XR-as-a-Cause/XR-as-a-Service…

How is it to be an early XR-adopter, how the fast evolving technology changes your practice and your business model? What are the challenges and how can you move ahead? We wanted to find out from the Austrian XR-startup, vrisch . The startup was founded by digital artist Gabriella Chihan Stanley and filmmaker Axel Dietrich, as they both shared a passion for technology and meaningful projects that can solve concrete problems. As such, vrisch defines itself as an applied immersive entertainment that uses VR and AR to help people learn, understand and have fun.

vrisch showcased at the CultTech Space, organized by Immaterial Future Association at Ars Electronica 2022, alongside other startups from IF Accelerator, Batch 1

TechvangArt talked with Gabriella and Axel to find out how VR can bring meaningful experience, how were XR related businesses before the metaverse-hype, XR-as-a-Service, but also about XR-wishful thinking and how…Sherlock Holmes will search the Metaverse for digital crimes 😀

TVA: Your approach is “XR for a cause”, can you give some examples of experiences that you’ve built? 

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: For us, is a serious business, and unlike entertainment that is used only for amusement, we always solve a problem. And one example that I would like to give is taking care of nature: how can you make people protect a piece of nature that they will probably never have a chance to access? How to connect nature with humanity in the end and make people empathic and caring. This is where we come in.

Axel Dietrich: Dürrenstein Wilderness Reserve is a natural forest in the middle of Europe, it is an untouched territory, also a UNESCO Natural Heritage. So, this is really untouched nature and it should stay that way.
People shouldn’t enter this place. But at the same time, they wanted to communicate about the value of this wilderness and all the magic that you can find there, and about the importance of the lifecycle of nature: what is the meaning of an untouched nature and why is it so valuable? No, even though human intervention in these places is always going to be unknown. So, there comes XR technology and our approach to it, which allows us to create specific experiences.
One project that we did is called Life After Death.
We did an AR experience, where you can see the wood from the outside, but then you can also dive into it and see the mycelium that is growing.

Read more about the project HERE

TVA: So you are using XR for raising awareness around the different problems that effect the planet and humanity. But, tell us a little bit about your history, because you didn’t start it now when the Metaverse is so trendy, you work for several years. How was it back then when VR was not really a hype, and headset were all with cables if we think in 2016 , so how was it for you to start and convince people and clients?

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: Due to our backgrounds, we always ended up working for advertising agencies. We started our agency more commercially – it was a big gateway to do more meaningful projects. So back then it was more about filmmaking and VR 360 videos. After that, our job evolved with the technology. As you said, little was possible because the tech was bulky; people were also afraid to try it because it was something completely different from the experiences they had before. And also especially when it comes to virtual reality it was sensitive. Because VR isolates you like it for a moment, so it is also a very vulnerable moment. Sometimes, this aspect was taken seriously, sometimes it was not taken seriously by the people who were creating these experiences. But, in time, both users and creators gained more experience. So all these changes allowed us to go deeper into what was possible. This was the moment when we started using VR for a cause.

Axel Dietrich: this was actually our aim from the start. The first moment that we had the VR headsets, we understood this is very powerful. And VR can be used for really good things and for really bad things and we wanted to make sure that at least our contribution is for the good!

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: The blessing and the curse of VR is that… it is so powerful. When you look back to your experiences, your brain most of the time registers it as something that you actually lived, not something that you experienced. We saw the potential and the responsibility of it, and we thought why not use it with a more meaningful cause. And as Axel said this was our intention from the very beginning, to say let’s change the world. But, we can’t do it alone either, so together with our work, we also founded our community, because we couldn’t pretend to know everything, we couldn’t pretend that we were the ones that understood psychology, philosophy, art, filmmaking, human perception, so on.. This all takes different areas of expertise that have to work together to make a meaningful experience. So, we found the community, we created this platform for dialogue for creators and users.

