Affordable virtual-reality tech could give Scottish theatre new life

LEGENDARY football manager Jim McLean was famous for his sullen demeanor and outbursts of anger.

And now you have a unique chance to find out what it was like to be on the receiving end of one of his fiery tirades – from the safety of your own armchair.

Thanks to world-class development spearheaded by an Edinburgh film company, the hit game McLean’s Smile can be experienced in virtual reality with just a cheap headset and smartphone.

As theaters struggle to recover from the pandemic and cost of living crisis, Dundee Rep has taken another bold step to make its work more accessible by embracing new technology.

This development means that people can not only experience shows while sitting at home, but it can also help cinemas increase ticket sales, which have fallen by an average of 25% since the pandemic.

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The innovation is a world first and the ‘pandemic baby’ of husband and wife team Kelman and Gemma Greig-Kicks, whose nine-year-old company Neon8 makes films for the third sector and the performing arts.

It’s a very passionate project for the pair, with the main goal of helping venues and production companies recover, as well as sharing the theater experience with those who might not be able to see a live performance.

Many theaters have switched to digital production during the pandemic, but this takes the concept further by making the audience feel like they’re actually there rather than looking at a screen.

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The new platform, Box Office VR, is already making waves and as a result, after two years of hard work by Gemma and Kelman to create it, Neon8 won the Innovation Award at the prestigious Creative Edinburgh Awards.

“It was really exciting but also absolutely daunting and there were many moments where we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into,” Gemma told the Sunday National.

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“However, we wanted to introduce people to the joy of this subtle, accessible yet immersive VR experience – one that brings you right into the theater space without actually being there. And while many people think VR is just for gamers or the tech-savvy, Neon8’s VR work for the theater doesn’t require you to be on your feet or participate — you don’t even need a special VR headset to watch it.

Kelman pointed out that their model was an ideal way to experience VR without spending a lot of money on equipment.

“As well as people with proper VR headsets can use this site, it also allows you to use a dummy headset, which costs around £20, that you put your phone in and you can go into VR mode with the Box Office VR app. and see it all,” he said. “It allows people to experience it from a very low access point in terms of spending.

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“Most of the industry is moving away from mobile VR because it’s not making enough money, but it still works for watching movies and we really believe that people need time to find out if they like VR. We think of people who either don’t want or can’t afford to use a VR headset because they think it’s a waste of money.

“This allows them to do something on their phone with a fake headset and see if they really like it.”

Kelman added: “We shoot either very close to the stage or right in front of it, so you get a view you wouldn’t normally have. There’s no substitute for going to the theater, but with the VR version, you can see something a little different.”

There have been several experiments with 360-degree VR theater productions before, but the Neon8 model is 180° to allow people easier access while still providing an immersive experience.

It’s also a pay-per-view rather than a subscription service, with around 80% of the money going back into the industry and the rest being used to maintain the platform.

Those who want to try it have an initial cost for the headphones, but they can be shared with others, and soon a number of productions will be on the platform, including Smile.

“A lot of people said it had to be subscription-based like Netflix, but we didn’t want that because it just adds to the big technology model,” Gemma said. We want it to be malleable and we want the industry to realize that it’s not about us taking their product and making money off of it because it has to go back to the industry and the work. If you start cutting off where the real work comes from, you won’t survive either.

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“The industry is really suffering and it’s not easy to bounce back because there is still a huge amount of fear about going back into the premises, despite huge efforts by venues to allay those fears. This is a reaction to that. It doesn’t replace the actual experience of going to the theater, but it can sit next to it.”

Liam Sinclair, managing director and joint CEO at Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre, said: “We are so excited to be working with Neon8 to create this experience for audiences. Over the past two years, Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theater have embraced digital innovation as a way of creating new forms and access points for our audiences.

“We were delighted to win the Digital Innovation Award at the Dundee and Angus Chambers of Commerce Awards in September, so bringing Smile VR to the world builds on that momentum.”

Access to the Smile VR experience will be available from February 23.



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