The design moral of this story: create experiences that work for real people, rather than serving the needs of the tech industry.

This is a great case study of designerly entrepreneurs, with a long-term vision, and a commitment to values-led designing. The team at VR event experts Limina Immersive are real design heroes, working to quite literally save the world (from VR being dominated by the wrong kind of culture). Here’s why, with an account of what they are trying to avoid, how they are a lesson in effective design innovation, and a review of one of their events (at the Warwick Arts Centre) and its three well chosen VR experiences. As you can see from the photo above, the results are elegant, beautiful, and simple – with the ugly complexity of the technology well hidden from view.

The most successful entrepreneurs are driven by a strong sense of what they are working against, what they want to avoid. So, what’s wrong with the VR industry? What is it that Limina are designing against?

Bad VR

How was it for you? Your first time? Probably terrible. Perhaps it made you nauseous. Did it leave you wanting more? Do you really want to spend any longer on the Oculus Rift virtual reality roller-coaster? Not likely. Personally, I only managed six seconds before ripping the headset off. Which idiot decided to add a roller-coaster experience as the first demo that comes up when the system is switched on? We can’t be sure, but statistically the decision was probably down to a white, American, male. Playing to the crowd of other such men, who we know are adopting VR much faster. And subsequently, why would anyone think it appropriate to give people their first experiences of such a radical new technology in the most inappropriate of environments – science fairs, shopping malls, busy places in general – who would not feel self-conscious and insecure in such an environment? White, American, male game players, that’s who.

The very serious danger is that the development and distribution of this powerful new medium (VR), potentially more transformative to the human condition than even film, is being controlled by a narrow-minded minority with some quite scary values and intentions. VR is also still in its early stages as a commonplace technology. Furthermore, much effort is still focussed on getting headsets and content to work properly. There hasn’t been much time or resource to think about what VR experiences should be like, the aesthetics and ethics of VR.

Values-led design innovation

But it doesn’t have to be like that, as Limina have proven in a series of beautifully elegant, simple, engaging, calming, carefully curated VR events. They are the result of several years of work by Catherine Allen and others, intelligently developing design ideas, running events, and most importantly, reflecting on the human-VR and human-human interactions that they have observed. This is a great example of values-led designing, as opposed to technology-led or profit-led development – which is not to say that it doesn’t do interesting new things with technology, or that it can’t be financially profitable. But rather, work to explore, share and apply the right values is essential to the creation of a successful and sustainable human-centric technology business.

Before we go into a description of what the events are like, let’s consider some of the design values behind them. This is a great example of value-led designing. It’s especially interesting in that it concerns the use of a new (for most people) kind of technology, which still feels clunky (following the Douglas Adams principle that ‘technology is the name we give to things that don’t work properly yet’). The strength of the commitment to value-led designing results in something that doesn’t at all feel like technology. That’s the aim, and they are close to achieving it fully. They care about diversity, both in participating in VR and in the industries that enable it. VR should work for people of all ages, cultures, genders etc. That doesn’t mean it needs to be bland and vague. Rather, we need to get to know how to design the right kinds of experiences for different people. Or design experiences that bring different people together in effective, worthwhile and enjoyable collaborations.

To do this, we need to design with a rich and detailed understanding of the emotional, psychological, sociological and cultural aspects involved in experiencing VR. The Limina company has evolved from a theatre and arts background. Catherine is a Warwick Theatre Studies graduate. That translates into a more expansive and holistic way of contextualising the VR experience – people are not VR users, they are participants in a (new kind of) theatrical experience together. A VR experience is not just a user consuming content, it is a theatrical, personal and social journey.

The design of the experience and the curation of VR experiences is done holistically, and with the sensitivities that come from a theatre and arts background – that is the key to its success. This is the result of lots of reflective practice – some of which I have been involved in. At Warwick we ran two days of “VR-enhanced seminars” (with Catherine from Limina) to develop usable design knowledge about how we can wrap a VR experience in a conventional academic seminar, making it work for a wide range of students and teachers from all academic backgrounds. It proved just how well the model works. That knowledge, along with much more, fed into the curated events I will describe below.

Good VR

So what was it like? The photo above (taken from an event at the Cambridge Film Festival) illustrates the aesthetic. The lighting sets the mood as warm but slightly mysterious and special. It also helps people to feel more comfortable when experiencing something new and potentially challenging alongside strangers. The Warwick Arts Centre events were programmed as full days of half hour sessions in which a VR experience would occur (see below for details) along with a talk and discussion. Further discussion sessions could be booked for free – running at one to every three VR sessions. Anyone could book a session through the Arts Centre web site or box office (£12/£10). So we had random combinations of participants for each session. Each session started at the seated VR area, where the chairs and the Oculus Rift kits were set out to give plenty of space for each person to turn through 360 degrees on their chairs. The location of the chairs were delineated on the floor with tape – a small design feature that makes a difference, nudging participants to keep in their own zone. The bulk of the equipment, which for Oculus Rift still consists of some very big and noisy PCs, was hidden away discreetly under a nest of tables and table cloths so that most participants would not even know they were there. Emma Hughes and an assistant helped us to settle in, and gave an airliner-style demo and safety briefing, in just the right kind of friendly tone, before we put on the headsets, with help if needed. The VR programmes were started by each participant in their own time, as opposed to being controlled synchronously – I think there is an advantage in this approach, giving time for each person to adjust the headset and settle in. The headsets were clean, and as neatly fitting as possible with the Rift (which is not yet perfect).

