‘The Outlands’ is a virtual reality environment that allows the viewer to explore a series of imaginary landscapes using customized control sticks. Built with the Unreal game engine the work has four levels where viewers are free to take their time to look around and explore without fear of assassination.
Visitors are invited to take control and conduct their own voyage through an immersive digital world of forests, islands, and futuristic interior architecture. Clasping the tree branches that sit atop a console table, the viewer navigates through each zone, encountering portals into the other worlds configured within the work. While appearing to be a video game, what are startlingly absent are weapons, bodies and aggression. The logic of killing and winning that structures gaming no longer exists, and is replaced with the process of moving through each digital environment and at times suddenly being transported into an adjacent world. Exploratory voyaging becomes the subject of ‘The outlands’ and a close attention to the digital environments portrayed within it.
In Osmose, breathing is being used in a very specific way, not only for the navigational aspects but also to help people reconnect to the body which puts them in a certain state of mind. This in turn affects how they interact. Osmose is based on getting people into the state where they let go of the urge to be in control. Most interactive technology is about being in control. When you’re playing games, you’re being rewarded for your skill in being in control, your quick reflexes.
This feeling of “ecstasy,” as Davies calls it, is central to this work and indicative of her commitment to challenging the limits, and rules of engagement that are so much a part of interactive technologies. Osmose, taken from the word osmosis, the biological process involving passage from one side of a membrane to another, is exactly that: a corporeal and temporal passage to another state of being where users are aware of themselves and able to upset their own personal “baggage” filled with Cartesian dualisms. The personal experience of the work is a journey through phobias and individual limitations.
As a person who has never been much of a gamer (not in the way we talk about gaming and gaming culture today) I have had mixed feelings about the approach of VR over these past four years. It’s been an incredible development to watch VR and Oculus go from a Kickstarter in 2012 to a fully realized product delivered into people’s hands in 2016. But given VR’s heavy relationship to gaming, the enthusiasm I felt has always been tempered by the question of what the experience of virtual reality will hold for those of us who are not particularly interested in the gaming experience.
As someone who hasn’t had the chance to experience VR (and quite frankly may not for quite a long time), I’ve only been able to imagine what can be done with such and immersive space and experience. As an artist, particularly one drawn to creating audio and visual experiences of space and narrative, virtual reality is fertile ground for imagination, one I can’t wait to play in. To me, VR isn’t about gaming, it’s a whole new rich media. The possibilities seem endless, particularly when it comes to the social experiences that can be had (that’s saying something for an introvert).
VR as a Creative Space?
There have been a handful of projects and experiments in VR that have given a glimpse of what’s possible outside of the gaming experience. Oculus Story Studio, Alchemy VR, and Google’s TiltBrush, just to name a few. But it is a medium in its infancy. Video has been around well past 100 years and the embrace of non-linear forms has rarely materialized. A similar problem may exist within VR. I certainly hope not. Can VR be something more than simply a deeper emersion experience?
The hardware has raced forward at an incredible speed. It’s barely three years between Oculus Rift DK1, and Oculus Rift CV1, but the change is extraordinary. But with this charge forward brings a storytelling problem. The new Rift, HTC Vive and PSVR headsets behave and look close to real life. Screen door and latency has been nearly obliterated. The hardware is challenging our brains to differentiate with real life.
Hardware mimics real life, and real life timing. Whilst current non-gaming VR content relies upon existing forms of linear narrative.
The challenge of making something more out of VR other than titillating experiences seems challenging. That being said, I am excited at what my first experience with VR might bring. Till that time I look forward to the breath of new projects coming out with the final launch of VR. One that has me excited is FOO VR, one of the first fully VR talk shows as well as a production platform. Before FOO VR, Will Smith was the co-creator and presenter at Tested and did a fantastic job creating quality content. I’m excited to see what he can do with the format in this medium. It’s an approach built around an experience with VR that can be a touchstone to a lot of virtual reality’s social, iterative, and community-based possibilities.
Last year, when I had my first social interaction with another person in virtual reality, something amazing happened. Within moments of seeing the other person’s avatar —it was just a simple representation of a human head and hands — I realized that my brain was perfectly willing to treat the most rudimentary representation of a person the same way it treats flesh and blood people. It’s kind of the inverse of the uncanny valley — if it tilts its head like a person and moves its hand like a person, my brain will happily accept that it’s a person.
After seeing that demo, I got obsessed and talked to everyone I knew about my experience. At the time, hand controllers were ultra rare, so few people I spoke with had shared that first taste of social VR, but people started to get it. When I was telling my friend Mike about it, he asked an important question. “Could you make the kind of shows that in VR that you did on Tested?” With that conversation, FOO VR was born.
This new commission will enable audiences to encounter England’s forests anew through an immersive virtual reality experience, told by the inhabitants of the forest. This 360 degree experience is a speculative short story focusing on the life-cycle of three species. This will manifest in a mirrored sculptural installation suspending from a giant tree in the woodland.
Creative collective Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) delight in exploring the line between virtual and real-world experiences. This project will invite audiences to a unique virtual reality setting created specifically for the Forest. Filmed using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or ‘drones’ and bespoke 360º cameras, it is is set to a binaural soundtrack using audio recordings sourced from the surrounding woodland.
Commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices and Forestry Commission England’s Forest Art Works. Produced by Abandon Normal Devices and Marshmallow Laser Feast. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England and Forestry Commission England.Equipment Support byNvidia and Sub Pac.