Different Realities: The Mixed Reality Workshop

The sun soothes the back of my neck. It’s early winter, but still a warm Saturday afternoon as I arrive at Keyes Art Mile in Rosebank. A live band produces mellow acoustic covers. Photographers capture moments. The table by the entrance is swollen with fresh buns, doughnuts and cakes. Coffee fragrances cast themselves across the room, pulling heads like a lasso.

At the end of the building is my destination. The closer I get to it, the softer the chatter and laughter becomes. The music is trapped by the distant ambience. The invisible coffee bean lasso appears to retreat. I am sucked into a different environment, where time and space becomes meaningless.

The Mixed Reality Workshop (TMRW) is an independent platform for artists and art audiences to access technology through a curated programme of exhibitions, talks, performances, residencies and participatory events. Ann Roberts, the director, describes its mixed premise as ‘sometimes it’s a workshop, sometimes a gallery.’

As I enter the gallery, a digital display stretches from floor to ceiling, while people queue up for a turn to experience the shores of Accra through VR headsets.

A gallery assistant aims an iPad at a painting by Mongezi Ncaphayi on the wall. suddenly, lively squiggles and patterns seem to jump up off the paintings and dance on the tablet display. Mesmerized by the abstract shapes and lines which now seem to have occupied the space we’re in, we’re joined by Brooklyn J. Phakathi, the workshop manager.

Phakathi then suggests we follow him just outside the studio to view invisible sculptures, courtesy of The Centre for the Less Good Idea: Season 2, using augmented reality. These include the works of Deborah Bell, Fred Clarke and William Kentridge. Like revealing a magic trick, he places the tablet in mid-air, a 3D sculpture appears. I look behind the tablet to satisfy my realisation that this is just another separate reality.

These works have been designed to be augmented without the use of a ‘trigger’. The Ncaphayi work is ‘trigger-based,’ where the app attaches itself to the artwork on the walls to give birth to new colours and marks programmed to ‘come into our space’.

The ‘triggerlessness,’ on the other hand, means that the artworks may be viewed anywhere – at one’s home or out in a public area. It’s a strange feeling walking into or through the augmented 3D sculptures. It’s like tricking the mind to feel certain senses which are not actually there. I feel lightheaded. I keep searching for more sculptures across the floor. The feeling eventually diminishes and loses meaning. Perhaps my brain catches on and decides not to play along anymore.

‘What creates the illusion is digital noise on the floor,’ says Phakathi. The digital noise he’s referring to is any form of texture on the floor. In other words, the augmentation wouldn’t take place on a plain white surface.

We take the back way to the upper level of the building and the principle remains the same. The same sculptures appear; however, they are now reimagined in a different environment.

To demonstrate the principles, Roberts arranges a meeting with Rick Treweek and Gary Steele at The Digital Foundry. Standing outside their studios, the walls are almost five metres tall. Security grants me access through a back entrance and I’m plunged into a world of robots, 3D printers and sculptures, VR headsets, controllers and a HoloLens.

‘Here, grab these,’ says Treweek, sliding one control through my right four fingers, demonstrating by pressing the button under my curled index finger. Virtual clay oozes out in front of me. On the left controller, by pressing and holding with my thumb, I can grab the model and flip it. It is this continuous left and right interaction of the limbs that comes as intuitively as doodling on a tennis ball.

With the VR headset on, I could stand in any direction. I could turn around, look up or down and start drawing. In front of me are my two virtual hands cut at the wrist. They seem to float. I move them and they respond in real time. I click on the right control, as if pulling a trigger on a toy gun and silver goo oozes out. I could walk in and out of my creation – inspecting it from any angle. I could draw as much as I want without running out of virtual clay, paint or ink, as long as my machine’s memory can handle it, the possibilities seem endless.

“Where will this sort of technology be in five years?” I say rhetorically.

“Five months, bru…” laughs Steele.

The way I see it, creating with Virtual Reality it is an extension of what we can already do with conventional means. I am still working in a 3D space, only without the smell of paint. I have all the traditional artists’ tools at my disposal, however these never run out. I could make a drawing and have it displayed in an augmented environment, perhaps have it printed in 3D, or just to have the feeling of existing within a virtual environment for the sheer experience – nothing more.

Roberts points out that for contemporary artists, the technology now exists as a tool. It is something any artist can use. Creative and technological innovation go hand in hand and encounters between artists and a team of creative technologists will allow for significant innovation within the realms of activity.

Something to look forward to is TMRW and The Digital Foundry working closely with Mary Sibande to give us a totally different experience of her work this June. The process would include photogrammetry and scanning, 3D printing, projections and other interactivities to create a digital twin of Sibande.

I take the exit and I am plunged back to where I started. Edging closer to the soft chatters and laughter and music. The invisible coffee bean lasso beckons. Our perception of time and space is warped. Apart from the cappuccinos, we get to take home the question: Where is reality?

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