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A journey inside BFI London Film Festival’s VR platform, The Expanse

TVBEurope takes trip under the Thames to visit the London Film Festival's new virtual reality platform, The Expanse

This year’s BFI London Film Festival is embracing virtual reality with a number of short films, panel discussions and pieces of artwork celebrating the genre.

As part of that celebration, the Festival has developed The Expanse, a platform that takes viewers under the Thames and into a virtual BFI Southbank.

The platform has been developed by Ulrich Schrauth, LFF’s XR and immersive programmer, alongside German company INVR.SPACE.

The aim of the project, Schrauth tells TVBEurope, is to showcase the most exciting artists and creatives working in immersive art forms, VR, AR and mixed reality, but always using cinema as a starting point. “The long term goal of the strand is to establish a go-to moment for all kinds of immersive art forms,” he adds.

“It was very clear from the beginning for the whole BFI London Film Festival team and me as a programmer that we wanted to make it as accessible as possible. When we started thinking about what kind of virtual platform we wanted to have we knew we wanted to make it as seamless as possible to really experience these artworks.”

Schrauth began by looking at platforms developed by other film festivals. From those initial thoughts the LFF team decided they wanted to develop a platform that would be available to viewers on a tethered headset, as well as a 2D browser version. That led to the decision to create a bespoke platform and the partnership with INVR.SPACE based in Berlin.

“They had started looking at a platform, but weren’t anywhere finished, so we just thought, OK, let’s try doing this together,” he explains. “They had a very good prototype that was very easily accessible and so we’ve been working together for the last eight to ten weeks non-stop on building a multi-user platform. We’ve put together different components of the platform, one part is an onboarding system, so that people understand how the platform works and how audio settings work, etc.”

Schrauth wanted The Expanse to be as close to a real environment as possible, hence the decision to build the virtual BFI under the river. “We took BFI Southbank itself as a starting point, so there’s a reception area, an auditorium where all the live events take place such as panels, concerts, and a few live performances.”

“I drew up ground plans and sketches and INVR put that together and then we worked together on the creative design, which was a lot of fun,” he adds. “They would then send me the ‘build’ and I would go inside and say ‘I want to change this’ or ‘this wall has to be different’. It was a very effective way of working.”

Another key part of the platform’s development has been enabling those inside The Expanse to interact with one another. “It’s a social VR platform for multi-users,” Schrauth explains. “We have voice circles, so as soon as you come close to another person a circle appears around you and you can start talking, but you’re not distracted by other people in the room. It works differently in the auditorium, as soon as the presentation starts, everyone’s muted and everyone in the room can hear the presenter.

“The idea is that exhibition and the talks etc are taking place under the Thames.”

Film fans can enter The Expanse by booking a visit at the BFI Southbank during the Festival, although numbers are limited due to social distancing.

Obviously, Schrauth’s plans for 2020 have been curtailed somewhat by the pandemic. But, he says there are definitely plans to bring back the platform for 2021. “We really hope in 2021 that we can get back to our original plans with the big installations and maybe also more outside projects.

“We’re all very curious as to how this is going to work out, but we’re all very much in love with The Expense already. I think this will be a great addition to the rest of the festival.”