103. Bubbles

The arrival of the Omicron Variant (still sounds like the name of a modern jazz combo to me) and subsequent restrictions have got us thinking once again about the nature of performing online. Carolan took part in online folk club sessions in Zoom (Post 79) and contributed a pre-recorded video set to the online Nottstopping festival (Post 78) during previous lockdowns. There’s little doubt that live streaming and conferencing technologies kept many musicians going during those dark times, and perhaps even brought some unanticipated advantages such as the clubs being open to people who could not normally attend in person (those who are living far away or otherwise find them inaccessible) and fuelling new kinds of creativity such as making videos. Those interested in a more detailed account of the benefits, drawbacks, and general impacts of taking folk clubs on line might like to read our paper “Producing Liveness: The Trials of Moving Folk Clubs Online During the Global Pandemic” that appeared at the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference last year. However, while digital platforms may provide a valuable safety net for musical communities who are struggling to play together in extreme circumstances, no one can seriously claim that the experience of a Zoom concert is the same as being at a ‘real gig’, let alone a busy festival, either for musicians or the audiences to come to watch them.

Enter Bubbles. Bubbles is an attempt to create a new kind of platform for online music festivals as part of the Future Festivals project in the Horizon Digital Economy Research Centre at the University of Nottingham. Bubbles explores the idea of staging festivals in online virtual environments, shared 3D worlds in which performers and audiences can gather together. The aim is to create a rich online festival environment in which virtual performances can take place alongside other festival experiences.

The Bubbles software has been developed by Paul Tennent and Edgar Bodiaj at Nottingham and they and the wider research team are working with partners including the online festival site Stream Park and the company Live Cinema to test it out in partnership with various festivals. The first of these was Oxjam Beeston, the longstanding annual local grassroots music festival that raises funds or Oxfam and that has been a regular feature of Carolan’s life over the years (Post 29, Post 70). Back in September we made our first attempt to stage a day of Oxjam performances in Bubbles as part of the wider festival, delivering one of the festival stages as a hybrid venue that could be attended by both online and physical performers and audiences.

Here’s a short highlights video that shows how it worked on the day. We’re deeply grateful to the musicians and audience members who took part and gave us their time, music, and feedback too.

Highlights from the 2021 Beeston Oxjam festival in Bubbles

You’ll see from the video that Bubbles shares some features with Zoom, as both performers and audience appear as live video streams and can directly talk to each other. However, it’s also very different as participants can then head off to explore the wider virtual festival site, playing on various games and rides (our coconut shy, bouncy castle and ferris wheel) or discovering video recordings (both regular videos and 360 videos) from previous festivals. The intention was to create a more social and placeful festival experience, one that gives the sense of being immersed in a busy festival site.

Bubbles has many innovative technical features, the most notable of which is a mechanism to allow participants to form small social groups who can talk privately to each other while still being part of a wider festival crowd. You can directly see and hear those who are in your current social bubble via audio and video, but can also see people in other bubbles as ghostlike avatars with names, even though you can’t hear them. You can make your own bubbles, jump between them, invite others to join your bubble, or ask to join theirs. Bubbles can be public or private. They have many uses, from allowing audiences to share with fiends, to giving you some peace and quiet (you can be in your own private bubble), to realising our Green Room where performers and technical crew could soundcheck. They are a bit like Zoom breakout rooms except that they are very dynamic and overlap in the same space.

Another notable feature of Bubbles is how it uses video. Live video streams can appear on the faces of avatars, on the virtual stage for a show (with higher sound quality) and also as ‘venue avatars’ where they show a whole remote audience who are gathered together in a physical venue. We used this feature to realise a hybrid festival venue at Oxjam Beeston in which both online and in-person performers an audience were able to see and hear each other.

So Bubbles combines elements of video conferencing and streaming with computer games and social virtual worlds. This brings it into the territory of the Metaverse which has been much discussed of late following Facebook’s recent rebranding as Meta. The term Metaverse was coined by Science Fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash to describe mass online virtual world that could be joined by people from anywhere across the globe. Given the generally dystopian nature of Stephenson’s depiction of the Metaverse, it is interesting how many companies over the years, most recently Facebook and Microsoft, have jumped on the idea. The precise nature of the Metaverse and its likely impact on or everyday lives is yet to be seen (take a look at this article for my own take on it). One area in which it does offer promise is entertainment and culture. Computer games are already blazing the trail, moving online and establishing their own mini-metaverses. Bubbles hints at wider possibilities for more mainstream cultural experiences.

Will virtual and hybrid festivals remain with us after the pandemic? I’m sure that many will want to forget their online experiences as they (hopefully) return to ‘real’ gigs and festivals over the coming year. However, there are compelling reasons to think that we should continue to explore online and hybrid forms. Some people are unable to attend festivals in person, raising the question of whether hybrid formats could be more accessible? Others are unwilling to, preferring to watch them on TV (indeed, some of the biggest festivals such as Glastonbury are arguably already hybrid, though not yet very interactive and social online). We are not yet out of the woods with COVID and the sector needs to be more resilient to future pandemics. This combination of reasons means that festivals, musicians and audiences should continue to experiment with new hybrid forms over the coming years.

I look forward to updating you with some exciting developments from the Future Festivals project in 2022. Finally, back to Carolan. Here’s a shot of us taking part in early technical tests of Bubbles. Photographic evidence that we may have been there at the dawn of the festival Metaverse.

Carolan helping out with early technical tests of Bubbles

References

Benford, S., Mansfield, P. and Spence, J., 2021, May. Producing Liveness: The Trials of Moving Folk Clubs Online During the Global Pandemic. In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-16).

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