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July 15th, 2022 | by Michael Barngrover

Editorial⎪Crafting a Market for Independent XR - A Review

Recently, a major report studying what I refer to as the narrative XR arts sector has been published by Québec/Canada XR, and it’s as comprehensive and voluminous a report as one could ask for. Entitled “Crafting a Market for Independent XR”, it aims to shed light on the challenges creators and producers face accessing audiences and monetizing content.

The authors, led by XR/AI Director and Producer, and Sociologist of New Media Technology Sandra Rodriguez Ph.D., cover a lot of ground and give plenty of space for several noteworthy figures in the industry to tell their own stories. It’s a huge work in terms of scope and size, available on a dedicated website: https://independent-xr-market.org. If you haven’t read or perused it yet, I do encourage you to do so.

Many international stakeholders contributed to the report, but it's a Quebecois effort involving Québec/Canada XR, MUTEK, Xn Québec, PHI, Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC), Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM), the Canada Council for the Arts and the City of Montreal as part of their cultural funding agreement with the Government of Quebec. That’s a long list of entities taken from the press release, and demonstrates the envious support that local authorities lend to XR. It certainly supports the idea that Montreal is a paradise of XR.

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There are plenty of interesting observations contained within its 100+ pages, enough to justify dedicating time to peruse it, yet it largely confirms what I believe are the broad, prevailing notions held within the sector. Namely, that VR remains small yet growing, audiences want more challenging narrative content, and that a few tech companies wield excessive market-access-determining power with a preferential bias toward gaming applications. If you want to feel simultaneously inspired and depressed about the present state of the sector, reading this report might just help you achieve that goal. If there is any criticism to level at the report itself, it would be that reports of this size are simply so large and time consuming that by the time they’re released the results are more description and confirmational rather than revelatory.

I was not involved in any way with the production of the report, but like many of XRMust’s readership, I have a keen interest in everything that the researchers studied. I conducted a smaller scale research using a similar methodology that looked at the design practices of immersive art festivals. While collecting interviews and processing insights, I came to feel like I was just putting on paper what everyone already thought and expressed. In our industry, curiously, I feel that there’s an awful lot more consensus than might normally be expected from a diverse collection of creatives and artists strewn across the world. When reading this report, my spider sense tingled again with an unsettling perception of broad agreement.

The topic that stuck with me most of all was what constituted the “Independent XR” sector at the heart of the research. In the very introduction, Dr. Rodriguez and her research team acknowledge the difficulty in establishing clear delineation between what qualifies as “independent” versus “mainstream” XR. The direct comparison for most things related to narrative VR is the film industry, where there is a recognized if slightly ambiguous distinction between indie and big-budget studio productions. Similarly, there is an established distinction between indie and studio productions in the world of gaming that also includes a degree of fuzziness in between.

In response to an emailed question about how they came about their working definition, Dr. Rodriguez wrote that they chose to interview studios and producers who identified their work as “independent”. It likely was a wise decision rather than risk getting lost in the weeds debating which studios and what projects should or should not qualify. It surely helped that Dr. Rodriguez is also a director and producer of XR content, with several projects, each identified as indie and active during the pandemic lockdowns. The research team augmented their own industry experience with the perspectives of festivals, such as the Venice International Film Festival, that expressively seek to exhibit and celebrate independent works. Ultimately, they summarized their working definition of independence as:

Not a major studio, budget not in the millions of dollars US, recognized by makers and distributors as independent and/or suggests an innovative, unusual storyline and treatment.
- Crafting a Market for Independent XR

Not to belabor an issue that is likely very familiar to readers; the budget of a production is not itself sufficient to classify an XR work of narrative art as being “indie” in all cases. Usually, indie works have lower budgets, but one market’s low budget may be another market’s pie-in-the-sky budget. From the vantage point of my home market of Turkey, it’s easy to see the most prolific and high profile XR studios as the big fish in a pond that some of us struggle to even get wet in. Their budgets are the stuff of dreams, and their success in reaching global audiences is what many creative teams in challenged locales aspire to achieve. Yet of course these “big studios” don’t live and work in low-cost markets like Turkey, so it does them no good to have hundreds of thousands of Euros in markets where big productions may ideally run into the millions. VR production remains a high-cost, low-profit, labor of love no matter where you immerse yourself. Naturally, companies that must sustain themselves in this sector face tough challenges. As the interview with Antoine Cayrol of Atlas V attests, even successful independent studios feel the pressure to move toward the mainstream. “Indie-ness” is perhaps best understood as a relative, even fluid, concept, and the artistic compromises made to keep the lights on and hope alive should be judged with empathy.

