Meet the Cutting-edge Collaborative Breaking Boundaries in VR

Left: Fi Nicholson. Right: Tessa Ratuszynska. Photo by Mikael Techane.

The Othvrs are a young, new, barrier-breaking VR collaborative group on a mission.

Have you ever seen those photos of people wearing a Virtual Reality headset looking like they’re having the best time, but you have no clue what’s going on? Or have you recently had your first VR experience and found it equally terrifying but intriguing? Or maybe you’re quite the VR expert and tried numerous different experiences with immersive technology, and have your favourite VR, AR and MR gaming/ 360 films all lined up in a collection on your phone or computer. If you’re definitely not that last person, before we start our chat with our guests of this piece, here’s a crash course on the world of immersive media.

The Othvrs is an open collaborative group based in Bristol aiming to encourage a broader and more inclusive spectrum of individuals to make work in VR and is especially aimed at boosting representation of women, POC, LGBTQ+, and any ‘othered’ and excluded groups. They organise skill-sharing workshops and create 360 films through ongoing collaborative relationships with different kinds of creatives.

We interviewed co-founders Tessa Ratuszynska and Fi Nicholson, and new member Freya Campbell who want to smash some stereotypes and bring in bright new talent.

Left: Fi Nicholson. Right: Tessa Ratuszynska. Photo by Mikael Techane.

How did The Othvrs begin and what is it all about?

Tessa: The Othvrs came about because I heard about these cool young women – Fi and Isla – who were making and thinking about VR. I had access to cameras and funding, I knew Fi had more practical camera and editing skills and Isla was a writer, artist and producer and had a VR residency – so it was obvious that it would work much better if we were working together.

A lot of VR content seems to be made by people who are very similar.

As soon as we started making stuff together and feeling empowered by that to experiment, it seemed natural that we should open that up. The concept of an open collaborative emerged, with workshops, camera, and crew borrowing.

The experience of working in VR and immersive media can sometimes seem very homogenous. Although work is being made about lots of different topics, peoples, and countries – sometimes about very intense and delicate subject matter – a lot of it seems to be made by people who are very similar, with similar backgrounds and privilege. I think that really has an impact on who thinks VR is for them. That’s why The Othvrs focuses on demystifying this technology and media, so we can encourage people to take ownership of this new medium and see it as something they can potentially make work in.

Left: Fi Nicholson. Right: Tessa Ratuszynska. Photo by Mikael Techane.

How did you get into VR and telling stories through 360 films?

Tessa: I actually came to one of the Lunchtime Talks at the Watershed where I met Catherine Allen, a big name in Bristol VR. I had only done VR once at that point and I could see its relation to installation and film and documentary – which was what I was making at the time. I interned with her and within a year I had a producer credit on two projects that have launched at Sheffield International Doc/Fest. I’m currently working on a new XR Research & Development project and work for Catherine as a creative producer and VR content scout.  

There was a lot of demand for content, and not enough content creators making interesting work.

Fi: I went to a workshop a bit like the ones we do now. I was a weird odd-one-out in the crowd as the session was more for businesses learning how to integrate 360 experiences into their work. The takeaway from the day was that there was a lot of demand for content, and not enough content creators making interesting work. So, in my Filmmaking and Creative Media degree at UWE, I made a VR experience with a few friends and ended up being the only 360 project. It was called Pathetic, and it was a bit Peep Show-y in the way that ‘you’ played a problematic human being, but the fact that you were in their shoes meant you rooted for them. I really wanted to make something that made people think introspectively about being a good person, and the other ‘bad’ or troubled people in their lives.

I sent the first episode of my film to a company in London and got a half year internship as a Production Assistant at Surround Vision. Now I can say I have a credit on a Google VR series and have worked on Sky VR shoots. I currently freelance as a 360 specialist and casually met Tessa and Isla through the networking circuit.

Freya: I basically fell into VR by accident after going to the first Othvrs session. Prior to that, I tried a VR game specifically designed to make the player seasick. I like the idea of finding out what the rough edges are of the medium by pushing on them.

Left: Tessa Ratuszynska. Right: Fi Nicholson. Photo by Mikael Techane.

What do you think is the best way to experience VR stories?

Tessa: Personally, I love installations with VR – something like Alejandro G Iñárritu’s CARNE y ARENA.

Fi: I really enjoy the experience of watching VR simultaneously in a cinema experience, such as in Encounters Film Festival’s VR Cinema and Limina Immersive’s VR Theatre this year. The contents can make for good conversation with your fellow audience – it’s not an “isolating” experience at all.

Do you have favourite works or creators who work in VR that you particularly admire?

