Immersive tech and freelancing: An interview with Shehani Fernando

By Gemma Church
Freelance Writer

Freelance writer who specialises in business, technology and science.

Immersive technologies are opening a world of opportunities for freelancers, not just in the virtual realms they occupy, but in the real world of work too.

Immersive tech comes in two complementary flavours. There’s Virtual Reality (VR), where you’re taken to a simulated space and can interact with your imaginary surroundings. There’s also Augmented Reality (AR), where your real-world view is enhanced with digital images and other information. When you mix different aspects of VR and AR together, you get a format that’s (cleverly) called mixed reality.

We’ve seen a range of use cases in the world of work for these technologies, such as helping cardiologists as they plan and perform complex procedures or bringing a new dimension to workplace training schemes.

How can freelancers use immersive tech?

Firstly, there are opportunities for UX developers and designers. As we move away from the world of real 2D screens to virtual 3D landscapes, this opens a can of worms when it comes to creating a compelling user experience. In fact, the immersive tech digital skills gap is significant, and freelancers are perfectly placed to address this deficit as companies test the waters with such technologies.

Then, we have the world of design, where immersive tech could help create products with the swipe of a hand. Such scenes are reminiscent of films like Minority Report but we’re still waiting for a virtual world where we can seamlessly create new products without any physical prototypes.

The media industry is ahead of the curve, where immersive tech is already helping journalists and other industry professionals tell stories in a much more compelling way. 

We spoke with Shehani Fernando, an award-winning freelance VR director and filmmaker, who has been working with immersive tech for the last few years.

How did you develop your VR skills and what initially interested you about immersive tech as a creative freelancer?

I started freelancing in 2012 when I left The Guardian, having worked for several years as a video producer. A few years later, I saw they were moving into VR and contacted them at a time when they were crewing up for some new productions.

I hadn’t worked in VR before but as a filmmaker, the leap wasn’t so hard. I ended up freelancing as a director in their VR studio for 18 months making four films for them, which were all very different. Some were 360-degree films, others were interactive experiences – all grounded in journalism. We experimented with things like motion capture, scanned environments and placing the viewer in the shoes of a character.

The joy of VR is the variety of creative options you have to tell a story and the collaborative nature of working with sound designers, creative technologists, scriptwriters, etc. We are only just scratching the surface of what might be possible using AR, VR and mixed reality. Right now, large institutions from the Natural History Museum and Science Museum to the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] and Royal Opera House are all developing ways of using immersive tools to create new ground-breaking work.

How do you use immersive tech in your work and what have you been working on recently?

Immersive tech can be many different things, from using binaural audio to give the audience a greater sense of being in a particular place, to creating experiences that might monitor the user’s breath or heartbeat. Each project demands different tools depending on what the vision for the final piece might be.

At the moment, I’m producing a VR experience with filmmaker Victoria Mapplebeck about breast cancer, based on hours of vérité audio (realistic and natural) that she recorded during her diagnosis and treatment. I’ve also been developing an AR experience around birdsong and extinction, which is an important topic.

Is VR/AR an upcoming medium in the creative industry in your opinion? And do you think your skills in this area make you stand out from others working in a similar sphere?

While the take-up of headsets hasn’t been as huge as the tech companies predicted, I do feel there is still a lot of potential in the immersive space. At the moment, I’m interested in location-based VR where audiences book in to see something genuinely interactive or involving actors and a more theatrical setting.

Augmented reality definitely has huge potential since many phones and tablets are now equipped with the ability to use AR apps and there is less of a barrier to entry – we’re starting to see some amazing apps, from functional brilliance like Google Translate using your camera to Wonderscope for kids and the BBC’s Civilisations AR.

Increasingly, there are more and more immersive and VR courses for people who are interested in finding out more about the tech and what’s required to develop these experiences. Lots of traditional skills like good editorial judgement and storytelling are still vital, so I think it’s about finding your niche in the industry.

To see more of Shehani’s work for The Guardian, download The Guardian VR app for iOS or Android