Immersive Experiences for Inclusive Innovation – StoryTrails by StoryFutures and UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK


Dr Lora Markova, CRAIC, Loughborough University London


This essay presents intermediary findings from CRAIC’s ongoing research on creative innovation in live experiences and festivals with focus on UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK – the UK-wide programme of cross-sector and STEAM-induced creativity, offering 10 experiments in creative technology between March and October 2022. The study explores the creative development of UNBOXED and its individual commissions in terms of transformative R&D processes, creative innovation, and audience experiences.

Research questions and method

The central research questions revolve around the use of immersive storytelling and co-creative interaction in generating participatory experiences; the use of emerging technologies in connecting diverse audiences and building inclusive communities; technologies of world-building and innovative production modes in creating (hybrid) festival experiences; sustainable business models in the post-pandemic context and potential socio-economic legacies related to the UNBOXED festival.

The research comprises in-depth semi-structured interviews with representatives of the UNBOXED creative teams, leading CreaTech companies and performing arts organizations that capture diverse voices from the industry. Through open dialogical approach the study explores interviewees’ intrinsic understanding and definitions of R&D and innovation as embedded in their creative praxis and production processes. Research methods also involve ethnographic visits and participant observation at selected UNBOXED events across the UK to explore the specific social contexts and the final realisation of creative ideas and R&D processes as preliminary discussed with the interviewees. The empirical study is supported with review of literature and secondary sources on creativity and innovation, allowing for contextual analysis of the studied UNBOXED projects.

Themes

The conducted interviews and fieldwork visits to date have uncovered the commissions’ shared approach towards pursuing creative innovation through STEAM collaborations, designing community engagement through participatory methods and storytelling, and celebrating creativity as a collective endeavour beyond individual artistic practice. The UNBOXED commissions and programme of events are marked by recurring and crosscutting themes related to societal challenges such as environmental sustainability, cultural, ethnic and gender equality, and inclusive futures.

The promotion of universal values through reconsidering human experiences in a cosmic context has emerged as a common narrative in the projection-mapping show About Us by 59 Productions featuring video poetry and live choir performances, the AR app and 10-km sculptural trail of the solar system Our Place in Space by Nerve Centre, and the traveling fest of counterculture Tour de Moon by Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios. Another group of projects explores the themes of diversity and inclusion – StoryTrails by StoryFutures uncovers untold cultural histories through remixing BFI and BBC archives into AR and VR immersive experiences in 15 locations across the UK; Galwad by Collective Cymru reimagines a future of radical inclusivity through transmedia storytelling and world-building techniques; Dreamachine by Collective Act explores perceptual diversity through kaleidoscopic visions experienced with closed eyes; PoliNations by Trigger establishes parallels between bio-, cultural and gender diversity in community-grown city gardens and 40-foot-tall architectural trees. Environmental sustainability has emerged as another central topic – Dandelion by Aproxima Arts creates vertical farms of perpetual light and rediscovers community-led growing as a creative act; Green Space Dark Skies by Walk the Plank tackles light pollution in an outdoor artwork of lightning choreography; See Monster by Newsubstance transforms a decommissioned North Sea offshore platform into a public art installation featuring waterfalls and gardens harvested by renewable energy.

In this context, this project also aims to explore whether the thematic and cross-disciplinary compositions of the UNBOXED commissions can be understood as symptomatic of the role creative R&D and innovation could play in driving solutions to societal challenges. This essay specifically engages with innovative modes of storytelling and inclusive innovation within StoryTrails – led by StoryFutures Academy, the UK’s National Centre for Immersive Storytelling run by Royal Holloway, University of London and the National Film and Television School (NFTS) – and supported with evidence from the research interviews with the UNBOXED creative teams and the research visits within the festival. Follow-up publications will delve into the broader range of UNBOXED projects, topics and research questions outlined herewith.

