Mixing Reality

By Lucy Sollitt

enter wonder.land, National Theatre. Photo by Richard Davenport

The idea of virtual reality (VR) may have been around as far back as 1935, but it’s really in the past couple of years — with the growth of affordable headsets — that it’s come into its own. In 2017, a flurry of virtual reality experiences will be launched by artists, filmmakers, designers and even new VR focused creative studios.

Audience interest and demand is high, but really high-quality experiences remain relatively rare. It’s still early days for defining the language of virtual experiences. Vital elements — such as plot, installation, and the use of physical and digital objects in a space — still feel haphazard. There aren’t many ‘exemplar’ experiences yet, but several creators are taking important steps towards a new language of mixed reality artwork.

Testing the scope of VR

The film and documentary industry was one of the first to pick up the new medium. Events such as Sundance Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and Sheffield Doc Fest have showcased VR films for several years. Games companies have been involved in the development of VR since the 1990s, and the market for VR games is worth billions of dollars. But to really open up the possibilities of the medium, it needs creators who are happy to work outside those industries’ expectations.

At Art Miami 2016, it was the VR projects that created the biggest buzz. More VR, augmented and mixed reality presentations are being developed to be showcased at festivals, fairs, exhibitions and installations. Specialist commercial studios are growing, arts organisations have also been setting up their own R&D labs — some with a commercial angle. Punchdrunk’s Fallow Cross village and the National Theatre’s Immersive Storytelling Studio were both developed in 2016, while Abandon Normal Devices has been researching new production and distribution models for mixed reality. Funders such as Arts Council England and BFI are supporting R&D and new productions.

Expressive potential

DUST, Andrej Boleslavský and Mária Júdová. DUST was produced by Carmen Salas with the support of Arts Council England and Rambert Dance Company

Artists and programmers Mária Júdová and Andrej Boleslavský, at Rambert’s inaugural Sprint residency programme, illustrate one way artists are exploring the expressive potential of mixed reality. Their project, Dust, involved creating a range of prototypes using 3D image capture and VR to develop new approaches to choreography. Dancers were able to explore new perspectives on their own movement by interacting with real-time animations and virtual versions of themselves, which enhanced and extended the dancers’ bodies. As Júdová and Boleslavský explained in Postmatters: “As an improvisational tool, VR can inspire creative movements; as an educational tool, it can record choreography and encourage public engagement, and, for us, it is a tool for endless artistic expression.”

In the Eyes of the Animal, by creative studio Marshmallow Laser Feast, enabled viewers to discover Hamsterley Forest through the eyes of insects and woodland creatures in an animated and sonic journey, as part of Abandon Normal Devices 2015 festival. Marshmallow Laser Feast used lidar scans, drones, and bespoke 360 cameras and audio recordings to interpret the sensory perspectives of the animals, putting the audience in their place. The piece has been touring the UK at places such as Bluedot Festival and Brighton Digital Festival as well as internationally, and is available as a 360-degree film online at The Space. Marshmallow Laser Feast explored a similar approach with its latest piece Tree Hugger.

Taking you closer

Boiler Room

There have been many explorations of VR that take the audience somewhere else — whether it’s to a remote landscape or putting you in another person’s shoes as in Home: Aamir. Online music community Boiler Room has been exploring how to take this a step further. In October 2016, Boiler Room announced it is launching the world’s first made-for-VR music venue, giving its international fans real-time access to its live music performances. Founder Blaise Bellville told the BBC it will “bring people closer to what it’s like being at a sweaty rave halfway across the world”. While this is in development, Boiler Room is creating experiences on Google Daydream which take you to different dance floors around the world.

Working with Inition studio, the London Philharmonia recently launched a new VR experience, The Virtual Reality Orchestra. This took audiences into the heart of the orchestra as it performed the final movement of Sibelius’s fifth symphony. Increasing the intensity of the performance was a key driver behind the project. As Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen explained in The Guardian: “To really understand how a symphony orchestra works you have to be on stage, among your colleagues, in front of the conductor, with this barrage of sound coming at you from all directions.”

