VR/AR and 360 video are in their early commercial stages. One of the first obvious applications is to put the viewer in the shoes of another person or animal. This will naturally allow the user to develop a greater empathy for the experience shown, however, in its infancy, VR/AR is a spectacle. Similar to the explosion of consumer content on the
Smartphone or the commercial release of television sets, applications and content, for the
most part, revolve around entertainment and gimmick. For the medium to generate impactful sympathy in its users, to the point where a change in characteristics and behaviour take place, the content has to be readily available on a day to day basis. This is clear in daily TV news, charity advertising and radio broadcasting.
Experiencing 360 footage taken by a homeless person or a refugee is impactful and begins a cycle whereby the user can relate to the everyday surroundings of that person. In order for change to take place, this cycle needs to come around to help or aid the people in need. At the moment, it’s clear that 360 footage is giving an insight into these surroundings, but isn’t necessarily generating any more impact from the empathy experienced than was done so before with sound, photography, film and live information updates.
This is not a completely pessimistic outlook. There is a definite possibility that Virtual Reality will trigger sympathetic gestures and actions, or perhaps alter behaviours in the near future.
There’s no doubt that it will be similar to previous broadcasting technologies, and potentially more significant in achieving sympathetic reactions. Examples so far are from living in Gaza, to life in the Ebola crisis or Chris Milk’s Clouds over Sidra. All of these are intense struggles for those involved and the 360 content certainly gives an insight into the everyday life of the subject, however I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable by my lack of ability to do anything other than view these terrible and tragic scenarios. Then again, maybe expressing that feeling is the impact that it has. At what point does voyeurism in this capacity become too life-like? And after experiencing such a life-like tragedy at what point is it wrong not to act to help those involved or those in similar situations?
There is an element of sympathetic thought whilst engaging in these experiences, but at the same time, like the consumers of photography and film, it is much farther from sympathetic interaction than is needed to make a difference in these crises. New users are understandably hung up in the spectacle of Virtual Reality or 360 videos but to push this forward, the documentary content needs to play to a continuation of media and an ability to interact with the people concerned. This is for me the main problem with television, but also the beauty of Twitter and other interactive platforms. I hope that 360 video can find a balance between voyeurism and positive interaction / charitable giving if it continues to focus on such mammoth crises of our time. I also wonder whether 360 broadcasting will become a centrepiece for news broadcasting. There are a number of ethical questions that arise if this was to be. In the heat of the moment, the camera can’t be turned away, only turned off!
The work I produced focused on the homeless issue in Portland, and I guess, in a larger context, the issue along the West Coast. I’m a snap happy photographer with a mentality that rarely stops me from taking a photo, no matter the scene. Whether taking the photo is correct or not isn’t my interest, it’s the use of those photos that’s important. Maybe it’s terrible to use photographs of others without their permission under self-defined artwork… I never intend to use a photograph maliciously or perversely but instead as documentation. ‘Sentient’ was a chance photograph of a man on SW Ankeney Street, outside Bailey’s Taproom. Quite bizarrely, there are weathered pieces of cardboard, and a leftover sign in almost the exact spot on Google Street View. I took the photo on my first day in Portland (Election Day 2016). The man asked me for $5 and I could take a photo. I took the photo but the settings were wrong and it appeared too dark on the screen. I asked to take another, and he asked for another $5. At this point both himself and I were getting angry at each other. He tried to grab the camera, threatening to break it, and I walked off in frustration without giving him the money. That night, I look at it on my laptop, turn up the exposure, and to my bittersweet disappointment, it was a good photo. I felt terrible that I hadn’t paid him and for the following few days looked around for him just in case. 4 or 5 days later, I had some dinner at a food stand on the corner of SW Washington & 10th Ave, and lo and behold he is in front of me asking for a free meal. So I paid off my debt by buying him dinner, told him he looked great in the photo and I was going to use it for an artwork. He remembered me and appreciated that I paid off the debt! I was lucky.
From then on, I was interested in creating a scattered mesh of the photograph that was only viewable if you were to sit on the floor in the same position as the man. It’s a simple concept, the viewer has to go down to his level to sympathise with his situation. I drew the photograph into stencil-esque block shapes and by importing an .svg file into Blender and extruding the faces I created a 3D representation of the man. From here I focused on the idea of the mesh shedding into a murmuration in the Oculus but the result was inferior. (The best part of this experiment was playing with the powerful Unity particle system with Philippe.)
Luckily, in the last two days, Thomas twisted my arm into focusing on the Hololens. Philippe and Thomas managed to create an algorithm for the perspective of the mesh to work perfectly when the headset aligns with the segments. This took a number of attempts, but with around 2 minutes to go on the final day, Thomas managed to get the experiment to pull through. It wasn’t as expected, in terms of the necessity to get on the ground to view him but I was amazed with what Thomas and Philippe had been able to do. It was a very well executed collaborative project and I had no chance of achieving it without them. It seems that the final piece forces the user to make an effort to see the figure. I’m sure without prompt, many users will just walk around the shards, disinterested. I would love to see its outcome in a gallery setting.
If I was to take the piece further, the mesh needs cleaning up, texturing and I’d love to
somehow add a geotag to the location I found him. This would allow people to wander past
and see the sculpture in AR.
