VR’s Lockdown Turnaround

COVID-19 venue closures and festival cancellations had a major impact on how virtual reality content was consumed during the lockdown. Fortunately, the somewhat convoluted journey of two National Film Board productions created and launched during the pandemic led to some exciting new opportunities for capturing a wider audience.

VR appeared to have the wind in its sails as the lockdown began with the buzz it was generating and the fact that there was really no other way than online to interact. But despite strong tailwinds, virtual reality kept hitting the same wall that’s kept this remarkable technology invented in the 1950s from getting off the ground: accessibility. 

The fact remains that to get the most out of any VR experience you need the right headset or other related equipment, items found in very few households. By the third quarter of 2020, the penetration rate of VR headsets in Canadian homes was a mere 3.8% (source: The Canada Media Fund’s 2021 trends report in the audiovisual industry).

Before the pandemic struck, VR relied on a number of physical doors of perception, including festivals and venues, where consumers could experience its many wonders without having to buy the pricey gear you need to do it at home. COVID-19 quickly slammed those doors shut.

Disrupted timetable and delayed dissemination

The Book of Distance, directed and written by Randall Okita and produced by the NFB, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival from January 23 to February 2, 2020. This virtual interactive odyssey tells the story of the director’s grandfather and his family and their 1935 voyage from their home in Hiroshima to their new home in Canada. And not long after that, war was declared along with state-sanctioned racism where the family went from being welcomed immigrants to despised enemies.

“Sundance was the last major in-person festival that was held before the pandemic hit,” said NFB Toronto studio producer and producer of The Book of Distance David Oppenheim. “Our original plan was to show it at major festivals, make it available online shortly after its world premiere, and then distribute it to museums and art galleries.” That plan went up in flames. The Tribeca Film Festival and Hot Docs were the next scheduled stops in April and May before they got the chop.

By this time most of the festivals had migrated online. The Book of Distance resumed with a virtual tour at the Venice Film Festival from September 2 to September 12 as part of Venice VR Expanded. It was released online to the public on October 8. 

Agence had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Artificial intelligence has a starring role in the film created by Pietro Gagliano and also produced by the NFB, in co-production with Transitional Forms. Its public launch took place a couple of weeks later on September 28.

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Screenshot from Agence - Courtesy of the NFB

“We wanted to sync the consumer launch with our festival world premiere but there were delays in getting it online,” said NFB and Agence marketing manager Tammy Peddle. There’s a definite advantage to synching the two. “Our ideal release scenario is to launch a production at a festival, try to generate some publicity and social media attention, to then make it available online as soon as possible so that the interest generated by media postings redirects potential viewers to our store platforms,” Peddle said. “If there’s too much time between the two events it will likely get forgotten.”

“The pandemic extended the festival tour period for both VR projects to spring 2021,” Oppenheim, who also co-produced Agence, said. “It also postponed their NFB Education distribution to schools to the start of the 2021 school year.”

Reimagined festivals, reinvigorated VR offering

Putting disrupted timetables and postponed release dates aside, the pandemic did have a hand in expanding the VR audience by forcing festivals to migrate online. And many festivals went out of their way to make VR content available free in whole or in part. “Before the pandemic, very few participants could enjoy a VR experience on site,” said NFB interactive marketing manager Laurianne Désormiers.

The Book of Distance was downloaded a total of 9370 times and Agence 1952 times on the Steam, Viveport, and Oculus platforms. Their very diverse VR audience came from the four corners of the earth. Canada was the second most popular country of origin for The Book of Distance downloads on Oculus (10%) and in fourth place on Steam (4.6%). The US was the number one country of origin on both platforms.

“Users were more inclined to consume this type of media during the pandemic, but it would be hard to determine if the projects had more overall exposure or not,” Oppenheim said. “One thing we do know is that more people were able to experience them during the festival tour thanks to their online availability.” In fact, Venice VR Expanded, the virtual reality division of the fully migrated web version of the Venice Film Festival reflects this 100% online shift. Projects were presented on a dedicated platform supported by HTC’s Viveport, Facebook’s Oculus, and VRChat.

