VR Festival 2020 report

Investigating the potential for VR in education, research, public engagement and well-being.

On the 5th and 6th of February, we ran an intensive series of events at Warwick University to collectively investigate the current reality of virtual reality. This led up to a weekend of performances of Felix and Paul’s Cirque du Soleil state-of-the-art “cinematic VR”, staged by Limina Immersive using their beautifully designed approach.

We had three aims in running this mini-festival:

  1. To stimulate interest in VR throughout the university;
  2. To kickstart the “Warwick VR Club” – a community of interested people running VR events using the equipment that we have available, and using the approaches we have learned about from Limina and others;
  3. To stimulate interdisciplinary research and innovation relating to VR, immersive experiences and performance.

The results were far beyond what we expected. This article describes the events and some of the experiences and discussions we had. We will follow it up with reviews of each of the VR experiences and headsets we used. We will also add articles with more detail on: VR at Monash; VR facilities that can be used for VR Club activities at Warwick (and more about the VR Club).

Limina VR Summit

On the Wednesday morning, around 60 people joined us for a 3-hour VR Summit with Limina Immersive, specialists in running VR experiences for the public. Internationally renowned VR experts Catherine Allen and Emma Hughes presented a forensic analysis of the rationale behind their approach. They described the ethical principles that guide their design values, and the choices that result. Limina have evolved a format in which performance “seats” are booked in advance, with around 15 seats per performance. From the outset of the performance, the audience are cared for with great attention. The auditorium is nicely lit to feel comfortable and relaxing. Facilitators provide guidance to ensure each audience member is ready for immersion, and continue to provide support during the event if needed. Only very high quality and suitably beautiful VR productions are selected. Based on audience research, they have focussed on arts, well-being, and nature. This attention to detail results in hugely popular and enjoyable events, usually fully booked and with highly positive reviews (see below for more details).

The VR Summit was attended by a diverse group of staff and students from Warwick, as well as Coventry University and Royal Holloway. Undergraduates from our interdisciplinary module, Introduction to Design Thinking (led by Bo Kelestyn and Robert O’Toole), attended as part of their course, and asked many good questions. We considered the potential value of the Limina approach for other applications, especially in education. It was agreed that it would be good for Warwick to be able to regularly run VT events in such a well designed and well organised manner, and that we need physical space and facilities to make this happen.

In the afternoon, we explored developments at Warwick and Monash University with Robert O’Toole, Graeme Knowles and Irwyn Shepherd (Monash). We also had time to try out education-related VR experiences (from WMG and Life Sciences) on a range of headsets.

Robert O’Toole introduced the session by reminding us of how in the last 30 years we have seen several waves of technological innovation: the personal computer, the internet, digital video, mobile ubiquitous computing (phones, tablets, wifi), and now virtual reality. In each case, the process of working out the implications of the new tools, and adopting them into effective practice, has been inefficient and unequal. As Douglas Adams wrote:

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

We can see innovators like Limina right now creating the new VR industry, creating new types of career. The important difference now is that they are approaching it with greater intelligence, with strong ethical convictions, and using “designerly” approaches. They are deliberately setting out to bring older generations into the new world of VR (and their stats show they are succeeding). And they are consciously designing the new world of VR that will become a “natural part of the way the world works” for future generations.

VR at Warwick and Monash

These considerations led into a brief introduction, by Graeme Knowles, to the work we are doing with WMG and Monash to explore how VR may be used in education (to begin with, engineering education). Our project is designing a framework and a “taxonomy” of VR and AR activities that fit with the needs of education today. Irwyn Shepherd (also a project member) then gave us a tour of the many VR and AR related initiatives he is leading at Monash University, where a VR centre has been set up and provisioned. Irwyn described how they are systematically exploring a broad range of new technologies (headsets and VR suits), using them in many projects that will see immediate use in the curriculum and research, and establishing services and frameworks – beginning with health, safety and student care. This was all really impressive, and shows what is possible with the right funding, institutional commitment, and a highly experienced expert (Irwyn) in charge.

The afternoon session was accompanied by opportunities to try VR experiences:

  • 9 Oculus Quest headsets running the superb SymBio VR experience designed by Corinne Hanlon (Life Sciences) and built by Leicester based MDB.
  • 15 Oculus Go headsets running Catherine Allen’s BBC historical production Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel.
  • Oculus Rift running a WMG-produced experience in which participants build a motor (thanks to Alex Attridge, and the apps designer Glynn Taylor).
  • HTC Vive running a WMG-produced experience in which participants take apart and reassemble a motorcycle, based on the CAD drawings for the real motorcycle, and presented in a super-realistic high definition format (thanks to Alex and the apps designer Gianluca).

All of the experiences on offer were really well received, although for many participants this was their first time using “serious” VR. The overwhelming mood of the participants was “wow” – they could not believe it would be so good! This is a common response. The shock of finding VR to actually be that good and that enjoyable takes some work to get over before a more considered dialogue may happen.

Here’s a video capture of one of Glynn’s electric motor app in use:

And a trailer for Easter Rising:

VR in Humanities Education, Research and Outreach

On Thursday afternoon, as part of the Institute for Advanced Studies Accolade Programme (for researchers), we explored the potential of VR in humanities education, research and outreach. Michael Scott introduced and led an exploration of ancient Athens in VR, with support from Paul Grigsby. Athens in VR is a commercial product, used in outreach activities with schools. In this session we tried something new: 30 people all in headsets, all exploring Athens at the same time. We initially had problems getting everyone into the VR space. Some of the Oculus Go headsets were becoming stuck in a black space and needed rebooting. Paul Grigsby, our most experienced user of VR in outreach events, helped us get over these hurdles.

