Introducing: Lost Horizon

The minds behind Glastonbury’s after hours zone Shangri-La have a new virtual festival. But does it match up to the real thing? Andrew Anderson takes a tour with producer Robin Collings.

We’ve come a long way in six months.

Back in April we got our lockdown performance fix with lo-res videos of artists singing in their kitchens. Now we can attend a VR festival, complete with six stages, art gallery and merchandise stands. That festival is called Lost Horizon, and today I’m taking a virtual tour with one of its co-creators, Robin Collings.

“When the festival scene collapsed we were all looking at each other and asking ‘what are we going to do now?’” says Collings, who saw his usual summer gigs at Glastonbury and Boomtown cancelled. “We’re not the kind of people who sit around and wait, so we partnered with gaming company Sansar and we’ve built this mad world.”

I follow Rob’s avatar (who has a television for a head and a rainbow-striped jacket) as he walks between tall metallic towers, then steps through a shimmering blue portal as we enter one of the stages. Inside, silhouetted figures dance in front of an angular stage as lights spin around the room.

Avatars inside the ShiTV area at Lost Horizon
Avatars inside the ShiTV area at Lost Horizon

At this point I stop to ask Collings how long Lost Horizon took to put together – and I’m surprised by the answer.

“Sansar have been working on the backend over a number of years, but for us the creative build of this world was probably nine weeks,” he says. “That might seem fast, but in many ways it was just the same as producing any other festival – you have a budget, artistic ideas and a deadline. The only difference is now we’re working with strings of code and spending many hours with VR headsets on as we explore different ideas for the space.”

Essentially, Lost Horizon is a hybrid between a computer game and a streamed performance. The gaming part comes when you walk around the virtual world, chatting with other users and interacting with different objects. The performance part is the artists themselves, who appear as holograms on the different stages.

You can enjoy Lost Horizon via a VR headset as well as in a more traditional first-person format that will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a computer game. For those who just want to watch the performances themselves, without the VR hassle, that’s an option too.

The first edition of Lost Horizon took place in July and featured DJs and artists like Peggy Gou, Carl Cox, Alabama 3, Fatboy Slim, Frank Turner and Madame Electrifie. Tens of thousands of people attended, with millions more watching via streaming.

 Carl Cox performing on the Gas Tower stage at Lost Horizon 1
Carl Cox performing on the Gas Tower stage at Lost Horizon 1

But given they had such a short lead time, were there glitches with that first festival?

“The feedback from artists, managers and the audience has been incredible,” begins Collings. “But there were some technical issues. People who aren’t gamers, people who aren’t used to using this kind of software, struggled to navigate all of the options and found it a bit frustrating. So we’re working with Sansar to make the user experience a bit smoother. That will mainly through an app, which will provide all of the technical information and support so that audience members can tailor their experience however they want.

Next up for Lost Horizon is a series across December. Priced at USD10 (€8.50), artists include BLOND:ISH, The Martinez Brothers, Solardo, Armada Record Box, HospitalityDnB and Infected Mushroom. Tickets are on sale from 24 November.

I’m certainly impressed by Lost Horizon – for someone like myself who is completely unversed in VR, it’s an overwhelming experience, and I feel rather as though I’ve suddenly woken up in a future that I thought was several years away.

Kaye Dunnings and Rob Collings
Kaye Dunnings and Rob Collings

Collings says he felt something similar when he first tried out the finished product.

“When I first saw the finished article I was surprised,” he confirms. “It was amazing to me that I could meet my mates in this virtual world, watch an artist and sit on a sofa and chat. I was very surprised at how real it felt and how far the technology has advanced since I was last interested in computer games.”

He also believes that Lost Horizon captures the spirit of what makes festivals important: “Festivals create a space where the social rules are different and people can explore who they might be. They can experiment with different identities. That’s what excites and motivates me about this business.”

Collings doesn’t see Lost Horizon as a replacement for real-world festivals, but nor does he consider it a temporary fix. Instead, he and his colleagues are already thinking about events that combine both virtual and real elements.

“I think we can use this technology to augment real life events,” he comments. “Right now we’re experimenting with the idea of putting our Gas Tower stage up in real life, with a parallel virtual event. There will be a window between the two, so you can be partying in VR and looking through the window onto the dance floor in real life and visa versa. We want avatars and people to be dancing side by side, and hopefully even communicating with each other.

“I certainly don’t see it replacing live events though – all of us are gunning hard for live events to come back. It’s just an expansion of the reach of live events.”