Creative R&D practices of inclusive innovation

Inclusion has emerged as a crosscutting theme and a shared production approach within the UNBOXED commissions. StoryTrails, for instance, can be understood in terms of “inclusive innovation,” as argued by Angela Chan, Head of Inclusion and Doctoral Researcher in inclusive innovation in immersive storytelling at StoryFutures, interviewed in February 2022. StoryTrails combines public archives with immersive storytelling and is being delivered by StoryFutures Academy in partnership with the British Film Institute (BFI), broadcaster and filmmaker David Olusoga and Uplands TV, immersive experience producers Nexus Studios and Niantic (makers of Pokémon Go), interactive design studio ISO Design, event specialists Produce UK, and a network of national libraries through The Reading Agency. “We really handpicked those partners because each brings something different to the innovation process,” as highlighted by Angela Chan. StoryTrails takes place in 15 locations across the UK: Omagh (where it opened on 1 July), Dundee, Dumfries, Blackpool, Bradford, Sheffield, Lincoln, Wolverhampton, Swansea, Newport, Bristol, Swindon, Slough, and London (Lambeth and Lewisham) where it closes in September.

The project is organized around upskilling 50 emerging and diverse creatives from the listed locations within Creative Practitioners, VR Professionals and Partner Placement schemes linked to creative technology cohorts in: experimenting with 3D scanning and 360 audio for building spatial archives and ‘emotional maps’ of local communities; creating site-specific AR trails that uncover untold local histories; and developing new VR experiences through innovative modes of immersive storytelling.

StoryFutures, as one of the nine creative clusters supported by the Creative Industries Clusters Programme (CICP), aims at fostering regional economic growth through collaborative R&D partnerships between creative businesses and academia and StoryFutures Academy, supported by the Audience of the Future (AotF) programme, has been committed to training and developing next generation talent in immersive storytelling – experience which has influenced StoryTrails’ R&D model, as discussed with Angela Chan. Her emphasis on empowering underrepresented creatives with storytelling and digital skills relates to her doctoral project: “one of the things I’m tracking in my own research is where diverse voices fall away and how you make these interventions to support people, particularly when there is this imbalance in the creative industries where people outside of London sometimes don’t have the same level of experience or they have very broad experience.”  The 15 StoryTrails locations were selected, together with the UNBOXED team, around places that have high deprivation indices and low index of cultural participation to target underprivileged communities, bring latest technologies to the public and upskill local creative practitioners, since “there’s levelling up to do in the creative industries,” as put by Chan. In a recent PEC blog, Andrew Chitty, Industrial Strategy Challenge Director for CICP and AotF, unpacks how collaborative partnerships and creative R&D interventions – embedded in the successful CICP R&D model – can maximise impact (such as dissemination of new skills and knowledge), drive regional growth and level-up the creative industries. As further suggested, the CICP R&D model can be used by local and combined authorities applying to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and the DCMS Create Growth Programme (Chitty 2022). The success of the CICP also implies that potential innovation spillovers and socio-economic legacies from UNBOXED should be evaluated in the context of an existing and evolving creative R&D network across the UK.

The R&D challenges of inclusive innovation in relation to immersive storytelling include technology barriers and lack of accessibility standards, as pointed out by Angela Chan. StoryTrails’ R&D process involved multiple iterations of inclusive design and user-testing to secure accessible experiences to groups of audiences with different needs. StoryFutures Academy collaborated with Open Inclusion, who specialise in accessible solutions for people with mobility, physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities – a collaboration also reflected in the recent Inclusive Design for Immersive Experiences Challenge. StoryTrails lowers barriers to technology by lending devices to audiences to follow the AR trails (the AR app can also be downloaded on one’s personal device). The project builds accessible physical environments in the local libraries including accessible VR booths and pass-through installations of iPads displaying 3D maps of local communities. These can be experienced at one’s own pace in airy spaces (to also consider Covid). A filmic version of the 3D scanned ‘emotional maps’ is also projected on a 2.5 per 5-metre cyclorama screen that allows for easy access and multiple entry points into the story.

