I Rest My Case: In Defence of Passive Entertainment

Let’s face it, VR is great for interactive entertainment. You can bend, shape and play in awe-inspiring environments with fantastical beings. It’s easy to get carried away with these experiences and believe that this is everything VR should be. But let’s just take a seat for a moment. Put your headset’s Guardian boundary to stationary and think about the other side of entertainment.

Passive Entertainment

Our inner lazy bones are constantly being coaxed from the world around us to be more active. “Live every moment like it’s your last!” “Carpe Diem!” and all that. I’ve recently found joy in the sit/stand desk movement (pun unintended). It’s true that sitting all day is bad for you, but that doesn’t mean you should never slow down, pull up a chair and just observe what’s happening around you.  We don’t always need to be a protagonist, like some kind of pre-Copernican human where we’re at the centre of everything. The sun doesn’t always have to shine on us.

Passive entertainment is the moonshine of the 21st century’s ‘always-on-the-go’ temperance movement. The current school of thought is that sedentary lives are bad for you, and clearly the scientific evidence backs that up. But that doesn’t mean we always have to exist full-on, interacting with everything around us at all times.

The Big Tech Problem

In this lightspeed, tech-developing world, where the latest phones are replaced annually and new TVs, laptops and just about every other tech is refreshed at an alarming pace, surely we need to give things a chance to simply ‘be’ for a while. Be honest, how much do you know about all the things your phone can do, or even your smart TV? We probably use a small percentage of the features within our gadgets, yet we feel compelled to move on with the mass marketing messages of big tech, telling you these new features are everything you need…and indeed ever needed.

Time to Breathe

Whilst I marvel at the evolution of technology, it also paints a particularly frenetic and noisy image where progress isn’t progress at all because we never give things the chance to breathe before we’re leaving it in the cupboard and moving on to the next ‘big’ thing…which is really just quite similar to the thing that came before. But sparklier…maybe.

This is the looming spectre of ‘sustained growth’. Something, which is a fundamental contradiction in terms, given we exist on one tiny planet with a very finite supply of resources. It appears the economic definition of sustained growth is an insatiable, fuel-hungry beast which devours its way through our planet’s resources at an alarming speed. But the point of this blog is not an environmental tub-thumping call-to-arms. This is about leaving things be for a while – letting things grow and tending to our tech like a natural garden – not like an over-farmed swathe of land, struggling to stay arable to feed the masses.

Free markets and hard-line capitalism do not allow much time for taking stock. The shareholder and profit-margin-pressure means a fail-fast approach can see the seeds of growth trampled on all too quickly, before things are given time to find their place and flourish in ways that may have been unintended by the silicon valley Gods of Tech.

Which brings me to my point…

The 3 Degrees of Freedom

We believe in the power of VR video as a passive form of entertainment. One of the things that inspired us to begin our journey in VR was this Ted Talk by Chris Milk on VR as the ultimate empathy machine. VR video has a power to move people in ways that regular or ‘flat’ film can’t. It’s not that regular film fails to do this, it’s just that VR offers something that enhances empathy and connection. This is really a product of having a sense of place. The nature of VR video means we’re immersed in a space and this immersion gives us a greater understanding of our protagonist’s playground.

In particular, the performing arts work we undertake gives people a new and unique experience of theatre. Whilst never replacing a live experience, it’s an incredibly engaging way for people to experience theatre from a unique vantage point – the front of the stage, and within the space – without actually being there.

Think of all the people over the world who can’t make it to theatres for whatever reason: distance, financial; mobility and associated physical and mental complications. There are many people for whom this form of entertainment can be a huge virtual step into a more immersive experience.

This is our motivation in building and developing our platform, Box Office VR (with our partners, 42 Interactive). We’ve made Box Office VR available as a mobile VR experience, as well as being accessible through WebXR via Chrome on Desktop and the Oculus browser on the Quest headsets. Big tech has all but abandoned mobile VR – and whilst it is far from an ideal VR experience – it remains the most accessible way for people to watch a VR video without investing hundreds of pounds on a headset to see what it’s all about. Most modest smartphones these days can play VR video without much problem – even if the resolution isn’t comparable to dedicated headsets in most cases.

We think VR video suffers a little bit from being perceived as a poor cousin to the interactive worlds of gaming and player-focussed experiences, slightly left in the wake of ever-new interactive experiences (which we also love, by the way). For me, at least, the artform of VR films is something that has huge potential to inspire, entertain and educate and is still very much in an embryonic phase.

In particular (and not entirely surprising given what we do!), I love a VR180 video experience. In this format I’m able to sit back, relax and just watch what’s in front of me. Call me lazy, but I prefer that to standing or swivelling to watch something (although some 360 film experiences are great, such as the fantastic The Soloist VR).

This ultra-connected era where information and opinions seem to rule the roost is not exactly conducive to quieting the mind. Are you sitting too much? Are you eating too much? Do you have too much anger? Is your partner cheating on you? You see where I’m going?

Get Comfy

The expert (and usually faceless) voices online can have you doubting the life fibre of your existence and the way you interact with the world around you. Experiencing performing arts in VR is a way to disengage from notifications and other noise, to just immersive yourself in what’s in front of you in the here and now. That’s where its power lies – freeing people from their hyper-connected social world and the associated noise that brings with it. It’s just you and the performance in front you. You are the camera and therefore, the audience of the performers. That intimacy brings with it another dimension of theatre and how we consume it.  It’s accessible, safe, unique,  personal and immersive. Hopefully, in good time, there’s enough content to entertain people from all over the world, whatever their culture and particular taste.

So, take a seat, get comfy, put on a headset and watch some VR video.

Notifications off please, ladies and gentlemen.

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