Affordable virtual-reality tech could give Scottish theatre new life

Notorious football manager Jim McLean was notorious for his slouch and temper tantrums.

And now there’s a unique opportunity to find out what it was like to be on the receiving end of one of his fiery songs – from the safety of your armchair.

Thanks to a world-leading development led by an Edinburgh film company, hit show Smile about McLean can be seen virtually using a cheap headset and smartphone.

As theaters struggle to recover from the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, Dundee Rep has taken another bold step to make their work more accessible by embracing new technology.

The development means people can not only experience a show while sitting at home but can also help theaters increase ticket sales, which have fallen by around 25% on average following the pandemic.

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The innovation is a world first and the “epidemic child” of husband and wife team, Kelman and Gemma Greig-Kicks, whose nine-year-old company, Neon8, makes third-party films and performing arts.

It is a very passionate program for a couple whose main goals are to help venues and production companies recover, and to share the theater experience with those who may not be able to see a live show.

Many theaters have switched to digital productions during the pandemic but this takes the concept further by making the audience feel like they are actually there, rather than watching on a screen.

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The new platform, Box Office VR, is already making waves, leading to Neon8 winning an innovation award at the prestigious Creative Edinburgh Awards, after two years of hard work by Gemma and Kelman to create it.

“It’s been a lot of fun but it’s also very scary and there were a lot of times where we were wondering what to do,” Gemma told the Sunday National.


“However we wanted to introduce people to the joy of this soft, accessible yet immersive VR experience – bringing you right into the theater without actually being there. And while many people think VR is only for gamers or the purely tech-savvy, Neon8’s theatrical VR experience doesn’t require you to stand up or participate – and you don’t need a dedicated VR headset to watch it.”

Kelman pointed out that their model was the perfect way to try VR without spending a lot of money on equipment.

“As well as people with proper VR headsets being able to use the site, this also allows you to use a dummy headset, which costs around £20, which you plug your phone into and using the Box Office VR app you can go into VR mode. and see everything,” he said. “It allows people to hear it from the lowest point of access in terms of cost.

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“A lot of the industry is moving away from handheld VR because it’s not making enough money but it’s still working for movie theaters and we really believe that people need time to see if they like VR. We’re thinking about people who may not want, or can’t afford, to pay for a VR headset because they think it’s going to be a waste of money.

“This way they can do something on their phone with a dummy headset and find out if they really like it.”

Kelman added: “We film very close to the stage or from the front, so you have a view that you wouldn’t normally have. There’s no substitute for going to the theater but you can see something a little different with the VR version. ”

There have been a few experiments with 360 degree VR theaters before but the Neon8 model is 180 degrees to give people easy access while still providing an immersive experience.

It’s also pay-per-view instead of a subscription service, with about 80% of the money going back into the industry and the rest being used to maintain the platform.

Those who want to try it have the first to release the headset but it can be shared with others and soon there will be a number of products on the platform, including Smile.

“A lot of people said it should be subscription-based, like Netflix, but we didn’t want that because that eats up the big technology model,” Gemma said. We want this to be soft and we want the industry to see that it is not for us to take their product and make money from it because that must go back to the industry and jobs. If you start cutting where the real work comes from you won’t survive either.

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“The industry is burdened and it is not easy to go back as there is still a lot of concern about returning to the spaces, although there are great efforts to alleviate those problems. This is the answer to that. It doesn’t replace the actual experience of going to the theater but sits alongside it.”

Liam Sinclair, executive director and joint CEO at Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre, said: “We are delighted to be working with Neon8 on creating this audience experience. Over the past two years Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theater have embraced digital innovation as a way to create new forms and points of access for our audiences.

“In September we were delighted to receive a Digital Innovation Award at the Dundee and Angus Chambers of Commerce Awards, so introducing Smile VR to the world builds on that momentum.”

Access to the Smile VR experience will be available starting February 23.


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