My most recent virtual reality-related project, VR Playground, has just premiered at Norfolk & Norwich Festival, and is now heading out on a 3-year European tour. In VR Playground I collide millennia-old technology – the playground swing – with 21st-century virtual reality. I use VR to change my rider’s perception of swinging, and to amplify their experience. I re-present forces that my rider feels in reality, which they originally perceived to be associated with the oscillatory locomotion of swinging, as the result of some other fantastical dynamic physical movement. The movements I create are reinforced using spatial visual and audio artefacts presented through VR. So, if you can imagine undulating upwards, speeding along canyons, bounding across ravines, or swooping through structures accompanied by swing-generated soundtracks, with wind whistling through your hair and the visceral sensation of achieving ‘air time’, then you start to get the idea.
VR Playground is the final incarnation of a series of prototypes, originally called Oscillate, which started life as a commission for Site Gallery’s VR Arcade – part of Sheffield Doc Fest 2015. In Oscillate I present a purposefully-rudimentary CGI representation of the gallery space, devoid of people or objects. Visitors are presented with a real swing, hung from the gallery ceiling, and a VR headset. Once seated, hooded and swinging, I monitor the motion of my rider and match the camera position in CGI. This is a moderately interesting technological achievement, but it is just a means to an end. I now have control a new medium – the perception of motion. In Oscillate, I amplify the virtual angle of swinging, to make my rider feel as if they are swinging much too high. I go further by zooming the floor away (referencing Hitchcock’s filmic techniques pioneered in Vertigo). In short: within limits, I make my rider believe that they are physically doing something else – they enter a state of virtual corporeality.
At this point, we could delve into a whole history of related psychology experiments, which have been moved forward in the digital age by the Human Computer Interaction research community. Together we could spend 5 long years conducting lab-based academic studies to understand the nuances of what I created. But there are other, more unique qualities that I love about VR.
Firstly: VR is social. As wearable technology, a VR headset has a wonderful physicality, and unusual qualities. It covers the viewer’s eyes, yet still allows a spectating audience to see the majority of facial muscles that are so necessary for communicating emotional experience. As a result – and contrary to many journalists’ opinion – VR can be a very social experience in a very real world. With care, your VR viewer can be transformed into a public performer. As a mask, a VR headset is also very disarming. The viewer relinquishes power and control of their physical self in a public space. A contract of trust is made evident by the simple act of donning a headset. There aren’t many public forums where we actively choose to be so trusting.
Secondly: VR is theatrical. A headset screens the viewer from their visual reality. It then presents a new visual reality. I like to think of VR as a theme park I can strap to my head. Architect Rem Koolhaas, when reflecting on the early successes of Coney Island in his book Delirious New York, coined a formula “Technology + Cardboard, or any other flimsy material = Reality”. He was, of course, referring to the flimsy theatre flats, and themed hoardings, around the park, which not only masked visitors from the realities of the New York metropolis, but also immersed them in ‘something else’… anything else! Visitors to Coney Island craved escapism, and to experience ‘the other’. This ‘other’ didn’t have to be super realistic, just enough to ‘make believe’, and to support play, which included visceral and social experimentation. It’s like playing with a toddler: you suggest a magical environment, provide a stack of cardboard boxed, and then invite their imagination to do the rest. My worlds are often devoid of visual flourishes, novelties, and CG video realism. This can all be added later, once the underlying concept is thoroughly developed through practice, and if the concept absolutely requires it.
Thirdly: VR is democratising. If we’re talking about developing whole body experiences with VR you can move quickly, and relatively cheaply, with small production teams. This is an incredibly attractive proposition for a solo practitioner like me. Part of my work over the past 10 years as a Thrill Engineer has seen me consulting on the design of new theme park thrill rides, with production budgets as high as £20million. Typically, this industry consultancy is informed by my experimental artwork, which has much much smaller budgets. But VR is now helping to blur the line between the two. Low budget productions compete quite admirably with big budget, and probably win on “experience per dollar”. This year I made the choice to move my artwork beyond the art gallery, and become the owner and operator of my own touring thrill ride. I’m getting access to new, much larger audiences, in different contexts. I find it interesting to watch traditional disciplines struggle to establish conventions around VR, only for them to be smashed by new creatives exploding into their fields, eager to play.
Finally: VR inspires innovation. After exhibiting Oscillate at Sheffield Doc Fest someone said “this reminds me of the old haunted swing ride”. A compliment! The haunted swing first appeared as a ride in the US in the 1890s. It is a mechanically controlled swing, staged inside an enclosed room. Rider’s are first encouraged to believe that their mechanically induced swinging motion is normal. Then, once ‘normality’ is achieved, the whole room starts to swing in the opposite direction, subtly at first, but eventually making riders believe that they’ve gone right over! (the curious can try a similar ride at Alton Towers, UK, called HEX). The point here isn’t that I’ve replicated a classic mechanical ride, it’s that I did it so quickly, and have been able to rapidly iterate and explore beyond that original concept. VR is propelling me beyond the limits of Victorian engineering. Boy, did the Victorians know how to party with technology, and innovate through creativity and play – I’d love to have just an ounce of their spirit.
You can come and experience VR Playground at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, 23 – 25 June. You’ll find us up on the hill, next to the Royal Observatory. You’ll also find me talking about innovation on BBC’s new Invented In England series, part of their Tomorrow’s World revival.