In January, a consortium including virtual and mixed reality innovators, two UK museums, a theatre company, a university research group, a digital education company and a shopping centre group announced a pioneering collaboration to create new immersive experiences for “audiences of the future”. In Spring 2020, two mixed reality experiences at London’s Natural History Museum and The Science Museum will take visitors on a detective-themed trail involving interactions with virtual dinosaurs, robots and digitalised exhibits. A wholly virtual version will tour shopping centres around the UK.
The project received a £4m grant from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and a similar figure in match funding was raised by the participants - including VR content studio Factory 42, the two museums, Sky VR Studios, and mixed reality technology company Magic Leap.
Sifted speaks to project-lead John Cassy, chief executive at Factory 42.
The new “Dinosaurs and Robots” project is part of the “Audiences of the Future” initiative. What is your view on the future of cultural engagement and the role that technology will play?
Particularly in museums, or for cultural experiences, I think the opportunities are really significant. For example: museums and galleries have got these incredibly precious collections which you can't touch. It is very hard to transport them, it is hard to get close to the actual detail on them. But with technologies such as scanning and interactivity you can understand these exhibits in a whole new way.
The Natural History Museum gets five million visitors a year and it does an amazing job but you have to come to Kensington to experience its collection. If it wants to get its blue whale out somewhere else it is extremely challenging because it is enormous, precious and hard to transport. The capability to use digital scans and animation to get exhibits around the world is a massive opportunity for museums.
This is really the driver for both museums to partner with us, because we are enabling them to get the collections to new audiences. Interactivity also enables people to engage with abstract themes or science in really compelling and fun ways.
What are the goals of the project and how will you measure success?
It is really a research and development (R&D) project. The University of Exeter has been researching media and mixed reality for over 10 years. Together we are going to test audience understanding, audience reactions and audience immersion while they are doing the experience.
For example, when a visitor wears a headset we will be able to use eye-tracking to see what they are looking at. During the design process we will test the experience with audiences to find out whether they are looking at the right thing or whether they are not excited enough; pupil dilation will be able to tell us how excited or scared they are. The data will be sent back to the lab tol tell us whether we are meeting our aims or not.
Another output of the project is to research how the UK creative industries deal with the disruption from technology that they are likely to face over the next 10 years. As a nation, we punch above our weight in the creative industries, which are worth £92bn a year. Our film, music and games industries are all great, but what is really interesting, exciting and a little bit scary is the fact that the world of games and film are beginning to blur due to the advances in mobile phones, processing power and memory, which create the ability to do interactive experiences that are somewhere between a game and a film. It is going to be a big opportunity but unless we work out how to make the most of it, it could be quite disruptive.
What is really interesting, exciting and a little bit scary is the fact that the world of games and film are beginning to blur
One reason the UK government put the money up is because it sees this disruption coming and it wants to give the UK creative industries every chance of emerging from this disruption in a stronger position. To explore this, we will have a researcher from the University of Exeter embedded with us during the 18 month creative process and her role will be to see what happens when you bring together different creative minds from different worlds to create something entirely new. That will result in academic research for publication.
In the near term, the goal for us as a business is to create something that audiences are prepared to pay for, in a format we can roll out internationally.
How did you raise funding for an immersive tech project in the arts, competing, for example, with applications in healthcare or education?
One one hand, it was like fundraising for any product: if you can identify a need and persuade investors that you have a plan which has got a chance to make them money, and that you have a really good team behind it, then the investors generally go for it.
On the other hand, it wasn’t like other fundraising because the proposition was not just that investors (museums, theatres, entertainment distributors) will make a profit but actually that investing and partaking in the project will benefit them by helping future-proof their own money-making model. What is really interesting about this project is that anybody who has put money in has done it partly to get the return on the investment but also because they see other strategic benefits.
What do you think about the concern that immersive tech has the novelty factor but is not a sustainable, money-making initiative?
It is a legitimate question. Without a doubt there has been a huge amount of hype around VR in particular. Looking at the typical technology uptake cycle, VR is probably now at the point of disillusionment or maybe just emerging from it. But if you look at the long-term trends around how technology is applied to the arts, it is a matter of “when” not “if” immersive technologies will play a very significant role in entertainment.
We believe that point is coming; we are building our capabilities in that space and identifying projects where we can make a commercial return immediately. There is a proven market for people buying tickets for novel experiences; there is an appetite among people with disposable income to go spend money on these things. We did a previous project with David Attenborough and the Natural History Museum where visitors had a one-on-one tour led by virtual David, showing them the most precious objects which they could handle and examine in digital form.
We know we will be able to create something that is unique. It will be multi-sensory: not only will you be able to explore an amazing physical environment, almost like being in a theatre set, but we will overlay it with digital assets so you will be able to see dinosaurs come to life, and you will be able to smell the dinosaur, discover what its feet feel like to the touch, and feel the wind.
The long-term opportunities are significant. There are many products coming down the line - products that Facebook is talking about within its long-term commitment to immersive content and entertainment, and there is speculation about what Apple might do in the augmented reality space in the next year or two.
Beyond your own work, what do you think are the most interesting companies or trends in immersive tech?
At a large scale everybody is very interested in what Facebook and Apple are up to because they obviously have the huge scale, enormous power and software distribution capabilities. Otherwise, we admire a US company called Two Bit Circus who do really interesting experiences, and another called Dreamscape Immersive who are doing experiences in shopping malls.
The world of haptics - technology involving touch and sensory feedback - is increasingly interesting. Technology for spatial audio is developing very quickly; the things you can do to give people a sense of presence using sound is really fascinating. Magic Leap has a really interesting approach to combining digital and physical worlds
Some great work is being done in Europe. Sky and the BBC are doing particularly good work; Facebook and Google are doing interesting projects; Playstation is driving a lot of the big VR projects, mostly out of its London studio.
In the UK there is a company called nDreams based in Farnborough in Hampshire doing some great work, and an interesting company called Nexus Studios in Shoreditch, London. In France and Germany organisations like Arte - the French-German cultural TV channel have done some good work in VR.
As a continent, the best immersive work we are delivering in Europe is as good as the best immersive work anywhere.