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New Spaces, Promising Partnerships, and a Bankruptcy

ISSUE 6 • October 2023

The Inevitable Maturation of the Immersive Realm

By Marco E. Bruscoli, Scholar-in-Residence, WolfBrown

This summer gave me a much-anticipated break – a time to reflect and assess the rapidly evolving landscape of immersive experiences. Rather than overwhelming you with updates on individual productions (which is becoming increasingly challenging), I’d like to focus instead on high-level shifts in the marketplace in terms of supply and demand

There is evidence to suggest that the immersive paradigm is starting to take on a more defined structure concerning the production and distribution of new content. Much like the growing nervous system of a young child, this steady evolution is forging new kinds of spaces, formats, and communities.

The audacious decision by the Venice Film Festival to turn the entire Lazzaretto Vecchio island in the Venetian lagoon into a global stage for artistic immersive experiences particularly struck me. An island that once isolated those afflicted by epidemics now gleams as a symbol of rebirth in the post-COVID era, celebrating resilience and innovation in the immersive cultural world. 

In keeping with its tradition, the festival showcased works of unparalleled depth and quality. Among the most notable was Celine Daemen, whose 2022 debut with “Euridice” was followed by another evocative virtual reality experience, “SONGS FOR A PASSERBY.” This work of art offered participants a momentary detachment from reality, guiding them toward introspection. No fewer than 20 immersive works were featured. A comprehensive list is available on the Venice Immersive portal

High-culture immersive experiences are gaining popularity and are beginning to overshadow more mainstream offerings. Emblematic examples include “Floating with Spirits,” which pays homage to the Mazatec shamanic traditions. Additionally, “First Day,” immersed viewers in the wartime situation in Ukraine. On a more energetic front, the standout is Fatboy Slim’s concert, “Eat Sleep VR Repeat,” a live digital event in the ENGAGE VR platform last April.

Fatboy Slim Concert with purple lights showing the evolving immersive experiences landscape, moving to blackbox theater.
Marco Bruscoli Fatboy Slim DJ set at Broadway theater after “Here Lies Love” musical

And it is indeed the media pioneer Fatboy Slim who teamed up with David Byrne to push the boundaries even further with the immersive musical “Here Lies Love.” In a radical departure from the 100-year tradition of fixed-seat Broadway theaters, the parterre seating was entirely removed and replaced with a flat floor space. This change allowed attendees to not only observe the performance but to actively participate, occasionally interacting directly with the cast. This innovative design – a multifaceted set that evolves and adjusts based on the scene – brought forth unique challenges for stage managers and actors. The fading of the ‘fourth wall’ becomes evident as performers directly engage with audience members in bits of drama and choreography. I had the privilege of experiencing this musical in person. It was followed by an impromptu “after-hours” DJ set by Fatboy Slim himself. Witnessing an older audience first engage with the musical and then dance to the high-paced EDM beats of the DJ set for more than 4 hours was utterly electrifying.

The immersive transformation sees islands, warehouses, and factories turning into cultural hubs, historic theaters evolving into participatory arenas, and a new breed of high-tech, purpose-built immersive venues being opened around the world.

As with every artistic movement, however, there are both successes and failures as artists explore new frontiers and the marketplace matures. Amidst these blossoming successes, there are unmistakable signs that the immersive evolution is still in an unstable phase. This was highlighted when news emerged that Lighthouse Immersive, the renowned Canadian-American company behind hits like Immersive Van Gogh and the Disney Animation Immersive Experience, filed for bankruptcy. While the exact reasons are not public, I can only imagine the herculean challenges of managing a distribution system of 24 immersive venues. Even though products like Immersive Van Gogh were met with high levels of public interest, sustaining this surge of demand is another battle. Such challenges are typically faced only by the brave – those who blaze new trails with machete strokes in the jungle. Naturally, we hope for the best for this innovative company.

Van Gogh Immersive exhibit shows the evolving immersive experiences landscape.
Immersive Van Gogh in Charlotte, 2022

In fact, it was a partnership between Lighthouse Immersive and the Blumenthal Performing Arts that brought the Immersive Van Gogh to Charlotte, generating substantial revenue in a time of deep crisis. It also illustrated the potential for rewarding partnerships between nonprofits and commercial producers.

WolfBrown is currently engaged by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Blumenthal Performing Arts, jointly, to undertake an initial phase of original market research to bring more definition to the marketplace for immersive experiences in Charlotte and to test demand for types of immersive experiences following the huge success of Van Gogh. Tom Gabbard, CEO of Blumenthal, is laying the groundwork for a permanent venue for immersive experiences, which could be the first belonging to a major nonprofit institution. Anticipating the new creative possibilities offered by such a venue, the Charlotte Symphony team, led by CEO David Fisk, is exploring how to invest most strategically in the landscape of immersive programming.

As more and more nonprofit arts organizations pivot to embrace this aesthetic movement, there is growing interest in repurposing underutilized “black box” spaces and other types of flat floor spaces for immersive projects. This transition will require more than just refurbishing these rooms and installing projectors, however. At its core, this is interdisciplinary artistic work requiring a high level of scholarship and artistry in concept, design, and production. Technology can play a major role, or no role at all. Even with a strong artistic concept, success will ride on the quality of the user experience. 

