Virtual reality – or the concept of an alternative existence – is a technological dream that’s been toyed with for longer than you may think, and not merely as an academic thought experiment or in the bedrooms of techy gamers.
The closest resemblance to what we now think of as VR – navigable environments that appear before our eyes but are a virtual construct – sprang up in the 50s, when a handful of visionaries saw the possibilities inherent in watching things on a screen that never ends. The initial potential was just that, as the limited technology and clunky visuals weren’t advanced enough to realise the grand dreams; but the idea remained live, a going concern, while the visionaries waited for the equipment to catch up. Indeed, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that the military never forgot about the possibilities of VR, and the fact that they’ve been using virtual reality technology for war simulation for years would seem to bear this out. By the time the personal computer took off in the early 90s, the utopian ideals of a VR universe were already starting to be revisited.
Fast-forward to March 2014, and the furore that erupted when Facebook purchased Oculus VR, the inventors of the Oculus Rift VR headset, for $2bn. Why would a (social) media organisation of the size of Facebook want to invest in Oculus? The optimists said that it heralded VR as the next great breakthrough in interactive media, while the pessimists vehemently believed that Facebook were buying up the biggest player in this emerging field in order to bury it, or at least control the pace of its growth. Whether you believe the acquisition of Oculus to be part of the nefarious mechanisms of Mark Zuckerberg’s global giant or not, the real question that pops out from the ordeal is not “How did VR become such a big deal?”, but “How did it take so long?”
In an airy office space off Hope Street there exists a creative digital business that’s working at the cutting-edge of this bloom of interactive art and gaming. DRAW&CODE, founded in 2010, specialise in developing a host of visual worlds in virtual and augmented realities for a number of clients. Their collaboration-heavy approach has seen them bend their minds to a number of eye-catching projects: large-scale projection mapping at Parr Hall (Warrington) and the Shankly Hotel; the creation of a virtual version of Hope Street, traversed using Oculus Rift; and the tension-filled interactive theatre piece Race Against Time that snaked its way right across the city. Just before one of Draw&Code’s founders, Andy Cooper, heads off to Cologne to present the latest version of their augmented reality toys SwapBots (which Andy describes as a cross between “Top Trumps, Pokémon and Exquisite Corpses”) at Europe’s largest video-game trade show Gamescom, we caught up with him and fellow founder John Keefe to discuss this VR revolution.
“The stuff that really excites us is the weird, immersive, interactive experiences that really inspire people,” says Andy about what drives Draw&Code’s creative process, “whether that’s something really small and beautiful happening in an app, or a large-scale, outdoor, projection-mapped show, or all the other things in between.” The twin vestiges of the business – the Draw side and the Code side – are just two different ways for them to look at things: two halves of a brain working in unison. “What inspires us most is the kind of project where both sides [of the business] kind of mush together – working together, throwing ideas around, and being inspired by someone else’s idea.”
As overdue as the VR big bang may be, one of the things we have been exposed to – namely augmented reality – is an important stepping stone towards us getting prepared for the possibilities virtual reality can bring, and their practical applications to our lives. And the possibilities are endless. “The reason why we do projection mapping is about this idea of transforming physical spaces with digital content, which is at the core of what we do,” explains John. “But, the ability to create these new realms with AR and VR hardware is really where we see the future. I mean, we have stereo vision, but we spend our lives just looking at these flat devices – it just makes no sense. So, the great thing about VR is that you can technically put every other medium inside it: you can sit and watch TV in a swamp, if that’s what you want to do!”
Warming to his theme, John confirms what we secretly hoped: that virtual reality could be the next major breakthrough in humanity’s relationship with technology. “VR is the medium that has the potential to change so many people’s lives; it’s the closest thing to teleportation that we’ve got, and may ever have. The ability to take people from the real world and transport them to any other world is a phenomenal, world-changing, life-changing technology.”
As it stands right now, you may think that this revolution has still passed you by; unless, that is, you’ve forked out a couple of grand for HTC’s Vive console, or you happen to own an Oculus Rift headset and its operating machines. But, with Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear being developed to work with smartphones, more and more people are being exposed to these experiences, which is likely to accelerate the development of affordable gaming software and hardware.
One other place you can tap into these virtual otherworlds is Liverpool Psych Fest. Following on from hosting the amazingly trippy Thorium-232 VR module in 2015 (a piece developed by Michael Saup, Stanislav Glazov and Li Alin, and soundtracked by Anton Newcombe), the festival is presenting a series of VR commissions at this year’s event, and Draw&Code are in the thick of the action. Working with acclaimed illustrator, artist and frequent Super Furry Animals collaborator Pete Fowler, D&C are developing an exclusive environment for the festival titled Perambulator v.1 that pitches you inside Fowler’s monster-filled world in a way you’d never imagined possible. Soundtracked by a deliciously mischievous piece created by SFA’s guitarist Huw Bunford, the project has the possibility to blow people’s minds – and it’s got Andy and John pretty excited, too.
“Pete Fowler’s stuff is, without doubt, the coolest, trippiest artwork ever!” laughs Andy when we ask him about Perambulator v.1’s progress. “We love his stuff, and we’re so honoured to be collaborating with him on this project. His brain and creativity are perfect for working on an interactive project, cos it kind of feels like all the stuff that he does has been made for VR; there’s just so much depth to the worlds he creates.”
“We are literally teleporting people into Pete Fowler’s mind,” adds John, “which is an amazing and weird place!”
At its core, virtual reality is an organic experience. OK, you need some complex (and expensive) hardware to access and navigate the environments where the action happens, but what happens thereafter is strictly within the mind. “These technologies allow us to deliver the experiences we’ve always wanted to,” agrees John. “I don’t think the technology should be the focal point of it; it’s just a way of delivering an experience. So, if we do our job right, you forget about the technology.”
Forget about the technology, forget about the room in front of you, forget about life for a bit: Liverpool Psych Fest invite you to suspend all disbelief and experience a reality you never thought existed. Anything is possible.