VR Conversations – Content

Immersive technologies, while still in their experimental stage, are an emerging platform signalling serious future potential. The global market for VR / AR is projected to increase exponentially over the coming years from $4Bn in 2016 to $108bn by 2021 (Digi-Capital). According to McKinsey / WEF “Immersive technologies, namely virtual and augmented reality, will fundamentally alter how we interact with content”, representing the “cusp of a major revolution from mobile to immersive computing.”

Recent PWC mapping identified Bristol as the second largest VR hub outside of London, combining its world-class media industry, growing tech sector and ability to network innovation around culture and the arts, to address the new opportunities and affordances of immersive technologies.

Ahead of the upcoming opening of the new Bristol VR Lab I brought together three internationally renowned, Bristol based VR producers for a conversation on their view of the potential for immersive technology and their first hand experiences of creating content within an emerging industry.

Catherine Allen is a VR Producer and Curator and Founder of Limina Immersive. She is on the BAFTA VR advisory committee, won awards for Easter Rising with the BBC and is currently working on the Women in VR Manifesto, setting out the potential for an inclusive, diverse working environment and content output within this emerging medium.

Dan Efergan is Digital Group Creative Director at Oscar winners Aardman Animations. Their best known VR piece is ‘We Wait”, a dramatised story based on BBC News interviews with migrants, transporting you to the heart of the refugee crisis – recognised with awards from Broadcast, Unity and Kinsale and screened at the UN in Geneva.

John Durrant is Creative Director of BDH, multi-award winning digital agency and production house (BAFTA, EMMY, RTS, Grammy). Their latest VR experience, Wonderful You, commissioned by Oculus, plunges you into the expanding sensory world of your unborn self, a virtual journey through the strange world inside the womb and of your developing senses; sight, sound, touch, taste & smell. 


Q: What brought you to working in VR / AR?

Jon Durrant (JD): BDH is multi-award winning digital agency and production house, we are at the crossroads of creative content for film, television and all things pervasive. This sort of fusion of creative disciplines, visual effects, film direction and virtual reality has opened our eyes to a new range of exciting possibilities. It is blurring the boundaries between disciplines.

Dan Efergan (DE): It’s finally a platform which truly uses all parts of our company.  Productions bring together Directors, Writers, CG, Game Designers, Coders etc… and they’re all bound by their general geekery for new forms of storytelling… so VR/AR is a no-brainer for us.

Catherine Allen (CA): Before working in VR, I was a producer at a high-end educational app publisher. My degree and interests had always been theatre & the arts, so I felt that VR brought them together beautifully.

Q: What specifically excites you about the future potential of immersive content?

CA: VR’s future as an artistic medium really excites me, [the concept I describe as] storydoing rather than storytelling .

DE: [Completely agree]… something that was unexpected is how intimate VR is as a platform, how close you feel to the events and ‘people’ around you.  This makes it a powerful story telling tool, but a very different one.

On a geeky side [reduced render times will] allow developers to have a greater understanding of viewers emotional states.  This’ll allow some pretty powerful stuff when viewers and virtual actors are bouncing off each other.

And that’s just the VR.  Although we’ve not done much AR, it’s AR that’s actually going to change the world.

JD: We are particularly intrigued by the fact that there are no age barriers to the new Immersive technology. Both our public installations, Magritte VR and Bosch VR have had installation have been popular with ages 9 to 90.

Q: Is there a Bristol effect? 

JD: The historically high calibre of producers, directors and animators from Bristol has been a strong creative influence on the quality of ideas in the city.

CA: It is about the combination between creativity and technology. The rebellious, experimental spirit that Bristol has is exactly what VR needs right now.

DE: We’re definitely rocking it right now.  At a recent London BBC VR pitch 3 out of 4 companies were from Bristol, not bad.

We’ve got a strong community, strong media scene, great story tellers and VRWC is pulling people out of their offices to see each other.

Q: We are at an early stage of content development in VR / AR – is there a specific discovery that you’ve made during production which feels unique to this medium?

DE: We Wait was about using eye contact and body positioning to transfer emotions.  It was also used in a UCL study on how embodiment and presence affected engagement.  We’re continuing that development in our latest piece.

