‘Reality Augmented Reality’
Masters Project – Critical Evaluation
MA Moving Image and Sound 2014
For my final project I wanted to create an engaging experience utilising Augmented Reality to bring an extinct animal back to life in an interactive installation.
Through my research into immersive spaces both historical (trompe l’oeil, the phantasmagoria, peppers ghost) and contemporary (James May App @ the Science Museum, Digital Revolutions show at the Barbican, Google Glasses) it was clear that with each new emerging technology inventors and artists would seek different ways to utilise the newly discovered to make all-encompassing works.
Their aim was to delight in playing with the senses of those that came to see, to hold them captive by what they had produced, to amaze and wow the crowds with each new version of the spectacle.
Many of the Augmented Reality examples I have seen in my research, – my preferred software platform Aurasma has been used by Harrods, BBC, Disney and Universal – tend to be flippant games, or marketing frippery and every time I see them I’m disappointed that this fabulous way of personally interacting with people is so commercial.
My aim is to use all of my technical skills and that plethora of new digital technology that is available, to make a beautiful immersive piece of interactive art meaningful, basing it on the very real problem of extinction.
The Great Bustard is still the heaviest living bird that can fly, but they died out from the UK in the 1830’s. I saw the information label in the Norwich Castle Museum where they house an impressive case of these large animals, and when I saw it, I wanted to bring them out of the case and back to ‘life’ through the magic of today’s technology.
Although my virtual reintroduction of the bird to East Anglia only exists in this installation, there is an actual re-introduction of the Great Bustard on Salisbury Plain by a very small, but dedicated group.
Chapter 1 – Reality Augmented
In my previous self negotiated unit I had created a purely digital device-led experience using a 3D cgi version of a Great Bustard which I laboured over intensively, and although the feedback was really positive, I felt its’ focus was too narrow on its own. The intention had been as an accompaniment to a museum exhibit. As a digital artist I sometimes forget the very visceral stimuli of the real world. I also realised that if this was a live public project I would be collaborating with professional 3D artists (not struggling with it myself) as the object (the cgi) would not be the end result.
Being an avid museum fan myself, I am always fascinated by being able to gaze upon an original artefact, and I realised that the interest in seeing the actual objects as well as interacting with them was part of the direction that my final project should take.
I needed to include a physical object within my installation, and the obvious choice was a model of a great bustard. Having a life size sculpture of the Great Bustard in my installation was important to give the physical context of this enormous bird. All of your senses are instantly engaged with its very presence and there was no better way to convey this than with an accurate model.
Although my installation is underpinned by technology, putting a physical object in my space will give it more meaning. Digital screens are all pervasive and we are so used to the architectural furniture of the ‘flat black’ that I wanted to ensure I brought a spatial dynamic back in, and once more we would become inquisitive about this new shape that we have been presented with.
It will also draw the intrigued viewer closer and when they choose to interact, to step forward, they will move unwittingly onto my pressure mat, which once triggered, plays the animation of the Great Bustard taking off and flying across the wall space right in front of you. This gives the visitor a chance to be part of my virtual awakening and re-introduction.
Whilst looking around at what current practitioners are doing with art and technology I made sure I visited the Barbican exhibition, Digital Revolution.
“This immersive and interactive exhibition brings together for the first time a range of artists, filmmakers, architects, designers, musicians and game developers, all pushing the boundaries of their fields using digital media.” (Barbican press release 2014)
Many of the pieces in the exhibition lacked the interactivity that I had expected, and although beautiful or clever, with no interactivity apparent, the viewer would soon move onto the next piece. To illustrate this point, when I was at the Barbican, one of the pieces, the Minimaforms petting zoo with their fabulous digital pet snakes, was supposed to be interactive. I wanted to see this in action, but after 3 attempts and watching many visitors also try, the piece just didn’t respond to those wanting to play and I observed a lot of people’s disappointment. The same with the will.i.am piece, with beautifully machined pyramid-shaped mechanical instruments and cutting edge graphics, but no responsiveness to external stimuli, limiting its playfulness and appeal.
Making the sculpture interactive, actually responding to the people or person within the space is of paramount importance to the success of the piece, when you can feel that you impact upon a piece of art or sculpture you’re making a passive event into an experience.
An Oxford dictionary definition of ‘ to interact’ is described as “to act in such a way as to have an effect on each other”. Because I chose to leave my sculpture plain white so that the size is the foremost impression, I have also given myself a perfect surface to project my animation onto, again reinforcing the physical interaction and focus of the piece.
Reactions from those that have seen the sculpture thus far have been intrigue, interest and a genuine request for a bit more information, usually along the lines of, “is it life-size?” All of them seemed to agree it was a conversation starter and were fascinated to see it in situ with the animation running. This means I have a great starting point to talk about the very real subject of extinction and create digital art with meaning.
The animation itself came through a process of mark making and testing with different media and techniques. I wanted it to have texture and movement within the paper, I wanted it to be beautiful, not a stylized graphical illustration, which is my normal safe digital art practice. I wanted the art to feel as though it moved, to be bold and free, with high expressiveness of line capturing the movement of the physical action.
