Member Sign In

Virtual Reality: Story telling and Brighton's local expertise

This month the Digital Catapult Centre Brighton partnered with The Old Market across a series of events showcasing the use of virtual reality and storytelling.

Early attempts are VRRichard Scott, Innovation Manager at the Digital Catapult Centre Brighton discusses why storytelling is crucial for driving the mass adoption virtual reality and how Brighton’s digital sector is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this growing field of technology.

The words ‘virtual reality’ conjures feelings of immense but apprehensive excitement for me. I was brought up on Hollywood’s notions of virtual reality being just around the corner and that it would transform the way we consume entertainment, learn and play. However, the technology has never quite been good enough to sustain the it's own hype and deliver a truly immersive consumer experience.

However, at the risk of jinxing it, this time - things feel different.

Firstly, mobile computing has opened the door for mass adoption. The super computers in our pockets provided us with a less than subtle glimpse of this in July, when strangers huddled in parks to chase down elusive Pokémon. A global phenomenon of Pokemon GO (Unity3D who have Brighton studios created the engine it runs on) demonstrated augmented reality’s power to transform ordinary locations in the real world into social playgrounds.

With Google Cardboard (literally a cardboard box with lenses that you drop your smartphone into), you can have a fully functioning VR headset and experience a world of 3D apps for under five pounds. For what is essentially a minimum viable product, its companion software has seen over 25 million downloads - which hints at the consumer appetite for even an entry level experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, 2016 has seen an explosion of high-end VR headsets, all with their own unique offerings and features. These devices can render images with so little latency there is no longer the problem of motion sickness (something that plagued early attempts at headsets). And the experiences are beyond compelling, for example, players of ‘Alien Isolation’ (developed by Horsham based Creative Assembly) on the Oculus Rift describe the sensation of the ‘full body sweat out’.

These experiences are so compelling because the anchor of reality, that is the space around your television or cinema vanishes and you no longer are a passenger in the experience, but a participant.

This reveals that the true potential of Virtual reality begins to be unlocked when we begin to see it beyond just another tech enabled medium but a new way to tell stories. Viewing VR as just a technology fails to take into account of a key element – the audience. Without considering this, virtual reality runs the risk of being just a gimmick again.

As part of Brighton Digital Festival, Brighton arts venue The Old Market ran a five day programme of series of events which explored this question, how can technology and entertainment coalesce.

For instance, the currently majority of virtual reality content outside of gaming unfurls from either a fixed or railed (where you are led along a fixed path) viewpoint. The Old Market’s ‘Story Hack’ event, which blended the creative arts sector with virtual reality showed how far the envelope can be pushed when you take learnings from the creative sector around narrative and audience participation and bring it into this space.  Circa69 installation ‘Slave to Mortal Rage’ puts the participant in a simultaneously real and virtual room, to explore clues as part of a wider story.

The inspiring thing about the ‘story hack’ event was the appetite for the creative arts sector to experiment, learn and make interesting mistakes. There is as yet, no field guide for VR – but that in itself is incredibly exciting. It provides opportunity to try a range of creative solutions to solve the new challenges of VR as a medium (for example, how to direct the viewer’s attention in a 360o space). And there is an abundance of guinea pigs happy to put on a headset.

In Brighton, there is a strong overlap between the creative and digital industries. A repeating message that echoed throughout The Old Market’s events was the desire to collaborate. We already have many organisations making a success of VR and considering how it could also be used as a story telling medium. Here, everyone seems to sees the value in working outside silos and to achieve knowledge transfer.

Brighton also has other key ingredients to contribute to the evolution of VR as a medium. We have a vibrate games development industry, already conversant in building virtual reality environments but also story telling (for example Brighton based The Chinese Room’s BAFTA award winning ‘Everyone’s gone to the rapture’ is a distinctly story centric game).

Currently, VR is facing similar questions as the early days of user interface design – what are the breadcrumbs for user interaction? In the virtual world, our digital interactions are no longer limited to the screen but include a palette of gestures and interfaces overlaid on real and virtual objects. Brighton’s UI and UX expertise will help to augment our understanding of how people interface with the virtual world.

My excitement this time around about virtual reality doesn’t feel ill placed. There is a real passion from technologists, the creative sector and consumers for it to work. The key to taking virtual reality to the next level seems to be rooted in sharing ideas around best practice from different disciplines, in order to collectively define what amazing immersive experiences should be like.

Here in Brighton we are the centre of many crossroads that can enrich the understanding of this growing space and establish a community that influences the future of virtual reality.

The Digital Catapult Centre Brighton is running an ongoing Virtual Reality Meetup to drive these conversations, in which we will be focusing on not only networking but curating content around what the community feels will progress this agenda.

We are also looking out for anyone working on interesting virtual reality projects to get in touch, as we will be hosting two virtual /augmented reality residencies here at the centre (in which we will provide a collaborative working space, resources, expertise and access to market).

Virtual reality is so exciting as it represents a very human need to tell and be part of stories- that allow us to have experiences outside of our own day to day reality. Just as we have evolved our ability to tell stories, we will continue to develop the way we tell stories within virtual reality, making it a compelling and truly immersive medium.

The Digital Catapult Centre Brighton is running an ongoing Virtual Reality Meetup to drive these conversations (you can sign up here up to attend future events). If you are interested in applying to be a virtual reality resident, please email Richard at )

About the author