Sunday, 25 June 2017

VR art in Birmingham

I've played on a few bits of VR (Virtual Reality) kit before and I'll admit was mainly unimpressed, but this week my views have changed a lot.

Wednesday night I was invited along to the preview of Mat Collishaw's Thresholds VR show at BMAG. We waited in line after entering at a set time, and put on backpacks and headsets including earphones. Initially you are blind and deaf and are walked up a ramp by a helper and into a small white room.

Once inside the headset comes to life and you are able to see, hear and explore a virtual room. The idea is that you can step back in time and revisit one of the first exhibitions of photography held at King Edwards School which has been recreated as a full VR experience.

The real beauty of this was that you are fairly free to roam around within the constraints of the boxed area. Other people appear as white ghostly shapes that you are told not to bump into, but you can wander around and explore the room as you like - which is an amazing experience. Previously I'd used VR and not been able to move much so it was a mainly visual experience despite being able to play a game using a handheld device - but this was really immersive despite a few framerate jitters! You can even pick up things with your ghostly hands and look more closeley at them.

I'd read that VR was being used to simulate experiences for use in Psychology such as phobias (standing on top of a building, watching spiders etc) and now I realise why. At one point a small mouse ran across the floor and I was genuinely a bit startled. Over the duration I had to keep reminding myself that this was all digital - of course I knew it was, but the activity of exploring the 3D world started to become my new reality. I was surprised at how VR could actually hijack your normal responses and offer up something that did not look real (the visual effect was clearly computer graphics) but actually felt convincingly real in some deep down level.

The following day on Thursday I was lucky enough to have a full day's workshop at STEAMlab#2 as part of the Hello Culture conference where I had the chance to explore Tilt Brush and Microsoft's Hololens with Cambridge's Collusion and see what Holosphere had made for the HTC Vive.

First up Richard from Collusion introduced us to the Hololens, which without any advice took a bit of working out how to use. The Hololens is a pricey bit of kit and is a major player in the advance of Augmented Reality (AR) in which the real world around you is overlaid or added to by digital graphics which are often 3D shapes you can walk around and see from different angles - so it appears to inhabit the same space you are actually in. After putting on a headset you can see 3D shapes overlaid on the room you're in and using a pinch motion with one hand you can make these objects animate, resize them and move them around the space. The headset even had speakers so animations could speak and play sound. The visual overlay has a limited field (the sides of things often get cut off), was fairly glitchy, and the hand gesture interface was unreliable, but it was amazing to be able to interact with a virtual object and in relation to real objects. I made a character full sized and watched it breakdance in the middle of the room while the other people in the room had no idea what I could see.

Even more impressive in some ways was Tilt Brush which allowed me to put on a VR headset and be completely immersed in a world where I could paint in 3D space. My lines hung in the air and I could draw floating cubes. This felt like an amazing creative tool and really allowed me to do something impossible in the real world. Check out this promo video...

Birmingham's Holosphere have build 3D version of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's Round Room and a Anglo-Saxon village which we could explore. Moving around spaces is a problem in VR as you can't just wander off (your attached by wires and will bump into walls), so we could walk within a small space (around 12 foot square) and then "teleport" to other parts of the 3D world by click on icons that repositioned you in a sort of "stepping stones" way - a bit like Google maps does.

What impressed me most about the Holosphere Anglo-Saxon village was the sense of space when you left the enclosed buildings - looking up into the stars was really convincing and walking to the edge of a river really made me feel reluctant to go over the edge and into the water (which of course you could walk straight over if you tried), but I was amazed for the first time that real life responses to events and feelings of space could be so easily simulated.

So my attitude to VR has changed from just a flashy gimmick to something that can prompt real responses and could be felt as a true experience.

The good news for me from these workshops was also that it does not seem I'm too far away from developing for VR myself, so maybe I'll buy a VR headset and get to work!?! After 3D modelling in Blender, and developing a game in Unity it seems I'm just a headset away from VR. Watch this space for Swoomptheeng-related VR stuff!