I’m going to begin this article with a couple of questions:
Are you a member of any fandoms and have you ever found further things you enjoy through interacting with that fandom and the entertainment source that acts as its nucleus?
Intriguing questions, right? Why on earth would I even ask that, at the top of a piece about virtual reality and stand up comedy? Well, let me tell you all about it…
This journey starts with a well known YouTube personality, Mr Stuart Ashen, custodian of the famous Ashens channel, on which he reviews junk from pound shops, retro video games and also makes actual movies, he’s a really funny guy and I recommend that folks check out his work. I’ve been a fan of Ashen’s work for about a decade and so was pretty interested when he joined forces with fellow YouTuber and cookery wunderkind Barry Lewis for Barshens, a bizarre variety show in which the two stars would challenge each other to various games and competitions.
Through Barshens I was further introduced to regular guest Eli Silverman and the show’s producer, Paul Gannon, hosts of the Cheapshow podcast (check out my previous article about that podcasts’ adventure game magazine). I’m still an avid fan of that podcast to this day and, on an early episode, they had as a guest Australian comedian Bec Hill. Bec was a good laugh, more than able to keep up with Paul and Eli’s high energy levels and anarchic nature, and that episode remains one of my favourites over 100 entries later, mainly down to the fact that Bec was the first professional stand up comedian that I laughed at in years. Bec also guested in an episode or two of Barshens later on, which was a really fun surprise for me as she got stuck in with the guys’ ridiculous antics with gusto.
So that, dear readers, is the story of how I had my faith in comedy restored, in an era when the comedians you see on TV (at least here in the UK) spout out the same old jokes on panel shows until they fade into obscurity or else try to copy Frankie Boyle or Peter Kay until they get a toothless chat show on ITV2 or something. So I’d like to thank all of the players involved, and perhaps give something back to this excellent community of people.
And so here I am, to take a dive into Bec Hill’s comedy performance, I’ll Be Bec. Only it doesn’t just stop there folks, for this will be a bit of tech piece too, as I’ll Be Bec is now available on LIVR, a subscription virtual reality service that puts you, the viewer, right into the front row of theatre shows from all over the world.
Intrigued? Then read on…
Let us begin with getting the technical bit out of the way and looking into LIVR. This is essentially a subscription service, which costs £5.99 a month here in the UK. It allows users to access one theatre performance a month for free, which can then be watched using your smartphone and the provided VR headset. If you wish to consume more than one show a month then you can bung a few extra pounds their way and purchase another performance. It’s a simple system which essentially guarantees one theatre “visit” a month, a VR headset thrown in with the subscription and the ability to unlock more if your wallet can handle it.
I was lucky enough to chat, via email, to LIVRs’ creator, Leo Kellgren-Parker, who explained the thought process that conceived the service and what it stands for today.
Leo first came up with the idea for LIVR around three years ago. The idea was sparked when he saw just how far virtual reality cameras had evolved since, as he quite brilliantly put it, the Lawnmower Man days. As the technology became more portable and lightweight, Leo mused that it could also, in his words, “truly be used for access”. He further explained his thoughts on this, ruminating that the only barriers stopping people from seeing live shows the world over are physical in nature, for instance venue capacities and straight up geography (for instance, not everyone can make it to the Edinburgh Fringe!) And so the idea for the LIVR service was born, creating a way for potentially limitless people to attend shows, at any time they desire.
That second point is something worth talking about too, as Leo himself put it, LIVR creates a “living record” of all of the shows on the service, essentially allowing them to be watched over and over again and perhaps even gain new followings and popularity after the fact.
Leo goes on to point out that LIVR isn’t just for the audience’s sake either, it strongly benefits the performers too. Their work can now be viewed anywhere in the world, allowing them to tap new audiences which they never could before, something which has captured the imagination of many forward thinking artists, including Bec Hill, though more about that later!
Also pointed out by Leo is the fact that VR is pretty much as immersive as it gets, allowing for deeper attachment to the content due to that “really there” feeling that the medium provides, it is, the LIVR founder mused, entirely possible to forget that one is even wearing a headset after a few minutes (my thoughts on this are coming up).
Leo rounded out his thoughts with a very interesting thought: virtual reality is a constantly evolving technology. Whilst it’s impressive now, in the age of affordable headsets for your phone, console VR and the almighty Oculus, just imagine where it will be a couple of years from now.
But what are my thoughts on LIVR, having joined up to experience I’ll Be Bec and the other theatrical offerings it has to give?