This residency was a pilot and although rough around the edges, I can’t imagine there’s another in the world that has this level of equipment and technical support in this field. I approached it with an interest to create, however I should have been focused on meeting, working and talking with those around me. This is the best outcome I had from the entire
experience. Meeting and talking through ideas with Thomas, Philip, Phillipe, Marit, Theo, Nick and the artists Yaloo, Rosa and Victoria.
I’d spent the last year teaching myself, through the wonders of online resources, how to
create VR environments. I had never delved into any element of the pipeline before and now have at least a mild knowledge in some key areas. I only completed my MA in August of this year, so am naturally in a period of hunger to get going. Initially, I was frustrated with the opening workshops. After one day, it was fine, but 3 days of workshops where I felt I had to stop everything and listen began to frustrate me. To the point that on the last day of the workshops, even though I would have loved to learn about the topics, I wasn’t listening, and my motivation had swayed. It was amazing to hear from such well-seasoned professionals in the industry, however I was (and am still) in a period of drive to create. I don’t think it was the content of the workshops in the end, as understandably, not everyone will have played around with the necessary software. It was the intensity and compression of information. The pipeline is vast, and the residency is relatively short for what it aims to achieve. It seems to me that it would have been better to have a morning of workshops and an afternoon of creative application. This would allow for more of the information to settle. However, this frustration was a sort of ‘kid in a candy shop’ feeling. Oregon Story Board was very well kitted out for the aims of the residency, and I just wanted to run wild. For the majority of the time, this was allowed, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I wish I could do this on a day to day basis! My only issue with the space was its opening hours. I would have loved to be able to have more access to the kit in the night-time. Given the vast pipeline of VR / AR production, it would have been incredible for the residency to be longer than it was. Nonetheless, the time I spent there was invaluable and has already had a very positive impact on my practice.
Although the residency focused on the creation of AR/VR, at points I felt more contextual and conceptual discussion was needed. After all, as artists we’re not there to become technicians, but instead to shed a new perspective on everyday things that we usually don’t give a moment’s notice, or perhaps a balance between these two areas of creativity. At art school, one of the most valuable things I took part in was to discuss my work with professional mid / late career artists and gallerists in similar fields with similar interests. These would be half an hour one to one talks, (sometimes longer), where you are told to explain what you’re doing. Essentially, it’s a short concentrated period of reflection on why you’re doing what you’re doing. As defining fine art seems to be a constant battle with existentialism and reason, I think these discussions are important. (I say that unless of course the art is intentionally trying to reject that battle…). It seems even more essential for artists taking the leap into technology that a focus on conceptual knowledge over technical is re-iterated by practicing artists in the field. I had a brilliant discussion with Theo and Marit on the final day however would have loved a dialogue throughout. There was some discussion between the residents, even some constructive heated debate, but not enough in my opinion. Having said that, and having had some time to reflect, I am approaching my current work with a better awareness of empathy towards the subjects I draw inspiration from and have a revived openness to collaboration (and Unity!). Having jumped into the residency straight from the competitive arena that is art school, this has been a healthy and positive next step. Its value is coming clearer as times moves on.
We were neither advised or prompted to make a piece of work. However, from receiving the email of acceptance, I knew I wanted to create something and preferably with the Hololens. I’ve seen so many demonstrations of it online, and have anticipated its impact. Having now tried it, it’s not perfect, and in many ways, it’s so obviously imperfect that it already feels primitive, (not that I’ve seen what it evolves to become.) For some strange reason, it reminded me of the original Gameboy, a palm pilot or an Apple 1.
My whole experience was constructive, informative and on reflection, integral to evolving my practice. Since being back in London, I’m working on a VR experience on the subject of grief. Having spent the two weeks looking into perceived empathy in AR/VR, the residency has been a great starting point to jump into this next project. One of the best outcomes I’ve found has been a re-vitalized confidence in my abilities to create AR/VR content, (I’ve also gone back to Unity). This has come about through discussing my technique and work with those around me on the residency, particularly Thomas, Theo, Philip (Blender Guru II) and Marit. The speakers and professionals that attended the workshops were knowledgeable and from backgrounds that gave a varied insight into the industry. They are the type of minds I wish I could work with on a daily basis. Meeting the other artists and members of the residency was invaluable, and I hope to maintain friendships and/or working relationships with everyone! I can’t speak for others experiences on other residencies, but for my first residency, it was as good and impactful as I’d hoped.
In November last year I was lucky enough to be accepted on an artist residency in Portland, Oregon. The residency was organised by Thomas Weuster and Theo Downes-le-Guin in coordination with UpFor Gallery (Theo’s gallery) and Oregon Storyboard.
I wanted to capture a small essence of what this trip meant for me and my practice, as well as the conversations of VR as an artistic medium. Having finished my MA in August 2016, this was a quick catapult into a professional environment. Through meeting the fellow residents Victoria, Rosa and Yaloo, I learnt of their experiences in the art world, some of whom had been on the road with their work for some time! These were artists who had been part of a number of residencies and exemplified the positive effects it had had on their practice. Meeting people from around the world with similar interests seems to be the overwhelming joy of each of their experiences.
I’m not going to capture what it was in 1 post. This is just a short intro to the time I had in Portland…
I arrived the day before the US Election 2016… in which a potentially dangerous bigoted idiot was elected.
This account is going to start at the end.