Blending physical and digital experiences creatively

As we emerge from the pandemic, hybrid events are going to be part of theatre, conferences, meetings and even worship. Time to get creative.

Sci-fi tunnels filling with water is a moment of high tension, if you’re watching Doctor Who. If you’re running a Doctor Who-based immersive experience, it’s more of a disaster. Yet, that’s precisely what happened, as some of the worst flash-flooding to hit London forced the suspension of Time Fracture

Let’s face it, the immersive theatre business — and theatre in general — has had a rough pandemic. So, too, has the events business, as we are very well aware… But, just as NEXT was reborn as the NEXT Show — which is likely to continue after the pandemic, so, too, some immersive theatre experiences were reborn online. I spent several happy evenings during the depths of lockdown sailing the Mediterranean, going on undercover missions and even escaping prison camps, as part of an online spin-off of a physical immersive theatre experience. 

As we emerge, blinking, back into social contact, immersive theatres are exploring new concepts that mix the physical and the virtual. That same company that transported me across Europe from my study, have been running events with both physical and remote attendees, which each group’s actions impacting on the other. It’s a blended experience — and hence more resilient. In there, given climate crisis-driven floods or wildfires, they could switch to online-only. 

(There’s a lesson there for anyone advocating a complete return to the office. It’s not what you’d call a resilient approach…)

Hybrid events are older than you think

Hybrid events are clearly part of our future, but they’re also part of our past:

Think about how the majority of people experience Glastonbury every year via their TV sets. These people still think of themselves as having ‘watched Glastonbury’. They still feel like they are properly participating in the experience, albeit with a lot less mud on their shoes.

The important element here is that the experiences are distinct: Glastonbury in person is often a muddy, wet, crowded and sweaty experience, full of expensive beer and terrible toilets. But there’s atmosphere. Glastonbury on TV is more comfy, warm and dry, with better beds and toilets — and interviews and close up shots.

Two good experiences. Two different experiences.

This is the journey we’re on now with hybrid events of all kinds:

The challenge for producers is to create both ‘in-person’ and digital experiences that are equally valuable and connected; and we’re about to find out that this is much easier to say than do. As with every other period of disruption, there will be many winners and losers.

Blending the digital and the physical

If you roll the clock back 20-odd years, much of the discussion was of the virtual and the physical as entirely distinct spaces. Journalists used to write dismissively of “virtual relationships”, or “cyber friendships” being something distinct from physical and therefore presumably “real” associations. The decades since have made it plain that the two worlds can and do interact, and the past year has forced us into largely replacing the physical with the virtual.

That pandemic experience forces us to confront the truth: these experiences can be delivered remotely, they extend your potential addressable audience, and they are not going away. We’re about to enter a golden age of experimentation and creativity in the relationship between physical events and virtual ones.

The Metaverse is coming

In this frame of reference, the current obsession with the “Metaverse” can feel misplaced. And, as far as it’s constructed as an essentially VR space, it will probably fail. VR is one of those technologies that seems to be perpetually five years away from the mainstream. But in the sense of an augmented space, interacting with the physical in interesting ways? That’s promising. And, as Matthew Ball wrote last year, it’s central to the idea of a successful “true” metaverse:

It will be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms.

Sure, there will be missteps along the way. We’ve all attended online “events” that had little or no interactivity, and so came across more as terrible TV talk shows than genuine digital experiences. And I’m sure we’ll get “blended” events, which are little more than the livestreams of old. 

Hybrid events with creativity

But there’s still plenty of work to be done in making the virtual and physical experiences both distinct, but equally valuable. It won’t just be the events business, either. It will be theatre. And corporate meetings will take on a blended role — as will some forms of education. Even churches have spent the past 18 months finding ways of staying together as a community when not everyone can gather in a place of worship. 

We can all stay in our silos — or we can all learn from each other, and push the whole hybrid events space forwards.

Photo by Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash