Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival: a brave new world of virtual technology
A new kid on the August block arrives, with a focus on virtual reality
Given the importance of technology in our lives, it's a bit surprising that Edinburgh, with its vast multitude of film, book, theatre, comedy, music, food, and assorted other festivals, has come so far without a dedicated open-to-all techie counterpart. Yes, the Turing and Television Festivals do cover digital matters, but they're both much more geared towards industry professionals.
Enter the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival, a brand new three-and-a-half week programme exploring the impact of technology on the arts and beyond. There's an emphasis on interactivity and accessibility, with a selection of free events, hands-on demonstrations, workshops and keynote talks from digital entertainment leaders, not to mention a healthy programme of digital event screenings such as National Theatre's Frankenstein (directed by Danny Boyle and starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch) and Monty Python Live (Mostly).
Perhaps most exciting for the technologically inclined among us is the festival's focus on virtual reality (which for the remainder of the article we'll refer to as 'VR': we're all too aware of how painfully embarrassing it is to re-read dawn-of the-internet features praising the spelled-out-and capitalised 'World Wide Web').
'2016 is the year of VR,' asserts EDEF director William Burdett-Coutts, citing the long-awaited release of the Oculus Rift headset in April and Sony's upcoming PlayStation VR launch in October. 'VR is becoming widely available to consumers, from the Google Cardboard which works on iPhones and Android (all you need for that is a cardboard frame) to HTC Vive which offers a full-body immersive experience.'
The HTC Vive's creators are smartphone company HTC and game developer Valve, makers of the highly-revered Half-Life series which was launched in 1998.
'The main focus for consumers to date has been games, but there is more to the tech than this,' says Burdett-Coutts. 'People are waiting avidly to see what Facebook, which purchased Oculus back in 2014, will do with VR in a social context. No announcement has been made but it's easy to imagine the social possibilities afforded by linked headsets and shared experience. Apple have yet to launch their offering but, as you would expect, there's speculation about what this will be and when it will come.'
So we've got gaming and online interaction covered but what does VR mean for the likes of music and film, art forms that aren't traditionally digital at their core? 'We've seen high-profi le artists such as Björk and Paul McCartney getting on board with VR and 360 to offer immersive experiences to their fans,' says Burdett-Coutts. Also included in the festival is IglooVision who will be bringing us a six-metre diameter cylinder to display shared 360 degree content in the EDEF tech hub.
But the festival is not just about access to content. 'VR has been referred to in various places as an "empathy machine", and some really interesting content has been created addressing social and human issues,' says Burdett-Coutts. 'A film such as Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel, an original BBC commission launched at Sheffield Doc / Fest earlier this year, and The Guardian's 6x9, a virtual experience of solitary confinement, give viewers an insight into the experience of often marginalised people.'
Outside of the arts, there are also exciting applications for VR in science. 'At EDEF, we're excited to present talks on the future of VR, including its use by NASA in preparation for Mars 2020,' says Burdett-Coutts. 'VR is a massive subject and we're barely scratching the surface. But our intent with EDEF is to open people's eyes to far wider-ranging possibilities of the medium than simply playing games. Though that is great fun too, and not to be discounted!'
Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival, Assembly Rooms, George Street, 4–28 Aug.