"VR all in this together" (2018), 48 Stunden Neukölln, (c) Bianca Kennedy

English: Parallel Worlds – Virtual Reality in Art and Museum

Pre-Release from the magazine: POSTREF PREREF, 2018/2019 – A publication of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Dortmund, Design College, in Cooperation with DASA.  „Crossmedia and the future of Scenography“. Lead by: Prof. Lars Harmsen and Dipl. Ing., M.A. Alesa Mustar. Released: January 2019
(Eine Link-Liste mit den im Artikel vorgestellten Projekten findet sich hier: 
http://virtualspatialsystems.com/pw-links/ )

After the initial hype about virtual reality has calmed down, the partly unrealistic expectations have given way to a certain sobriety – that allows an objective outlook on the future of the technology and reveals the forms in which virtual reality will be integrated into our media landscape.

Virtual Reality – unlike the smartphone or in the future perhaps Augmented Reality – will not necessarily become an integral technology of our everyday life, but much more relevant when we want to step out of the ordinary into another world. Art, cinema and theatre in their current manifestations offer the opportunity to leave the familiar behind. And museums and exhibitions are – for the majority of their visitors – not part of everyday life but form artificial spaces of experience: spatially experienceable parallel worlds. By using Virtual Reality the immersion in these parallel worlds can be increased up to an almost complete simulation.

While the technology is still in its infancy, more and more artists and designers are making their content and works tangible in virtual reality. The technology is not only used as a design tool, but also becomes an independent artistic medium in its own right. More and more museums are also exploring the possible uses of VR in exhibitions or as additions to their existing offer. Each project is still prototypical and each actor is still a pioneer.

Artists* and Collectives

Especially in the artistic use of VR, possibilities of the technology are emerging: in strongly immersive spaces that can be created in the virtual worlds, the users can detach themselves from their habitual, observing position and become part – or even the centre – of the art piece.

This is done methodically through various mechanisms, some of which are known from literature, film and game design. Such as the change into the ego perspective, the “embodiment” of the protagonist and the associated “presence” within the virtual world. In the work “In the Eyes of the Animal” by the London collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, the user adopts the interpreted perception of an owl or a toad, or in “Here We Are – A Turing Torture” by The Swan Collective, he becomes the artificial intelligence running through a system check. The boundaries between one’s own body and the perceived virtual presence become blurred.

In the work “HanaHana” by the artist Mélodie Mousset, a different form of immersion takes place: the viewer is not only protagonist of what has been experienced, but also a formative actor. With the controllers you can let hands grow out on any surface and thus draw surreal sculptures into the desert landscape. This creative process becomes a form of meditation. Game designers try to bring the player into “the zone”: a state of consciousness of mental concentration and physical immersion, which is caused by the spatial movement of one’s own body and the use of the controller as a “virtual brush”.

The body also plays a decisive role in Bianca Kennedy’s “VR all in this together”: it is only after entering the plastic ball filled bathtub that the virtual experience of a shared bath can really be enjoyed. The spatial staging as a frame serves to tune in to the experience and creates a safe space for the viewer.

Physical exhibition venues of virtual art

The aforementioned works by Mélodie Mousset and The Swan Collective were part of the exhibition “Mixed Realities” at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart. Where the questions of spatial “framing” became apparent as well: How can the virtual be staged in space? How does the user, who is no longer aware of his surroundings, appear to the outsider? Do we have to protect him and give him a private space? What do those who are waiting for free VR goggles see? And what does the installation look like if nobody wears those goggles?

How elaborate the respective physical staging must be, depends strongly on the experience and the desired activation of the viewer in the virtual space. If one is taken on a guided journey and rather takes on a contemplative role, a spatial introduction to the experience might be sufficient. But if you move physically or even interact with the artwork, you need a spatial separation from those in the VR room and the other visitors to the exhibition – also to protect both sides from injuries since the material space and the people moving in it usually remain invisible to the user of the VR.

Gallery owner George Vitale also deals with the question of how virtual art can be exhibited: his gallery Synthesis primarily exhibits VR art – which also always has a representation in material space. There are dancers who perform to a VR piece, poets and sound artists who accompany their pieces acoustically or paintings and objects that extend the virtual works into space.

