Exploring the Potential of Virtual Reality at the Royal Academy of Arts

March 6, 2017

At the Royal Academy Schools in London, the year 2017 has started with a rather interesting exhibition. Titled Virtually Real, the show was a collaborative pop-up project between the virtual reality platform HTC Vive and the acclaimed art school. The exhibition gathered graduates Adham Faramawy and Elliot Dodd and a third-year student Jessy Jetpack who had an opportunity to create art with this immersive technology. Using softwares like Kodon and Tilt Brush by Google, the artists were able to paint in the virtual 3D space to produce installations that the visitors could move through the space and interact with. Additionally, the visitors could also see their creative processes from start to finish with HTC Vive’s playback technology. The pieces were also 3D printed and exhibited to be interacted with in real life as well.

Each of the artists exhibited has a history of working in virtual reality, apps and multimedia, but for this exhibition, they had a chance to experiment in the relatively unchartered waters of virtually made art. We’ve had a chance to talk with Elliot Dodd and Jessy Jetpacks about this exciting project that showcased the potential of VR in art. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, Jessy and Elliot talk about the latest exhibition, about making art in VR, about softwares they’ve used, the pieces they have exhibited, the potential of VR, and much more. Scroll down and enjoy!

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Left: Elliot Dodd with his 3D printed sculpture for Virtually Real at Royal Academy of Arts © Red Photographic / Right: Jessy Jetpacks with her 3D printed sculpture for Virtually Real at Royal Academy of Arts © Red Photographic

Exploring Virtual Reality at Royal Academy Schools

Widewalls: Your exhibition Virtually Real was recently on view at Royal Academy of Arts. Can you tell us more about the concept of the show?

Elliot Dodd: The Virtually Real exhibition was a collaboration between the Royal Academy, the Royal Academy Schools and the Taiwanese technology company HTC. HTC commissioned 3 artists to make new work using their Vive VR platform. The main focus of the project was to try and draw, sculpt or design artwork within the virtual environment which could subsequently be 3D printed. We then had to present these real-world printed works alongside experiential virtual versions of them at the RA.

Jessy Jetpacks: The concept for the show, as I understood it, was to showcase virtual reality technology as used for art by artists. A key requirement was that one element made for the virtual environment would be extracted and made real (through a variety of sculpting processes) and then shown alongside the virtual artwork. A general idea regarding the production of extracted sculpture was that it was a digital file, and therefore 3D printed. But there was experimentation with a mixture of types of printing, CNC laser cutting, and hand sculpting/finishing.

Widewalls: With a possibility of experiencing hundreds of simulated worlds, the virtual reality technology alters the normal rules of gravity and is completely devoid of regular sensory experiences. What is it like to make art in virtual reality? What are the advantages, but also difficulties of working within this field?

ED: It's such early days for the technology, the driving force on HTC's side was for us to devise and present new workflows for their equipment. For my project, I attempted to make a work that could sit alongside the rest of my practice, where I make drawings, sculpture and film/3D animation. A massive advantage of VR is that you can work on something in a physical way but at any scale you want.. An element can be handheld or 20 metres tall from minute to minute, dependent on what makes sense at the time. I really like the way working inside VR is so transportational and almost hallucinogenic. I'm always looking for new psychological spaces to work in, in order to disrupt my thought patterns.

JJ: There are many advantages, some framed within this question. VR environments may bend the expected behavior of physics and allow for dream scenarios where objects may float, expand, disappear, entire landscapes may shimmer in and out of being. It is also fun to remain within the expected realms regarding physics but move into impossible realms regarding cost or practicality. For instance, you can use real scans and photo composites from other planets to simulate being on their surface. Or you can realistically render a deep sea expedition with life-size marine animal encounters.

Basic practical limitations or challenges include matching some of other senses to the highly stimulating visual environment; smell, sound, touch, temperature, etc. some of these challenges could be tackled with supplementary equipment. But this would be for installations not so much home use. Whilst the headset comes with headphones and you can create directional soundscapes, this can be processing heavy and difficult to achieve complex soundscapes, eg. a field of dried grass blowing in the wind.

