Update: Nothing to be Written is now available free in the Oculus Store. The BBC released the VR experience just ahead of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, and is organizing public showings at libraries throughout the UK.
The BBC is using virtual reality to immerse an audience in classical music, and show that there’s more to the Proms (an annual eight-week music event centered around London's Royal Albert Hall) than an orchestra on a stage.
The new VR experience is part of Five Telegrams – a joint venture between composer Anna Meredith and artists 59 Productions that explores methods of communication used during World War One including telegrams, propaganda, and letters from the trenches.
The result is a virtual concert in two parts: an immersive recording of Meredith's composition performed by the BBC Orchestra on the first night of the Proms, and a short, deeply moving first-person experience focused on just one movement – a piece called Field Postcards.
Letters from the Front
Field postcards were a hugely popular way for soldiers on the front line to communicate with their families back in the UK, and Nothing to be Written shifts between two worlds – the trenches and hospital wards from which the cards were sent, and the cosy hallways where they arrived.
All mail was censored, so these cards were simple multiple choice forms. Soldiers could tell their loved ones whether they were well, had been admitted to hospital, or had received a recent letter – but nothing else. They were forbidden from adding any extra detail – if anything else was written, the car would be destroyed – but families could read a lot between the lines.
“You as the viewer are the person receiving the postcard, but I didn’t want to be specific about you being in any one story,” Lysander Ashton, director of 59 Productions, told TechRadar.
“And, of course, you're making your own story from all of the words that aren’t written on the postcard – everything that’s unsaid. You read that and go ‘Oh, they’re all right,’ but then you’re think ‘Well, what are they doing? That was two days ago.’ And your imagination then opens up to all those different worlds."
59 Productions bought several of the cards on eBay as part of its early research. “They're amazing objects,” said Ashton. “When I first saw these, I thought they were kind of Orwellian – the idea that the only way you're allowed to communicate with your loved ones is through these tick boxes – but we worked with a historian from the Imperial War Museum who showed us their collection and opened it up to us.
"These were incredibly popular with the soldiers because they bypassed the censorship, and you could send this home in two days from the Front. I’d never really thought how fast and efficient their service was, but of course it was the backbone infrastructure of the Empire.
“So in in fact people loved sending these because even though you couldn't actually say anything with them in terms of words, there was that sense of communication. It's the equivalent of sending a text message was just a kiss in it. I think they really rather beautiful things.”
All the cards 59 Productions gathered say ‘I am quite well’ - words that echo throughout Meredith’s choral score – but an audience member who came to the event in Edinburgh tweeted the team with the postcards from her great uncle, one of which said ‘I’ve been wounded’. The soldier somehow managed to get a scrap of text past the censors saying ‘Please warn Vera’, but there was also another postcard dated four years later, showing that he had survived.
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VR is such a new medium, there’s no set way of creating things, which gave Ashton and his team plenty of space to experiment with shifting perspectives. The audience will be in a concert hall, but also moving between several virtual spaces, all at once.
“The thing I’ve always felt that VR can do best is create sense of location and take you to a place, so that was definitely in my mind when we were writing this and figuring it out,” he said.
“I've always also been fascinated about the ability of the arts to superimpose two different locations on top of each other – so you’re simultaneously deep in the trenches and in this room here in London. That was where a lot of those ideas came from, ‘OK, so how many how many worlds can we superimpose on top of each other?’ and particularly this idea with the postcards, because it's a multiple-choice postcard until it's filled in there's the idea that all of these options exist on top of each other, and by scribbling it down, you collapse it down to one one thing.”
The blending of warmly lit hallways into dark trenches and stark hospital wards works brilliantly, but it wasn’t Ashton's first idea.
“We were looking at collage designs where we would have a number of locations and have bold defining lines – this segment is one room, this is another, this is another – but we had real problems with stereo alignment and it would just look bizarre, and not in a good way,” said Ashton. However, working in three dimensions brough benefits as well as challenges.
“There are things that you would never do in 2D, like having an opacity fade between two objects. In a 2D design that would be totally naff and lame, but once you’ve got the stereo and the 360, it actually feels quite magical because you can separate the objects with stereo depth, and it feels like you have the real, solid physicality even though it’s transparent.”
Ashton is particularly pleased with the long-exposure forms of nurses moving between beds in the field hospital. “The 3D depth allows those figures to expand into really interesting shapes, whereas when you see the mono version of that, it's just a blurry mess,” he said, “We’ve only learned these things by making them.”
Nothing to be Written a solitary experience (the only other people are those ghostly figures caught in mid-movement), but Ashton says that experiencing it with others is still important.
“I think you come out and then you want to talk to people about it,” he said. “The last VR piece we did was called My Name is Peter Stillman, which we did in the foyer at HOME in Manchester, and it was so good having it there so that people could talk about it afterwards having been through that.
“It’s quite a short, sharp trip that you go on, and it takes a little processing afterwards to come down from that. Even if it isn’t a multi-user experience, I think there’s something useful in doing the same thing at the same time. A large part of the shared experience of going to the cinema or theater is talking about it afterwards, rather than necessarily interacting with each other during the performance.
Ashton says that installing VR works in public spaces is essential for reaching a wide audience. My Name is Peter Stillman was only up for a few weeks, but almost 5,000 people experienced it.
“That’s definitely whether the Proms coming at,” he said, “in terms of future audiences and getting people who might not think to go to a classical music prom to understand that it isn't just it isn't just an orchestra on stage. There are different ways of experiencing it, and opening up the idea of what a Prom concert can be.”
Creating for Oculus Go
59 Productions chose Oculus Go as the platform for Nothing to be Written, and the lightweight, comfortable headsets work well.
“I think the Oculus Go is really interesting,” Ashton said. “Until I did this piece, I wasn’t interested in doing anything that wasn’t for six-degrees-of-freedom headsets, but the quality of the optics and the whole package made me think that it makes a lot of sense to do something for this level of headset, because you can get the audience out there. I think there’s a fear with all of the Google Cardboard stuff that the quality of the experience is so poor that people go ‘Oh, I’ve tried VR, it’s no good.'
“But at the same time, the amount of stuff on the store that’s been made for these things is so small, unless the amount of content specifically designed for these headsets goes up quite a lot, I can see people getting them for Christmas and them quickly ending up on the shelves. It’s expensive and time-consuming to make things like this.
"That’s why we need the manufacturers and the studios to step in. The tools are improving – Unity and Unreal doing interfaces to work from within VR is really helpful – but I think that the studios and the headset manufacturers need to fund more content creation.”
The VR Prom will be held at Beit Venues Imperial College Union on August 21, with sessions running from 7pm. “There's going to be a series of events,” said Ashton. “This is just the first one – the details or the others are yet to be confirmed, but we have a number of events planned, particularly around November for the Armistice.”
Nothing to be Written will also be released for audiences at home to experience on Oculus Go headsets at home.