Well straight off the bat, let’s talk headsets. When you sign up, LIVR sends out a headset as part of the deal, at no extra cost above the monthly subscription. This is a really nice idea and really does show that LIVR values accessibility for its’ customers. Actions speak louder than words, for sure. The headset sent to me was a Bobova Z4 Mini, made from white and clear plastic. It has a soft, cushioned surround around the lens, to guarantee comfort to the user over long periods, a comfortable fabric harness that goes around and over the top of the users’ head and is adjustable via velcro pads and an openable panel at the front which allows the user to easily place their smartphone in the correct position to line up with the lens. The smartphone itself is pushed against a foam backing when the hatch closes, to stop it from rattling around and potentially getting scratched. The Bobova is also equipped with a set of dials to finely adjust the image, something which came in extremely handy for me as I usually wear glasses and the extra fine tuning really came in handy to compensate for my dodgy vision.
The hardware is very good, especially for free. What about the software?
I have installed the LIVR app on my Google Pixel 1, running Android 10. The app is built in the Unity engine and runs well. The menus run smoothly and are easy to read through the headset and, once watching the show, I encountered very little latency or buffering on my home broadband, with only a few hangups creeping in while my wife was streaming YouTube videos to our Chromecast at the same time, though to be fair this probably says more about our home internet setup than the LIVR app. Once I accessed I’ll Be Bec and started watching my mind was blown by just how immersive the whole experience is. I’m sure we’ve all heard the marketing and hyperbole around these products but, I must admit, it is pretty impressive. The first thing I did, before poor Bec had even stepped out onto the stage, was to look around me. There’s the ceiling grid, there’s the floor and, as I stand in the middle of my living room slowly spinning on the spot, there’s the audience sat around the 360 camera (or me) and nattering between themselves as the lights drop, it truly is like being there in the flesh.
But what if you need to pause the show whilst you pour yourself a rum and coke, or visit the ablutions, or feed your needy, whinging cats? It’s not like LIVR emblazons a big navigation menu over the top of the show, that would ruin the immersion completely. Well, as it happens, there is one, it’s just hidden. To access the controls, one only has to look down at your feet, for the menu button is cunningly hidden there. Pointing the little central dot in your vision at it (the gamer in me keeps wanting to call it the crosshair) for a few seconds will allow the menu to pop up and you’re good to go.
LIVR’s app really is easy to use and the shows themselves are brilliantly set up and optimised. The only issue I had with the whole thing is that the menu was a little hard to navigate at first. Shows are laid out as a wall of large thumbnail images, activated by hovering over them with your dot/crosshair. The problem I found is that shows are selected from the list very quickly once your dot is hovered over them, as a result of this I was accidentally clicking into shows constantly whilst trying to browse. The other issue I encountered, and this is a VR wide issue so not LIVR’s fault in any way, is that my poor Pixel became incredibly hot after 30 minutes of viewing. This unwelcome heat was also accompanied by a massive drop in battery power which meant my phone had to be placed back on charge pretty much instantly once the handset cooled down. Again, not LIVR’s fault, but certainly something that needs keeping in mind for those with older phones.
And that, my friends, is LIVR. A solid headset, a well designed app and a reasonable subscription service that guarantees at least one show per month, with extra shows available at an affordable price. So now we know all about that, let’s have a look at the show which brought me to the platform in the first place, shall we?
I’ll Be Bec
I’ll Be Bec is a rather imaginative and out there comedy show borne from the mind of one Bec Hill, an Australian comedian living in the United Kingdom. If I had to describe Bec’s approach to comedy in one phrase, I suppose it would be “eccentric, respectful and lovably silly”.
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, I first stumbled across Bec’s comedy styling via the Cheapshow podcast and Barshens YouTube show. Both have a fine pedigree of guest comedians and Bec was very much among the best of them, offering friendly banter whilst keeping up with the likes of the anarchic Paul Gannon and Eli Silverman, let alone Stuart Ashen and Barry Lewis over on Barshens. As also previously mentioned, Bec’s more out there take on comedy is very welcome to me. I have been burned out on stand up comics in recent years as the scene in the UK just seems very “me too” and mean spirited these days. Comedians either end up having watered down variety/chat shows, filling the ranks on unfunny panel shows or else trying to copy Peter Kay’s observational jokes or Frankie Boyle’s edgy offensiveness until they fade into obscurity as just another wannabe.
