The Icelandic star’s show at Somerset House showed VR is still in its hyped infancy. But flashy technology – despite shortcomings – was enough to impress the crowds. Narrative and substance will have to wait.
By Alex Lambert, creative director, Inition
Let me start by saying I enjoyed Bjork Digital. I really enjoyed it. The ambition. The embracing of technology. The daring to deliver through an unconventional medium. Putting VR in the hands of the public. The fact it got commissioned at all. It was really something. If you missed it, you missed out!
That said, as an industry expert, I can’t be entirely positive. I wanted to be blown away and I wasn’t.
The main reason I went – other than thinking it would be cool and that I could wander around with an air that said “I know so much more about this than everyone else” – was that I wanted to see what a high-end VR exhibition looks like. What was acceptable. And moreover, what standard needs to be reached to exhibit VR work in a gallery as prestigious as Somerset House.
I heavily caveat everything you’re about to read because I don’t have insight into budgets or the timeframes involved in the creation of the content. Nonetheless, here are five things I learnt:
1. VR for dummies
VR is a new medium. We’re still on the hype curve and the public has had only limited exposure to it. While those in the know… know, those who aren’t are easily impressed. There were numerous technical shortcomings in the Bjork Digital exhibition: poor compression rates, dodgy seams – even in computer-generated environments – poor character rigging, stitching errors…
On top of that there was no stereo VR (with the exception of the Vive exhibit), which is necessary for true immersion. This alludes to the level of technical understanding and execution within the burgeoning VR industry.
Lots of agencies and production companies now technically know how to do VR. That doesn’t mean they know how to produce and deliver it well. VR storytelling is not traditional film making. You wouldn’t expect a world-class director of TV adverts to be able to create a top-class mobile game.
Both clients and the public don’t appreciate what is possible and so can be easily pleased, but there is much more that should be done to make the medium shine and become indispensable.
2. Technology saves the day…
Creatively, the only unifying theme was “digital”. Accepted, it is called Bjork Digital, but even so. It felt cobbled together, rather than a harmonious and curated exhibition. Even the forms of technology used were disparate; tablets, large-screen projection, VR.
If you look at, for example, the David Bowie or Alexander McQueen exhibitions, there was a well-developed sense of curation and a user journey through the space. You were led through a story. You were immersed in their respective worlds. Bjork Digital lacked that coherence.
3 … and so does celebrity
Even with the hype of VR, would people go to see this if it didn’t have a name like Bjork behind it? Probably not. Granted, she is the perfect fit; seen as someone who pushes the limits of music, art and technology. A trend setter. It appears that for a VR installation to garner wide interest it needs a name behind it, be that a brand or an individual. This means we are some way off from people considering works in VR as artworks in their own right. But is that really surprising when digital art in general still isn’t as widely accepted as traditional art?
4. Abstract works
The one part of the experience that really made an impression was an abstract music video. It blew my mind, despite the fact that there were glaring technical deficiencies. I’m a big believer in VR’s power to transport. So why take someone to a place which really exists? Why not show them a realm of dreams and imagination that they could never actually visit. Here, the content was so fantastic – so extraordinary – I just enjoyed the experience. Consequently, the technical errors barely registered. Give people the fantastic, the illusory and they will remember it, and you, forever.
5. Bad character animation is bad… especially in VR
Human motion. We’re used to seeing people every day. Our brains are so attuned to recognising natural motion that we do it on automatic. This is amplified in VR compared to 2D screens because we’re trying to convince the user that they’re in a real space. A weak human representation will tear us right out of our immersion.
The only real-time experience of the exhibition left me feeling really let down due to a poor representation of the human form. All the prior VR experiences in the exhibition featured filmed, natural, human elements. This made the poor animation and thus any flaws in the character really stand out.
So what did I take away from this? The public are willing to forgo quality and clarity for new tech and, ultimately, a new experience. The commodity value of experience is high, as we know. That means we, in the VR industry, are responsible for giving experiences to this public that they’ll never forget. Forever linking the brand, event or person with VR in the public’s minds.
I remember my first CD purchase (Kiss from a Rose by Seal, if you’re interested). I’m sure when the TV was first launched, people could remember the first thing they saw 50 years later. It’s no different with VR.
Don’t let technology be the substitute for a weak creative or narrative thread. It’s only a medium, the same as TV, games, music. It needs to be treated with the same respect during the creative process.
Whatever the medium, we seek narrative. Something to lead the viewer on a chase. Sadly, Bjork Digital was all show and very little tell.