Likewise, Lysander Ashton, Creative Director of 59 Productions and Project Director for About Us shared that the creative decision of using projection-mapping as a creative technology within UNBOXED was determined by the idea to lower barriers to access and provide an inclusive experience to large numbers of audiences at public squares across the UK. It should be noted that About Us (experienced in Hull, during a research visit on 5 May), also builds a sense of inclusive belonging by exhibiting video portraits of diverse members of the local community, displayed on vertical plinths produced from sustainable materials. About Us portraits – bearing certain aesthetic similarities with Bill Viola’s slow-motion video art – achieve a strong empathic effect via featuring spoken and written poetry and sign language.

StoryTrails, in parallel, creates spatial portraits of diverse communities by using 3D scans and audio recordings of untold local stories. As mentioned by Angela Chan, through creative R&D StoryTrails aimed to employ technology as “a springboard both for surfacing the stories of underrepresented groups and for letting people who are underrepresented in the creative industries to own their voice as they move forward.” In this sense, creative R&D interventions and emerging technologies could potentially provide opportunities to destabilize the correlation between social inequalities in cultural production and in cultural consumption and allow for social mobility in the creative economy, as extensively studied by Kate Oakley (2016; 2020) and Dave O’Brien (2016; 2017; 2018; 2020; 2021). In the same context, Claire Doherty, Creative Director at Galwad by Collective Cymru, led by National Theatre Wales, shared: “our learning so far has been that you have to commit to inclusion across everything you do, in every aspect of development – operational, logistical, creative, communications, recruitment. Then, it means that what you understand as radical inclusion is that it’s not simply about access. It’s about, fundamentally, understanding what is inclusive or exclusive in terms of perspectives on the world and lived experience.”

As indicated by the interviewed creatives from the UNBOXED commissions, inclusive innovation in the creative sector involves expanding skills and professional opportunities for underrepresented voices in the creative industries, lowering barriers and providing new accessible solutions and public access to technology, as well as fostering social empowerment within diverse communities. A recent bibliometric study reveals that the notion of inclusive innovation has evolved in five clusters: 1) innovation as a tool for affordability, 2) innovation as a tool for inclusion, 3) building of capabilities and innovation, 4) innovation constraints associated with social empowerment, and 5) innovation as an inclusive system (Mortazavi et al. 2021). The studied UNBOXED commissions entail that inclusive innovation can also be understood in terms of creative R&D practices, encompassing structural (sector-relevant), applied (design-oriented), thematic (content-based), and holistic forms of inclusion.

Immersive experiences and storytelling for inclusive futures

StoryFutures Academy has pioneered innovative modes of immersive storytelling within the AotF programme, which is reflected in StoryTrails’ diverse range of immersive experiences and aptitude to experiment with creative technology. UK’s diverse communities are directly included in StoryTrails’ creative experiments with 3D scanning as a method of capturing local stories, creating ‘emotional maps,’ and archives of the present.

For instance, Blackpool’s ‘emotional maps’ (as experienced during a research visit on 18 July) feature the stories of Mohammed and Shariah about Blackpool’s central mosque, Fred’s Afro-Caribbean community shop, Richard’s dream to restore the local 1920s Regent Cinema, Lucy and Emily’s emancipation as female skaters, Geoff’s obsession with the ‘Seasiders,’ Blackpool FC and multiple other personal histories that represent a sense of identity and belonging. The stories were discovered and 3D-mapped (using Scaniverse) by emerging creative practitioner Kezi Gardom.

To a certain extent, StoryTrails’ community-centred experiment with 3D scanning evokes rethinking the metaverse as a co-creative space that should connect multiple users and communities across different cultures and geographic locations, which would also require new digital skills for building 3D virtual worlds and user interactions. StoryTrails’ 3D maps outline the pathway towards possible democratisation of content creation and offer a participatory and inclusive model of potential metaverse creativity.

·      AR experiences

StoryTrails AR experiences incorporate three components available across the project’s 15 locations: A Moment Across Time – a one-stop experience rediscovering UK’s cultural history, narrated by David Olusoga; Virtual Cinema – a one-stop experience unveiling unique local characters; and Walking Your Town – a multiple-stop site-specific experience uncovering untold stories to inspire a sense of belonging to local places and communities. StoryTrails journey across the UK will be featured in a film by David Olusoga to be screened across the BFI Film Audience Network cinemas and on BBC iPlayer.

