The fifth Places Festival was the biggest Places Festival ever: Starting on 16 May, seven sub-events spread across the city of Gelsenkirchen showcased the latest in virtual and augmented reality. They offered virtual experiences for a total of ten days. On 25 May, the main day of the festival, all seven locations were open to visitors at the same time. The diverse programme ranged from a virtual journey through European football stadiums to digital solutions for strengthening democracy and a virtual reality opera.

The fact that pioneering technologies and technology trends would once again be part of this year’s Places Festival was made clear by the FeVR Pitches exhibition at its opening on 16 May (Thursday). In St Joseph’s Church in Gelsenkirchen-Schalke, six European football stadiums from the Netherlands to Bosnia were waiting to be discovered with VR glasses. The faithful 3D reproductions were created using Gaussian splatting. This rendering technology makes it possible to create virtual images of real places based solely on image and video material. The FeVR pitches almost became a crowd favourite. The exhibition attracted hundreds of football and technology enthusiasts to St Joseph’s Church. FeVR Pitches was part of the official art and culture programme for UEFA EURO 2024.

The next venue opened its doors on 21 May (Tuesday). The Tech for Good exhibition took visitors into XR worlds that contribute to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals – right in the centre of Gelsenkirchen. In the old Colosseum, an abandoned textile shop, they were able to use VR glasses to explore a virtual coral reef or transform the old shop space into a biotope using AR applications on tablets. At the official opening, entrepreneur Melusine Reimers gave a brief introduction to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and showed how founders can realise them.

One day later (Wednesday), the play Am Ende der Welt by MiR.LAB (Musiktheater im Revier) celebrated its premiere almost directly next door in the Bahnhofcenter as part of the Places Festival. The walk-in sci-fi XR chamber music theatre took the audience into a dystopian future scenario of the year 2032 in 15 performances, each lasting 45 minutes with VR glasses.

On 25 May (Saturday), values were then examined in the context of XR in the Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche in Gelsenkirchen-Ückendorf. The programme item XR for the People of Europe posed the question of how AR and VR can strengthen European values and democracy. Practical answers were provided by the seven applications, which visitors were able to test extensively. Belgian digital artist Laurien Michiels presented her virtual fable “The Room of Resonance”, which deals with the question of how social media shapes our perception of the world. Various talks and discussion panels took place on the stage of the Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, providing insights into the latest technologies and trends. The highlight was the final panel talk on Saturday evening. For two hours, experts from the European XR scene and politics discussed how Europe can better position itself as a technology centre and its values in virtual worlds.

Right next door in the mxr lab, visitors were able to experience the works of the Places Residency. They were created by the three international digital artists Kazuki Taguchi, Ines Hilz and Manuel Ribeiro. The three had previously lived in the Kreativ.Quartier Ückendorf for a week as artists in residence. Based on their experiences, they created the applications that linked the virtual and physical realities of the neighbourhood around Bochumer Straße. They presented their artworks to the public as part of the Places Festival.

If you wanted to find out how to work with digital tools yourself, the ℅ Space for Cooperation a few metres away was the place to be. In four workshops, beginners and advanced users had the opportunity to deepen their knowledge in the areas of XR, AI and game design. In the “AR DIY” workshop, Conrad Dreyer from KreativInstitut.OWL showed participants how to create an AR application using open source tools. In the practical part, he was on hand with help and advice.

During the final panel talk, Vienna-based XR entrepreneur Gabriella Chihan Stanley summarised: “There is no point in developing spectacular technologies that only remain spectacular for the creators. It has to reach people’s hearts and offer them added value. And to do this, people must be able to understand technologies.” The Places Festival once again provided this opportunity this year.

Rewatch our panel: XR Together in Europe