Insights into XR Distribution — Sebox Hung (VR FILM LAB, Taiwan)

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Insights into XR Distribution — Sebox ...

Ahead of the publication of its Study on XR Distribution, Québec/Canada XR is delighted to share some of the interviews we have conducted with key experts in the field of XR from around the world. In addition to these interviews, we will also publish a number of articles focused on key themes that our respondents discussed throughout the research process. 

Whet your appetite with these articles while we prepare to publish the results of our study.

This interview with Sebox Hung (Kaohsiung VR FILM LAB, Taiwan) was conducted by Philippe Bédard (Québec/Canada XR) on May 28th, 2021.

Can you tell us about yourself and the Kaohsiung VR FILM LAB?

Sebox Hung: Kaohsiung VR FILM LAB was a project that started in 2017 with the Kaohsiung Film Archive, which is a semi-governmental Institute with funding from the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Kaohsiung City Government and the Bureau of Industry, Ministry of Economic Affairs of Taiwan Government. Our aim is to promote and showcase all sectors of the XR industry, including production and distribution. 

We also have the Kaohsiung Film Festival. We showcase original productions, but we also have a VR competition section and a panorama section. For example, we showcased Treehugger from Marshmallow Laser Feast and also Pandora  by Molécule. There’s a lot of different things we’re trying to achieve and last year, we expanded it into not only VR but also AR. For example, we showcased Tónandi  an AR experience built in collaboration between Magic Leap and Sigur Rós. So we’ve extended into an XR experience exhibition, which happened annually before the pandemic.

Source : Kaohsiung Film Festival

Besides this showcase, we also have the production side of things, as well as our Talent Workshops. Back in 2018, we started inviting Taiwanese artists to join the project and to start there first, because we knew that XR was a new term that came out two years ago and that not many people knew what it was at the time. Since then, we now have over 25 original productions from the Kaohsiung VR FILM LAB. In the Talent Workshops, we invite Taiwanese talents to submit their project or proposal and we will give them lectures from the international experts. For example, we had Yelena Rachitsky, from Oculus, and Antoine Cayrol, the producer from Atlas V. Finally, we give projects 1 million NT$ as a kickstarter for their prototype. 

For our original productions, what we try to do is not only to promote domestically, but also to send them out to a lot of international film festivals. We’ve been collaborating with all major festival: Tribeca, Venice, Cannes XR, etc. We even have a new collaboration with XR3, which was forged by Tribeca, NewImages and Cannes XR. This year, we have three original VR works in the official selection for Venice VR Expanded  namely Samsara (Competition), Spoke to Awaken – KUSUNDA (Best of VR Expanded), and In the Mist (Special Event). Basically, we are trying to do a full dimension promotion of the XR industry in Taiwan. 

PB: I know that Kaohsiung VR FILM LAB is also an LBE center. Can tell us a bit about that portion?

SH: Indeed, VR FILM LAB is also an LBE venue in Kaohsiung, which is in the South of Taiwan. It’s the second biggest city in Taiwan. It’s like Paris and Cannes, or Seoul and Busan. Basically, we’re a VR Theater which focuses on VR experiences with narrative structures. This excludes some of the interactive games or the shooting games that the public often associates with VR. The VR FILM LAB theater was established by the end of 2018 but now [at the time of the interview] it is closed because of the pandemic situation, which was getting worse back in April. 

Source: VR FILM LAB

We are still trying to find the audiences in Taiwan. I think it’s the same situation, the same problems, the same issues around the world—for example, MK2. As you can see, we tried to build a very edgy and futuristic theater with two different sections. We have interaction zones where we showcase room-scale or interactive VR experiences. There, we have showcased different kinds of VR from around the world, including Ayahuasca, Gloomy Eyes, The Scream VR, The Book of Distance, The Line, etc

The other section is our 360 Cinema, where we have 30 independent “egg” chairs. Back in 2017, when we started to explore this VR world, we realized that most audiences were not aware that they can move their head around to see what’s happening in 360 degrees. That’s why I like 360° spinning chairs that guide the audience to observe everything that’s happening around them. Everything’s happening in all dimensions, so you have to find your way around. 

Source: VR FILM LAB

For the VR 360 cinema, we plan three programs every season, with a maximum length of around 30 minutes, because we think that most of the audience will be kind of tired after wearing the VR headsets.

PB: What is your approach for selecting the content you showcase? How do you present it to audiences?

