Research 2022

Access to Audiences: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities in XR Content Distribution

Presented by: The Animation Workshop / VIA University College
Center for Animation, Visualization and Digital Storytelling
Research and Development Center for Creative Industries and Professions

Author: Michelle Kranot
Co-Authors: Uriel Kranot, Adjunct Professor, Bachelor Dept. Animation and CG Arts
Mathieu Gayet , Rebekah Villion

Project supervisor: Jakob Borrits Skov Sabra, Head of Research, Development and Projects

1. Summery:

XR content (virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality) represents a new frontier in creative storytelling and artistic expression. Around the world, artists are using these new technological capabilities to create groundbreaking immersive experiences and growing audiences are eager to explore these creations.

However, European creators of XR experiences are isolated from these audiences due to a lack of applicable and effective distribution channels. Without distribution channels that are appropriate for XR content, creators must instead choose whether to distribute their work using a film or cinema model, or a game or technology model. Neither of these models meets the needs of creators or of interested audiences.

Furthermore, creators are limited by outdated funding systems that limit possible distribution methods and the lack of systemic support for marketing efforts that would position the work to be seen more widely.

In 2021, Indie Online researched the XR content distribution landscape, evaluating current and emerging distribution models for their effectiveness in meeting the needs of creators and audiences. Here are our key findings:

  • XR content fails to exist in its own funding support category. Instead, creators must classify and fund the project as a film, game, or performance although the budget, production, and distribution may differ significantly from these models.
  • Traditional criteria for measuring the success of film, game, or performance experiences may not apply to XR projects, potentially hampering funding and development of further projects.
  • Existing film, game, and performance distribution and marketing methods fail to connect XR content with audiences that are most likely to engage with and appreciate independent artistic works, reducing another potential funding source for creators.
  • There is a diverse landscape of emerging XR distribution channels and platforms, which may pose potential solutions to these and other challenges. We explore some of these alternatives with first-person perspectives on innovative XR platforms.

In our conclusion, we find the traditional XR distribution methods inadequate for distributing the work of independent artists and offer new avenues for exploration, explaining the criteria by which an effective XR distribution landscape should be measured.

2. Forward

As an artist and researcher, the impulse to explore the topic of access to audiences in XR Content Distribution is intertwined with my own search for a better future for Independent XR. My partner Uri and I created a VR project during a time of great disruption, as the global COVID-19 pandemic took hold and shifted the entire cultural ecosystem in which we operate. Our multimedia project The Hangman at Home, first released as a single user VR experience (Venice Film Festival, 2020), then as a short animated film (Krakow Film Festival, 2021), is only now seeing the light of day as We Are at Home – a multi-user VR installation (CPH:DOX, 2022). Our experiences forced us to wonder if other artists faced similar challenges and were perhaps finding potential solutions. Where was the business model for this? What happened to the distribution plan? What happens next?

This research dovetails into the Indie Online research performed in 2020, which captured another turbulent time for animation filmmakers, when film festivals first went online or became hybrid events. Now we choose to focus on the XR industry and current distribution challenges and opportunities our community is facing. The topic is one we are passionate about: the rapid changes in technologies and in the XR industry unite many of us – artists, programmers, curators, funders, and distributors. In our attempt to craft a comprehensive overview, we teamed up to co-author this research. Each contributor offers a unique angle and insight into the debate on how we are to access audiences and cultivate a cultural landscape which is sustainable and impactful. Whether working across film, games, theater, or fine art, we face the same challenges and have many of the same opportunities. Our passion for immersive storytelling unites us in a desire to share our work more broadly.

We are delighted to present ‘Indie Online – Access to Audiences: XR Distribution’ at a time when it can be a useful guide. We strongly believe that Immersive Technology plays a pivotal role in artists’ and institutions’ capacity to create meaningful connections: our goal is to highlight these connections and to draw a map of how to get there.

Michelle Kranot

May 2022

3. Acknowledgements

This research was made possible by the Research and Development Department of The Animation Workshop at VIA University College.

