Meetings in Virtual Worlds

By Lukas Schöne

Virtual Worlds 2019 was a festival within a festival. As a part of the Munich International Film Festival, it presented various VR experiences from around the world. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Virtual Worlds was required to find an alternative solution for the 2020 year. Thanks to VR technology, many options are available. We spoke with Astrid Kahmke and Benedikt Frank of Virtual Worlds about the importance of VR for Bavaria as a media hot spot, the impact of Coronavirus, and the new paths they are taking as cooperation partners for the international "Break Down These Walls Festival 2020."

How important is the Virtual Worlds festival for the international XR/VR community?

Astrid Kahmke: Virtual Worlds is a public festival which attracted a lot of people last year. We want to be a gateway to the world and bring the best immersive experiences worldwide to Munich. Virtual Worlds was part of the Munich International Film Festival for the first time in 2019 and included a competition with participants from all over the world as well as an international jury. We also organized an exhibition with different artists’ XR experiences, a B2B market for new projects, and a conference day with keynotes. I am very proud of how quickly we gained international acceptance last year—the festival has been well received by the public, and Munich has revealed to be the place to go for everything VR.

Benedikt Frank: The festival is also a great way for us to familiarize people who are not yet quite technologically inclined with the subject. Each station of the festival has staff members on hand that help attendees maneuver the headset and answer questions.

Astrid Kahmke

The Munich International Film Festival has been cancelled this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic and will take place no earlier than 2021. How does this affect Virtual Worlds?

Kahmke: The fact that the Film Festival will not take place makes me incredibly sad. When I moved to Munich in the mid-1980s, the film festival already existed. I can't imagine a summer in Munich without the festival. That said, this was certainly the most reasonable decision. Since Virtual Worlds is a smaller festival, we are trying to postpone it to late fall. We are in contact with different locations and our partners, which is promising. However, we also wonder how Virtual Worlds will be without the Film Festival; without this link to the film industry, the festival will be very different.

You are also a current cooperation partner for the international "Break Down These Walls 2020 (BDTW20)" festival. It takes place exclusively online as a VR-experience. Can you explain what it is all about?

Kahmke: At BDTW, new first-rate international VR experiences are presented daily in a specially designed VR room, giving people the chance to escape their everyday life. With the VR headset, participants can connect to the VRChat. I have an avatar which allows me to enter the virtual world and meet other people through their own avatars. Together we can watch films or even dance. Participants can also speak with the VR filmmakers we invite as guests. The experience is much more interactive than any other video conference.

Frank: Participants can also join with a simple VR headset, such as a model with attached smartphone. Everything at this festival is currently a work in progress. We don't know exactly how long the festival will last; we intend to have it continue until the restrictions and confinement have been lifted.

Image: Break Down These Walls 2020 (BDTW20)

How did the cooperation come about and what is your role as Virtual Worlds?

Kahmke: The international XR crowd is constantly developing. We are innovators, because what we do generally does not yet exist. At the beginning of March a lot of festivals were canceled, so the community met on social media to discuss and test alternatives. Before that, I was already in touch with VRroom and Stereopsia (the partners of the BDTW20 festival, editor's note). When they told me about their idea, I was immediately interested in taking part. I am now reaching out to contacts to see if they can provide us with XR experiences for the BDTW20. The response has been great, and everyone is eager to participate.

With the current situation, XR and VR experiences seem to be the event format of the hour. Can this boost the existing technology?

Kahmke: I'm careful about predictions. The technology and the corresponding ideas have already existed before that. In January, for example, we were still considering whether we should additionally stream parts of Virtual Worlds in VR, so that people outside of Munich could still participate. I find it interesting that media of any kind is currently in high demand. Their services were already in existence, but they couldn’t reach out to a lot of people. In my opinion, a festival is a meeting place which has a different quality offline. Curiosity, spontaneity, and face-to-face conversations are very important, which is another reason why we're postponing Virtual Worlds. We're not looking for a complete replacement through virtual reality. However, technology can indeed preserve certain aspects of an experience. For example, entire museums and exhibitions can now be visited thanks to VR.

Frank: In general, the ever-improving quality leads to an increase in the number of people professionally involved in VR. For example, we will be showing at the BDTW20 Festival the film "Traveling While Black" by Felix & Paul, which was also presented as part the Retrospective Section during last year’s Virtual Worlds. The new medium has an incredible narrative quality and is amazing when seen for the first—or even second—time.