TIFF Panel Gives Glimpse into Future of Interactive Cinema

Yesterday, TIFF Nexus invited industry partners and pass holders to a panel on the future of cinema and Renga, an interactive cinematic experience that allows 100 audience members participate with each other with what they are seeing on the big screen.

Built by UK-based company wallFour, which was founded by former game developers Adam Russell and John Sear, Renga has remediated film to create an experience that well hasn’t been done in quite the same way ever before.

Armed with laser pointers, Renga sets audience members on a mission to collaborate and complete tasks during a 70-minute show. A live demo took place during the panel in which audience members had the chance to point lasers at star shaped invaders attacking a square which the audience was tasked to protect, prompted by lines of text which both criticize and encourage progress.

Renga is built in a way that if the audience does not collaborate and agree, they will be unable to make progress; multiple people have to point at the same thing for any impact to be made. At the same time, if a player goes rogue and does their own thing, it doesn’t break the game. Russell said that when the game has been played in a theatre setting, mini factions of the audience form with a collaborative mission and go up against others, leading to small groups yelling conflicting instructions at each other.

Both Russell and Sear said that while Renga is has characteristics of both cinema and a game, it is exclusively neither. Renga, like cinema, is shown in a theatre; however, the audience is encouraged to collaborate and communicate with each other and has an impact on the way the story unfolds.

Unlike a game, Renga has a predictable structure, outcome and running time. “It is a carefully planned dramatic experience, a show as much as a game,” explains Adam Russell. At the same time, Russell and Sear wanted the ability to tweak certain parts of the Renga based on live audience reaction, so they created a ‘game jockey’ feature using a tablet interface to control the show and instructional cues.  “We suddenly realized we were performing, it was a revelation for us,” added Russell.

When coming up with the idea for Renga, Russell and Sear’s background in game development led them to questions about how people enjoy media and games. While the popularity and rise of gaming was clear on consoles and online, there aren’t very many collaborative games. The Nintendo Wii made waves by adding physical interactivity and transcending the traditional gamer audience, but when playing on the console in groups, the player takes on a performance role—which isn’t something everyone is comfortable with or interested in.

Renga puts players in an anonymous role in an informal group audience that isn’t competitive, but collaborative. The system wasn’t designed for gamers at all, but the retro-arcade aesthetic might have you guessing. Moving forward, with time and more resources, Russell and Sear hope to give a bit more depth to the look of Renga.

Scalability is also an issue. The current set-up requires Russell and Sear to be onsite. They hope to develop a piece of hardware that can be purchased and provide alternate, stand-alone and programmable content to a theatre which is operable by any cinema employee. Russell said the goal for Renga is for it “not to be considered a warm-up act, but a stand-alone piece of film that could play in the cinema.”

While the current version of Renga could get old fast after playing it once, the technology and concept that drives the system has the potential to be integrated with all sort of stories and graphics. Collaboratively playing what is arguably a video game with a large group of mostly strangers could be your future Friday night plans.

In the meantime, you can experience Renga in real life.