Blending physical and digital

Hi! I’m happy you’re here!, augmented reality sculpture, phone app, London, Adham Faramawy, 2015

Blending the physical with the virtual through VR is fertile ground for exploration. It takes VR beyond being merely being a headset and into an experience where objects, sculpture and even smells are incorporated. Developments such as Hololens and Magic Leap are likely to expand the possibilities further.

Pioneer of interactive theatre, Punchdrunk, is leading the way in incorporating VR into physical immersive experiences. Believe Your Eyes, a Punchdrunk International collaboration with Samsung, was a visceral one-to-one theatrical experience mixing images, performance, movement and touch to tell a story. Incorporating objects and physical spaces within VR enables the audience to become active participants — a theme Punchdrunk is exploring with its forthcoming project, The Oracle. Meanwhile, interactive film-maker Karen Palmer has been using the biodata of players to direct their virtual experience in interactive simulations such as Syncself and Riot.

The Serpentine Gallery recently launched Zaha Hadid: Virtual Reality experiences by Zaha Hadid Architects in partnership with Google Arts & Culture. It’s the Serpentine’s first VR experience, and offers new ways of exploring paintings by Hadid on show in the gallery. Hadid used painting to think about and create the designs for new buildings. The VR experience enables viewers to explore her process in a new way. Shezad Dawood’s recent exhibition Kalimpong at Timothy Taylor gallery also sought to incorporate the virtual with the physical. Dawood combined VR, textiles and sculpture to create a layered experience of time and narratives surrounding the small West Bengal town of Kalimpong. The exhibition also tried to expose audiences to the limitations of VR.

In January, The Royal Academy launched Virtually Real, working in collaboration with HTC Vive and RA graduates Adham Faramawy and Elliot Dodds, and student Jessy Jetpacks. These artists created simulated worlds and used tools like Tilt Brush by Google to paint in virtual 3D space. Audiences could move through and interact with these virtual installations and view the creative process using a Vive headset. The artworks were also 3D-printed, and the resulting objects exhibited alongside the virtual installation.

Layering and effects

The Tempest, RSC 2016. Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC

Virtual realities are also being layered onto the physical world, using new kinds of projection. With augmented reality predicted to be a higher growth market than VR, we can certainly expect more of this.

The approach taken by the National Holocaust Centre and Museum illustrates how the technology can give people a chance to connect to powerful stories in new ways. Forever Project uses life-sized 3D holographic projection and sophisticated speech recognition to give participants the opportunity to have a conversation with Holocaust survivors.

Meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company has been working with Intel and The Imaginarium studio to explore new ways to integrate technology into performances. The recent run of The Tempest featured an actor and a projected digital avatar live on stage. The RSC describes it as an attempt to create “21st-century magic”.

Embodiment

Sidsel Meineche Hansen. DICKGIRL 3D(X), 2016, virtual reality and CGI animation. Courtesy of the artist. Credit: Werkflow Ltd, London. Commissioned by Gasworks in partnership with Trondheim kunstmuseum

Some artists are creating work that explicitly explores how VR is affecting our sense of embodiment — described by Gabrielle Jenks as “what it feels like to own, to control and to be inside a body”.

Notes on Blindness by Peter Middleton and James Spinney is one example of this use of VR. The film takes the viewer into writer John Hull’s world as his sight vanishes after years of deterioration. Artist Ed Fornieles’s VR installation, Truth Table, at Basement Roma gallery, takes the viewer into a changing host of bodies as they engage in a chain of sexual interactions. The cycle of bodies is generated through a randomised algorithm designed to highlight and subvert the kinds of ‘filter bubbles’ we typically experience online.

Meanwhile, artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s recent exhibition, SECOND SEX WAR, at Gasworks Gallery explores the ethics of intimacy in VR. The exhibition included an immersive pornographic CGI animation (created with Werkflow studio) reflecting on how virtual bodies are being portrayed and interacted with.

These explorations not only lead us to reflect on ourselves, but also they disrupt our ability to ‘turn a blind eye’. Audiences are having more emotional responses than films, writing or art may otherwise have provoked.

More to come

Artists are finding new ways to explore the expressive and experiential potential of virtual and augmented reality. Their approaches can help define a language for these mediums, as well as reflect on the kinds of experiences we want to have with the technology. The range of projects underway, combined with increasingly affordable technology and the potential reach in creative and commercial contexts, make this a powerful medium to be exploring right now.