Fi: I like games. Dark Days is a fun thriller mystery. It’s got great atmosphere and story and feels a little Life is Strange-y in all the best ways. In terms of 360 experience, The Committee is a first-person POV comedy I show often to workshop-goers, as it’s shot using the cameras we use, is well executed, well-lit and a really simple concept. AND a fiction comedy, probably the rarest genre you’ll see in VR.

What do you think about immersive technologies? What are the pros and cons of the technology, the way it is used and the industry itself?

It’s so new that there are no written rules yet.

Freya: The pro of immersive tech is, well, the immersion. All the ways you can try to affect your audience, and to really push whatever it is you’re trying to say. The con, for me, is the ease of access – financially, especially, but also in terms of the technology. To develop in a leading-edge medium, you need leading-edge technology and not, say, 10-year-old computers that can barely run Firefox.

Fi: The technology that’s being released is so new that there are no written rules yet. Anything you make might be the first thing made that way in that medium. Everyone is coming in from the same starting point – technologists, creators, and newbies can all come up with brand new concepts. Cons are the accessibility. Anyone will tell you that VR has not quite hit the mainstream yet, and might not until it becomes a true in-home domestic staple, like a TV or games console. This won’t happen until it is cheaper but also not until it’s more appreciated. People see it as a bit gimmicky. Once people try the right experience they turn to look at you and say “Wow, this really is the future, isn’t it?”

Left: Fi Nicholson. Right: Tessa Ratuszynska. Photo by Mikael Techane.

Technology heavy industries are traditionally male dominated. Do you think being female creatives hinders you or does it give you an advantage?

Fi: I feel like I’ve actually met tonnes of women working in 360 Film. But maybe the game and programming side of it has a different landscape.

Tessa: I think what Fi says about the industry being so new, and that you can be the first to make anything that you might think of means that in a way the industry is easier to break into. It’s not like you have a ton of men guarding the gate saying “This is how this is done, we know everything blah blah.” This isn’t true yet in VR and I think that allows women and people of all different backgrounds the opportunity and confidence to say “how about we make something like this.”

History is full of women getting into a tech area first, then being pushed out.

Also, in a medium that is all about changing your perspective, and giving people an experience that they can’t have in their everyday lives provides amazing space to bring in as much difference and diversity as possible. In fact, I think it’s imperative that we start seeing immersive work made by other voices. This is what we want our workshops to be about.

Freya: I wouldn’t say being female in a male-dominated industry gives you an advantage at all. History is full of women getting into a tech area first, then being pushed out when people see the capital-O Opportunity for money or fame, and it becomes more male dominated. Take computers in general – the word originally referred to the women who staffed those machines! Such work was seen as menial and fit only for women, as an extension of secretarial work – and so we had all these women working in computer research, in code-breaking, in astronomy. Then as the field of computers became gradually more exciting and the prospect of tons of money emerged, suddenly it’s a Man’s Industry instead…

Though I’d like to say things have changed, you’re right, tech-heavy industries are heavily male dominated. Kids are told this is just how it is right from the toys they get. And so right from the start it’s an uphill battle. But that ‘tradition’ has changed before, it’s not immutable. We won’t have this imbalance forever, and I’d like to think that every time someone who isn’t male gets into a tech industry area, it helps change the cultural canvas a little more.

Left: Fi Nicholson. Right: Tessa Ratuszynska. Photo by Mikael Techane.

What advice would you give to young people who are interested in VR and want to become more involved?

Fi: Our advice, and the whole point of our workshops really, is that it’s easier than you think. Watch some content and see if you get any inspiration from what you can do at home. To be honest, you don’t even need a 360 camera. If you have access to Adobe CC, Premiere allows you to input footage into a sphere, and you can turn something flat into 360.

What’s next for you guys? Any future plans you can tell us?

Tessa: The main thing we want people to know is that the group is totally open. We want to start a programme of monthly meets where we discuss potential shooting ideas, concepts and to view new works of VR. We have a camera rental scheme for anyone who wants to borrow a 360 camera and we will be applying for funding for future workshops so that we can support people to join who otherwise might not be able. We are around to help you make your ideas happen!

Today, learning VR. Tomorrow, making it. Next week, the world.

Fi: More experiments! With no budget and probably in our houses…

Freya: Today, learning VR. Tomorrow, making it. Next week, the world.

Check out their projects and join their mailing list to be part of their future workshops. The Othvrs are always looking for new members and collaborators, and would love to work with anyone regardless of whether you have previous VR experience or not. So don’t feel daunted if you lack VR technology knowledge, just get in touch with them and have a chat!

There are whole worlds in these technologies, anything you’ve ever thought of and everything you’ve never even imagined were possible, that you can explore. Let your imagination run wild! Good luck on your journey into the worlds of Virtual Reality.

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