The research was performed, analyzed, and presented by:

  • Michelle Kranot, project leader
  • Uriel Kranot, co-author
  • Mathieu Gayet, XR researcher
  • Rebekah Villon, writer and editor

We are deeply grateful for the contributions of our expert participants:

  • Mark Atkin (Immersive Curator CPH:DOX and producer, United Kingdom)
  • Gayatri Parameswaran (Director, Co-Founder NowHere Media, Germany)
  • Michael Barngrover (XR Researcher, Turkey)
  • Paul Bouchard (Head of XR Acquisitions and International Distribution, Diversion cinema, France)
  • Michel Reilhac (Co-Curator Venice VR, France-Italy)
  • Antoine Cayrol (Co-Founder Astrea Immersive, Producer, France)
  • Myriam Achard (Chief New Media Partnerships and PR, Phi Centre)
  • Marianne Lévy-leblond x Stéphane Nauroy (Head of Co-Production, ARTE France)
  • Maria Rakusanova (HTC Viveport)

4. Introduction
Established and Emerging XR Distribution Models

XR audiences are growing rapidly. Over 12.5 million VR headsets were sold in 2021[1], and AR capabilities are standard equipment on new camera-equipped mobile devices. While VR headsets remain a niche product, targeted at gaming enthusiasts, active daily users are projected to exceed 70 million by 2026.

Figure 1: US AR/VR Users, 2019-2023 in millions [2]

Note: individuals of any age who experience VR content at least once per month via any device; AR users are individuals of any age who experience AR contents at least once per month via any device. Source: eMarketer, March 2021

XR technologies also present a unique avenue for artistic and creative expression. The ability to shift audience perspectives from a third-party observer to a first-party participant enables a wide range of stories and experiences unique to XR, and many artists are attracted to these fascinating new possibilities.

However, XR creators face significant obstacles when trying to share their work with audiences. From the early project development phase, when seeking funding and support, through to launch and distribution, most creators must choose from existing distribution pipelines not designed for artistic XR content. In order to be distributed, XR content must be categorized.

Figure 2: Yearly average of European public financing investment by content type [3] 

Note: Yearly average in EUR billion. Source: European Audiovisual Observatory, 2016

Cinema distribution. As indicated in Figure 2, European countries have a well-established funding model for independent, artistic films (TH – Theatrical release). Because the majority of independent XR content creators have a background in screen media, they often adopt this channel for several reasons:

  1. The creator is often known and recognized in the film community, which improves their access to funding and support
  2. Many XR projects may pursue a hybrid model, with an on-screen experience and a virtual or mixed-reality component. This model may be driven by funding criteria and requirements, rather than by artistic intention.
  3. Many of the world’s most prestigious film festivals have added XR experiences and exhibitions to their programming. This invites participation from artists with a film background, and creates the possibility of winning prestigious awards, which improves future funding opportunities.

Game distribution. The game industry has a robust pipeline for the distribution of XR content to the public. Most people who privately own XR technologies and are familiar with their operation and use, have adopted them in order to access XR gaming experiences. Game platforms have simple and familiar platforms that allow audiences to find, download, install, and use XR content, improving access to audiences. Game platforms also have a built-in funding model where audiences pay for content and the artist is compensated. However, this distribution model presents several challenges to independent XR artists, including:

  1. Game exhibitions and showcases have historically had little interest in featuring independent artistic works.
  2. In most European countries, there is little to no production funding or support for creating “games”
  3. Game audiences may need specific marketing strategies to generate interest and engagement with non-game experiences

Mixed reality experiences. The Covid crisis has accelerated interest and support for virtual events and experiences of all kinds. From museums creating virtual versions of their exhibitions to formerly in-person events adding shared virtual spaces, there is more opportunity than ever for mixed reality theatrical, educational, and entertainment experiences.

  • While these events typically create job opportunities for mixed-reality artists, they have not yet become robust distribution channels for independently-created works.   

When an artist receives different types of funding for different aspects of the project (for example, they may receive film funding for visual production and game funding for immersive or interactive aspects of the same project) they are expected to maintain separate and distinct budgets, milestones, and outcomes for artistic work that is inherently simultaneous, overlapping, and commingled. The nature of XR projects demands production processes that are not compatible with the expectations of various funding channels.

For independent XR artists who want their work to be widely seen and experienced, no current distribution model is yet sufficient. They face an inability to access audiences, which makes the work less creatively fulfilling and reduces access to future funding and support.

Our research was designed to determine how widespread these problems are within the independent XR creation community and uncover new possible approaches to the challenges of distribution.