The aspirational ideal of indie-ness, which can be a luxury or self-destructive, to reject the superficial and easy in pursuit of stories and experiences that challenge and affect the audience is the element, more so than budgets, that the report reveals is most threatened. The threat, almost paradoxical, comes from developments in VR headsets, represented by the Oculus Facebook Meta Quest and Quest 2, that have made immersive experiences more accessible than ever to the public, but accessibility that is more mediated than ever.

The Quest 2’s success has had a number of predictably unpleasant but unavoidable consequences, not least of which is the marginalization of PCVR experiences and its sudden preeminence of its store as a distribution channel. The dominance of the Quest 2 and its Store foists upon creators an almost Faustian dilemma: to compromise their artistic visions in exchange for the tantalizing prospect of reaching millions of VR users. Independent films do appear in many of America’s family-friendly suburban megaplexes, but a film’s “indie-ness” is perhaps undermined by its presence in them in a way that we may come to perceive an indie XR work’s featured presence in the Quest Store. That day is not today, and this isn’t meant to criticize or question the artistic merits of creators whose works succeed in reaching audiences through the Quest Store. But it is meant to put into my own words the concern that the report describes in detail: the current lack of viable distribution platforms that are friendly to challenging XR art.

Something that never ceases to surprise me, and which is strongly posited in the report, is that challenging narrative VR pieces of the kind that film festival curators desire are also strongly desired by regular VR audiences. The report goes so far to say, with the support of interviewees, but, pointedly, not much support from Oculus Facebook Meta’s representation, that pieces like The Key and Gloomy Eyes are key to driving wider VR adoption by the mainstream public. That there exists a large, untapped and hungry audience for indie festival VR pieces has always struck me as hopeful more than evidence based. It doesn’t mean that it’s not true, but just that convincing supporting data is hard to come by. Placing blame on curated distributed channels, like the Quest Store, for not connecting creators with larger paying audiences is convenient but uncompelling in my view.

For most of the past two years, I’ve felt a growing, palpable resentment directed at Facebook Meta’s Quest Store policies from the creative XR sector. It’s an easy and often worthy target of frustration, and its Americanism certainly doesn’t help a sector that appears very Euro-centric. I have spoken with many in the XR creative sector that I would characterize as feeling entitled to a degree of prestige and difference that a non-cultural institution like Facebook Meta seems not to care much about. In the report, the researchers recount this industry-wide apprehension that festivals and narrative XR art in general don’t move the needle for Facebook Meta. The fact that I’ve been told personally and explicitly by a significant figure at Facebook Meta that they and the company simply consider the festivals irrelevant makes its participation in the report particularly intriguing. The conversation I had occurred during the time the report was being written, and afforded me a particular lens through which to interpret the quotes attributed to Facebook Meta’s Yelena Rachitsky in the report.

By comparison, HTC definitely enjoys a favored status in the creative XR industry. It certainly tries to be more friendly and accommodating to creators and festivals, thanks in equal parts to the lasting success of its Vive Arts initiative and its need to find partners and business wherever it can in what has been a very rough industry for the company. For all it is willing to do for the sector, Viveport is a cherished alternative distribution platform for festivals and creators in the way a favored blankie provides a sense of security. Sidequest is another reassuring comfort object. Their presence justifies belief in the illusion that we’re not beholden to the Quest Store for digital distribution, but the fact that the VR industry as a whole operates under Facebook Meta’s functional monopoly is not lost on most.

