Art in Virtual Reality

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the fantastic “Loving Vincent” at the cinema. Unique in its cinematography and visual effects, it depicts the life and death of Vincent van Gogh. There is, however, not much depiction of the great painter himself, as the film starts with the news about his death. Despite of this, the Van Gogh-hungry are not left unsatisfied — the whole film is oil-painted in his style, and so he is present in every stroke.

Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent Van Gogh, in Loving Vincent

Before this turns into a movie review, I should pinpoint that this entry is in fact about Virtual Reality (VR). Loving Vincent instantly reminded me of one of my favorite VR experiences. Depicted in the film itself, “The Night Café”, originally a painting by Van Gogh, has been turned into a VR experience by Borrowed Light Studios.

A Gif from the virtual experience of “The Night Café”, from Borrowed Light Studios.

The Night Café
On enteringThe Night Café in Immersive VR, one starts to hear piano music. Further, the scene fades from black, and one finds oneself present in a somewhat psychedelic bar depicted in “Van Gogh style”: the lights flare and pulse, and the animated characters definitely come straight from the “Uncanny Valley“. The fascinating aspect of the experience is to feel  present in a live painting: while moving around one definitely feels apart of the virtual environment. Because of the rather simple style, the resolution and refresh rates can be maximised even on mobile VR goggles, which turns it into a very graphically rich VR experience in the context of mobile VR. The experience of “The Night Café” definitely immerse you in an ecstatic, dynamic Van Gogh painting, which Van Gogh-fans and layman alike should check out. I would not be surprised if the whole  film was inspired by this VR experience.

The original painting of “The Night Café” by Van Gogh.

The Virtual Van Gogh
Something similar to “The Night Café” was created by The Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum in 2015, where they invited their visitors to enter the bedrooms of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch in VR. Although the event has now passed, the application “Virtual Bedrooms” is available for download for Google Cardboard-devices, at App Store and at Google Play. Unlike The Night Café, however, none of these offer any navigation within the virtual environment.

The Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum’s Illustration of their Virtual Van Gogh.

The expression of Van Gogh is enrichened, heightened, augmented and arguably also changed through the medium of VR.  VR is a medium with a lot of expression potential, and this is the immediate relevance between art and virtual reality. To broadcast their message, artists utilize every new medium in their power. In this context, it is very useful to pinpoint that the medium of VR is an especially powerful one: by enabling users to adopt different identities within any conceivable programmed world, the potential for expression is endless. Another artist we will use to examplify VR’s potential within art, is Pushwagner.

Pushwagner Self-Portrait. which has seen a re-creation also in VR.

Pushwagner
The Norwegian contemporary artist “Pushwagner”, who unfortunately died last month, is another artist whose art is seen reimagined in the medium of VR. As part of a master’s project at the Western University of Applied Sciences, Runar Tistel has recreated the art of Pushwagner in a 360° 3D Virtual Environment. Pushwagner’s works often feature repetitive patterns and an abundance of geometrical shapes, which made Tistel approach the generating of these virtual environments mathematically. By adopting this mathematic-reductionist approach to the art, the re-creation of Pushwagner’s art to VR, is performed by a script that procedurally generates Pushwagner’s work. Essentially, the art is rendered on site, from source code text to imagery. I have myself had the joy of stepping into a recreation of Pushwagner’s self portrait in VR and found it to be a very interesting experience.

Bergen International Festival
As a resident of Bergen, I am anxiously awaiting Festspillene (Bergen International Festival); an annual event in Bergen, Norway, which is the greatest music- and theater festival in the North. The aim of the festival is to present art in every genre: music, theater, dance, opera, and the visual arts. For the first time in 2018, the Festival is introducing a “VR Lounge”, a free exhibit of VR experiences in Grieghallen. Here you can come to enjoy first class VR experiences for free: the Festival will set up several HTC Vive’s in the lounge.

Of the works being presented are The Virtual Orchestra by London Philharmonic Orchestra, which takes you to Southbank Centre, London, while they play the last part of Sibelius’ 5th symphony. In addition to this, you can see the theater show “My Name is Peter Stillmann”, inspired by Paul Austers’ City of Glass. Similarly to Loving Vincent and The Night Café, it features handdrawn animation. The experience is delivered by 59 productions, who arranged the video- and design production during the Olympic opening in London in 2012, so this should be really exciting.