To make the texture as exciting as possible I had discovered through more experimentation that using found feathers in the animation frames made such particular marks that I could not replicate, or better, by hand. It seemed fitting to be using them to animate flight.
To truly be augmented art.
“No one could fault the advances in technology on display, but the art that has emerged out of that technology? Well, on this showing, too much of it seems gimmicky, weak and overly concerned with spectacle rather than meaning, or making a comment on our culture.” (Sooke 2014)
I also wanted to envelop the viewer with sound and after researching their previous habitats in Norfolk I came upon the impact of environmental issues, the Brecks used to be a vast heathland covering parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, but few truly wild pieces of this heathland remain. It’s very protected and access is limited, but the audio recordings are a lovely reminder of what a summers day can be, relaxing, peaceful and it puts the viewer exactly where the Great Bustard would have roamed wild.
Chapter 2 – Augmented Reality
I saw a group of museum innovators in Belgium (meSCH project) inserting a mobile device within a wooden loupe/magnifying glass which they gave to their visitors to view more in-depth information on any of the objects with the little loupe symbol on their labels.
Through their research they had discovered in their first iteration of using digital devices to show more information, where they had simply given an iPad unadorned and with all controls available to the user, volume, on/off etc, ended badly, as people were more confused about which button to press or not to press, on the devices they were given.
“Still, many visitors were reluctant to pick up an iPad. The installation did not have a clear interface and many people are not familiar with AR yet… when encountering a piece of technology they have used before outside of the museum space, visitors will try to use that technology like they have used it before “, (Van der Vaart 2014)
Their second ‘loupe’ approach helped overcome many of the obstacles that people perceive around digital devices. You held it in a natural way, and used it to look at things just as you would a real magnifying glass. I wanted to use this ‘soft’ approach to a digital device being in my space and because I was basing my project around the heaviest flying bird to live, a pair of binoculars seemed the natural choice.
I was lucky enough to get a short interview with David Waterhouse (Curator of the current ‘Wonder of Birds’ Exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum) and I demoed my AR binoculars to him. He liked the intuitive form factor and could see a very real use for overlaying all sorts of information on exhibits with them, such as his future Mammoth project, to see what it would have looked like, and conversely to see the skeletal structure of existing taxidermy pieces.
He also found that their use of the technology in your pocket (ie, an iPhone) is appealing as it’s personal and you can use it to find out more, when you want to. This is exactly the point of using your own smartphone, to discover extra layers. This is the pleasure of exhibition technology that I am trying to communicate through my work.
“Those who run museums know that the people walking around their buildings are already spending an inordinate amount of time using their phones… So it only makes sense to find ways to turn phones into storytelling tools that can bring the inanimate to life. Or shift time. Or add layers of knowledge.” (Rieland, 2012)
Giving the visitors a variety of ‘artworks’ to look at through the binoculars presents an opportunity to show all of the different ways you could impart more knowledge or information, from simple overlaying of explanatory video, to interactive screens where you choose from a menu, and make your own decisions about what you would like to explore.
Chapter 3 – Reality Augmented Reality
Putting the physical and the virtual together into an interactive space to present a seamless experience has – at times – seemed a far too ambitious project for just one person.
However, much of the peripheral items that I have created, such as the sculpture, artwork and associated literature already exist in most heritage or educational establishments.
My aim was to show the world that you can overlay these existing items in a non-destructive way. It would have been ideal to bring in a stuffed Great Bustard, but as there are (at time of writing) only 14 living Great Bustards existing in the UK on the Salisbury re-introduction site they are too rare and special and are highly prized amongst collectors, should one come on the market.
I could also have exhibited a different set of drawings, but in this case – as in most exhibitions – the items on display should have a connection with each other.
With the audio soundscape, cohesive theme and relevant literature I hope to engage the viewer and pique their interest in the plight of the Great Bustards and the struggles that David Waters (Great Bustard Group founder) and his team have, but also inform them by overlaying information on every item through Augmented Reality.
I wanted to prove it could be done, to show museum professionals and academics that if I were to work alongside them for future projects, we could engage the viewer on many more levels, learning would become more of an experience. Overlaying the existing exhibit with more content using the device in their pocket and appropriate extra information would enlighten the viewer there and then directly in front of the item they want to learn more about.
I have taken a contemporary issue (extinction of species) and devised a complex and immersive strategy for making the viewer of the installation consider the physical , visual and sonic, and aesthetic loss that such extinction creates, filling the space where the bird should be with replacement sensory experiences.
This is the key to making my installation a success, encouraging people to take part, whether virtually, by accessing the extra layers of information in my printed items through Augmented Reality, or with their physical curiosity providing the reaction with my sculpture.
But the sculpture is not the outcome of my final piece, nor the animation, or the sound, or even the Augmented Reality art that people can take away, it’s the layering of them all together, one over the other, over the other, it’s proving that the interaction of these layers is where the future lies for storytelling in museums or art galleries or schools, not just through one medium, but through them all and the power of interaction.
If we were all one-dimensional how boring would that be?
Barbican Press Release, 2014, An immersive exhibition of art, design, film, music and videogames http://www.barbican.org.uk/digital-revolution/press/
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