CA: You can feel you are getting to know people in VR. You can build bonds, you can feel close – even intimate. These people may or may not be real, but it doesn’t really matter. If a character looks you in the eyes in a 360 video, for instance, and smiles, it is likely you will smile back.

We remember VR experiences as something we DID, rather than as something we saw, or were told. And because we bring our sense of self – all the bias’s, hopes, dreams and mood to every VR experience we do, then even the most simple VR experience is a co-creation between the audience member and the VR creator.

JD: Initially we were concerned that we would be isolating our audiences with VR experiences. Now, a few years on, we have audiences of 50 holding hands in a giant bowler hat, celebrating the genius of Rene Magritte together and loving the experience.

With Wonderful You VR we have families experiencing together in the living room, interacting and pointing excitedly at virtual worlds inside the womb


Bristol VR Lab (BVRL) will be a landmark new facility creating a development hub for VR and AR skills and content – establishing a new innovation cluster around emerging immersive technologies.

BVRL will be managed by Watershed as a sister space to the Pervasive Media Studio. The founding partners are Opposable Group, University of the West of England, University of Bristol, We The Curious and the BBC.

BVRL will open shortly.

(btw if you’d like to use any of this article somewhere else, just ask)

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Toronto / London / Lisbon

Three events in quick succession, all very different but all in their own way reinforcing two key trends – the changing shape of the creative economy, and the increasing political recognition, and support, of its economic impact.

iVentures in Toronto is a relatively small event organized by Interactive Ontario, with a strong emphasis on knowledge sharing and community stimulation. It had previously been GameON but changed its profile to recognise the much wider activity and blurring lines across the sector in the city. A company combining VR, CGI and animation in delivering sophisticated medical applications seemed a good exemplar.

Elsewhere in the city the announcement of the Sidewalk Toronto initiative also embodied some of this change. A spectacular plan to regenerate a large part of the waterfront as a smart city “from the ground up” it seemed significant in their communications, and in my separate conversations with them, that design (in its broadest sense) was as important a part of the process as technology.

Next stop London and the Creative Industries Council Autumn Reception at the Houses of Parliament. A significant turn out of MP’s signaled the interest in the sector. It is possible that the Creative Industries Sector Deal as part of the Industrial Strategy will come as early as the Budget later this month. As I discussed with another attendee, an amazing journey over the past 10 years or so from a sector dismissed as marginal and cultural to the current understanding of economic impact equivalent to aerospace or financial services.

The potential for support for creative cluster development out of London is a key part of the early thinking on the sector deal – it will be interesting to see if the hoped for scale investment is delivered.

And then to Lisbon for Web Summit. The change in the economy of Lisbon over the past five years or so is incredible, and a testament to active political participation. In an economic downturn the Portuguese, and Lisbon authority in particular, sought to create the conditions for young people to in essence create their own jobs by supporting a start up economy – funding accelerators, giving over large empty buildings, pushing international profile.

The attraction of Web Summit from Dublin was another significant commitment, but one that feels wholly appropriate as the city is now a thriving creative / technology hub. The high profile presence of Portuguese goverment ministers (and UK for that matter) pointed to a continuing commitment in an emerging industry which has been a part of the wider economic improvement in the country.

And a final positive public sector intervention. Closer to home the West of England LEP and West of England Combined Authority provided funding to the Bristol VR Lab, a bid I helped to write – a positive catalytic investment to accelerate a VR/AR cluster which is already the second largest in the country after London.

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London: Shadowing

Installed as part of the launch of Culture Mile – Chomko & Rosier’s Shadowing lamps were placed at six locations through Smithfield and Barbican.

Their beautiful video here:

Shadowing London from Chomko & Rosier on Vimeo.

The next stop for Shadowing is Austin as part of a series of Playable City activities in the city.

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Dmexco in Cologne for the first time, a really busy show with a broad German / EU / international audience. Across a series of exhibition halls it gave a very good state of the nation view on the digital marketing industry: essentially data, data and more data… platforms and tools to commoditise, personalise and target efficient communications.

There were some more immersive / experiential products in evidence but in truth many felt a bit “look at my innovation” rather than genuine forward steps.

And – Brexit.

Literally every conversation had a Brexit section, with a tone mainly of confusion, uncertainty and incredulity. All were aware that the detailed questions they want answered are at present unanswerable, and as a result the UK, despite having a digital advertising market more than double the German (#2 in EU), looks a less compelling proposition for expansion until there is some clarity.