I’ve fallen into a dour tone and that was certainly not my intent. All is not doom and gloom. VR survived and in many ways thrived through the adversity of the pandemic, and the creative indie XR space was perhaps uniquely capable of adapting to new realities and navigating new opportunities. It’s hard to imagine exciting projects like The Severance Theory without the constraints of the lockdowns, yet without the lockdowns immersive live performance continues to grow and pioneer new ways to reach audiences and generate revenue. The researchers present a compelling case that a combination of festivals and LBEs provide legitimate paths to sustainable revenue even without the digital stores, paths which feature less competition from VR creators outside the indie XR art scene. Facebook Meta’s domination doesn’t yet fully extend to physical exhibition, and physical festivals remain the best places to experience festival selections. With the possible exception of this most recent Cannes XR, people in-the-know say that audiences are as eager to return to physical festivals as creators and curators are to get back to their pre-pandemic operations. I certainly don’t blame everyone for wanting to get back to what works about in-person events. As much as I enjoyed the VR versions of VRHAM! and Venice, the physical experience remains superior if one can afford the luxury of attending.

And therein lies the rub. I’m in one of those markets where very few of my peers can afford to fly to these events, especially not if they have dedicated themselves to the local indie XR sector. If VR content creation remains an expensive labor of love everywhere, so too does VR art exhibition. Indie XR production is concentrated in wealthier markets better able to bear and recompense the financial burden, meaning that licensing costs for exhibition are typically priced accordingly. For myself in Turkey and for people that I’ve spoken to in South America and Africa, the costs of properly licensing indie XR artworks makes local exhibitions prohibitively expensive. Instead, many exhibitions I encounter have been done simply with projects bought from Steam or the Quest Store, limiting exhibitors ability to curate purposeful and high quality selections and often encouraging selections towards the kind of familiar titles that reinforce the public’s preconceptions of VR rather than challenge them.

I’ve hosted a satellite site of Venice VR Expanded in Istanbul for two years here as well as for VRDays and have supported a number of other small exhibitions. For audiences here, these were exceedingly rare opportunities to experience artists telling uncommon stories in VR. My partners and I pay to organize these kinds of opportunities at significant personal cost, knowing there is realistically little chance to recoup expenses. This is what many XR professionals do in countries around the world, but of course there are limits to the impact a few altruistic industry professionals can achieve. If we don’t do them, then these events likely do not happen in our markets. Without these events challenging what local publics expect of the medium, VR remains conceptually constrained to the domains of games, sci-fi dystopian fantasies, and crypto-NFT dystopian realities.

Of the report’s numerous takeaways, the importance of the festivals is the one that I feel most worth reinforcing. In the absence of an uncensored, easy-to-use, open-source, low-cost, and creator-friendly distribution platform, it falls to the festivals to succor indie XR, and the world needs more of them. I’d prefer to see more festivals with a greater variety of curatorial distinctiveness and less rehashing of familiar titles and studios, but I’d settle for just more festivals in more geographies, internationally subsidized sufficiently to reach new and diverse audiences. But who will pay for audiences when audiences cannot afford to pay themselves?

A couple stray thoughts while reading the report:

If there was one single line in the report that resonated the most with me, it was “respondents… noted they had difficulty identifying the role they felt they played in the current VR/AR ecosystem—producers simultaneously act as promoters, distributors, head- and talent-hunters, and increasingly as curators”. Having worn those hats in addition to those of Unity developer, experience designer, and researcher, I feel validated that I’m truly in the industry while still being such a generalist as to be unemployable for most of those positions.

I also found it a bit jarring to read research that was conducted during the pandemic lockdowns. The pandemic itself came up surprisingly little in the report, but it reminded me that I find it hard to identify how the industry and the sector has changed in the past three years. It surely has changed a lot, but I have to really think about when things happened. My common frames of reference are lacking in those years.

I feel like I’m living in a Twilight Zone episode where the Quest 2 has always been with us. I remember a time that I consider more “indie” than now. A time before the coming of the Quest, when PCVR was the only game in town and the metaverse had not yet been invented by that Harvard-semi-educated prophet who so generously pays for much of our industry. In those lost days, within the “Steam”, almost all VR titles were truly indie, frequently half-completed, often nauseating, but sometimes gloriously weird and experimental. Yea verily, it was an age of feVR dreams made virtually real. But that time has passed into legend. We’ve transitioned to a world where Quest 2 is the one true headset, and heavy is the head that wears it without the elite strap. The hopes and dreams of many in our sector seem to rest on Apple, Pico, or startups like Lynx to save us.

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