Culture  Imagination in 360°

Phi Center’s Virtual Reality Garden promises to break barriers

Since January 2016, the Phi Centre has been presenting a series of exhibits in its Virtual Reality Garden, a permanent installation which uses 360° storytelling to shatter the boundaries of art and technology. Their new animation-themed installment runs until March 12 and features four short films and one of Ubisoft’s first virtual reality video games, Eagle Flight. Through multimedia simulations, the exhibit lets the viewer embody different perspectives and creates a sensory experience. Such a technology would be effective in exploring pertinent political and social issues, which the installation unfortunately fails to do.

The experience begins as the intrigued viewer puts on a headset and is instantly spirited away into an overwhelmingly detailed and unknown environment. The first component, four ten-minute films, create alternate experiences of aging and growth by exploring the relationships formed along the way. Minotaur begins by taking the viewer on an abstract journey through life, death, and rebirth. The emotional trajectory experienced by the creature portrayed in the film – and by extension, the viewer – ranges from anger and fear to love and finally serenity. The next film, The Rose and I, is inspired by The Little Prince, a French novella about a stranded pilot encountering a young prince who fell from an asteroid. Set on an imaginary planet, the film explores the gentle relationship between its only inhabitants: a rose and her human companion. The touching and poetic film was presented at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Emmy-award winning Henry tells the story of a lonely hedgehog and his lifechanging birthday wish. Narrated by Elijah Wood, it was brought to life by some of the creators behind Brave and Toy Story 3. Finally, Lost follows a robotic hand’s quest for its body, in a dark forest populated by fireflies. This short immersive experience was equally presented at Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

Each work reveals a poetic and inventive universe, where head movements become similar to camera motion, producing the illusion that the viewer creates the work they witness. It sparks a desire to move closer, to stretch out a hand, in order to feel a physical presence within the animated environments. When turning your head means catching a glimpse of a hedgehog’s bedsheets through a doorway, or of the movement of a distant planet hovering away, the immersion is complete. However, awareness of the virtual illusion is often present as the viewer’s body is never materialized within the screen.

The short films are followed by the presentation of a first person-video game, Ubisoft’s visual masterpiece, Eagle Flight. The player becomes an eagle soaring over Paris, fifty years after the extinction of the human race. Emblematic monuments are overgrown and populated by elephants, deer, and other animals who have escaped from the zoo. The game provides an experience of overwhelming freedom that creates unprecedented physical sensations. The player can choose to fly through the rusty arms of the Tuileries Ferris wheel, the buttresses of Notre Dame cathedral, or explore the depths of derelict metro tunnels and gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower. It becomes possible to catch fish in the Seine or uncover hidden passages in narrow streets, as well as complete challenges in story mode or compete against other birds in multiplayer.

Overall, the installation provides an aesthetically pleasing experience. However, the messages the films deliver prove disappointing in their lack of power and relevance. The videos demonstrate the boundless potential of immersive technology in engaging the viewer, without yet providing a challenging content closer to current issues. With such advanced technology and talented creators, narratives could convey a more socially or politically relevant message, rather than stories of lonesome hedgehogs and fragile roses. The short films, though emotionally powerful and creative, failed to provide thought-provoking material involving the viewer’s visual participation, who instead experiences pure physical sensation without the potential to act on it.

To understand the viewer’s relationship to a work of art, it is essential to consider the art form itself and how it makes the work accessible to the public. The Phi Centre’s exhibit is free, which means that anyone can watch the sunset hovering between two imaginary planets or over an abandoned Paris, though not everyone has access to information concerning the exhibit, or the time and physical capability of going there. These contextual problems aside, the technology itself has potential to break socioeconomic barriers, create interactive artistic experiences for all, and allow spectators to define their relationship to and perception of the work. The Virtual Reality Garden shows the powerful and promising results of creating a dynamic relationship between artist and viewer, between art and technology.