BIFF
“Festspillene” is not the first event of its kind in Bergen to embrace the visual expression power of VR technologies. Residents of Bergen were equally lucky during Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF) at the exhibit “BIFF Expanded”, where they previewed various VR and AR experiences. The scope of the exhibit was to display the cross section between film, visual arts and new technology, where VR was well represented. Amongst others, the guys and gals at Crossover Labs displayed their VR experiences there, in addition to holding a workshop on Unity in VR for us at the local library. Lucky us.

Art in Virtual Reality
To summarize this entry, we can definitively say that the medium of VR proves a great venue for artists, designers, etc., to present art in 3D and 360 degrees. Not only for presenting older art, obviously, as this post presented, but to display new art that plays with established principles of visual presentation. In addition to this, VR can aid users in the creation of new art as well (check out Google Tiltbrush, or Kodon by the Bergen-based TenkLabs, which lets you draw in 360 3D).  It will be exciting to see what creative projects that emerge during the next years. For now, we have the Bergen International Festival to look forward too. If you want to join me as a VR assistant volunteer at the Festival, you can sign up here.

Oilpaint style in Unity
If you enjoy the oil-painted style in Virtual Environments, I would strongly encourage to play with the NPR Oil Paint Effect for Unity 3D, available in Unity Asset Store. The effect can turn any game or VR experience into oil-painted style. A youtube video illustrating the concept, can be seen here.

To make it a hat-trick of Van Gogh-screenshots, here is The Night Café as depicted in Loving Vincent as well. Go buy the film if you want to see it in motion  it’s worth it.

 

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Virtual Reality Memory Palaces

The ancient mnemonic “method of Loci” has been in use for thousands of years. From memory competitors to students, the method helps to memorise items by combining visual and spatial cues. Many have perhaps heard of the technique through popular TV shows such as Sherlock or Hannibal, where their “Mind Palaces” or “Memory Palaces” are portrayed as a genius trait.

Illustration based on “Mind Attic” by wonderful artist Tisserande. Original version without Head-Mounted Display can be found here.

The real method, however, is perfectly simple. You start by finding a location to act as your Memory Palace. It should be a place you know well, for instance your apartment or your university. You further isolate several rooms, and sub-parts of those rooms, that amount to the number of things you want to recall. Next, you may want to have a certain route which you mentally walk through your Memory Palace. This is where the method comes in: you visualise what you want to recall at the given places in your Mind Palace. Need to go shopping? Imagine coffee beans poured out on the floor, orange juice cartons in the sofa, and bananas hanging on the TV. If you need to recall something more abstract, you can get creative and use the visualisation as an association to what you want to recall instead.

This method is believed to be powerful because of the combination of information with visual cues (the visualisation of the memory items), and with spatial cues (their given place in the environment). Curiously, however, this exploitation of the visual and spatial cues in the brain, does not involve our vision, or true perception of spatial three-dimensional spaces at all — only through our “inner eye” and our already-established memory of spatial environments.

“Get out — I need to go to my Mind Palace”. Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock  — Quite busy in his Memory Palace. Illustration of by edthatch.

But what if we could perform this method with raw, fresh vision that gives us both the visual and spatial cues? Such a task is perfect for the medium of Immersive Virtual Reality. In VR, we are provided with highly optimisible a visuo-spatial environment made of software, which gives us the opportunity  to tailor the Memory Palaces to our own needs. By exploiting the visuo-spatial elements of the method of Loci in a much more explicit sense,  the method may perhaps work even better, or be more fun and easy to use.

Addressing this, I created an a VR memory palace app as part of my master’s thesis in Information Science. The application is called “Mnemosyne”,  after the Greek goddess of memory, of which country the Method of Loci originated. Developed with A-Frame, the application presents you with a text field where you can enter the things you want to recall. You then put on your VR headset, and are presented with an apartment with five rooms where you can place these memory items you entered. The algorithm returns images based on your text preferences from a search engine, and places these in the virtual environment. When this is done, you just walk around and watch to memorise the items.

Mnemosyne is still just a prototype, and we can imagine it will have room for many improvements in the future – after more research has been done. Currently, we at the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE) have performed a pilot study with 18 participants. The short paper discussing the findings was published in June 2018 in the Springer’s series «Lecture Notes on Computer Science», in the «Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Computer Graphics» edition. The conference paper was presented in the beautiful village of Otranto at the Salento AVR conference in July.

Our first paper on VR Memory Palaces was posted in the LNCS on Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Computer Graphics.

Our paper, ‘Mnemosyne: Adapting the Method of Loci to Immersive Virtual Reality’, can be accessed at Springer. Stay put at Matrise for further updates on our work regarding Virtual Reality Memory Palaces.

