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SARAJEVO 2016 Industry

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Simon Wilkinson delves into virtual-reality storytelling


- At Sarajevo, the British transmedia artist examined the realm of virtual reality and presented his VR installations

Simon Wilkinson delves into virtual-reality storytelling
British transmedia artist Simon Wilkinson

One could say that we still have to figure out virtual reality (VR); therefore, there are no real experts. Yet Simon Wilkinson, a British transmedia artist with over 20 years of filmmaking experience under his belt, can certainly be considered one of the most notable names in Europe to be dealing with VR and its applications in cinema. During his lecture at the Sarajevo Film Festival, Wilkinson reflected with the audience on how stories can be told more effectively through the incorporation of hyperlink culture, technology and an understanding of the psychology of human attention. 

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Traditionally, there has always been a contract between the filmmaker and the audience: everything that happens on screen is fiction, and everything outside that frame is reality – when the lights go off, the story starts, and when the lights come back on, the story is finished. Wilkinson has decided to break this contract, and merge fiction and reality in the most unexpected ways: what if you saw a thriller at the cinema and, whilst leaving the venue, you were to be kidnapped and taken away in a black van? Just when you thought that your experience was over, a new chapter of the story starts. The same concept is applied to Wilkinson’s immersive transmedia projects. In The Cube, an installation produced under the pseudonym “Circa69” and forming part of a bigger series of works tackling the same subject from different angles, the user walks into an uncluttered room, sits on a gamer chair and, after wearing the headset, finds him or herself sitting at a table inside a cube with the task of figuring out how to rebuild a reality that won’t collapse within the following three days. Once the headset has been removed, the user is handed an envelope with further information about the story that he or she can discover later by going online. The experience is so addictive that the website has already been hacked four times.

One of the biggest obstacles that Wilkinson has come across in VR is that it demands to be experienced in a familiar and safe space – eight minutes into the experience, the user starts to feel insecure about the real world and wonders what is going on around him or her. In order to overcome this limit, one has to rethink how we enjoy VR altogether but, at the same time, allow people to become acquainted with a medium that might be overwhelming at first glance; instead of paying attention to the story, the audience might get distracted by the grandeur of the virtual world in which they are submerged.

The experience within the VR realm and the storytelling techniques being used to incorporate this medium into a new concept of cinema are the main focuses of Wilkinson’s studies. But where this will lead us is still unknown. The mid-range headsets are still too expensive for the average user: the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift go for almost €1,000 each – and that’s without taking into consideration the most advanced headsets or the accessories and computers that one needs to combine them with in order to enjoy the full experience. The cheaper versions released by Google and Samsung do not allow for an immersive and interactive experience; thus they are probably destined to die out in the short term. With free online platforms such as Steam and Unity supporting developers with know-how, templates and a place to collaborate, one can be assured that VR and augmented reality will progressively enter our daily lives in ways that are yet to be discovered and defined.

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