An increasingly educated public, voting with their feet, will sort out weakly conceived experiences from strongly conceived experiences. As the marketplace rapidly matures over the next few years, we, too, must mature in our understanding of the immersive paradigm. We’re faced with dizzying highs and disheartening lows, brazen commercial exploitation of unprotected intellectual property, and a lingering ambiguity over what truly makes an experience “immersive.” Through all this tumult, one thing remains certain: the immersive evolution is relentless and inevitable.

P.S. I’ll be attending the opening of The Sphere in Las Vegas and hope to write next month about the role of visual stimulation in the user experience. I’m also thinking more and more about reports of the “death of the attention span” of younger consumers, which I believe are greatly exaggerated. 

Projects We're Following

Highlights of immersive experiences that caught our eye

Text moonwalker over many images of rockets

Image: Lightroom

Tom Hanks' Dive into Apollo's Legacy Through Immersive Experience

Set to debut in London’s Lightroom showspace this December, “The Moonwalkers: A Journey With Tom Hanks” revisits the Apollo missions while highlighting NASA’s future lunar endeavors. Co-authored by Hanks and filmmaker Christopher Riley, the experience boasts remastered Apollo imagery, offering a captivating blend of history and future aspirations in space exploration.

light white boxes

Image: NAVE Exhibition Opening © Galerie Rudolfinum, photo: Markéta Černá

The Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague presents “NAVE,” a collaborative exhibition by music maestro Brian Eno and designer Jiri Prihoda. Twenty-five years after their first joint effort, this immersive installation combines sound, light, and architecture within the neo-renaissance gallery. Eno’s ambient sounds intertwine with Prihoda’s structures, challenging traditional art perceptions and offering a meditative space for introspection. Eno envisions “NAVE” as augmenting the gallery’s silent vastness with its hauntingly tranquil music.

Yuja Wang playing piano

Image: Lightroom

Yuja Wang Goes Immersive

Ms Wang said: “As soon as I heard about Lightroom, I was immediately drawn to the possibility of fusing visuals with live music and creating an immersive experience.” Internationally acclaimed classical pianist Yuja Wang made the Lightroom space her own with six intimate concerts just last week. A month after her sell-out BBC Proms performance at the Royal Albert Hall, Yuja took to a much smaller stage, set to a rich backdrop of David Hockney’s life-spanning visual tapestry, with a live performance that invited the user into a world where music and art seamlessly blend as one.

Photo screenshot of van gogh exhibit

Image: Gordon et Agnès Molia

VR Van Gogh

The Musée d’Orsay produced an interactive VR experience set in Doctor Gachet’s drawing room, immersing users in Van Gogh’s artistic universe. Delve deep into a 3D palette landscape, exploring four iconic Auvers-sur-Oise paintings. Using cutting-edge photogrammetry, participants can tactilely interact with Van Gogh’s techniques. Guided by “The Kingfisher,” the journey is accentuated by reinterpreted piano notes from Liszt’s transcriptions of Wagner’s operas, reflecting Van Gogh’s profound admiration and evoking his creative essence.

A deep dive into the latest coverage of immersive art performance

a person smiling with many lights around them

Image: BBC West

Immersive Light Therapy for Wellbeing

Gloucestershire is trialing immersive light installations to enhance mental health and wellbeing. Installed in Cheltenham’s Oncology unit and Gloucester’s Children’s Centre, these Submergence areas blend soothing sounds with vibrant lights. Success could expand the initiative nationwide.

Image: Musée d’Orsay

AI Van Gogh at Musée d’Orsay Offers Interactive Insight into the Artist's World

The Musée d’Orsay in Paris is exhibiting Vincent van Gogh’s final works alongside an AI representation of the artist, allowing visitors to engage in a dialogue. This interactive AI, created by tech startup Jumbo Mana, responds to inquiries based on van Gogh’s extensive letters. While the exhibit showcases the artist’s prolific final months, the AI offers insights into his life and mindset, breaking conventional exhibition norms and deepening visitors’ connection to the artist.

Immersive Tech Spotlight

Innovative developments in immersive technology

Person staring through a fake giant phone to outside

Image: Inverse, Getty Images

Beyond Smartphones: The Future of Personal Tech

In the modern age, smartphones have become nearly inseparable from us, but what lies ahead in the realm of personal technology? From wearables that meld seamlessly into our daily routines to the potential proliferation of screens in every corner of our lives, the future is brimming with possibilities. Delve into this article to explore the intriguing crossroads of technology’s evolution and its implications for our daily experiences.

Two people looking at a watch

Image: Apple

Tim Cook on Apple's AI Direction and Tech Innovations

During a recent visit to London, Apple CEO Tim Cook shared insights about the company’s direction, its exploration of artificial intelligence, and his take on new app developments. This article offers a comprehensive overview of his discussions and Apple’s stance on current tech trends.