Unfortunately it is not just the commercial uncertainty, echoed in a conversation with a major London VFX firm is the cultural damage – harder to quantify, the more emotional impacts of an apparently less open nation will be much longer lasting. And were entirely avoidable.

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As is now traditional the UK has adopted a southern European attitude to August, so a good time to both catch up and look forward.

Playable City continues to expand. The Smart Oxford Playable City commission went to Guerrilla Dance Project’s Star Light, Star Bright, now in pre-production. Previous project Hello Lamp Post is currently Salem Astana in Kazakhstan, and Shadowing is also installed now as part of the City of London’s new Culture Mile strategy. Next locations for Playable City are Seoul, Austin and then straight into production for a commission in Dublin.

The Creative Producers International programme will commence activity at the Festival of the Future City conference in Bristol October 19th. We’re looking for partners in this global lab for cultural innovation in cities now…

Ahead of going away I completed a piece of work in support of the new Bristol VR Lab, which will open later this year and combine commercial and academic R&D to drive new insight and product. It will also link to the 5G Accelerator – a real mobile AR test opportunity.

I’ll be focusing a bit more on Bristol for Invest Bristol + Bath. Having spent a few years concentrating on everywhere except where I actually live there feels like a real new momentum in the city, with the combination of creative and technology generating significant new growth.

And for DIT I’ll be in Cologne, Helsinki and San Francisco definitely, Toronto, NYC and Lisbon maybe.

So plenty in planning. But a pause (in a very hot Italy) also affords some time to think, and maybe its time to make some changes.

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Smart Oxford Playable City

The Smart Oxford Playable City Commission shortlist has been announced. From mysterious creatures appearing on city streets eager to make new friends, to forbidden buttons that connect the curious of Oxford.

Artists, designers, technologists and creative practitioners were challenged to propose distinctive ideas that put people and play at the heart of Oxford. Responding to the theme of Shared City, applicants proposed using smart city technology in innovative ways to create opportunities for connection between the diverse populations who live, visit and work within Oxford.

The six shortlisted ideas were selected from 80 entries received from 28 countries around the world. Open for public comment until July 18th, feedback will be shared with the judges as part of their considerations.

Show Us Your City | Thomas Buchanan and Gavin Strange, UK
Star Light, Star Bright | Guerilla Dance Project, UK
Do Not Press |Playful Anywhere CIC, UK
Knock Knock |Bottle, UK
LitKNIT Gateways | Graf + Tobier, Vienna & USA
Love Thy Neighbourhood| Bimble ,UK

A stellar judging panel including Usman Haque from Umbrellium and young Oxford writer Asima Qayyum will be chaired by Lord Heseltine.

The winning idea will receive a £30k R&D commission and unveil their project in Oxford in November.

Details on the six shortlisted projects are here: http://wshd.to/smartoxfordshortlist

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Sheffield / Bristol

A far too short visit to Sheffield DocFest to chair a panel on the US market with a stellar line up: https://sheffdocfest.com/sessions/5412

A really interesting take on the new opportunities of the factual landscape, especially in the US. The big investments from Netflix and Amazon in particular are generating a new wave of significant production, and triggering changing commissioning patterns from traditional broadcast channels like Discovery and Nat Geo (e.g. full buyout commission).

The strategic moves of companies like Snap, Facebook, Hulu appear to show the potential for another wave of “digital first” content commissioning. And with investment announcements in the last week of a $100M Snap / Warner Bros deal and $450M into Vice (plus new entrants like Awesomeness TV) this feels like a market with plenty of buyers. Interestingly the evolving position was blurring lines between the producers / distributors / commissioners on my panel – all taking much more agile positions (especially in distribution) as a result of new opportunities and new threats.

And as with all things a counter intuitive effect. Examples were cited across the panel (e.g. PBS’s Black Panthers doc) where a theatrical release massively amplified eventual TV and online audiences. The right content will find an audience (or multiple audiences) on the right platform (or platforms) – the hard bit is the same as it ever was, “the right content”…


As I walked back to Sheffield station I passed Sheaf Square, an empty piece of ground highlighted in the local newspaper as the site being put forward by the city as a potential new location for Channel 4.

I’ve been working with Bristol City Council and Invest Bristol + Bath (plus industry, Universities and others) to build the Bristol offer into this DCMS consultation.