The VR experiences reviewed

The programme featured three different, well chosen, arts VR experiences.

Empire Soldiers by Metro-Boulot-Dodo. Learn about the  role, and racist treatment of, Caribbean soldiers in the First World War. This takes place mostly in a period train carriage, with a verse narrative performed engagingly by a poet. The close feel of the carriage makes the participant concentrate on his words and gestures. The illusion of moving through space, gained from scenery passing at the periphery of vision through the train windows, gives a sense of inevitability, mirroring what it must have felt like for the soldiers. There is also a scene set in the trenches, realistically re-created, and a scene with the same poet in a modern railway carriage, making it clear that the problems of racial prejudice still exist today. When originally shown the VR was accompanied by a dance performance. In the Limina event, the dance was shown as a recording projected on a screen before the VR began. This worked well as a precursor to the very intense VR experience. Once the experience was completed, we then moved over to a discussion space. Catherine primed the discussion with her reflections on VR, and the audience responded well.

My verdict: as performance and politics, it really works. The writing and acting are especially good. The performer felt real. There’s something about the spaces, one’s positioning in the scenes, the size of the enclosures, the movement out of the window of the carriage, that illustrates perfectly VR’s ability to add to the performance with a sense of being there, in enclosed and moving space, making the experience into an unfolding journey.

Magritte VR by bdh. Fly through the surreal world of the immaculately dressed Belgian and his iconic black bowler hat. As a composition of landscapes, sculptural images, and aerial objects, this genuinely adds a new but entirely consistent dimension to Magritte’s paintings. The colours and shapes are key – reproduced from high resolution scans of the artworks. Sound is high quality, but not too obtrusive. Binaural 3d effects are used to great effect, for example when a dove circles around the participant’s head, wing-beats moving through the soundscape. Apart from a slightly disturbing train ride, which only acts to accentuate the calming nature of the experience further, movement is graceful and the space wide-open to infinity. Programming this alongside the much more claustrophobic Empire Soldiers gave those fortunate to see both an opportunity to feel the diversity of physical-spatial-temporal affects possible in VR.

My verdict: I want more! I would in fact happily do this on a loop several times through. It is really quite beautiful and tranquil, but at the same time, contains enough detail and mystery to qualify as great art in itself.

Bosch VR by bdh. Travel into the proto-surrealistic world of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. This experience was part of a double-bill with Magritte, chosen to illustrate how a similar approach – turning a painting into VR – can have entirely different results due to subtle differences in movement, lighting, colour and sound. Whereas Magritte is calming, Bosch is deeply disturbing – which as perhaps the most extreme example of the religious triptych form, is just as it should be. Such paining were designed to be portable. Pop-up medieval experiences that could move from village to village, delivering their message so alien to the post-Reformation world: heaven, hell, earth, and the horrors of being human and inescapably condemned to pain. It’s all there in detail, in 3d and often far too close for comfort, with equally disturbing sound.

My verdict: an interesting way to explore not just one of the most important artworks, but also the strange medieval mindset, which would have considered these strange worlds as ultimate reality. Quite a contrast to Magritte, which is surrealist in a modern sense, exploring the unconscious and the uncanny with a lightness and wit. Having this contrast accentuate in through the juxtaposition of the two VR experiences, indicated the potential of the new medium for bringing academic topics to the wider public.

More than just VR

The Limina approach to staging VR experiences goes beyond simply putting on the headset, getting immersive, coming out again, and leaving. The event is social. The VR is followed by a chance to collectively reflect. This is, perhaps, even more important for people who have not encountered VR before. It also shows how the audience are treated as intelligent participants. There was much to think about and discuss. Participants were also invited to take part in longer discussions, following excellent presentations on VR by Catherine Allen and Emma Hughes. Again, this shows how the audience are taken seriously, and invited to be part of the development of arts VR. And of course their views will feed into further development of models for staging VR events – following the Eric Reis Lean Startup approach, their success is measured by the ‘validated learning’ achieved at each stage of development. For example, in one of the discussions that I attended, we realised that people who often play computer games probably expect more interactivity in VR, and feel uncomfortable when they don’t get it. That could be very important knowledge for designing future events.

I am looking forwards to seeing the Limina approach develop and grow, as VR becomes ever more sophisticated and ambitious in its scope.

Published in the March 2018 edition.