Now let’s take a look at the show itself. I’ll Be Bec has a rather fun central premise: what if somebody visited the future and it was just weird? Well Bec Hill has done that, in her time travelling gear (a Doctor Who poncho as a protective suit and a cardboard Becks beer crate as a helmet) and with a little help from some backstage special effects and whizzbangery. Bec includes the audience from the very beginning, offering them the chance to ask some questions about what she has seen in the far flung future before launching into one of her absolute best routines, the giant flip books.
The first of these is what the future holds for the X-Men movie franchise. The suggested titles range from basic punnery (Professor Eggs, anyone?) to the straight up weird (Magneto, But With Dogs!)
Bec’s greatest strength is, however, her power to mislead the audience and then deliver an almighty twist (and how many comedy sets have twists?) that took me entirely by surprise and really added a whole new layer to the show. The Big twist comes at roughly the halfway mark and, whilst I refuse to spoil it for you all by going into too much detail, I do have to say that the host does a most excellent job of misleading us all as to what the show actually is and, for those who have perhaps not seen Bec Hill’s comedy before, completely dupe the image of her that you had built up from the start of this show. At first Bec cuts the image of a lovable goofball very well, laughing along with the audience and, maybe, leading them to believe that she’s a lot more nervous than she actually is, only to blow everything out of the water at the mid point. When the mid-act twist hit I was genuinely amazed at its originality and sense of fun.
I would love to tell you more about the many things that made me laugh in this show but the fear of spoilers is very real, Bec’s constant twisting surprises are a joy to see for the first time and I’d be a villain indeed if I just swooped in and stole her thunder!
I have been lucky enough to converse with Bec during the research and writing of this piece and she very kindly took the time to answer a couple of burning questions that I had for her.
My first question was, perhaps, the most obvious one: what on earth encourages somebody to do a comedy show about going to the future?
Well, like so many people who I have met online and throughout my life, Bec Hill is a huge fan of science fiction and, in her own words, “I grew up on Doctor Who, Back to the Future, Bill & Ted, Futurama, Red Dwarf etc, so I knew some sort of futuristic show was inevitable.”
This is something which I can only get behind, as I believe that science fiction isn’t just a fantastical window into the future, but can also be used as a proxy for exploring the past and even current events (I mean how many sci-fi concepts are just historical events but with more robots?). But this wasn’t the whole reason for I’ll Be Bec, indeed Bec’s second reason is a pretty powerful one indeed. Underpinning the whole concept was Bec’s growing sense of anxiety about the future, something which I know many of us share and have trouble articulating in these rather dark days at the end of the 2010s. Everywhere I look online seems to be filled with toxic arguments over politics, culture and society. People even threaten death to each other over Pokemon these days and it’s all very miserable. My solution is to try and spread a little joy back into the world, maybe you have your own techniques for making the world a better place and dealing with the horror show it currently is?
When Bec Hill was scared about the future, she wrote a comedy show about it and, in doing so, “attended lectures, read books (and) interviewed professional Futurists”
To put it plainly, she did a lot of research into the way the world is going as a backbone for I’ll Be Bec. Despite Bec’s initial worry that immersing herself into this world would make her feel worse, it actually reinstated in her “hope I was worried I’d lost forever”. I am happy to report that you can very much see this reflected in Bec’s performance during the show too, the enthusiasm and happiness is real and obvious to all who watch it.
My second question, perhaps a more general one, was to ask Bec how she would describe her own brand of comedy, as I was interested to see if she saw her own work the same way we as viewers. The main word she threw up in her reply was “surprising”, which I can definitely get on board with. Original comedy is a bit of an oxymoron these days, with many popular comedians being very much reiterations of cts that came before. It’s great to see a comedian who goes so far as to introduce interactive physical elements like flipbooks, visual gags, some pyrotechnics and even an actual plot twist halfway through a live comedy show, as opposed to mean spiritedly poking fun at people or talking about things we have all experienced, “I get that reference!” humour. I think Bec put it best herself:
“I like all my shows to have a wait, what? moment. A moment that reminds you – even if minutely – that you’re alive”
The virtual reality world of I’ll Be Bec, made possible by LIVR and created by the inimitable Bec Hill, really opened my eyes to both the practical usage of VR, providing people from all walks of life access to all kinds of content, and the fact that comedy isn’t as dead to me as I thought it was, for there are comedians who you may not see on Would I Lie to You or some throwaway Dave series who are actually delivering heartfelt, good natured and, yes, surprising new brands of comedy to us all.
For my money, it’s well worth picking up LIVR just to watch I’ll Be Bec from the front row, as if you too were in a hot little room in Edinburgh last August, for that was truly a show worth attending.