SH: It’s just like film distribution. Since we are the only ones in Taiwan who are doing this kind of promotion in your industry, we want to show local audiences what we have seen from all around the world. We try to bring in those who are nominated by well-known festival. What we are trying to show the audience is a combination between art and commercialization—something that is consumer friendly, but which also has a certain aesthetic value. 

The 2020 Kaohsiung Film Festival was really great success. One of the reasons is because of the pandemic. Since people couldn’t go abroad, they chose to come to Kaohsiung and enjoy the experiences we offer. We then realized that it wasn’t enough to just talk about VR as a new media for art creation—audiences don’t really care. What they care about are the issue, the theme, the content of the experiences. We had to find a way to communicate with the audience about the kind of things they may be interested in. For example, if you’re really into rock music, I would suggest you watch Battlescar

Source: VR FILM LAB

We found that if we talked about something that might interest them, we could suggest a VR experience that was related to that topic, and they would be more interested in having the experience. For example, earlier this year we showcased Ayahuasca by Jan Kounen. In Taiwan like all around the world, people are talking more and more about inner peace, meditation, natural medicine, and so on. When we gave out all the information about this subject to the public, it was a big hit. We have achieved a really good box office while showcasing Ayahuasca. That is why, for this year, we tried to make a thematic exhibition every season. For April and May, for example, we planned what we called “On Going Home.” It’s a thematic exhibition including experiences that are all related to “home.” But home is a very general idea, so we divided it into three parts: space, time, and characters.

For us, the theater is a space for the experiments that we try to explore. How are we going to communicate with the public? What will be the best approach to introduce them to the subjects so that they understand what VR experiences can bring them?

PB: A lot of the public for XR right now seems to be oriented towards gaming. What is your experience talking to different kinds of public?

SH: We have a lot of experiences with that because we do have a lot of these kinds of gaming spaces in Taiwan. Our theater is located in a cultural creative park, so most of the audience is tourists who are trying to have fun. They will usually ask if they can play shooting games or escape room games. Instead, we try to teach them about what we are really doing here, which is offering VR narratives or immersive experiences that have a story line. When we explain these things, we emphasize how, for example, interactive installations or interactive experiences will allow you to use your trigger to move the story forward, not to shoot things. 

Source: VR FILM LAB

When audiences are convinced to try the experience, they find it’s a totally different thing. It’s a really new and immersive experience that brings them to another space, another time, another life. We are trying to find a balance. I wouldn’t say we’re trying to “educate” audiences, but rather letting them understand that this is a totally different approach to entertainment. 

PB: How would you describe the state of the field right now?

SH: My answer will sum up the reason why I joined this industry. In the VR or XR industry, everything you are going to do is new! There are no limits, no business models. For example, you cannot use the film distribution model and apply it to VR distribution, because it’s different; you don’t have that many theaters. 

I was working as a film distributor in Taiwan, so I know how they are marketing the new films they try to bring to Taiwan, but it’s not the same situation. Since everything is new in the XR industry, we treat the VR theater as a field of experiments. Everything is like an experiment: You can try anything! You can try to explore the water, and you might find that there is no water for this industry. 

Source: VR FILM LAB

The reason why film distribution is not what we should look at is because of the numbers of audiences is far too different. Even for small theaters, they can have 50 people at the same time watching one movie. LBE VR venues are very different. The VR Film Lab is lucky to have a really big venue with 30 seats, mainly because Kaohsiung is much cheaper than if we were in Taipei. But compared to a movie theater, 30 seats is not that many! There’s also the ticket price. In Taiwan, a film ticket might cost around 200-300 NT$ (7-10 US$), which is why we put the price of our VR film at 200-250 NT$. But most of the audience will probably find it way more expensive, since for the same price as a 90-minute movie, you can only watch 30 minutes in VR. That’s the biggest difference. 

PB: What other kinds of models might be good inspirations for XR distribution?

SH: We have to teach people that it’s just two different kinds of entertainment. You wouldn’t go to the amusement park or the zoo and tell them “no, your tickets are way too expensive!” Right? Because it’s totally different. We are trying to educate them on the fact that it’s a new kind of media. This is why it would be hard to adapt to the old ways of film distribution. Instead, we have a thematic exhibition which you could consider a twisted version of the gallery or museum model. The way we run exhibitions is closer to what the business model of VR industry should probably be.

