Friday, October 05, 2018

A feast of entertainment for VR fans at TOMTech’s 2018 VRLab

Dance fans – and people who like things that go whoooooosh – are going to absolutely love Wave VR at this year’s TOMTech. Grammy award-winning singer and technologist Imogen Heap has been grabbing the headlines with her mesmerizing VR music performance however the experience that literally had me raving was The Glitch Mob's "See Without Eyes". 

 This fab work is fully interactive and more immersive than scuba diving. Soar and zoom through space, sci fi landscapes and other trippy dreamscapes while being aurally dazzled to a 20-minute custom mix of great dance music. For one track, I was able to use my hands to magically transform passing rocks and mountains into pulsating mushrooms of psychedelic colour; in another, I was flying through asteroid fields in an endless galaxy while zapping planets with an arc of rainbow sprinkles. It’s quite a trip – and you’re dancing throughout because, well, it’s just that kind of music.

If you want the same kind of experience but sitting down, then Fantasynth should be your next port of call. Here it’s your chair that’s doing all the dancing as a padded back pulses forcefully against your back and you visually traverse yet more trippy landscapes, all set to the sound of N'to’s beat-heavy Chez Nous.

On a much quieter note, the talented, innovative and very modest artist Rachel Henson takes you on small but beautiful journeys in Outshift. Her small stand in the main room is a little oasis of tranquility. I was intrigued by her flickbooks (remember those??) which take you on charming Super8-style walks round the lamp-lit city wall of Chester or down a leafy country lane at Stanmer Park. A more immersive project are her lovely films – tiny scenes where filmed real-life characters are augmented onto static backdrops such as a photograph of a hospital corridor or a cartoon drawing. Peering through the eyepiece, you control the movement of the figures yourself using a touchpad on the side of the tiny, custom-designed monocular. Despite the small scale, this is awe-inspiring work and I would love to see more of her pieces.

In the bar, there’s a very intriguing and dynamic Augmented Reality dance production to enjoy from AΦE, the people who last year gave us Whist, a creepy and disturbing take on the imagined unconscious. This year’s production is truly lovely with sculpted avatars dancing sinuously around the bar area, superimposed on whoever happens to be standing there. There are several variations during the work – in one piece, two dancers merge on the floor; in another, dozens of tiny, tiny dancers are trapped in a outsized, transparent Rubik’s cube and you can flick them all around in a bid to solve the puzzle.

In the Waterloo Room, The Female Planet takes you back down to earth. This is a series of films which each feature an inspiring female role model talking about their life experiences. I only had time to watch one of the works – actress Gina Rodriguez urging youngsters to follow their dreams whatever their gender or colour. There a real sense of intimacy as Gina, a persuasive and engaging personality, shares with you one-to-one. I will be definitely be back at the Old Market before the weekend is out to watch the other stories from women such as aeronautical engineer (aka rocket designer) Tiera Fletcher, American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was first the Muslim American athlete to wear a hijab at the Olympics, and Indian-born YouTube star Vidya Vox.  

There are many, many other treats are in store at this year’s VR Lab. I was dying to have another go on Loco Dojo, the bonkers “It’s a Knockout”-style cartoon game that has you milking pigs, boxing eggs, stacking moles and whacking urchins. I also enjoyed another visit to the Plankton World of artist Iona Scott, and a first trip underwater with Living Coast. This is an interactive exploration of the chalk reef just off the coast, between Brighton Marina & Beachy Head.

This unique marine environment is home to abundant wildlife, including threatened species such as short-snouted seahorses, blue mussels & native oysters
. In real life, the chalk creates so much stirred-up sediment that’s it impossible to see a thing but Virtual Reality gives you an insight into just how many underwater riches lie beneath us as we bob around in the Sussex sea.

One session at VRLab probably isn’t enough time to try out everything on offer so I recommend … going twice. I’m certainly heading back there before the weekend is out, ready for another full immersion in the myriad wonders of Virtual and Augmented Reality. TOMTech is on until Sunday – don’t miss it.