Research of VR in exhibitions and museums

How the medium can be used beyond art, but in exhibitions and museums is being investigated in the joint project museum4punkt0. Various cultural institutions are working together to develop new application scenarios for modern technologies and thus making their collections more accessible to their audience and to intensify the exchange with visitors.

In this context, the team of the Deutsches Auswandererhaus investigates the emotional range of virtual exhibits and asks itself whether empathy can be conveyed digitally. In the exhibition “Prisoners of War. Powerlessness. Longing. 1914 – 1921”, certain exhibits are present both as original and as virtual interpretation. In a study, visitors are asked about their impressions and memories: Did test persons who saw the digital item experience the exhibition differently than test persons who saw the analog object? From the surveys evaluated so far, it can be seen that the range of feelings felt by the test persons is wider in the VR applications, but visitors of the analogue rooms with the same content feel greater compassion for the fate of the soldier who was taken prisoner of war. Observations from similar projects suggest that the combination of an original exhibit with its inherent aura on the one hand and a contextualization through a VR experience on the other hand allows a particularly strong identification with the exhibited object.

Another aspect of the virtualization of objects is investigated by the Deutsche Museum in its “VRlab” under the direction of Georg Hohmann. Digital 3D models and 3D visualization make it possible to display and explain how the exhibit’s structure and material properties and how the underlying mechanics work. Real objects are brought to virtual life in digital space through their reconstructed and digitally animated models and are made experienceable and understandable in their functionality. For example, you can see how the Sulzer steam engine regulates itself by switching spinning machines on or off. And you can explore the surface of the moon in the VR laboratory’s core exhibit: the Lunar Roving Vehicle driving simulator.

Visitors as explorers of the unreachable

The technology is especially suitable for virtual journeys to places that few or no people can reach. One can explore the world at our feet, while being scaled down to the size of a tiny bug, at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History Görlitz. Or one travels on a futuristic flying carpet to archaeological excavation sites, as with the VR application developed by the author of this article for the Emirate of Sharjah (more).  Virtual Reality allows you to travel through history. It can accelerate or slow down time and thus make events perceptible that would otherwise not be observed due to their temporal dimension. The technology can thus make the invisible visible and transport the visitor into the world between microcosm and macrocosm.

Mixed realities

The showcase “Caveman VR” by the creative agency TRIAD shows how such a journey to a distant place in a past time can be combined with the physical presence in the here and now. A wooden stick, the position of which is recorded in real space, serves as a torch to illuminate a Stone Age cave while an electric radiant heater on the floor simulates the heat of a campfire. A similar radiant heater is also used in the “X-Ray Fashion VR” experience where it simulates the adverse working conditions that prevail in the textile industry’s exploitative factories in developing countries. In addition to focusing on the visual and acoustic sensory organs in virtual reality, special attention is paid here to tactile perception: while one walks barefoot through the various chapters of the virtual staging and the eyes see the flooded slums of Manila, the cotton fields of India or a shopping mall in the US, the feet alternately bathe in water basins, walk through a field of bulky cotton fibres or over cold marble. The immersion of a virtual experience and the strength of the emotion conveyed can be enhanced through the use of additional sensory stimuli: an “augmented” virtual reality is created.

Multiplayer

One difficulty in the use of virtual reality in a museum context arises from limited number of users and their dissociation from each other and from their real environment. Although new solutions are emerging as a result of the technology’s constant development, the content and its communication objectives still determine the hardware required and thus the maximum number of users. If the goal is a simultaneous and shared experience of a 360-degree film, more than four hundred users and the use of relatively simple and inexpensive glasses are possible. But if the users are to see and interact with each other in virtual space, their number shrinks drastically and – at this technological stage – a complete VR system including a powerful computer is still needed for each and every user. The development of multi-user experiences in particular is very complex and therefore much more expensive than 360-degree films or applications that are only intended for individual users. A further development is the integration of an external audience that has an influence on the VR experience, for example through conventional interfaces such as tablets.

The tasks of scenography in virtual space

The complexity of the medium and its various applications presents a multitude of scenographic challenges. Besides design and staging tasks within the virtual world, the fundamental question arises of how storytelling functions in virtual narrative spaces. The virtual extension of the physical exhibition space must be embedded in its context and the spatial appearance of the VR installation must be designed. Just as a classic exhibition is conceived, curated, designed, and ultimately built, a virtual exhibition must be conceived, curated, designed, and finally “built/coded” in the same way.

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