What should we be considering when exhibiting VR? We asked Catherine Allen

Catherine Allen is the VR woman. A BAFTA award winner for immersive media and the founder of Limina, she has also worked with the likes of Disney and the BBC, written articles for WIRED, given talks at numerous industry events. She was one of our keynote speakers at This Way Up 2017, and interviewed by Tom Grater from Screen International afterwards.

We catch up with Catherine six months on, to find out how TWU 2017 influenced her work, get a teaser of a product Limina will be launching for venues and cinemas, and to get her ‘top tips’ on what film exhibitors should be thinking about when bringing VR to the cinematic landscape.

Could you tell us a little about your TWU experience? Was it your first time?

I was thinking about this earlier on actually, I was made to feel really at home in such a short period of time – there was such a warm and welcoming atmosphere and everyone was friendly and open to conversations about innovation and about VR and its place in relation to cinema.

It [TWU] really helped me clarify that VR is not a competitor with other mediums, it’s its own thing in its own right, and sometimes I suppose it takes conversations like these – warm, friendly, open conversations – to just see where it fits.

[ …] And I’d never been to Hull before, so it was really nice to feel like I was a part of the City of Culture, even in a very small way. And now I’m aware of it and would consider the Hull Truck Theatre as a venue I would want to work with in the future with my business.

If you could give us a brief overview of your session and – you’ve gleamed over it already — whether your thinking has changed in the interim months since TWU?

Just casting my mind back … I talked about what my company, Limina, had learnt already and how we work with independent venues like Watershed in Bristol. I went on to talk about VR and ethics and the gender issues around virtual reality, and how independent cinemas can really support VR in its growth by offering audiences that are more representative of the population than a tech audience would be – by bringing the two together you get a more diverse audience for VR. It was a bit of a sweep through of the work I’ve been doing over the last two years.

Image: Jim Johnston

Then I was interviewed after by Tom from Screen International, and even that conversation was helpful to my thinking – you know, on stage, live in front of an audience! […] A lot of it stemmed from conversations at TWU have helped firmed up Limina’s product – I can’t give away too much, we haven’t released any information yet, but we will be launching a product that scales what we have previously done manually.

Could you tell us why VR is important?

It’s just getting to a point of fruition where you can call it a medium in its own right. We’re at this really interesting stage, where an industry is building around this new medium. There is so much to be done in building this industry, and that challenge appeals to me.

Also, from the perspective of audiences, the more people and the more diverse section of people are involved in the medium’s development, the better. It’s a pivotal moment, and that’s what gets me excited.

If you could give us your Top Three Tips on what film exhibition organisers should be doing to enhance audience experience, particularly things that could be implemented now(ish) ….

1. You’ll find that if you want to attract broad audiences, you want people to feel comfortable when they’re doing VR: put it somewhere private, don’t put it in the corner of the bar. Make sure it’s a space where people really feel safe because then they can really let go. That space between the virtual and the physical world, that liminal space in-between is something that should be considered. The crossing from one world to another world makes all the difference.

2. When you’re marketing, if you want to market from a content first perspective, which I would recommend, don’t use pictures of people in headsets. It’s just the same as using pictures of people watching a cinema screen in order to market a feature film. You wouldn’t do that…!

The key to new technology is that everyone’s blagging it, we’re all learning as we go, so don’t be afraid to dip your toe in the water…

3. If you’re teetering on the edge of getting involved in immersive media as an individual, bear in mind you might have some preconceptions about yourself and your identity that might hold you back. People who don’t see themselves as early adopters, often that’s really an identity thing and that affects confidence with new technology […] the key to new technology is that everyone’s blagging it, we’re all learning as we go, so don’t be afraid to dip your toe in the water. There’s no reason why, independent cinemas for instance, can’t have a certain ownership over immersive media. In the same way Hollywood doesn’t own film, Silicone Valley doesn’t own VR.