Horizon Blog

Future Festivals – Exploring online and hybrid festival opportunities

I don’t know if you noticed, but 2020/21 has been a bit of a rough time for festivals. No gathering in public spaces, no public performances, no sitting around on the grass with a glass of something cold discussing the latest band or the latest comedy performance. For many, the loss of such an integral part of our summers really hurt. Of course, nothing drives innovation like adversity – countless bands, performers and festivals turned to the internet to reach their audiences – the online festival arrived all of a sudden, with everybody doing the best they could with the tools available. Going online was an imperfect solution – leading to a substantially reduced social experience for many people, and many more simply didn’t attend. However, audiences were distributed and expanded, local bands and clubs saw their audiences spread across the globe, and people could suddenly access content they never could have before – all thanks to the shift online.

Horizon researchers were part of this response: delivering the “Voxjam” festivals online in August and November of 2020. Taking a step back and learning from our experiences, we now seek to consider what is the future of festivals? Taking them online was not exclusively an exercise in making them worse – there were many benefits around access, diversity, flexibility and more. In this project we question how to take and keep the best aspects of online festivals as we stand on the brink of a return to normal physical festivals. How can online festivals stay relevant when competing with real physical events, and how can we take the best of that digital experience and bring it into the physical world?

Following on from our previous work with the Creative industries, Horizon’s Co-Production Campaign project ‘Future Festivals’ will now further explore technologies for the co-production and delivery of blended festivals using the ‘performance-led research in the wild approach’.



Future Festivals will develop a new VR/360 platform built alongside and interacting with the Streampark web platform to enhance and support the experiences of performers, producers and both local and remote audiences. Together in partnership with Oxfam, Live Cinema and Streampark, we will iteratively develop and deploy the platform over three festivals and study hybridity and liveness among other emergent themes.

We consider that festivals are social: Rather than thinking of how to stream content to individuals, we focus on how digital technologies can support the wider social experience of festivals in terms of rich communication between performers and audiences, social interaction among attending friends and family, the sense of being in and belonging to a wider crowd, and support for teams of producers and community volunteers. The technology underpinning our platform (e.g. VR/360) lends itself to exploring such shared experiences. We also consider the need for hybridity: the flexible blending of physical and online festival experiences is a core goal of our project, including showing the presence of virtual audiences to performers and enabling all stakeholders to flexibly engage with the wider festival experience, such as into their homes and community spaces. Finally, but by no means least important, we consider how to ensure that festivals are trusted: our project foregrounds key aspects of establishing trust including moderation support for safe experiences, managing rights to ensure that performers and organisers are not legally at risk, and the handling of personal data about audiences.

Our team: The team is led by Dr Paul Tennent, an Assistant Professor in the Mixed Reality Laboratory with a research focus on mixed reality cultural experiences. He has an extensive track record over the last decade of delivering high profile public-facing experiences, including the critically acclaimed Thresholds and Eye as Witness projects. He has been involved in pilot work on online festivals over the last year, and has taken on roles including performer, audience, technician, and host. Next, we have Dr Sarah Martindale, a Nottingham Research Fellow in Cultural, Media and Visual Studies whose research responds to calls for greater digital experimentation in arts and cultural sectors, now made more pressing by the COVID-19 crisis. Sarah will lead on understanding audience experience of the project. Finally, Professor Steve Benford, Professor of Collaborative Computing at the Mixed Reality Laboratory is exploring the development of mixed reality technologies to support the cultural and creative industries. Steve will lead on understanding the real-world delivery of future festivals, including performer experience. We also have a fantastic group of researchers to bring the project to fruition: Dr Adrian Hazzard, Dr Pepita Barnard, Dr Patrick Brundell, Edgar Bodiaj and Michael Mee.

We are excited to imagine what festivals of the future might look like, and our starting point is to consider the future of online festivals. How can we make these feel more “together”?

Our work commences with supporting Inspire Music and Stream Park to deliver UPBEAT Festival of Culture Learning and Wellbeing on the 22nd July. The festival builds on last year’s UPLOAD virtual festival which brought together over 150 acts and organisations.



UPBEAT, forms an interactive ‘digital park’ and will include local artists, community groups, schools and some of Nottingham’s well-known arts organisations, including Nottingham Playhouse, Inspire Youth Arts, Inspire Libraries, Community Recording Studio and both the University of Nottingham and Trent University. In a step up from many online festivals, here there are more opportunities for interaction – both with a video audience wall, so audiences and performers can see who’s watching (assuming they want to share), and in chat at global, local and group levels. Upbeat will help us understand how groups consume online festival experiences together and inform the design of our platform.



The event has something for everyone including music, theatre, dance, comedy, poetry and art and centres around a live singing event with inspirational singing leader, vocal coach and choral director Mark De-Lisser.  More information about UPBEAT can be accessed here.


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