet called Kairos Linea, which is about to be annihilated while the corporate overlords escape to a space station. You can configure the three storytelling modes - story, where you just watch; explorer where you walk and goddess, where you zoom in and out and are able to see everything going on. It is possible to switch between modes; each character comes with their own soundtrack. Essentially Eleven Eleven views truth in multiple ways where the creators were inspired by immersive theatre but felt that the format can be confusing. However when you adapt to VR you create agency where you choose to be a director in terms of whose story you follow.
The demand for VR Cinema always outstrips supply and it may be helpful for the SxSW folks to think about having TV screens showing real time gameplay for all the people that fail to get scheduled into the VR experience. I suppose this is another bugbear of mine, VR is not a mass audience experience. But maybe we are asking the wrong questions, maybe its utility is in very specific use cases e.g. training in low frequency high risk situations makes perfect sense, such as surgery or firefighters; for education, as long as you address the 13 years age rating on the hardware; marketing; advertising; retail; industry; and for health, its use case for PTSD, phobia, trauma, anxiety as long as it is used as part of therapeutic professional practice are all well known and documented. Interestingly evidence from location based entertainment and arcades shows that the most popular VR games are the multiplayer ones enabling shared experiences such as Arizona Sunshine and The Void with Star Wars, Ghostbusters and Ralph Breaks VR.
I wonder when radio was invented, did content creators endlessly debate the merits, limitations and differences of storytelling from print to audio. Then when TV became available did the same happen again? As content creators is it critical that you have the story first and then you decide on the best tool to articulate that story, maybe this is the very essence of the challenge of VR, that it turns storytelling and the tools used on its head.
Gregory Louden wrote a great feature titled “Play, don’t show: How VR storytelling compares to movies” where he talks about the three universal things that all stories should have - a world, a message and a question. He argues that a story should leave you thinking, feeling, creating or show you an amazing world. I know that the VR experiences that resonated with me most deeply were the ones that connected in terms of my values or just because it was a joyful experience. Adam Rogers from Runnin said it best when he said “don’t over theorise VR.”
So putting aside all the parties, talks, songs, music, performances, panels from SxSW - I always come home reenergised and renewed in terms of focus on a professional and personal level. Globally we are in the doldrums - climate change is a raw reality; we have the Brexit madness and he who shall not be named is still in the Whitehouse - at times I feel so disempowered but being at SxSW makes me realise there is a global collective movement that is focussed on high social impact activity; is concerned for humanity; does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past; articulates a positive vision founded on transparent values and wants to create and maintain the momentum for a groundswell of action. That has to be a good thing. And to bring this back to VR - there are parallels with VR in terms of it being in the doldrums too. It will never deliver on the hype and I think the reality of this is sinking in - I know I was not alone in the frustration experienced at several panels where it felt like little progress had been made over the last couple of years. There are hardware manufacturers that will no longer be around in the next couple of years. The business model for immersive continues to be challenging. There is no utopia for VR. I do not think we are asking the right questions. We need to be a critical friend right now if we are to be a good friend to the immersive industry. ARMR still has a long way to go but we will go through a period of just producing apps for the sake of it without really questioning their purpose. One way of looking at this may be that we are in the R&D phase of this journey right now.
How do you maintain momentum when the vision is strong but the technical means of high quality, accessible cost and seamless low friction delivery and utility are still some way off? By celebrating when immersive content really gets it right and understanding the components of this success.
As someone who has played “all the R’s” and loved it, the opportunity to play Porgs on Magic Leap One at the ILMxLABS was phenomenal - I connected with those little Porgs within minutes in a much stronger way than I ever did with Tamagotchi. My AR highlight of the past year is “David Bowie Is” a fantastic, high quality experience that works brilliantly in AR. The user map journey is easy to navigate and the ability to interact with handwritten song sheets, costumes, videos makes for a very personal and intimate experience, where you dictate the pace and can experience it all in the comfort of your own home. This can even be a shared experience. You get the strongest sense of who David Bowie was and his key influences during critical periods in his life. The whole experience is sealed through incredible spatial audio.
“No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try”
Yoda Fountain at Lucas Films San Francisco
All goods things must come to an end and on my last afternoon of my last day in Austin, I chatted with the Dimpker Brothers, a folk pop duo from Sweden and their manager Bo Nikolausson. Imagine my surprise, as my thoughts turned to home in Northern Ireland, to hear the word Portstewart coming out of their mouths. The Brothers had played in said town, on the north coast the previous November and were exploring further gigs in Belfast for later this year.
Sometimes you can travel halfway around the world and meet incredible people doing outstanding things who live right around the corner from you. So it is with Dr Tim Brown, a kidney transplant surgeon from Belfast City Hospital and Cathy Coomber and Dan Crawford from Axial 3D who are using functional 3D models from 2D scans of kidneys to enable transplants and to save human lives.
What I takeaway from SxSW are that values have to underpin what we do and why we do it and that there are communities of belonging where you can be yourself. SXdipity is really a thing: discovering something awesome while looking for something else really sums up the essence of what SxSW is.