As we become ever-isolated – physically by social distancing or emotionally because of polarised culture wars – immersive art has never been more crucial. Classic film captures emotion and takes us on a journey as we watch characters live, but immersive virtual reality (VR) positions you within the art. Perhaps you’re sat in a barber shop as characters in The Martha Street Experience get a quick shape up and some respite from the everyday social plights in London’s East End. Or maybe you get to enter a fictional world and play within the surreal and colourful VR universe of Proper Motion. 

Our new strand LFF Expanded is dedicated to virtual, augmented and mixed reality experiences. But what does that all mean? And how can you make the most of it?

What are all these different types of reality?

The best one to start with is extended reality (XR). It’s an umbrella term that encompasses all immersive technologies that can merge physical and virtual worlds using computer graphics and wearable technology like headsets. More than 60% of XR company stakeholders expect to see this type of technology becoming mainstream in the next 5 years. So XR includes virtual reality, 360-degree video, mixed reality and augmented reality. Without realising, you’ve probably interacted with some of these things through your smartphone. 

Augmented reality (AR) sees virtual objects overlaid on to the real world. Instagram filters or Pokémon GO are everyday examples of this type of tech, which allows us to see digital creations while still seeing what’s going on around them. 

LFF Expanded includes Acqua Alta — Crossing the Mirror, a custom-made augmented reality app that, when placed in front of a real book, transforms it into a stage for an animated performance of drama and dance. It’s as if the app allows you a window into a secret world that lives on top of everyday objects that we don’t usually get to see. 

In AR, these overlaid objects can’t interact with the real-life world, but this is possible in mixed reality (MR), which takes the hybrid of real/virtual to the next level, meaning digital objects can interact with physical objects in real-time. 

That leaves us with VR, or virtual reality, which is a computer simulated reality that is fully enclosed. Using headsets, you’ll be immersed in a 360-degree digital experience, unable to view your real world surroundings. Much of our line-up includes 360 films which are videos recorded using specialist cameras capturing film in a sphere, placing the you at the centre of the action. 

People2People - Yaakov (Israel) (2020)

While wearing a virtual reality headset, you will be able to move your head around to take in different camera angles while the film is playing. If you’re watching a live action film like People2People, you are situated on either side of the wall separating Israeli and Palestinian people, hearing their stories of conflict while you take in their environments. Created in an effort to build peace, this kind of film can be incredibly powerful in cultivating empathy as anyone watching walks in the characters’ shoes. 

What is it like to be black in Berlin or Paris? Our 180-degree film series Virtual (Black) Reality can give us an idea of this as it situates us alongside Africa-descended Berliners and Parisians, allowing us to enter and absorb intimate spaces we wouldn’t usually have access to. These exciting immersive films are able to focus more on helping you explore other worlds and understand the nuance of experience, as opposed to following a plot line. 

Virtual (Black) Reality - Kwesi (2020)

If you’re ready for the next stage of immersion after augmented reality, we have a range of interactive virtual reality experiences. Wearing a VR headset, you will be dropped into a simulated digital environment. Whichever direction you look or move, you’ll be interacting with the immersive art and experimenting with the decisions put to you by the artists. Agence, a film powered by artificial intelligence, puts you in the position of playing God to creatures struggling to survive on a barren planet. Your choices in the futuristic art piece have consequences for the creatures, resulting in either order or chaos. Imagining hypotheticals becomes redundant as this art form allows you to play out philosophical predicaments and face fears.  

Can I touch things or walk around within the VR experience?

As if walking in his fabled footsteps, the interactive VR experience Icarus allows you to reach forth and touch the sun (without the fatal real-life consequences the Greek hero had to endure, of course). While you can’t actually touch things, virtually you can walk up to objects, choose digital options within a virtual world, and explore the digital environments. 

Many of the interactive VR experiences we’re hosting in LFF Expanded are created with 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF). All objects that can move in a 3D space move in 6 ways across 3 directional axes (up/down, left/right, forward/back), and 3 rotational axes (roll, yaw, pitch). Interacting with all 6 gives us 6DOF, which is required if you want to walk around the reality you are experiencing. It’s all about how your head movements can be tracked, and how the virtual world can be rotated according to where you’re looking. 

6DOF can track where you’re looking as well as where you are within the space. 3DOF only tracks head movements so the virtual world will move with you, as if it were glued to your head, as opposed to allowing you to move within the space. Dazzle: Solo, a reimagining of Chelsea Arts Club’s famous 1919 Great Dazzle Ball, is one of our 6DOF works, and it allows you to walk around an entrancing room of dancing and zig-zag motifs.

Dazzle: Solo

How can I take part in these immersive experiences?

If you don’t have a VR headset, do not fear. All 360 films are available on a web-based 360 player. The messages will still be very powerful, it’s just that they’ll be even more immersive with a VR headset.

BFI Southbank will be opening its doors for people to experience LFF Expanded in person for free, using tethered headsets. Tethered headsets require a connection to a computer with quite high processing power, and some will need to connect to sensors to allow you to move within the virtual space. For all our interactive 6DOF works, you’ll need an Oculus Rift, Rift S or HTC Vive tethered headset.

Mobile headsets are much lighter, very affordable, and can be used with your smartphone. Bodily movements can’t be tracked on mobile headsets as they can’t map your position within a space, but the movement of your head will be, so you can look around the 360-degree space. Google Cardboard VR headsets can be purchased from the BFI Shop for £3 so you can experience the immersive effect of our 360 videos without a huge investment.