Regardless of the shape or likelihood of outcome it raises some fundamental questions on the wisdom and efficacy of top down interventions in cluster development. If your industrial strategy is to use available levers to rebalance an economy, how do you judge additionality?

The cities who are publicly interested in Channel 4 represent a mix: a city with no real scale creative economy, can you catalyse something from scratch?; a city which has already seen significant investment, so does a small incremental addition make any real difference?; a city with a scale creative economy but structural weaknesses, does adding resilience to an ecosystem with potential feel transformative enough if you are also looking for a political impact?

We’ll see how this plays out. As is often the case, the process of galvanizing attention has secondary benefits in focusing minds on the immediately possible.

I’ve had a long held belief that the next wave of innovations will come from second cities, cities where the accessibility of diverse talents allows a crowding of different viewpoints around a problem, and where a collaborative approach is second nature as there is a shared desire to grow the local economy (one day I’ll devote some proper research time to it).

Interesting to see the John Harris article for Demos this week which sees the economic challenges of London as an amplifying factor in the same effect across the UK: https://quarterly.demos.co.uk/article/issue-11/redefining-cool-britannia/


The picture above shows the unofficial twinning of my garden with the “Happy Terrace” garden on the roof of Kyoto Station (thanks to Jas for making me a replica sign from my original photo).

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Local / Global

Local – Smart Oxford Playable City Commission

Two weeks to go until the closing date for applications to the Smart Oxford Playable City Commission.

More details on the scope and Shared City theme here: https://www.playablecity.com/cities/oxford/

Global – Creative Producers International

The call for Creative Producers International has just closed. Over two years the scheme will generate an international cohort of 15 Playable City producers. 540 applications were received from across the globe:

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Los Angeles / Austin

Across a trip to the US further reminders that the scale and capitalisation of “digital content” channels there has very few comparators to the UK market, and that the traditional channel and studios are rapidly entering the space in order to remain relevant.

In a series of meetings I appeared to cover the full spectrum as digital businesses scale and traditional media players adapt:

  • A major studio now looking at a more open innovation approach to strategy for new platforms and audience engagement
  • A digital first platform business now with major channel investment and looking to reverse brand IP into a mixed TV/digital play
  • A content production business grown entirely on the internet, now leveraging a massive fan base to extend a dialogue with its audience across diverse programming, live, merchandising, TV etc

A long conversation with a viral production company on authenticity and the particular visual language of social / online highlighted a particular dichotomy. Whilst by definition online content is visible anywhere many of these businesses were very US-centric – able to build audiences in the 10 > 100 million+ range and drive significant commercial value whilst remaining culturally relevant within one (home) market.

Visiting Rooster Teeth in Austin was a particular highlight. With studios spread through a series of old hangars at a disused airport on the outskirts of Austin it produces multiple shows focused on technology and gaming (distributed via YouTube and its own platform), all united by a strong sense of brand personality developed since 2003.

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Smart Oxford Playable City Commission

The Smart Oxford Playable City Commission is a brand new commission, challenging creatives from around the world to produce an idea that puts people and play at the heart of the city of Oxford.

Smart Oxford will work with Playable City to select a project that will capture the imagination of those who live, study, visit and work in and around Oxford. Applicants can work in any field, but creative uses of smart city technology must be integral to the proposal.


Oxford is a small city with a global reputation; it is both a city with a long history and one of the fastest growing cities in the UK. The Smart Oxford Playable City Commission invites you to propose ideas, which respond to the theme Shared City.

A Playable City approach to Shared City will start new conversations, imagine new futures and make new connections – person-to-person, person to city.

The winning proposal will be publicly available in Oxford, UK for the public to play in late 2017.

The Commission includes:

  • Commission of £30,000 (to cover fees, development, delivery, testing and production costs of an idea)
  • Access to facilities and connection to a vibrant community of artists and creative technologists in Oxford and through the Playable City Network

Who should apply?

We are looking for artists, designers, architects, urbanists, interaction designers, technologists and creative practitioners who can demonstrate a history of delivering high quality, innovative practice. Individuals or teams can apply.

If you are interested in applying for Smart Oxford Playable City Commission, full details of what is on offer and how to apply here: https://www.playablecity.com/cities/oxford/

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