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REVIEW: Expanding the Stage, vrLAB @ Brighton Digital Festival, The Old Market, 13/09-13/10/2018

The Verse’s Heather Turnbull tells us what she thought of the vrLAB at Brighton Digital Festival. 

As part of Brighton Digital Festival, The Old Market launched vrLAB’18 last week, in its fourth year running TOMtech; a project exploring the space between the arts and technology.

With over 20 installations from all over the world, visitors were spoiled for choice. TOM’s Development Manager, James Turnbull, explains the meanings of the technologies being used in this year’s vrLAB. “The terminology around immersive tech like this can be confusing. At vrLAB, we are showcasing a lot of VR, or virtual reality which is a closed world within a headset. A bit like a stage or film set. AR or augmented reality uses cameras to layer a digital projection over the real world. MR or Mixed Reality is the next step, where objects in the digital and real world can interact.”

This was my first-time exploring VR, let alone any of the more recent technologies. I was looking forward to seeing what all the hype was about.

My first stop was with Producer, Jiaxuan Hon, exhibiting ‘0AR: An augmented reality dance experience’, By Esteban Fourmi and Aoi Nakamura. She talked about the path that led their company into AR. “VR is isolating, whereas AR is layering, you can see all around you. This makes it an effective teaching tool for dancers”. With headphones on and an iPad in hand, a character begins to dance in front of me. I move around exploring the body as it dances in the bar area of TOM.

From all angles, I see how the body moves and I can see the teaching potential. It didn’t end there. Boxes and smaller bodies appear in the space. Characters that could be likened to Czech Republic artist David ?erný’s Crawling Babies appear on the screen. It is thought-provoking as it switches from dance to curious animation, it’s aims – to explore the binary opposites with the human subject as the centre or ‘0’ position. It is immersive despite purposefully keeping you aware of the room that you are in.

Next, my fear of heights was challenged in ‘The Female Planet’ by Surround Vision and GoogleDaydream, which looks at five incredible women. The VR takes the viewer around the globe to meet the women with a message. I watched Ibtihaj Muhammad, American Olympic winner, as she tells of struggles and successes to get where she is now. She speaks directly to me and then I’m taken over the Manhattan skyline. Despite the fact I know it’s just a headset I grip my seat tightly. We fenced and as I looked all around me and above me I felt transported into her world. She is candid, talks of racist attacks and not giving up. All five of these women reveal their stories in the hopes to give new generations the courage to push boundaries and chase after their dreams.
 

PHOTO: Heather Turnbull – Steven Hall using VR  PHOTO: Steven Hall – The Female Planet

An exciting new local project showing is ‘The Living Coast’ by Karen Poley. She is an artist with a keen interest in environmental issues. Karen’s groundbreaking VR installation takes its participant under the water and into the rockpools just along the coast from Brighton where chalk reefs are home to a diversity of wildlife. Knowing these waters made this personal for me.

I can see the potential for this to be a real teaching tool and also an opportunity for those afraid or unable to dive to be able to experience it. It feels like there is a lot of growing space for the creative here, many more species along these waters to be added and I’m excited to see how it progresses. Karen’s hope is to draw attention to the Marine Conservation Zone that is in place to protect these waters and to educate young and old alike in the nature that we have on our doorstep.

Other undersea works included that of Iona Scott an artist who has been exploring plankton for 25 years, excited by all that this life group does for the planet. Iona would like to “break down the boundaries between scientists and those in the arts”, believing the two can help one another.

PHOTO: Heather Turnbull – Iona Scott ‘Shrunk’ an exploration of Plankton.

A returning TOMtech fan, Tony Hawkins revealed his reason for coming back year after year, “I’m always intrigued to see how the tech is advancing. How it’s changing and what’s new.”

PHOTO: Heather Turnbull – Tony Hawkins using VR

There were too many interesting and provoking installations as well as gaming experiences to be able to mention them all. So, go and explore for yourself. Get to vrLAB’18 or check out the Brighton Digital Festival guide for unmissable experiences before it wraps up this week.

TOM’s Development Manager, James Turnbull explained why he’s excited to be involved in the collaboration and what these events mean for Brighton. He said, “There is a wonderful serendipity in Brighton. We have a really strong tourism and leisure sector but over the last decade. Our digital hub has overtaken tourism as the largest sector in the city. TOMtech aims to bring those two worlds together. To make that happen we partner with organisations like Make Real, a major creative studio in the city to make and programme work, as well as places like the Fusebox, where a lot of our exhibitors are developing work. It’s great to have so much work at vrLAB that’s made in Brighton.”

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