Artists and Immersive Technologies
March 2020 seems such a long time ago, yet some days, a blink of an eye ago. There was talk of COVID-19, yet is seemed a continent or two away. Within the next two weeks, the country would go into lockdown.
Before we retreated to our homes, I had the privilege of attending the Creative and Cultural residential in Gateshead by Digital Catapult and Sunderland Culture.
The residential was part of the Unlock the City programme that supports the development of artists and creative businesses in Sunderland. Unlock the City is delivered in partnership by Sunderland Culture, Sunderland City Council, Digital Catapult, North East BIC and Sunderland BME Network, with funding from Arts Council England, National Lottery Heritage Fund and Coastal Communities Fund.
Digital Catapult is the UK’s leading advanced technology centre, with regional hubs, that work with start-ups, businesses, education, the public sector, government and academia to solve challenges with innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Immersive Technologies, like Virtual Reality (VR) to name a few.
The first day was filled with examples of how immersive technologies have been used within the arts and cultural practice so far, as well as practical sessions such as how to protect your intellectual property (IP).
It was an incredibly informative day. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the thrill of new technologies and how they can be used to make the world a more interesting place and the ethics these can bring up as we navigate new platforms as a society.
The next morning we all met at @weareproto lab and I had my first headset VR & AR experience. VR has come a long way since I first started at university to study web design and multimedia back in the late ’90s. I remember the topic being one of the specialisms of my course leader, Clive Fencott at the University of Teesside.
The Lab at We Are Proto lab was like walking into some sort of James Bond/ Mission Impossible movie which certainly set the scene for the technologies we were about to experience.
First, there was an informative talk from Arts Council North East about funding for projects that included the adoption of technology. When we had the chance to look around and try on the various headsets, it sparked some ideas that I would love to pursue in the future, especially in terms of storytelling and the Dwarf lived experience.
Testing out the VR and AR headsets
The first headset showed the VR documentary Common Ground, a virtual-reality documentary exploration of South London’s Aylesbury Estate. I remember nearly tripping over at one point in this. Not because of the immersive nature of the video – but because I realised that I was at eye-level with the characters in this particular reality.
The augmented reality set was the strange sensation of interacting with holograms. The inner part of your wrist becoming an almost bionic mouse was incredibly weird, and was rather disconcerting. Exciting, but disconcerting of the merging of the human and technology experiences.
The third headset was an immersive experience of Claude Monet’s, The Water Lily Obsession by the Musee de L’Orangerie. I found this incredibly moving. It brought tears to my eyes to be in the middle of one of the world’s most famous paintings that I have long admired.
I’m afraid, I couldn’t tell you which headsets were used – all I remember is that I heard the word Oculus a lot.
It was a fantastic day and a half, and it felts like it opened the possibilities for expanding my practice as this technology has the potential to remove so many barriers in terms of accessibility of engaging, enabling and creating art experiences.
Does VR pose more questions than answers?
One of the questions that crossed my mind was would this technology erase the Dwarf Gaze/Perspective?
To be at the Average-Height (AH) perspective was strange, disorientating even, as a Dwarf person as my perspective or eye level is usually chest level and you experience a glimpse of how much I have to work/compensate to be able to interact/engage with people in society.
What will be the impact of VR for the Dwarfism community? A way to engage on eye-level without medical intervention – physically? What would this mean for our identity as a community?
Does it provide the possibility to eliminate the prejudice and bullying faced daily? Or should VR/AR projects take our perspective into account when designing such experiences? Will the technology eliminate our gaze and make us truly equal or will be in danger of having our experiences erased completely from society?
Or will it enhance our ability to show the world our experiences? And provide the platform to do so to enable better empathy and compassion for our disability – by literally putting people in our shoes?
While much is made of how VR makes places and experiences accessible to disabled – to access exhibitions, artworks, for example, I couldn’t help wonder if this technology will further entrench the Average Gaze?
Will immersive technologies be the new frontier that Dwarf and disabled people will be fighting for representation and acceptance?
How can we ensure that we are at that table as these technologies are adopted into the mainstream?
How do we make sure that we and the stakeholders and organisations who are developing these platforms make sure that Dwarf and disabled people have the opportunities to tell and reflect our lived experiences on these emerging platforms?
From the experience, I would say I am cautiously optimistic that this can happen, but we need to make sure all parties are at that table.
So many questions and ones I hope can contribute to the wider discourse on #Emergingtechnologies, once again.