There are also conceptual or esoteric challenges working with VR. Due to the novelty of the medium, certain subtleties and nuance can be hard to pursue. I predict this is not a long lasting problem as exposure to VR increases. However, it may be that potentially different emotional registers will both be possible and/or impossible. For example, it may be hard to deal with gravitas, or banality, but easy to provoke very real bodily fear. It's wait and see.

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Reclining nude with television, 2017. Mixed media sculpture. Printed by SuperHuge245cm x 190cm © Adham Faramawy

Working With VR Softwares

Widewalls: You both have a background in working with virtual technology, apps and multimedia, but this has allowed you to experiment in the relatively unexplored waters of virtually made art. Can you tell us more about your experience of working with these specific softwares?

ED: I used two pieces of software - Tiltbrush and Kodon, in order to form a character made from a combination of geometrical forms and biological elements. In my drawings, I often try to capture forces of spiraling compression or squashing, so drawing inside Tiltbrush was really physical and well suited to this. A massive advantage of VR is that you can work on something in a physical way but at any scale you want.. An element can be handheld or 20 metres tall from minute to minute, dependent on what makes sense at the time. After completing the work, I used an amazing company in Camden called Digits 2 Widgets. they enabled me to more or less take the work directly out of VR and print it using a full-colour process in plaster.

JJ: There was a steep learning curve to get to grips with trying to work inside the virtual environment and working out what elements are cross compatible or exportable/importable. With intuitive programs like Tiltbrush and Kodon, there is a lot less fine control than I am used to from, say blender or photoshop. Some people will prefer this, as it is more like clay sculpting or painting.

Its a strange mix of freedom and limitation, things like size become much freer, however, you can only work how the program will let you work. If you were sculpting with clay for example, you have to keep it small enough to fit in the room, or transport, or reach all parts, but if half way through you decided you wanted to cover it with feathers, well that's possible in real life, but only possible in VR if someone has programmed in feathers.

For my needs, I turned to desktop programs a lot, to make individual elements as this is much more practical. I came across a lot of areas that I think developers will be designing programs and plug-ins to make creative use of VR more possible. There are so many gaps in the market right now. Practically there was not a single tool that I would feel satisfied to use alone.I feel the same way about most programs however and regularly combine hhands-onmethods, with low tech and high tech. I think thats just the way I work.

Another difference between say machinima and VR is that in order to consider the work you are making you must yourself dip in and out of the virtual world which is not as trivial as switching screens or tabs. Many guesses and ideas must be trailed at once due to rendering time and processing power needed. Which meant I had to keep my eye on a lot of possible effects and affects simultaneously.

Widewalls: Could you tell us more about the concept behind the specific pieces you have exhibited?

ED: For the exhibition, I decided to use the Tiltbrush drawing software itself as a means of presenting my work. Essentially, it was similar to presenting my model within an enormous 3D photoshop file. I "drew" a huge container-like environment which formed a concert or church like atmosphere, with my character presented on the stage. I enjoyed the simplicity and directness of presenting a navigable drawing... Viewers could enjoy the sense of vastness and exploration... But once they became more comfortable with the controls, there was nothing to stop them resizing/taking-apart/destroying the whole model. It was a very free space... In some ways a test of the intuitiveness of the software interface, whilst also being a mode of presentation for my model...

JJ: I approached this project differently to my usual practice, due to it being a commission with requirements. At first, my ideas were solutions led. For example, I knew the sculpture element was being produced in such a way that it would benefit from relatively simplistic shapes, and my initial VR sculpting efforts were most successful with symmetrical geometry. I felt the most exciting element of VR is movement and scale, and I knew I wanted to animate my object. So naturally, I designed a giant sci-fi trilobite - a now-extinct early marine arthropod.