Literature list

VR Journalism at Watching in the Media 2018

During Joakim’s talk on “Virtual Reality Journalism” at the Watching in the Media conference, ViSmedia handed out close to 200 Cardboard VR goggles. In this post, you can get some tips on how to use them to experience Immersive Journalism. Don’t have a cheap pair of Cardboard yourself? You could always get a pair for less than 1 USD at eBay.

If you need an introduction to the theme, or want to read more on the subject, you can read our previous article on VR Journalism here. In the entry we briefly discuss ethical and conceptual issues with VR Journalism, for those interested.

To see a few 360 images from the conference, you can go to this link.
Remember to tilt your phone sideways and click the VR Goggles icon before you put the phone into the cardboard viewer. Below is a small list of recommended content for you to explore.

Watch Joakim’s talk here:


1. View 360 images from the ViSmedia conference.
Students at the University of Bergen took a few 360 images during the Watching in the Media conference. These images are unfortunately no longer available.

2. New York Times’ VR app.
The NYT VR app can be found at the app store or at Google Play
We can recommend the stories Fight for Fallujah, Donald Trump Rally and The Displaced.

3. The Guardian VR.
The Guardian also has their own app for iPhone and Android.
Their most popular VR story is 6×9: a VR experience of solitary confinement, but their app also offer a whole lot more.

4. YouTube.
YouTube offers 360 videos in VR mode. Download the app, and browse with keywords such as “360” and “VR”. In our experience, especially in the Playstation VR Head-Mounted Display, these do not deliver very high resolution as with most 360 streaming.

5. Other apps
Your VR goggles can be used for other things than just journalistic viewing. The app store and play store is filled with VR apps for your goggles. Just search for keywords such as “360” and “VR”, and download what you like.

6. The VR Web
Although still in its infancy, with the rise of WebVR support in more and more browsers, we can browse VR applications on the web. Matrise has experience developing WebVR apps with A-Frame (read our entry on Virtual Reality Memory Palaces here), and would recommend going to A-Frame’s website for examples on what the framework is capable of.

Happy exploring.

Virtual Reality Journalism

Journalism is largely defined by which medium it uses to convey its message. The last hundred years, it has moved from medium to medium: from text to radio, and further from photographs to video. With each new medium the fidelity of the message it is providing is steadily increasing. This is perhaps especially clear now with the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies for journalistic purposes. By using 360° stereoscopic (3D) cameras, we are getting very close to capturing subjective realities at given points in spacetime.

The Ultimate Empathy Machine

In his Ted Talk, Chris Milk describes the potential of VR for creating “the ultimate empathy machine”, which later has been the subject for extensive debate. The message is that we may be more empathetic towards others if we can “literally”, or at least virtually, view the situation through their eyes. Many journalistic projects have focused on refugees or war zones, such as the stories “Fight for Fallujah” and “The Displaced“. In these stories, the camera works as the eyes of the observer, as the screen in the VR goggles is mounted directly on to the eyes. The user is presented to the story through a first person perspective, and may feel present in the story as if he or she is actually being transferred to the environment.  This presence to the stories, and the following perceived realism, is what is believed to be able to increase empathy in the viewers. Of this reason also, Google News Lab’s Ethnographic Study on Immersive Journalism  describes VR news as more fit for the term “storyliving” rather than “storytelling”, indicating that the user feels a part of the story that is being conveyed.

‘See for yourself’: Is the NYT VR pitching their VR production by indicating that you can see the situation yourself, instead of adhering to the mediated version by a journalist who’ve been there?

Critics of VR as the “ultimate empathy machine”, or as capable of delivering “storyliving”, say that you can not possibly know how it is to be in a refugee camp while lying on the couch a friday evening with your VR goggles and a glass of wine. And, of course, you can not. It may, however, prove to be a more empathetic instrument than a regular video as it may seem more real and thus affect us differently.  It is no wonder that it may seem more ‘real’, when it is presented in the ‘format of reality’. Some do agree, however, and believe that it may have the power to make viewers more empathetic – nevertheless, they think that it may be unethical to use it as such. Should journalists have this power, to distribute realities to news consumers, and by new technologies we are not used to, affect people this strongly? These critics may be afraid of the “brainwashing” potential of the technology. It is easier to distance one self from a 21 inch screen than it is to distance yourself from an encompassing, immersive virtual reality you inhibit. Perhaps the most crucial question is whether it is brainwashing if what you are showed in fact is real?

