This past weekend, with the help of a great team of new friends and colleagues, I collaborated to make my first piece of Virtual Reality. I attended the Unity VR Hack at the Bergen Public Library in Bergen, Norway. The event – led by Crossover Labs with expert mentoring from Unfold Collective – was a fantastic learning experience with a steep learning curve.
The weekend “hack” was an excellent opportunity to get hands-on experience while developing content for a platform that is revolutionising the media landscape. VR (a.k.a Virtual Reality) offers storytellers, developers and artists a whole new platform with which to work. Early on in our our three-day intensive workshop, we spoke about the distinction between storytelling and “storyliving”. With compelling virtual reality experiences, viewers are not just passive consumers, but they become active participants in the stories that they are immersed in. Virtual reality is a captivating environment in which to share a narrative because it opens up the possibility of an embodied and participatory experience. The best kind of VR stories are impressionistic in the sense that there may be a deep emotional impact left in the wake of the experience. VR can achieve the transference not only of an absorbing story, but of memory itself. It can confer the most intimate sense of time and space. The medium certainly holds the potential to increase our empathetic understanding. And I for one believe that empathy is a core humanistic value that needs further cultivation in this globalized yet strife-ridden world we share.
On that note, we kicked off our intensive (but limited) time together learning a bit about one another as we shared stories about the origin and meaning of our own names. We soon knew a bit about each other, and it was apparent that their was diversity of perspectives and expertise in the room. Our ranks included artists, filmmakers, scholars, writers, curators, engineers, and educators. In a “hack” experience like this one, the convergence of different people with varying kinds of talent is a key to the small team experience. It is the energy between different creative types that propelled our three day “making” experience.
We were split up into groups and offered a simple narrative prompt. Each group of 3-4 people brainstormed a story that would be enhanced in particular ways by the special affordances of the virtual reality medium. We started with a simple narrative script, we defined the interaction we wanted to achieve, we imagined the possibilities involved in art direction and sound design, and then we entered the tutorial phase of learning Unity (the VR software for this virtual reality “hack”). Crossover Labs and Unfold Collective provided a guided workshop, getting us all up and running with Unity basics, including a scripting overview and how to control game objects using components. After we learned the basics of Unity development, we also had a workshop on photogrammetry – the science of making measurements from photographs. We learned how to use a series of photographs to generate 3D models of real-world objects or scenes. We went out into the city of Bergen, took some digital photos, and with the power of Agisoft software, we transformed our local photos into sophisticated 3D models that could be used inside our Unity world-building.
Besides the baptism-by-fire learning of both Unity and photogrammetry, there were many other things that I think we all learned from this special experience. We exercised new forms of project management and team building in a flash. We struggled with painful fails and heroic recuperations during the course of making together. Most importantly, we met new colleagues. We connected with each other. Certainly this opportunity will lead to new ideas and new work (both in collaboration and through the new found inspiration).
On November 2-4, 2017, the Bergen Public Library will be celebrating it’s 100th anniversary with a tribute to the past, present, and future of the library. Our VR prototypes that were made during this special VR-Hack will be a part of the “futures” exhibit that weekend. I am looking forward to sharing our efforts with the general public, as I continue to envision more ways to incorporate virtual reality into my work both as a scholar and a storyteller. In many ways, this small step has been a defining moment in envisioning new creative possibilities. My sincere thanks to everyone involved in making this happen.