Blackpool’s Walking Your Town trail – made by emerging local talents Joseph Doubtfire and Leo Mercer – celebrates the vibrant history of Blackpool’s LGBTQ+ communities, featuring the curious case of ‘Colonel’ Victor Barker (born Lillias Irma Valerie Barker, 1895-1960) whose ‘cross-dressing’ conquered gender roles, as well as the heritage of Polari as the coded secret language of ‘unfixed’ identities as circus travellers, entertainers, and the gay community before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales with the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. The multi-stop experience also introduces the users to local characters as drag queen Divine, owner of the legendary Blackpool night club Funny Girls and Basil Newby MBE honoured for his services to Blackpool’s LGBTQ+ communities.

The AR interface takes users on a journey through 2D archival materials, resembling cut-outs from retro post cards and ephemera, animated and layered in parallax compositions in 3D space and around 3D volumetric objects reconstructed from 2D archives. Blending physical and virtual environment, past and present, the AR trails re-imagine our streets and societies as inclusive spaces optimistically evoking inclusive futures. In this sense, the visual aesthetics of StoryTrails AR experiences points the way into what Lev Manovich has defined as “the poetics of augmented space.” (Manovich 2002)

·      VR experiences

StoryTrails VR experiences, released with support from CICP, were commissioned within StoryFutures Immersive Archive: R&D Challenge targeting creative companies from London and the ‘Gateway Cluster.’ Launched in July 2021, the creative R&D competition aimed at connecting SMEs with creative practitioners and academic researchers to experiment with public media archives in developing innovative modes of storytelling and new narrative VR outputs. Currently, StoryTrails features seven VR works that can be experienced for free on Meta Quest 2 headsets in the 15 libraries across the UK. The projects explore the recurring themes across UNBOXED, e.g. Accessible Lives by Charisma deals with inclusion in terms of assistive technology for disabled people and features stories by those who use it; Kindred by Electric Skies is a VR animation based on the true story of Syd and their challenges of adopting a child as a queer parent; Get Punked! by Visualise reinvents 1980s punk subculture as a game-driven interactive memory; Life Cycles by Surround Vision explores the cultural history of cycling; The Museum of Imagined Futures by Indigo Storm and Studio ANKR displays scenarios of sustainable future.

Promenade by Shroom Studio is also among the successful R&D projects – a 10-minute fully immersive and interactive 6DOF VR experience for Oculus/Meta Quest 2. By remixing BFI archival footage, art graphics, and spatial soundscapes, it uncovers the untold story of the textile designer and printmaker artist Mike Hatjoullis as a second-generation immigrant from Cyprus, born in North London in 1938 and raised in Blackpool. The experience opens with a 360 video of Mike working in his studio as his granddaughter introduces him and leads us into the story. The Hatjoullis’ migration from Cyprus, a British crown colony at the time, is brough to life by floating galleries of personal archives and family photographs blended with audio interviews with Mike. The VR experience owns its cut-outs animation aesthetics to transforming Mike Hatjoullis’ Lino print series into stylized 3D models of Blackpool and its Promenade. Blackpool’s 1950s heyday is re-enacted through collaged fragments from John Taylor’s travelogue Holiday (1957) – catalogued in the BFI Archive collection, Britain on Film. The vibe of the city’s music halls and rock’n’roll sessions on the pier is revived through evocative tunes from Bobby Day’s hit Rockin’ Robbin (1958) and I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside (1909), popularized by Reginald Dixon as the resident organist at the iconic Blackpool Tower Ballroom in the 1950s. The immersive walk through Blackpool is accompanied by Mike’s account of his life journey – from a migrants’ son working in the family’s hot dog stall on the Promenade to winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he studied along with David Hockney, Ridley Scott, Zandra Rhodes, among others, and developed into an accomplished artist. The experience closes with a 360 video of Mike Hatjoullis, this time replacing the traditional medium of Lino etching with trying Gravity Sketch on the Meta Quest 2 and sharing: “it’s amazing.”