Fake News

This brings us to another point of VR Journalism: how hard it is to manipulate the content. The journalist can not hide behind the camera. There is no artificial lighting or too narrow segment of the shot. The camera shoots in 360° horizontally and vertically — it is a totally observant witness at that given space and time.  In a sense, news in 360° is far less directed than in traditional flat videos: the viewer chooses which part of the video he or she wants to see. Naturally, the journalist is still an active role which chooses where to shoot, and does the final edit, however, it is a great shift from traditonal video footage. As we all know, during the last few years the concept of ‘fake news’ and mistrust in the media has arisen. The transparency that shooting with 360° 3D offers may help combat this. Perhaps also Journalism has to adapt to these changes, and rather deliver (immersive) content on which its readers themselves can decide and conclude upon. Euronews, one of the largest European news agencies, argues that this is why they have produced several 360° videos each week for now two years. In the VR session of the Digital World Conference in 2016, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Platforms, Duncan Hooper, stated they “want[ed] to let [the users] make their own decisions, not tell them what they should be watching, not to tell them what they should be thinking”.

It is, however, rather naïve to believe that immersive content alone can deliver objective truths — no matter how close the images correspond to reality. When the videos themselves lack in clear message or narrative, it is natural to imagine how they may rather be used as building bricks for constituting a narrative elsewhere. Besides, imagine the concrete example of the news coverage of the Israel and Palestine conflict. In this case, we may ask whether the journalist will choose to show immersive footage of a knife attack in Jerusalem, or deadly shots by the border patrol in Gaza? Both would be correct to show, but by this example, we see that to a certain extent, in the problem of news objectivity and fake news, it is not a problem of facts vs. non-facts; but which facts are focussed on. Immersive Journalism is no silver bullet in this regard, however, that is not to say that it may not find a natural place in news coverage. 

VR Journalism at the University of Bergen

During the spring of 2018, I taught 20 undergraduate students in VR Programming, 360° video shooting- and editing and photogrammetry. The aim was that the students should be able to create their own prototype delivering Immersive Journalism. As the rules and practices within the new concept is not very well established, we did not teach the students exactly to solve their tasks, but rather how to experiment with the novelties of the medium and try to innovate and create new genres. This is often called ‘Innovation Pedagogy’. The end result have been four brilliant prototypes, that was presented at the Norwegian Centre of Excellence (NCE) Media’s media lab in Media City Bergen. We discuss two of these here. Interested in the other two? These are mentioned in an entry where we go more in depth, philosophically, on the concept of Experience Machines.

Drug addict
The first of the VR experiences is called “Narkomani” which from Norwegian can roughly be translated to “Drug addict”. The aim of the production is to see the world from the point of view of a drug addict, perhaps living on the streets in Bergen. How is it to be frowned upon, walking around the streets, uneasy to get the next shot of dope? As my colleague Nyre stated in the introduction the projects, this VR project features “not a first person shooter from Los Angeles, but first person social realism from Bergen”.

Schizophrenia
The second of the VR experiences, attempts to create understanding on how it is to live with schizophrenia. In the experience, the user perceives visual hallucinations, and audio of up to five different personalities. The concept is brilliantly illustrated by the poster, and the experience tries to portrait a subjective reality falling apart.

Conclusion

Journalism through the medium/technology of VR has great potential. Immersive Journalism is still in its infancy, but the projects done so far shows promising. Much will depend on VR goggles entering into people’s homes, as with any other technology. For insights into where we are in the terrain of VR technology in 2018 — take a look at our entry discussing the History of Virtual Reality.

Literature list


Are you interested in more reading on this subject?

This executive summary on “Virtual Reality Journalism” by Owen & Pitt at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is one of the first reports on VR Journalism.

Further, the report by Doyle, Gelman & Gill at the Knight Foundation is a good background read.

Finally, the Reuters report by Zillah Watson is more recent and sheds light on the more current situation of the medium for journalistic purposes. This report  illuminates a change we have seen recently, with the use of consumer/”prosumer” cameras for easier production by newsroom. This will definitely turn out, as with traditional cameras, to be a prerequisite for the adoption of this medium across Journalism as whole. When it is easier to produce content in 360° video, more newsrooms will do it.

As the reports by The Knight Foundation, The Tow Center, and further Sirkunnen et. al indicate, Immersive Journalism has not been so prevalent in less-affluent media houses. We may know of VR stories such as 6×9 by The Guardian, but have not necessarily heard of any from our local newspaper. This may change in the near future due to better consumer products.