Once everyone was in, and had made themselves familiar with the space, Michael led from the front by guiding the participants into the Parthenon. He described aspects of the building, but also critically evaluated the representation and its usefulness. We noted that the space does not contain other people. This made it less realistic and impaired our ability to judge scale. Michael noted that some walls had been removed to make the VR experience more spectacular. We debated whether the model was too perfect, and gave the participant too much of a Gods-eye view. This detracts from the ability to experience Athens as it really was, from the perspective of a real Athenian, but makes it easier to get an overview of the geography and architecture. Some participants didn’t like the way in which they had to move around Athens by “teleporting” from point-to-point. This is a way of getting around the Oculus Go’s limit to “3 degrees of freedom” – the viewer can only move their point of view 360 degrees on the same spot. Physical movement forwards and sideways is not matched by physical movement in the virtual world. This can feel frustrating. We agreed that it would be great to have a more realistic experience, from the point of view of an Athenian in the busy city, and perhaps play out a role. Perhaps one day this will be possible. It would use similar “gameplay” to the scuba diving game Ocean Drift. A menu of locations is presented, divided into zones of interest. The player selects a location and teleports to a selected zone, but is then able to freely move around that zone. The environment contains realistic features, including sea life that moves around and with which the player may interact. We followed-up these observations in a session with the Introduction to Design Thinking students on the following Wednesday (more about that below).

Michael leads us through Athens

At the start of the event, Catherine Allen briefly introduced her BBC production, Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel (she then had to head off back to Bristol). Catherine provided us with some context, but it was only once we had all experienced it ourselves that its powerful story and impactful design impressed us all – including Irish history expert Erin Geraghty, who led with her personal response to the experience. In Voice of a Rebel, the participant is taken back in time through the oral history of a man who was in the siege of the Dublin GPO during the Easter uprising of 1916. Erin described it as “amazing” – a great way to engage with these controversial historical events. Erin noted that the experience is very engaging and awe-inspiring (especially seeing the Irish flag flying over the GPO, a pivotal moment in history). But she asked if there should be more context provided. I replied that the app had been developed to be used within the context of the Easter Rising centenary events in 2016, and that by downloading it from the Oculus store in 2020 we have lost its original setting. The interactivity, or lack of, within the experience was another point of contention. The historians Sarah and Erin recognised the importance of the app being like a guided trip through one person’s memory – oral history, and hence always tied to that person’s view and actions. It was based on a real audio recording of someone who was in the siege. We noted that impressionistic, rather than photorealistic, graphics had been used, so as to retain the sense that it is memory rather than absolute truth that is being presented. Some other participants wondered if it might be more effective with game-play style interactivity, allowing the participant to direct the course of action. This would give them a greater sense of agency, and put them more closely into the dilemma presented in the story. But that would not have suited the original context for which the app was produced. The answer to this is: VR enables lots of different possible types of experience and agency. The important thing is to choose the right approach for the goals we want to achieve.

The discussions after the VR experiences were fascinating and could have carried on for some time. This indicated the potential of VR as a research tool and in education and outreach. Lots more things to explore!

Experiments with social, collaborative VR

Following on from the Wednesday and Thursday events, we decided to explore in more detail some of the questions raised. For their homework (following on from the Limina session that they attended), our Introduction to Design Thinking module students had been set the task of writing a creative and critical response to VR in the form of a design study. To help them with this, we needed to broaden their knowledge and experience further. As well as providing them with more opportunities to explore apps on the Oculus Go, we used one of Corinne’s Oculus Quest headsets to experiment with 6 degrees of freedom VR (room scale, where the participant moves in physical space, and the headset view is updated to match). We used the scuba diving app Ocean Drift to try this out, which worked well, with students quick to work out how to use its interface – especially the ability to use small propellers to move around the 3D ocean space.

We also tried out one of the most popular forms of collaborative social VR: 3D art with Tilt Brush, used by amazing artists like Rosie Summers to create virtual public art works. This proved to be quite amazing. I got the Quest headset connected to a large screen in the room (via a phone link), so that the students could all see the art work that we were creating. I then created a “guardian space” – a kind of virtual wall, if when wearing the headset the user goes near the wall, they see it as a barrier so that they don’t stray too far. The students sat around the edge of this virtual guardian space. I used Tilt Brush to draw and paint a 3D house inside the space, complete with painted walls, windows, a door, a fire place (with animated fire) and a chimney (with animated smoke). To me, inside the headset, this felt completely real – solid. I could show the students what it looked like using the connection to the main screen. I then invited a student in to take over. She created a realistic 3D palm tree next to the house. Although she had not used the interfaces before, the result was amazing. And the students sitting outside of VR were actually being drawn into the illusion of reality. Another student took over and added a television. We were relating to the VR space from outside and inside as if our artwork was real.

Using Tilt Brush together

This collaborative Tilt Brush approach is already being used by artists in public performances. It suggests that “holodeck” kinds of experiences and activities are becoming possible. So for example, we could collectively populate a space with elements from Ancient Greece, and interact in it (just as Michael Scott and Alexander Armstrong do in real life). Tilt Brush does not yet support multiple headsets, with people interacting with the artwork together. But it’s not far off, and Google are known to be working on it.

What next?

Lots of ideas have been generated over this week. We have equipment for people to try out, and hope that they will organise VR Club activities to do this. In May, for example, we will be repeating the Tilt Brush experiment on a much larger scale.

Lost in VR!