An audience member sits in the center of the room. He adorns an HTC Vive Pro and finds himself sitting at the end of a bed. We can see what he sees via a monitor at the back of the room. He looks toward a mirror and sees his virtual self. Leaning in for a closer look, he raises his hand to wave. Despite not wearing any extra gear or carrying any controllers, the reflection waves back.
Opposite the participant sits a man clad in Vive Trackers. They form a makeshift motion capture suit that brings him into the virtual world. He’s imitating the audience member’s every move. It’s done with such precision that he really believes his movements are being mirrored in VR. Everyone in the room is completely silent and utterly transfixed. We’re equal parts enraptured by this small miracle and terrified that one slight noise might shatter the illusion. Without even entering VR, we’re all a part of the experience.
It’s Creative XR’s mission to make experiences like this a reality. The UK programme is assembled by tech innovation center Digital Catapult and Arts Council England. Every year it puts out a call for artists and studios to pitch projects that go beyond gaming. Successful applicants get funding and access to resources. As this year’s application process kicks off, CreativeXR gathered 2018’s recipients in one space to showcase their latest work. Together, they make a compelling case for VR’s inclusion in the arts space.
And that’s an important case to make. As Ben Lane, Senior Manager, Enterprise and Innovation at Arts Council says, these projects “probably wouldn’t happen” without this help.
“It’s easy to see how these technologies can be employed in games, but the technology also has potential as a creative medium beyond this,” Lane adds. “The ability of immersive technology to provide innovative experiences for audiences – new ways of telling stories, immersing people in different environments, both real and imagined and to nurture empathy – is obviously fertile ground for artists to explore.”
Reinvigorating History And Science
Over the course of an afternoon, I explored that ground. I was whisked away to the edge of time and history to face truths both awe-inspiring and uncomfortable. Some projects, like All Seeing Eyes’ Immersive Histories, explore well-trodden paths for VR. The company’s build out a wooden rig to resemble a Lancaster bomber used in the second world war. You strap on a headset and find yourself in the middle of the storied Dambusters raids that saw British fighters destroy the Mohne Dam in Germany in 1943.
It’s a cramped, atmospheric piece designed to root you in the moment. If anything it showcases the need to support these sorts of projects; I only wished it could have enjoyed the sorts of production values Oculus or PlayStation would lavish upon their portfolios.
Speaking of Oculus projects, I found a fitting companion piece to the awesome power of Spheres in When Something Happens. This VR short from Boom Clap Play, written and narrated by poet Boston Williams, skews a little younger than the Darren Aronofsky-produced series but covers similar ground in similar fashion. It’s a digestible exploration of the world around us packed full of memorable sights and sounds. I could just as easily see it touring schools across the country as it could festival circuits.
Shining A Spotlight On Society
But it was Common Grounds, the latest output from Darren Emerson’s VR City, that I found to be the most striking. In the past the studio broke ground in the VR documentary space with pioneering 360 degree shorts. Common Grounds, meanwhile feels like a step beyond that work, seamlessly mixing 360 with fully interactive VR to create a long-form piece that captures your attention and doesn’t let go.
This tells the story of the Aylesbury Estate, a massive London housing state that’s subject to a regeneration project uprooting the communities that had lived there for decades. It’s something that speaks for itself; the words of current tenants fighting to remain in their homes and even a former police officer assigned to the estate are powerful tools to combat any initial assumptions you might make. But you don’t just have to take their word for it; incredibly detailed virtual recreations of homes and stairwells paired with sweeping panoramas of the enormous site truly give you the sense that you’ve visited the complex for yourself.
Of everything on show last week, though, Limbik’s Fatherland irrefutably garnered the most attention and for good reason. It’s a VR play where an audience member is invited to put on a headset and become actor, director and cinematographer all at once. It follows a tense relationship between a father suffering from dementia, his overly protective son and their Mexican carer. A solo actor plays every part, using the Vive Trackers to seamlessly shift into different roles. At one point, lulling you into a false sense of security, he becomes a virtual crow and shrieks in your ear before dancing from side-to-side.
It’s quirky, shaky and experimental, but bursting with creative potential. The challenge will be to reign in the awesome technical achievement it represents to a state that doesn’t drown out the story. Fatherland feels like it could have a template for something extraordinary but finding exactly what that is under the weight of so much possibility and technicality is no easy task.
As for Lane, he wouldn’t pick a favorite from the bunch, but he says that it was important to focus on the innovation rather than the technical proficiency that these projects explore.
“Sure, they don’t have the level of polish that the new Angry Birds game does, but that kind of misses the point,” he explains. “The main point of the programme was to allow experimentation with the medium. I think these projects and the fact they’re all completely different from each [other] has really achieved that showing two things. Firstly that content or types of content (ie form) is as important as the technical polish (style) and that allowing experimentation is necessary for these to be explored. The second is that you can make compelling and original content with relatively modest sums of money.”
Quite an eclectic line-up, then, and certainly one of the more exciting VR showcases I’ve seen of late. Sometimes playing shooters and puzzle games can leave you feeling VR’s been exhausted already. CreativeXR’s line-up proves that the truth is quite the opposite.