Source: VR FILM LAB

But somehow, the audience numbers are still a problem. For this reason, I think the best way to push forward is to make it available both online and location-based. But still, there are a lot of possible problems. If you think of the Museum of Other Realities, which hosted a lot of film festivals online this past year because of the pandemic situation, well there are a lot of possible technical problems that normal people may not even be able to solve alone at home. You could also think of the model some distribution companies have created of a VR TO GO system, where you pay a certain amount of money to rent a VR headset (e.g., 300-325 NT$). But that is just a first taste of the XR industry for audiences. 

If we want to talk about how we are going to establish a healthy XR market or industry, the first step is that VR headsets have to become easier to get. Otherwise Tung-Yen CHOU  the director of one of our Kaohsiung original experiences (presented at Venice this year) who was doing a lot of experiments with theatre actually proposed an interesting theory: “If VR headsets can’t get popular fast enough, then why don’t we treat VR as an elite form of art?”Considering it’s expensive to produce just one experience—it requires very high-level computers and headsets, there are a lot of technical problems, it has such a limited audience capacity, etc.—then why don’t we treat it as an elegant or precious way of perceiving art? Perhaps in 5 years people will have headsets to watch VR 360 at home, but maybe they will also be willing to pay more to get into a gallery or museum for more complicated experiences.

It’s not easy for creators to find a way to sell their work. VR production requires a lot of money and it’s hard for a production studio or an institute like us to live from its productions.

PB: How long do you think it might take before we get to a stage where XR becomes mainstream?

SH: It might be difficult, but if you go back to [Jaron] Lanier’s book on the theory of VR, you might find that we are only on the first stop of the VR industry. The way we’re using these headsets is kind of like they were using those really big computers back in the 50s or 60s. What we are trying to achieve for the next generation is closer to Ready Player One. When 80 or 90 percent of people can access with one headset, then we can talk about business model. Otherwise, it’s way too far to think about how we’re going to sell that or how we’re going to make it organized or industrialized.

The key points is that when the headsets will become just like a smartphone for the general public, then we can talk about establishing a more stable VR market. Another key factor will be 5G, because it would enable us to do all the real time calculating from the cloud. With this kind of virtual computing, then the headsets will be easier to get and at that point the growth will be much faster. Perhaps within five years we can see a new style of headsets coming up and perhaps within 10 years, as the internet gets faster and faster, we can transfer more and more data, and at that point we get thinner or smaller headsets.

PB: You mentioned that you not only help kickstart XR projects but you also accompany them in the distribution phase. There are festivals, of course, but what else?

SH: The Kaohsiung film archive already had some experience funding short films and eventually features, back in 2008. When we started in the XR industry, we followed the same steps of inviting directors and investing money in their VR productions. After they were finished, we would try to push it all over the world, because we know there are really nice, but really few LBEs around the world. So the best way for experiences to be shown was through the film festival circuit. 

Source : Kaohsiung Film Festival

When the projects are selected by film festivals, we bring the creators and have them meet the curator, to meet different kinds of XR talents. We believe it’s important to share and talk with different people within the community, no matter if we’re talking about the XR industry or the film. We’ve met a lot of new talents at SXSW, Venice, Tribeca, and Sandbox in China. And then for us at the Kaohsiung Film Festival, we invite all these talents—curators, distributors or marketing of the immersive companies—to Taiwan to see how we curate XR. This kind of sharing process is key to getting us closer to the core of the industry. That’s why every year our local creators can bring up new ideas, because they have this international perspective on XR production. 

PB: Do you have any last thoughts you would like to share with producers? What are some of the short-term solution we should focus on right now to invest in a more sustainable field of XR distribution?

SH: Because of the pandemic, we had to think of putting our festival online this year. The first issue we had to solve was “what kind of platform are we going to use?” Are we going to use Viveport, Museum of Other Realities, Oculus TV, etc.? Taking Netflix as inspiration, would it be possible to have a “Netflix for VR” that would allow us to access not only VR 360 experiences but also interactive experiences? 

For me, back in university, the biggest homework was to watch as many movies as possible. I think the same applies to VR. Not only for creators, but also for audiences; if they can access more and more experiences, it will help to raise public awareness of what is happening right now in the field of VR. An online platform might be a short-term solution for the overall situation.

This interview was conducted as part of Québec/Canada XR‘s Study on XR Distribution. This, along with several other interviews will lead to the publication of a report on the challenges, trends, and new models for XR distribution among independent producers, here and abroad. 

Stay tuned for the publication of the full report.

Study on XR Distribution

The study on the Distribution of independent XR works and experiences is a project of Québec/Canada XR, in partnership with  MUTEK, XN Québec, Phi Center, Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) and Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM). The project was made possible by the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the City of Montreal.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Proud partner of the City of Montreal.

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