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Is there a future for on-site VR experiences?
The last 20 months could have been a game-changer for VR. Were it not for two things, we might all by now have been socialising in virtual lounges and hugging each other through haptic devices. The first is that the pandemic hit before social VR technology had a chance to mature. The second is that, still, very few people have access to a headset.
This latter fact tends to be downplayed by the immersive sector, but it has shaped VR’s evolution. Because of the negligible uptake of headsets beyond the gaming community, artists who have chosen to engage with VR have needed to tether their works to physical venues. Visual artists have created installations in the corners of galleries; performance artists have appropriated foyers and studios in theatres and concert halls; filmmakers and digital storytellers have fared even worse, having to make do with the empty warehouses, offices, and retail units that are typically offered for immersive installations by film festivals.
Always a squatter, since the pandemic VR has frequently found itself homeless. Though it may be a future gateway to the metaverse, right now it is just as vulnerable to venue closures and social distancing as traditional arts including theatre, opera, and ballet.
This isn’t altogether a surprise. The pandemic has merely exacerbated an underlying problem that has been hiding in plain sight ever since VR resurfaced in the early 2010s: it is an exceptionally exclusive means of experiencing and creating art. Creators without advanced coding skills, as well as access to powerful computers and headsets that require frequent replacement, have limited opportunity to contribute to its evolution. Technological exclusion here intersects with economic and social exclusion, as exemplified by the role of elite universities (in particular, MIT) as centres of creative experimentation in immersive media. Economic exclusion in turn intersects with geographic exclusion, as lack of access to resources and training remains most acute for creators in the global south. All of these, in turn, are perpetuated by the exclusion of all but a tiny elite of metropolitan culturati from the opportunity to experience groundbreaking VR works such as Alejandro González Iñárritu CARNE y ARENA. I say it’s groundbreaking, but of course I have no idea, as neither I nor anyone I know has actually experienced it.
In short, though VR looks to the future, in its current form it perpetuates exclusions from the past. In this article for Immerse (MIT Open Doc Lab’s immersive nonfiction publication), I explore this conundrum in more detail. I do so with a focus on a number of recent VR performances and exhibitions in the U.K., including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Dream, the Royal Opera’s Current, Rising, and the 2021 London Film Festival’s ‘Expanded’ section. The article is aimed at VR creators, and is an attempt to cajole them into thinking more about who gets to experience their work; but the current state of immersive exhibition also exemplifies wider tensions between on-site and online arts, so I hope it may be also be of interest to readers without experience of the small (and, of course, exclusive) creator community for whom it was written.