Virtual Reality Comes to the Fringe at Assembly's FuturePlay Festival

Could virtual reality and interactive media become a staple of the Fringe programme? Housed in Assembly Rooms on George Street, FuturePlay is an artist-led technology festival that builds on last year's EDEF (Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival) with a greater focus on variety, fun, and integration into the city's buzzing event schedule. Having sampled some of the games, simulations, and offerings from Pixar and Cirque du Soleil, Henry St Leger sat down with the FuturePlay producer, Josh McNorton, to talk art, technology, and the future of Edinburgh Fringe.

Let's start at the top. What is FuturePlay?

FuturePlay is a festival about technology – specifically artists using technology. We've rebranded since last year, and stuck to the same core ethos, with the Virtual Reality Studio and Tech Hub making a reappearance. But this time we've brought it out into George Street and made it more of a publicly accessible event. More of a festival vibe, more fun, more playful. So hopefully the content and the experience people have when they go into one of our exhibits will be reflected in that too.

Do you think we'll get to a point where VR will be as normal in the Fringe catalogue as theatre or comedy?

I think the Fringe is a great example of how all these different art forms are melded. You have comedy with circus arts, or one-person shows with dramatic shows, which is amazing because you can see all those things in one day. And we're just trying to add another element to that. So I might step into VR for an hour, then I'm going to see a comedy show or that circus show. And in the future I think we won't think of them as such different things.

And it looks like you're trying to break out of how tech exhibitions often present themselves, as showcases for particular products or wares.

You're exactly right. It's entertainment first and foremost. As interactive and playful as possible.

It's not really a tech exhibition, we're not promoting any particular product at all, we're not sponsored by any product companies. We have lots of different headsets and games to try. It's all in the spirit of playfulness.

But why Edinburgh Fringe? Why bring tech to an arts festival?

I love festivals. I think they're one of the most important things in the world. They bring people together, show people new ideas, and it does so in such a playful and collective way.

Even though something like VR, for example. We have a few experiences that aren't one-on-one, but generally it's isolated. You're in a headset wandering around this world and that's great, but that to me is not really what festivals are about. Festivals are collective experiences and about interacting with lots of people and content and performances and things. So really it's trying to meld that all together.

You've also brought a number of stage performances under the FuturePlay banner.

Well, obviously we're connected to Assembly, and they were being sent some amazing shows that use technology or are about technology, and they also have a great knowledge of all the acts and producers who are making work out there. Last year we did have some live performances, but they were quite separate, so this year we wanted to really embed within Assembly's programme.

And what are you hoping to do with FuturePlay going forward, whether that's next year or five or ten down the line?

Ideally it's something we can bring to other festivals as well. Seeing where we can take the brand internationally, along with the core ethos of what we're trying to do. I think the nice thing is that it fits into any sort of festival, so we could have it be at a big outdoor festival, at Latitude or Glastonbury, or somewhere a lot more like a conference, like TED talks or something. So ideally bringing all those different formats and ideas and mediums to other festivals and events – and certainly to London as well.

And to close – what are you hoping people will take away from your programme?

First and foremost I hope they have fun. Because it's meant to be fun. A lot of tech-based events can be very serious. I know last year in the VR Studio there were lots of documentaries, which is amazing, but because we're out on George Street, because we're in domes, because we're in the festival environment, we do have some of that documentary and serious stuff, but I want a lot more to be part of the playfulness in the overall programme.

So we want people to have fun, we want them to be entertained, and we want people to be surprised how easy it is to play some of these games that we have.

And I'm not a gamer per se, but I love tactile things. I love that anyone can play the Data Duo [a two-person music synthesiser]. They'll spend half an hour playing one of those. You'll have two people who don't know each other, playing different sounds, and that to me is what the whole festival is about. So they can walk away saying Oh, I didn't know I could actually play that, I've never played a synth, I didn't know anything about VR. If that's happened, my job's been done.

FuturePlay Festival runs 2-28 August. You can find more information on their shows, exhibitions, and panels at their website:

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