Virtual Reality has the potential to be one of the most influential tech innovations of recent years, such is the promise of its ability to take us to places we could never have gone before. At the heart of it all, VR City are working to embrace the power of the impossible. By doing so, they don’t only allow us to access other people’s lives, but other people’s minds, too.
There is no glamour to be found here. No gratis ice-cream nor complementary bottles of Bud. We may be in Shoreditch but nothing here makes any sycophantic attempt to align with this year’s fancies. In this office, success has been built on knowing that this year’s fancies are, indeed, passing fancies.
Such a humble space may not be quite what you expected from one of the capital’s most innovative and visionary companies, but maybe therein lies a common falsity. Worthy innovation is rarely found clad in the commonly accepted trappings of the zeitgeist. Those who believe their work to be good and intentions honest aren’t distracted by thriftlessness.
VR City are proven pioneers of Virtual Reality. Their work has been recognised and commissioned throughout the world, with clients and collaborators including The New York Times, MTV and The BBC. On a clement February afternoon, I made my way to Commercial Street to receive an education in virtual reality from CEO Ashley Cowan and Director of Commercial Partnerships, Dominic de Terville.
‘I put on a Samsung Gear headset and it instantly blew me away. I knew right away that this was something I wanted to be involved in; something with seemingly unlimited potential.’
When Ashley talks about his very first Virtual Reality experience, he does so with an intense passion; open palmed with tension in his fingers, he bounces and shuffles in his seat. So intense was the emotional transformation he experienced within the VR world, that it birthed the philosophy which would go on to influence everything he and Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Darren Emerson do at VR City.
VR City & the Emotional Transformation
For the ten years leading up to the VR epiphany, the two had been running East City Films, a production company specialising in youth music content. When the decision was made to introduce a keen focus on VR to the company, it was done so with such vigour that an entirely separate sister company was formed. They called it VR City.
It was, of course, a sound business decision, as well as an emotional awakening. ‘We were a nimble organisation, so we knew we could do it,’ says Ashley. Making the pivot wasn’t a problem and, because VR held so much potential for the work they were doing for existing East City clients, there was no lack of demand.
Creating VR films for entertainment companies is one thing, but the real secret behind the stellar reputation that VR City enjoy are those productions most loyal to their company strapline: We create emotionally transformative experiences in virtual reality.
One of those first two films that Ashley experienced was called Clouds Over Sidra, a film made in partnership with the UN about the Syrian refugee crisis. Within the film, you follow a young woman through a day in a Jordanian camp for refugees fleeing Syria.
The film was a game changer for Ashley and, to this day, informs VR City’s unique form of storytelling.
As a company, their philosophy is based around allowing people to experience that which they could never experience in real life. To be able to do this means being able to provide first-hand access to that which would have previously been invisible through ignorance.
There is one field in particular where the ability of such insight holds transformative promise.
VR and Journalism
Journalism is storytelling, and so too is VR. And because VR can transport a person to the unattainable depths of a story, it can affect the way they think about the world. On the cinema screen, Clouds Over Sidra is a moving documentary. With the addition of VR it becomes an out of body experience; it’s not the character’s life, it’s yours.
Being confronted with this concept of empathy-through-experience is an introduction to what I believe will become VR’s legacy: making the impossible possible.
‘Access; that’s what it’s all about.’ says Dominic. ‘If we can give people access to a place they would never normally see or a perspective they would never usually be offered, we’ve achieved our goals.’
So much of today’s VR is built around the idea of being able to ‘be there now’, but I don’t think this aspect of the technology is going to last. Yes, it’s cool that I can walk through New York whilst sat in Hoxton, but eventually, people will stop caring about that. Much like the craze of Google Earthing every single place you can think of, it will eventually get boring.
No, the future of VR comes through giving access to the impossible. Instead of just walking through New York, you’re being hounded by the paparazzi; they’re chasing you through the city. Everywhere you look, they’re there. You thought you envied the famous but now you’re not so sure. And why would I want to be a virtual ticket holder to a Premier League football match when I could be on the shoulder of the most famous player in the world? Seeing what he sees, doing what he does; inside his head, hearing his thoughts.