After deciding on the sculptural element, I then created an immersive environment, that would transport the viewer into a visual and bodily experience. Different elements, both animated and environmental are choreographed as phases triggered throughout the 4-minute simulation. I decided to work with an energy of enchantment and even optimism as I feel this is how virtual reality is being viewed currently, for this reason, I feel this work will date very quickly despite certain unavoidable aesthetic similarities that are present in the formal construction of the work, I wanted to avoid the cool cynicism, that's common in work made through digital technology.

I created a world that is sci-fi influenced, martian landscapes, giant bugs, etc, but also a calming and beautiful world, with a sky full of stars and a fast motion sunrise illuminating a landscape populated by a strange dancing woman. The whole thing is tied together by the soundtrack which I wrote and had produced by Al Gaudie. It's a sweet and sometimes desolate song with lilting high vocals and sporadic rhythmic dusty beats.

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Left: Dream Trilobite Extracted, 2017. Polystyrene, polyfiller, plaster polymer, acrylic primer and water-based spray paint. Printed by SuperHuge © Jessy Jetpacks / Right: Whippy Snaggle Stack, 2017. Plaster and inkjet. Printed by Digits 2 Widgits © Elliot Dodd

The Fusion of Art and Technology

Widewalls: The fusion of art and technology continues to challenge our perceptions and fuse the virtual and the real. Can you see virtual reality becoming a common medium for artists? Does it have the capacity to change the way we understand a work of art?

ED: VR is already appearing within exhibitions at all levels, from University grad shows to the Frieze Art Fair to museums, so I feel it's place is pretty solid and established as just another artists tool, especially as the more rudimentary phone-based platforms are so accessible now. I don't think it will have a fundamental change on the function of galleries, the art world is based on social networks, so at least until the VR chatrooms are ubiquitous, I feel people will remain as willing to travel to galleries...

JJ: I find the distinctions between virtual and real to be often under-defined. And difficult to comment on without a lot of space. with regards to virtual reality becoming a medium for artists; I think there will be an uptake of it as a medium and material within the arts. I know I would like to use it again, and use it in many different ways. Due to the nature of the equipment, there are many challenges to presenting work made in VR. Some may be unavoidable, and

Due to these, it may not be that popular. Limitations include the need to timetable in who is seeing it when, which limits visitors. there is a need for a computer operator on hand throughout, also space needs partitioning off, which can look ugly and un-thought-through. things can interfere with the lasers in the sensors. its very challenging to show VR work. I also think that AR (augmented reality) might become more popular, at least for home consumption. so I’m intrigued to see how that will go into a gallery space.

I think that understand may be an overused word in the world of art. Personally, art often occupies a space of non-understanding, which is, in turn, an expansive exercise. Mediums all have their different languages, tropes, expectations. As a new medium might then create a new set of languages, tropes, and expectations. But to create a new way of understanding I’m not so sure.

Widewalls: For the end, could you share some plans and future projects in store for you?

ED: At the moment, I'm working on a sequence of films which explore the physical and psychological space of people using VR. Each film will focus on one of the incarnations, Sony, HTC, Microsoft, Google, etc, and form a short abstracted narrative around a user, cutting backing and forth between reality and their private, solitary VR experience. The first of which I'll be showing at the Zabludowicz Collection in London in April.

JJ: I have recently been working on film recorded whilst on a residency in japan last year. So far, I have been making regular film format but I am also experimenting with presenting video in VR. I’m working on video exported with transparency and then used as texture mapping, onto 3D virtual objects experienced in the Virtual world. The HTC headsets are out of my price range and so I’m not sure I can continue working with Virtual Reality since resources are limited. But I can always pick it up again in the future if I can convince a company to loan me one. Currently, I have my final show coming up in this summer in the Royal Academy Schools, when I finish my post graduate course. So I need to work within my means both materially and with regards to time.

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Installation view of Virtually Real at Royal Academy of Arts © Red Photographic

All images courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts.