Affordable virtual-reality tech could give Scottish theatre new life

LEGENDARY football manager Jim McLean was notorious for his grumpy demeanor and outbursts of anger.

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

Thanks to a world-leading development led by an Edinburgh film company, the hit show Smile about McLean can be experienced in virtual reality using just a cheap headset and a smartphone.

As theaters struggle to recover from the pandemic and cost of living crisis, Dundee Rep has taken another bold move 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 boost ticket sales, which have fallen by an average of around 25% since the pandemic.

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The innovation is the world first and “pandemic baby” of husband and wife team Kelman and Gemma Greig-Kicks, whose nine-year-old company, Neon8, makes films for the third sector and the performing arts.

It’s a very passionate project for the duo, whose main goals are to help venues and production companies recover, as well as share the theater experience with those who may not be able to see a live performance.

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

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

“It’s been really exciting but also absolutely terrifying and there have been a lot of moments where we’ve wondered what we’ve taken on,” Gemma told the Sunday National.

National team:

“However, we wanted to introduce people to the joy of this gentle, accessible, yet immersive VR experience – one that brings you right into the theater space without actually being there. And while many people think that VR is only for gamers or the completely tech-savvy, Neon8 VR’s work for the theater doesn’t require you to stand or participate – you don’t even need a dedicated VR headset to see him.”

Kelman pointed out that their model was an ideal 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, it also allows you to use a fake headset, costing around £20, which you plug your phone into and using the Box Office VR app you can go into VR and see it all,” he said. “It allows people to experience it from a very low cost access point.

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“Most of the industry is moving away from mobile VR because it doesn’t make enough money, but it still works for watching movies and we really believe that people need time to see if they like VR. We’re thinking about people who either don’t want to, or can’t afford to buy a VR headset because they think it will be a waste of money.

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

Kelman added: “We film either very close to the stage or at the front of it, so you get a view that you wouldn’t normally have. Nothing replaces going to the theater, but you can see something a little different with the VR version.”

There have been some experiments with 360-degree VR theater productions before, but the Neon8 model is 180 degrees to give people easier access while still providing an immersive experience.

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

Those who want to try it have an upfront cost for the headset, but it can be shared with others, and there will soon 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’s just feeding into the big tech model,” Gemma said. We want that to be malleable and we want the industry to understand that it’s not about us taking their product and making money off of it, because that has to go back to the industry and jobs. If you start to disconnect from where the actual work comes from, then you won’t survive either.

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“The industry is really suffering and it is not easy to recover as there is still a lot of concern about returning to space, despite the great efforts of countries to alleviate these concerns. This is a response to that. It doesn’t replace the actual experience of going to a theater, but you can sit next to it.”

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

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

Access to Smile’s VR experience will be available from February 23.


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