Stepping into Virtual Reality – where to begin?

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This is the second in a series of articles, commissioned by Watershed and Arts Council England, to act as a resource for artists looking to work with art and emerging technologies in the South West. Journalist and Rife Editor, Sammy Jones looks at how to start out in Virtual Reality:

Stepping into Virtual Reality – where to begin?

By Sammy Jones, July 2019.

As an artist, you might think working in virtual reality – or VR, for short – is out of your reach. After all, popping your eyes and ears behind a bit of kit in order to be immersed in an interactive computer-generated experience is a bit of a bizarre concept. Perhaps you’ve been led to believe you’ll need expensive gear or specialist skills to pursue it at all, or you’re not sure your work would suit the futuristic medium.

But please, dash ideas of anything too space-age out of your head – there are an incredible amount of ways you could use VR in your practice, and the equipment and help you’ll need to set off on a VR adventure of your own is becoming more accessible than ever. With the help of generous tech hubs across the South-West, artists that work in all sorts of cool areas are realising VR can immerse audiences in a totally unique way.

To prove it, here are just a handful of the incredible artists and agencies working in VR in the South-West right now, and a bit about a standout project they’ve worked on. Tap into this font of inspiration, and then check out how you could take the next step into becoming a leading VR-tist.

Hazel Grian

“I very nearly lost my life and I lost everything I owned, but I learnt that my city has a brilliant capacity for empathy,” writer, storyteller and artist Hazel has said of her half-hour-long virtual reality opera, We Sing in Fire and Blood. Narrated by the first responders that were on the scene, it describes one terrible night eight years ago when she was brutally attacked by an intruder and left for dead while her house burned. In this heart-breaking and brilliant work, she gives voice to the nurses and police that cared for her in the aftermath of the extreme violence she experienced. Needless to say, it’s eviscerating stuff – audience members say they are left emotionally shattered, but despite everything, uplifted.

Lisa May Thomas

For her project Figuring, dance artist and researcher Lisa May explored molecular physics to reimagine ‘string figures,’ a way for two or more people to tell and remember stories by looping, twisting, and knotting strings between their hands. While most VR work is experienced alone, this work requires participants to move through the same space together in real time, working together to make knots, whorls and twists in virtual protein strings. Professional dancers also skipped, span and rolled their way across the space in giant string loops, handing down the same dance sequence to the next performer and seeing how it changed when they took it on. Hugely thought-provoking, and beautiful to watch.

BDH Immersive

Creative agency and VR forerunners BDH have created whole catalogue of virtual reality stunners, but their meticulous approach to making immersive work is maybe observed at its very best by leaping into Magritte VR, their loving tribute to Belgian surrealist artist, Rene Magritte. From the off, you’re made just another part of Magritte’s artistically absurd world: hold onto your bowler hat as you’re flung into the sky alongside levitating businessmen, give a pearly set of disembodied lips a snog if you dare, and stroll the beach alongside your hot date – a flaming tuba. It’s a thrilling way to remember the impact the artist had on the landscape of art and everything in between, and to get stuck into some fully absorbing escapist fun at the same time.

Now you’ve got a taster for the breadth of stories VR can support, you might be wondering how you can transport your bright ideas into a virtual world (visit Limina Immersive’s new VR cinema on Bristol’s Harbourside for even more inspo: think screenings of docs, dreamscapes, and even erotica). Also, take a read of Verity McIntosh’s in depth overview of the history and opportunity creating VR represents.

Once you’ve seized on a winning idea, there are lots of organisations that are dedicated to making your work a (virtual) reality.

Bristol VR Lab – this clever lot offer coworking space kitted out with high-end VR, AR, MR and 360° equipment, plus experts on hand to offer advice on how to use it all. They’re also keen on running talks and events that’ll blow your mind.

The Othvrs – if you’re a woman, PoC, LGBTQ+ or part of another othered and excluded community, this innovative group invite you to join in with their skill-sharing workshops and collaborative practice. The future is inclusive, after all.

UWE MA in Virtual Reality – got a degree? Then you might like the idea of studying a Masters in VR. Led by Verity McIntosh, it’s an industry-led look into how you could become a creative content developer in all forms of immersive experiences.

Creative XR – the good eggs at Digital Catapult, Arts Council England, and Innovate UK have come together to offer this killer opportunity that can sort you out with finance and facilities for your VR idea. If you strike gold, you can pitch for more money to develop further.

Immerse UK – this is the biggest VR community going, and it’s free to join. It’s the first place you’ll hear about the latest funding and finance opportunities, where you’ll find VR collaborators, and how you can read about the fast-growing sector.

Calling the Shots: New Creatives – this call out for interactive pitches is focussed on the experience of living in modern Britain, and what that might mean to you. Got a brilliant idea? Send it on over to the panel – what have you got to lose?

Fulldome UK: FDUK is a not-for-profit association supporting artists and researchers working within Fulldome immersive environments. It organises events with the goal to promote Fulldome (shared VR) as an artistic medium in its own right, and as a platform for research into data visualisation, group collaboration and the effects of immersive environments on our perceptual and cognitive processes. Our last event FULLDOME UK 2016 took place at the National Space Centre in Leicester on the 4th & 5th November 2016. The next one will be in the Plymosphere at the Market Hall in Plymouth in 2020. FDUK was founded at i-DAT’s Immersive Vision Theatre in 2010.

The Market Hall. The £7 million re-development of the Devonport Market Hall by RIO will be an innovative digital facility with a unique 17 meter immersive fulldome environment to boost transdisciplinary research into immersive media, game technologies and the shared Virtual Reality of the Fulldome… the kind of stuff that expands your brain and melts your eyes.

University of Plymouth BA (Hons) Immersive Media (starting September 2019) Immersive technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, immersive audio and mixed reality now allow us to take traditional 2D experiences further by putting us inside incredible virtual environments, or by blending the real world with augmented digital content.

Immersive Vision Theatre (i-DAT.org) The IVT is a transdisciplinary instrument for the manifestation of material and imaginary worlds. Plymouth University’s William Day Planetarium (built in 1967) has been reborn as a 40 seat Immersive Vision Theatre (IVT). The IVT is used for a range of learning, entertainment and research activities, including transdisciplinary teaching, bleeding edge research in modelling and data visualisation. We can fly you to the edge of the observable Universe, across microscopic nano-landscapes, or immerse you in interactive data-scapes.