Axel Dietrich: The community that really got first on the VR hype was the gaming community. But it was important for us to make sure that we create a place for all the other purposes as well. Gamers have a way to connect and they’re awesome at this, but what about artists, scientists, and how do we create some exchange between all these different backgrounds? Because that’s very special about VR that it really touches so many fields at the same time. It’s not just for gamers, pr advertisement, it has applications in so many different fields.

TVA: What about your business model? Who are your clients? Is it sustainable?

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: We have two ways of working.
1. XR-as-a-service – we get clients that come to us with a specific challenge to solve – such as the example we talked about related to a natural reserve place. We also have clients from the performing arts industry. Also we are still doing advertising projects. We’re also working with scientists to visualize their ideas; for example we started with cognitive scientists – they come with research and they need a way to visualize their research in a way that is meaningful for their studies.
2. And the other way is we’re starting to create our own products; we are creating a ”Sherlock Holmes” experience, where we work with a theater company.

Axel Dietrich: It’s an adaptation of an immersive theater experience that was done in London, originally to be based in the Madame Tussauds at the Sherlock Holmes section. And that together with the theater group, as they couldn’t perform there, we suggested the XR project. And they jumped on it. It is a co-production, so 50/50 investment from both sides, and we’re about to release this application. This is going to be exciting. I cannot tell you yet, if it’s going to be sustainable by the end.

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: A big part of what we do is assessing if there’s a need to use Immersive technologies. It’s important for us that that job doesn’t stay as a gimmick, because with everything we do we want our projects to leave a legacy. So if someone comes and says: “hey, the metaverse is cool, why don’t we do a little world where people can talk to one another?” but, A- you don’t need to do this from scratch, you have platforms that are doing that; and B- Not everything is about talking to strangers in virtual environments. So there’s a lot of consultancy involved as well, sometimes hard, but necessary conversations, if we want to see a technology reaching its full potential.

Axel Dietrich: We have always had the question towards clients: why do you want to do this in XR? If the answer is because it’s cool or because of the wow, then you can say goodbye.

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: Because in such cases, after three months, the experience is dead, and we don’t want that; we want to see our children flourish, and people actually learning, understanding and having fun with XR..

TVA: What are your plans for the future? How do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: It’s difficult to say what our plans are in 5- 10 years because, as I said, we evolved with technology. And so far, the technology has evolved in many different ways that we weren’t expecting, and other ways that we were expecting. For example, headsets are getting lighter, people are more friendly towards using a device for their experiences, and also, immersive technologies as an industry is becoming mainstream. So there is a lot of potential there. One wish that we had is to focus on products instead of services, because we actually have a lot of ideas that we want to make, either on our own or with collaborators from the community. We were successful in achieving funding for some projects, so this keeps us all optimistic that the future for us looks more like creating a product that is going to be useful for generations to come

TVA: so, what is the product? 🙂
Gabriella Chihan Stanley: The Sherlock Holmes experience can be a kind of a structure for creating a new language for theater. Because we learned that theater companies are searching for a way to attract new audiences, and young audiences are always very attracted to technology. But at the same time, VR is still a lot associated with gaming or wellness or movies. But it’s always too far from one, and we want to bridge this gap, to say it could incorporate gaming technology, but it’s still a theater piece, so it has more focus on the narrative.

https://www.vrisch.com/projects/sherlock-holmes-vr

Axel Dietrich: Our hope is to make it more accessible to a worldwide audience, because otherwise, theater is always based or attached to a location, but with XR, you can also make it more accessible to wider and new audiences. During the last years, we were building a lot of little pieces of technology laying around and we see some cases like the theater where we can really create frameworks. For example, we can combine 360 video with interactive elements and have shared experiences with others in the same space. So this will find it very powerful and applicable for a lot of different concepts. And another idea is related to visualization; we will create a tool that is helping people to collaborate when it comes to spatial planning, let’s say planning an office space or cutting a public space and, and give agency to people who don’t know so much of the technology.

The Clown 360 video. (The Clown became Austria’s first virtual reality ghost train (Geisterbahn), which led to great media coverage. As the first one of its kind, The Clown opened a completely new form of amusement park entertainment in Vienna that combines film, audience interaction, and theatrical elements.)

