Ashia Bison Rouge performing in the ‘Summer Nights’ VR experience

Dwell and Wander: The Non-Narrative Potential of VR

Approaching virtual reality as a visual artist, not filmmaker.

Claudia M Maharaj
Jun 22, 2017 · 3 min read

bout a year ago I began thinking about how I wanted to approach VR creation. I came to the conclusion that looking at this medium from a visual artist’s perspective seemed more fitting than approaching it as an extension of filmmaking. In a previous article I wrote, I had decided:

It has become clear to me that the pure visceral language of emotion present in both the visual arts and music can be combined into a state that is more personal than any film, song or painting; to provide ‘whole experiences’

After recently reading Peter Rojas’ article We’ve Been Wrong About What Makes for Great VR, and hearing a few more industry rumblings, I thought now would be a good time to further expand on my thinking as a VR content creator and talk about my work.

Following my visual art approach decision, I began to collaborate with VisitoRs Studio in Berlin. Rachael Newport from VisitoRs Studio and I sat down together to come up with a functional concept for experiencing music and art in a Virtual Reality context. Early on we decided simplicity and comfort were the key to creating a visceral VR space for a viewer to inhabit. In more of a meditation vein, we wanted the experience to be relaxed rather than something that was hyper-stimulating. We also believed that the notion of simplicity would allow the viewer’s mind to be free and contemplative rather than forcing them to make specific decisions about their experience through stimulus. Taking inspiration from a live performance production that I was working on with musician Ashia Bison Rouge, in which Ashia transformed the visual feeling of my paintings into evocative music, we asked her to join us on this project. She composed and performed two pieces inspired by two of my paintings, with our aim to create two different VR experiences.

‘Summer Nights’ is the first of these experiences, which is currently at a proof of concept stage in its development. In setting the parameters for viewer functionality, we decided to make this a seated experience, that placed the viewer directly in between the art and Ashia’s performance. However, we did not want this to mean the viewer had to be constantly turning around. This lead us to implement a 180º switchable view control that would enable the viewer to switch their position by 180˚, while still maintain the possibility to manually turn around if they preferred. We also added simple back and forth features to enable the viewer to move closer or further away from either Ashia or the painting.

Recorded walk-through of the experience

In building the environment our initial idea was to create a gallery space that had plain white walls and spotlights, but when I heard the music Ashia had composed it caused me to rethink the space. I realised the experience would be more evocative within a customised exhibition space that complimented the painting and music. Rachael and I had been throwing around the idea of an ‘art-vault’ so I decided to run with this, creating a dark concrete-like space with a high ceiling and ambient blue light that matched the tone of the painting. I liked the way the lights hung mysteriously in the space and decided that I did not need to build lamps for them to sit in; this was virtual reality after all so why shouldn’t it possess some magic? This idea also influenced my decision to then create synesthetic particle effects around Ashia and the painting, bringing form to their energy. After recording Ashia’s performance, sound designer Lukas Panayi mixed the sound according to the texture and spatial dynamics of the environment I had built and set it up for 360˚ playback within the experience.

In creating this work we were not trying to emulate game design or 360˚ filmmaking. Rather, as a proof of concept experience, ‘Summer Nights’ looks towards a creative direction that explores VR as a place where one’s mind can dwell and wander in a non-narrative and whole experience context.

Thank you also to Sebastian Himberger for the scripting help which made the complete experience possible.

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