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Screenshot from The Book of Distance - Courtesy of the NFB

To further expand the potential international audience for VR entries – especially those without headsets at home – the Venice Film Festival created partnerships with 15 satellite venues around the world, including the Phi Centre in Montreal. Venues were accessible in person at least temporarily whenever lockdowns were lifted.

Of course, accessibility requires more than just having a VR headset at home. You need to have the right headset. To experience The Book of Distance, for example, you must have an Oculus Rift. Oculus Quest and Go are no go. Same for Agence. In this way, the venues make it easier for everyone to enjoy a VR experience no matter what headset is required.

Adversity as an agent of change

Since both VR experiences had to be launched entirely online, the pandemic gave the NFB team an opportunity to explore consumer niches that were not on its radar before. “We had already started exploring Steam Curators, but it’ll be super interesting to drill down deeper in the future with the Reddits, Discords, and the Twitches of this world,” Désormiers said. “We have to take it to where the audience is and not just hope they’ll come to us if we’re going to convert existing viewers into VR consumers.”

Finding creative ways to reach audiences has always been part of the NFB DNA, according to David Oppenheim. “Back in the day, in the 1940s and early 1950s, when it was difficult to find venues to screen films, the NFB developed a travelling projectionist system to take its films to rural audiences,” he said. “That same spirit of innovation is alive and well today with The Book of Distance and Agence.

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Screenshot from Agence - Courtesy of the NFB

Oppenheim gives another ingenious example of reaching consumers where they live and getting the technology into their hands. In April 2020, Phi Centre’s Phi VR To Go program delivered headsets on loan to consumers in Montreal, and then offered the same service to Quebec City consumers in the fall. The service has been a big hit and continues to grow, limited only by the 75 headsets it has in circulation. “At present, only VR experiences that work with the Oculus Go headset are available but we’re in the process of developing an app to adapt them to the Oculus Quest,” said Phi Centre chief of new media partnerships and public relations Myriam Achard.

The NFB has no current plans for home delivery of VR experiences with headsets on loan. “We’re focusing our energies more on developing strategies to reach consumers with headsets of their own,” Laurianne Désormiers said. “We’re prioritizing partnerships with cultural institutions for reaching Canadian consumers who don’t have the technology at home.

She believes this type of hybrid in-person/online delivery system will become the norm even after the pandemic is over in order to both satisfy the growing need for greater headset accessibility and to benefit from the visibility brought by more and more film festivals migrating online.

The Book of Distance  will be part of the next interactive art exhibition at the Phi Centre, Three Movements. The exhibition will run from March 31 to September 5, 2021. Overseas, it will be featured at the VR Film Lab in Taiwan, from April 1 to May 31, 2021 and at Paris' Gaïté Lyrique from April 6 to July 11, 2021.

Another finding that emerged during the pandemic was the lag it caused. “The virtual reality industry is evolving at warp speed, whether it’s the platforms they’re using or the technology itself,” David Oppenheim said. “It’s more important than ever to build agility into projects at the production stage to adapt to changes in dissemination and in the adoption of new technologies.” Agence was designed with this in mind so it can be experienced with an Oculus Rift headset or on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. “This amazing experiential agility was a real ace in the hole for Agence during the pandemic,” he said. 

That doesn’t mean it always makes sense from a creative point of view to make an experience available in several formats. Especially if the comprehension level on the various apps is not the same. “You have to find the right balance between exploring new platforms and reaching a wider audience,” Tammy Peddle said.

Catherine Martellini
Multi-platform content creator, editor and journalist, Catherine Martellini has collaborated on numerous media and cultural publications. More recently, she has been a special contributor to Le Devoir and Infopresse, a media specializing in communication, marketing, digital and leadership, where she also worked as editor-in-chief.
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