Such experiences would be wonderfully hedonistic; experiencing risks without taking them, being famous and adored, flying without wings. But I think time is better spent focusing on the ways in which VR’s conjuring of impossible experiences can contribute towards solving the world’s most damaging problems.
I’m being passed a Samsung Gear headset and told I’m going to watch a film. Enough talking about it, time to experience it. Over the course of 15 minutes, I am going to be given a glimpse into the power that VR truly holds and come out believing VR to be the most important technological innovation of recent times.
The film is called Indefinite. Darren, who has directed the company’s acclaimed documentaries, set about researching and producing it with his tried and tested method which is inspired by investigative, reportage podcasts such as This American Life.
‘The simple, powerful audio (of VR City productions) is directly inspired by those podcasts.’ says Ashley. ‘They also inspired Darren’s insistence on always getting the story recorded before thinking about the VR.’
It is the storytelling that matters; VR is simply the vehicle, a role in which it has proven itself extraordinary.
Indefinite is a meditation on the UK’s indefinite detention centres for immigrants arriving in the country. While the government decide whether or not they are allowed to remain here, they are stripped, searched, handcuffed and locked up.
In the UK, the only country in the EU to have not signed the Return Directive prohibiting indefinite detention, there are many cases in which immigrants are forced to spend years locked up, only for the decision to finally be made that they can stay in the UK. All of those years in prison for no reason whatsoever. The only way I can attempt to convey the conditions that they endure is to share with you one of the facts presented during the film: according to released Home Office statistics in 2015 eleven children in UK detention centres were on suicide watch. The physical and mental suffering is unimaginable, but through Indefinite, I endure a sobering rendition of the immigrant experience.
Within this virtual world, I am a detainee. I am guided, along with my fellow prisoners, through the process of being detained. Although there is one, quite uncomfortable, if powerful moment of abstract, where I am submerged in the ocean, surrounded by what I can only describe as floating mannequins, the true legacy of VR is highlighted in a scene set far more in reality.
I am in the back of a van. I am one of three or four detainees. We are being transported, presumably, to the prison. But sitting here, my focus is not drawn towards the handcuffed men sat around me, but rather to the glimpses of life I can see through the window as we travel through the city. I’m trying to take in as much of the outside world as I can before being locked in my windowless cell; through VR I am learning how the threat of loss casts beauty over the ordinary.
I am not being forced to focus on the light through the window as I would be in a cinematic film, with the director showing me where and how to look. I have discovered the fleeting city scenes for myself having realised that I may not see the daylight for a very long time.
‘VR shouldn’t simply be compared to other visual entertainment mediums because it is less about just seeing than it is experiencing – this is what defines VR and creates an emotional legacy for the user.’ says Dominic. ‘In terms of journalism, such an experience has the potential to make someone meditate on a story; question and contemplate and perhaps even change.’
The ability to experience the experiences of others holds infinite promise for the future. With it, VR can make a huge impact on human culture and societal values. If I, for example, can board an inflatable boat with 50 other refugees and endure the crossing, the near drowning and then the ecstasy of rescue, perhaps, upon removing the headset, I will have a new to empathy for the ongoing plight of others. As Ashley puts it, ‘VR can help us to understand each other more’. Can technology do anything more important than that?
As we say our goodbyes, Ashley tells me that the rest of their day will be dedicated to planning an upcoming project with whisky makers, Laphroaig. A trip to the 200-year-old distillery in Islay may well be an unexpected privilege for the VR filmmakers, albeit one with more than a few sore heads, but it certainly demonstrates how far VR is reaching. I, meanwhile, wait to for the overground back to Peckham. The train arrives and I board the carriage with a strange new weight in my chest; it’s the price of knowing that my own privilege is alighting at the end of my journey and walking, freely, through the city.
Written by Will Darbyshire, Contect Strategist at The Digital Marketing Bureau.