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Innovative tech and shifting cultural attitudes are radically transforming entertainment

Virtual concerts and interactive cinema are transporting the audience in the middle of the action for an immersive experience.

[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Could you imagine an experience where you are teleported into a world of medieval knights squaring it off in the battlefield or in a cosmic epic with intergalactic warriors wielding lightsabers, being a part of every scene instead of watching it unfold from afar on a screen?

This possibility existed only in your imagination not too long ago, but soon you’ll be able to dive into an ecosystem that transforms that vision into reality with immersive tech and sophisticated hardware. 

Movie nights with friends in the Middle East were simply about sitting with your eyes glued to the big screen and munching popcorn while trying to figure out the plot, but now you get to call the shots, decide the lead character’s next move, and play a role in unraveling the mystery. 

All these experiences are coming to the region owing to innovation crafted for attracting audiences hooked to online entertainment back to movie halls and concerts, with the shift in cultural attitudes acting as a plot twist in the past few years. 

The wheels of change had been set in motion in Saudi Arabia when it started shedding a conservative attitude that had taken root in society after the Sahwa movement against arts, culture and music in the kingdom between 1980 and 2000. Cracks in the iron wall started appearing when World Wrestling Entertainment organized its first event in the kingdom in 2014. Still, all of us were caught by surprise when female wrestlers entered the ring in Saudi Arabia. 

We would’ve expected a gradual transition by shedding rigid norms from that point, but the kingdom stepped on the gas for its drive to promote art and culture by unlocking movie theatres in 2018, hosting international artists such as Mariah Carey and BTS, and unveiling a multi-genre music festival in 2019. The turning point for innovation in the region’s entertainment landscape came during the pandemic. The MDL Beast festival in Saudi Arabia went online for a multi-stage virtual event, headlined by global artists including Afrojack and Sasha. 

It broke the gloomy spell of a global crisis to deliver the live concert experience for us in the comfort of our living rooms, thanks to high-speed connectivity in the Gulf region, along with the availability of high-quality devices. For the UAE, a high point came when DJ David Guetta set up his turntable on top of the iconic Burj Al Arab and mesmerized fans through a virtual concert streamed globally. 


You’ve probably realized by now that work, play, or entertainment aren’t going to be the same as they were before the pandemic, and in the new normal, restrictions have made us adapt to hybrid spaces and mixed reality. Virtual concerts such as one that featured K-pop bands Mamamoo and B.I.G in the UAE have created a perfect launchpad for the metaverse to become a viable alternative for auditoriums and stadiums for live events.

In 2020, Dubai’s Global Village had set a record for the largest virtual rock concert ever by opening the digital stage for 2,500 artists from 80 countries to collaborate for a never-before-seen blend of sights and sounds. As of now, a newly launched firm called Animal Concerts in the UAE is recording live performances of artists such as Future, only to be recreated in the metaverse where you and I can relive the experience in a virtual realm.

The firm has recently signed up with pop-sensation Alicia Keys, who’ll perform for them in front of a green screen before being turned into an avatar of herself to be broadcast into another world created using blockchain. Apart from giving you a larger-than-life experience through VR headsets, this arrangement is also a win for artists who get half of the revenues from ticket and NFT sales.

If you let imagination run wild, you can even envision yourself in the virtual recreation of iconic concerts from a different era, in another part of the world, be it Queen’s explosive performance at Wembley in the 80s or the rooftop concert by The Beatles. Even regional legends like Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim Hafez may come to life in the metaverse for those of us who want to relive the classics.


The introduction of 3D visual effects gave us a glimpse of immersive cinema where characters emerge from the screen to look more alive. Then 4D upgraded the experience to make you feel rain, snowstorms, or vibrations during action sequences. 

Since we’ve already got you thinking about reliving historic moments in the metaverse, Dubai has just combined nostalgia with immersive graphics for fans of the iconic Men In Black franchise. At Dreamscape in the city, you get to suit up like Will Smith, put your VR headset on, hop on to hoverbikes, and zoom into a digital galaxy to hunt rogue aliens and save the universe.

As you imagine being part of other memorable movies, the Red Sea Resort in Saudi Arabia has already raised the bar with an award event featuring the best VR content created during 2021. In a matter of years after relaxing restrictions on movie theaters, the kingdom opened its doors for cinema lovers to teleport between virtual worlds and become a part of the visual narrative at Red Sea Immersive.

We know exactly what you’re thinking! And yes, this makes it possible for you to relive the most iconic sci-fi, period, and action flick ever made and play your own part in spinoffs of legendary movie franchises. But is being in the middle of a scripted narrative enough, or do you want to be more involved in the tale? 


The metaverse is rising, and soon, you’ll be meeting friends, attending gigs, fighting bad guys alongside movie stars, and will step inside the online arena simply by putting on a VR headset and controllers. But would you love to call the shots in a movie just the way your moves decide the outcome of a game? Suppose you’ve been following the evolution of streaming services. In that case, you probably know of content such as Black Mirror spinoff Bandersnatch, which had multiple endings based on different decisions made by the viewer on behalf of the lead.

Now, this very experience is being magnified on the big screen by the Al Futtaim group, which has rolled out the red carpet for audiences at Vox Cinemas in the Middle East, through an experience titled CTRL. Designed for interactive films produced by CtrlMovie, the system actually allows moviegoers to vote for multiple plot twists, which will lead to different outcomes on the screen.

The experience being introduced in the UAE and Saudi Arabia allows you to interact with characters and the story and relies on collective inputs from the entire audience, making them feel like storytellers in their own right.

The pace at which technology is transforming traditional entertainment and the overall movie-going experience in the Middle East makes it possible for innovative filmmakers, emerging musicians, and visual content creators to reach a larger audience. Beyond streaming services like Spotify and Anghami, the metaverse is a space where natural performers will generate a fan following and develop an image, translating into higher revenues.

Organizers will save a lot of money on arranging locations, bringing in the equipment, transporting artists, and ensuring security at live events, making it feasible for them to give a platform to fresh talent alongside established artists in the region. For the audience, this means spending less on traveling to another country or city to watch their favorite artist performing live, as virtual concerts become more realistic with time.


Aiyub Dawood is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East, who looks for practical application of technology. He explores the use of AI, innovation and data to solve everyday problems. More

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