Reality through virtual glasses
These days, virtual reality is applied to almost every sector including medicine, engineering, architecture, heritage preservation, marketing and video gaming. Virtual reality blew up on the art scene in recent years changing the whole concept of art and how it is perceived. Last week, an audience at Goethe-Institute got a taste of this new art form—virtual reality enhanced art, writes Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen.
Goethe-Institute Addis Ababa, that hosts arts and culture related events, was crowded with numerous people earlier this week. An event like no other was about to commence and many were eagerly waiting.
There were swivel chairs on every corner each with a virtual reality headset on them. One can choose from a list of short movies and bask in the world of virtual reality—which is one of the most fascinating technologies in the world today.
Samsung virtual reality (VR) gear was dedicated to movies selected from Kenya, Senegal and Ghana.
For most of the audience it was their very first time to experience cinema in the virtual dimension. Some of them were clinging on to the swivel chair in disbelief of the real-like virtual world. There were few people who kept taking off the headset every now and then since what they saw through the glasses was too close the reality around them. They could see the characters in the movies exactly as they were at the scene of the film.
The audience, who can see the 360-degree set of the movie, has the privilege to perceive the entire environment of the movie just by rotating the chair or moving their head. It was a remarkable experience for many, as they wanted to see more movies after trying one or two.
The exhibition “New Dimensions—Virtual Reality Africa” brought forth four African movies: “The Other Dakar” from Senegal, “Spirit Robot” from Ghana and “Let This be a Warning” and “Nairobi Berries” from Kenya. The movies were displayed at Goethe-Institute Addis Ababa and iceaddis for four days.
The computer technology virtual reality uses virtual reality headsets or multi-projected environments. These physical environments or props are designed to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate viewer’s physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment. A person using virtual reality equipment can look around this imaginary world.
The technology has evolved to a point that with high quality VR users are able to move around and interact with virtual features.
The virtual reality effect is created by virtual reality headsets consisting of a head-mounted display with a small screen in front of the eyes. The effect can also be created through specially designed rooms with multiple large screens.
These days, virtual reality is applied to almost every sector including medicine, engineering, architecture, heritage preservation, marketing and video gaming. It has also been one aspect of the arts sector with its effect that is similar to the real world. Films produced for VR allow the audience to view a 360-degree environment in every scene.
Virtual reality has entered the sporting world and there has been some efforts to transmit matches in VR. It is also a part of kid’s entertainment as some companies has been installing it onto roller coasters.
VR is now a part of surgery training and a 360-degree video is recorded during operations. In regards to education, primary schooling, space, pilot and military trainings are now being given using VR.
In terms of visual arts, there are various exhibitions and festivals dedicated to VR based artistic pieces. Artists are using the VR medium as an optional method to express their ideas and it is attracting a number of audience. Music videos and concerts are now being presented using VR. It is believed VR has created an intense experience to the arts.
According to the organizers, “New Dimensions—Virtual Reality Africa” exhibition is intended to showcase vibrant, diverse and ever-changing cultural landscape of contemporary Africa.
“Spirit Robot” is a nine-minute documentary by Ghanaian science fiction author and founder of the Afrocyberpunk website Jonathan Dotse. In the movie he explored the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra. The festival has been described as a driving factor of art renaissance in the city’s public spaces.
“Nairobi Berries” is a poetic city symphony about Nairobi by the Kenyan photographer Ng’endo Mukii. The synopsis reads “In the empty spaces we cannot claim as our own, in forests full of smoke and beneath still waters, two women and a man wrangle. Each must hollow out the other’s core for fruits promised but only ever borne in dreams. For this is Nairobi, the city we call home.”
“The Other Dakar” is a short film by Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane. It depicts a little girl who is chosen to discover the invisible Dakar.
The Kenyan artistic crew The Nest Collective created “Let This be a Warning”, a seven-minute movie that explores a future in which a group of Africans have left earth to create a colony on a distant planet. In the film they respond with disquiet to the arrival of an uninvited and unwelcome guest.
After watching few minutes of the movie, viewers understand they are the “uninvited and unwelcome guest” since the story revolves around them being the focus. All the characters speak keeping the emphasis on the viewer, who feels as if everything is happening for real.
According to the organizers, the Goethe-Institute and Cape Town based non-profit organization Electric South aim to provide support and mentorship to African storytellers and artists in the development and production of their own virtual reality ideas. In addition, they work towards introducing African and international audiences to African-produced virtual realities.
Dahna Menner, an arts and culture student in Germany and an intern at Goethe-Institute and the one in charge of organizing the exhibition says, “New Dimensions— Virtual Reality Africa” was displayed in Johannesburg, South Africa before traveling to Ethiopia.
The exhibition was organized to support virtual reality startups in the continent. The selected movies have been touring in other African countries and were also a part of European festivals including a festival in Berlin, Germany.
“We have got a very good feedback since this is the best opportunity to experience virtual reality. We have also noticed people are interested in VR,” Dahana explains. She says they have been promoting the event on social media and also using iceaddis’ contacts.
According to her, the range of movies presented from documentary to feature attracts various audience. VR is also opening up possibilities for artists. “An artist can work on a whole new level using virtual reality. It opens opportunities for animation and getting the people into the movie,” she points.
Although virtual reality is a growing medium, it hasn’t developed that much in the Ethiopian art scene. Neither the artists nor the audience are used to the idea of using VR in the arts sector.
Dahna says the aim of the exhibition is to introduce the medium to artists and show them possibility of using VR. Motivating people to use it is the second goal although not having enough technical equipment has been a challenge.
“It might be easier for consumers to use it but it takes a lot to actually produce it. The equipment might not be available now but it is something we can work together,” she explains.
For her, experiencing cinema through VR is an “emotional journey” as one gets immersed into a new reality other than his\her surroundings. “One gets to a new reality skipping out of his\her reality. Being part of a new reality is emotional and one might even loose his\her mind,” she narrates the experience.
The fact that people can’t see their body while they are using virtual reality headsets creates a detachment between viewers and their surroundings. When and if people are disconnected with the reality, all their senses start to consume what is being presented through the glasses. This is the reason for Dahna saying “It is a new experience to the body and mind”.
Virtual reality has evolved since its introduction in the 1940s. Over the years, the development of omnidirectional cameras, also known as 360-degree cameras or VR cameras increased the ability to record in all directions.
From 1970 to 1990, devices for medical, flight simulation, automobile industry design, and military training purposes started to flood the market. The now popular headsets started to be widely sold for private purpose after the 1990s. Presently there are around 230 companies developing VR related products. Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony and Samsung all have dedicated VR groups.
On the other hand, the technology has been criticized in regards to health related consequence such as an effect on vision and neurological development.