Promenade is released through a range of world-building platforms, software and applications, such as: Blender for building 3D models from 2D artworks, animation of visual components and collage of video archives; Gravity Sketch for modelling and tracing from the reference artworks; Unity for programming the VR environment, designing interactive assets, lightning, scene transitions and animations, and integrating archival video within the scenes; GoPro Quik for stitching footage into 360 video; Zoom Ambiosonics for recording 360 audio and Adobe Soundbooth for editing and sound effects. The creative team includes Lara Kob (VR artist/creative practitioner), Simone Gigliotti (academic researcher), Christian Krupa (animator), Peter Roobol (Unity developer), and Christos Hatjoullis (producer/director).

Similarly, Off the Record by No Ghost makes eloquent use of media archives and immersive storytelling in exploring the construction of British South Asians diasporic identities through music, from the 1970s to the early 2000s rave scene. The VR experience opens with an interactive diegetic cue guiding the user towards inserting a VHS tape into a videocassette recorder and watching its content on an analogue TV. The screened footage problematizes racial discrimination by reusing  scenes from Gurinder Chadha’s documentary I’m British But…(1989), BBC archives of the Nationwide programme (deconstructed by David Morley’s influential audience research), and newsreels from the 1981 Brixton and Toxteth riots. In this sense, Off the Record indirectly resonates with the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) and John Akomfrah’s creative approach of remixing newsreels and media archives into multi-layered narrative compositions as manifested in BAFC’s most celebrated film essay, Handsworth Songs (1986). The user experience is enhanced by more interactive storytelling components and diegetic cues – stalls of vinyl records one can pick from and listen to. The featured audio-visual archives follow the rise of Bhangra (traditional Punjab folk and dance music) and the Asian Underground subculture and sound as a fusion of South Asian genres and western breakbeats. The final episode of the user-journey immerses the viewer into a 360 video of the beating dancefloors of the Asian Underground as spaces of diverse cultural influences and joyous interaction. The VR experience was written and created by Sparsh Ahuja and Omi Gupta, directed by Kye Dorricott and the narrative sound designer/creative practitioner Alison Bown with the academic support of Jessica Boyall.

Promenade and Off the Record signal that creative practices of reusing archives provide agency to underrepresented migrant communities (Brunow 2015) and generate inclusive spaces and a cross-cultural imaginary, as argued elsewhere (Markova 2022). In the very moment when archives are being exploited for pseudo-empathic political campaigning in the UK’s public sphere, the discussed experiences render the emancipatory and creative functions of reusing personal, film, and media archives.

Findings and recommendations

Inclusive innovation can be achieved via creative R&D practices, encompassing structural (sector-relevant), applied (design-oriented), thematic (content-based), and holistic forms of inclusion. Drawing upon our research questions, the interviews with the UNBOXED creative teams and the StoryTrails’ example, CRAIC’s research findings suggest potential trajectories for decision-makers and societal impact:

  • Scale-up StoryTrails structured R&D practices of upskilling and surfacing underrepresented voices in the creative industries into a distributed model of R&D interventions to enable inclusive creative economy
  • Foster inclusive design and inclusive creative experiences by enhancing funding for cross-sector and STEAM-induced creativity, as modelled by UNBOXED, and for networked creative R&D collaborations as trailblazed by CICP
  • Build knowledge base and in-depth understanding of societal challenges, such as sustainability and inclusion, through bridging the gap between theory and applied research and through connecting soft and hard skills across academia and industry
  • Integrate creativity as a transversal skill across curriculum disciplines and introduce curriculum training in immersive media literacy
  • Use StoryTrails’ community-centred and innovative modes of immersive storytelling, developed within AotF and UNBOXED, as a ‘prototype’ to inspire virtual creativity and inform the governance of a participatory and inclusive metaverse ecosystem
  • Foster support for qualitative research that builds evidence base for the creative sector via engaging with creative praxis and representing the voice of the industry to uncover sector solutions which are often envisioned within creative R&D processes.