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: It’s about democratizing understanding, not forcing someone to understand in one way or another, but to be able to be able to say: “Okay, I want to work in analogue, I want to work in digital, but in 2D or I need VR because I think better when I have spatial planning”, but these groups can still work together and they don’t have to choose the way they want to work.. So we’re creating these tools to facilitate communication.

As we have become accustomed at the end of the interview, TECHVANGART asked some Crazy Questions

Shot Questions:

TVA: the book that inspired you the most

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: Reality+ from David Chalmers – because it’s taking a philosophical approach to virtual reality in the context of whether or not we’re living already in a simulation.

Axel Dietrich: Ready Player One – I read it actually when we just started our business and this was really motivating me and it was a lot of fun to see things evolving in the direction described in the book.

TVA: How was it for you when you first put that on the VR headset? What was your first reaction?

Axel Dietrich: It was kind of disbelief “how can it be that I am here and I am also there?” It’s like teleportation. And the second reaction was: imagine all the possibilities!
Gabriella Chihan Stanley: For me was a lot of respect, really I was intimidated by it.  One little dream of mine was  to be an astronaut, and like many other people’s first experience was being in space, not with my own space shuttle. And I told one friend when I was putting on the headset: I’m sorry, but you have to take command of the ship because the only thing I want to do is to look at the sky and stars. That was the day, I lost my VRginitiy. 

TVA: XR-wishful thinking. What is that you wish to have in XR and you don’t have it now?  

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: Time Machine. It will be so interesting to have some kind of intelligent experience, that when you took a decision in your life, to be able to play around and find out how your life would have been if you took the other decision, And to see your life from many different planes of reality, as if you could jump from one reality to the next.

Axel Dietrich: If you ask me right now….something that we are dealing with is a lot technical changes on different platforms that we work with. And I would like to have a few months of no changes.
TVA: :)) :)) :)) ooooooh… you can just wish for this… this is not going to happen…:P
Axel Dietrich:I don’t know which wish – mine or Gabs – is more unrealistic…. :)))

TVA: You said that you work with Sherlock Holmes. So let’s suppose that you will build a new series of Sherlock Holmes and he just finds the New World. So what he’s looking for in that new world, what he will search for?

Axel Dietrich: oh love the idea… so, Sherlock Holmes in a new world, let’s call it.. The Metaverse… and it is about a digital crime…
Gabriella Chihan Stanley: looking for the missing pixels… 

Axel Dietrich: and an avatar has been found or lost…

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: the face looks like a certain avatar, but the soul is not. Who is this identity that we are missing?

TVA: Because you said you work both with scientists and creatives, which one is more challenging? 😛

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: There are different challenges to different degrees with everybody. And we were learning through our community how to handle this. We put it as a rule of the community “no ego, no shame, under our roof, we’re all equal”. So that made us understand, that it is ok, if you are a scientist that is working for 50 years in a project, you still have room to learn from someone that is just starting right now because the fresh ideas that they bring are something that you don’t have anymore because you’re too immersed in this topic. And the same thing for the people that are starting; we said don’t be too afraid to express your ideas and thinking thinking that you don’t have the expertise, because you’re actually teaching something new and you’re learning from the veterans. So, I would not say that there was one more complicated group or the other you know, it was more about this fight between ego and shame as humans in all these groups.
Axel Dietrich: I think when it comes to our work in the company, it’s really hybrid, in the middle between, technology, art and design, psychology, etc and these very different words have to work together in some way to create a meaningful experience. And in the end, it’s not that one is more difficult than the other, the challenge is to make them talk the same language and create something wonderful together. The whole process is difficult, but very rewarding as well.

Gabriella Chihan Stanley: There’s no manual to create what we do, neither for our clients, nor for us. There’s no risk free innovation. This is the greatest challenge that we have and also what our clients have; in the end is a relationship of trust, that we’re both having the trust that a certain idea is going to work. I trust that I did my research, I trust that I don’t have not too much ego, not too much shame to say I’m willing to give it a try.

All photos are copyrighted by vrisch and IF and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage