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Virtual Reality

festival preview

Article from Music Technology, May 1994

Technology is the touchstone at this key event. Phil Ward talks to Mike Godfrey, designer of the Audio Visual Live System.

The multimedia event is here: Virtual World descends upon Cornwall on May 26th. Phil Ward uncovers the people responsible, and encounters The Children Of Technology...

Mike Godfrey's sketches for Virtual World reveal a beach transformed into a multi-zoned techno-park.

More than anything else, Virtual World (previewed in last month's 'Scanners') is designed to be a multimedia experience. Not merely a dance music festival, nor a hi-tech fairground, the intention is to integrate a whole range of aesthetic stimuli in one environment.

In doing so, organisers Obsession are bringing together several threads in popular culture. From dance music comes the blend of DJs and chart acts such as D:ream and The Prodigy, whose newfound status, despite the anti-star system propagated by dance music in its purest forms, lends some glamour to the occasion. From the club scene comes a concern for visual impact and an immersive space, represented by lights, lasers and 3D sound. And from the world of computer games come simulators, video graphics and other interactive attractions without which no self-respecting youth program would be complete.

The primary unifying factor in all this is technology and, more specifically, a positive attitude towards it. Almost as leitmotifs for the whole concept, two pieces of technology in particular are proudly on display. Making its debut in the UK, the LVP (Laser Video Projector) projects full colour video and 3D graphics onto a 60ft screen, using two 30W Coherant tubes and 225Kv of power. It's accompanied by the AVLS (Audio Visual Live System), which promises "the full immersion of audiences within a projected interactive environment". This environment actually consists of screens and speakers, but there's more to it than that.

The audio-visual program can be manipulated in real time. Combining virtual reality, games simulation and video lighting technology, the system is a deliberate attempt to go beyond small, individual computer screens and headsets for two reasons: firstly, these are not considered to be natural, ergonomic interfaces for gregarious human beings; and secondly, they destroy the whole concept of 'an audience'.

AVLS is the brainchild of Archiv Productions, whose Mike Godfrey has been engaged in the pursuit of virtual environments for the best part of a decade. The company has its roots in the kind of computer-based 3D modelling used in such specialised fields as architecture, but Mike's natural bent towards music led not only to considerations of the entertainment potential in the software, but also to pioneering work in the PA sphere - namely, improving the frequency responsiveness of rigs supplied by market leaders Electro-Voice.

Exposed to live musical events in this way, Mike founded a breakaway team resplendent in the group title Children Of Technology, and quickly discovered that he had captured a mood shared by an emerging dance and festival culture.

"Not only did we wish to create music and visuals as artistic goals," he recalls, "but also develop technologies to incorporate our wider understanding of the potential we had identified and needed to research".

As a result, 1992's Glastonbury Festival heralded the arrival of the AVLS in the guise of a 60ft screen showing a live mix of computer graphics and video footage in sync with electronic music by One Love Foundation and Harvey Bainbridge. The graphics element, generated by Dave Japp and Jeff Minter, became known as a separate entity, and was enough of a hit to prompt the formation of yet another specialist team under the banner of the Virtual Light Company. Meanwhile, the same occasion drew Annie McGann into Mike's team, supplementing the multimedia brainstorming with experience in avant-garde music and theatre.

Following several successful productions, including Against Nature in Liverpool and some special effects for The Tempest at Bristol's Old Vic, The Children Of Technology were approached by dance-party organisers Obsession in a move to integrate large-scale video projections and lighting effects into their rave-inspired events. The first of these, The Third Dimension in Exeter, extended the scale of operations. 450 square metres of screen surfaces surrounded the audience, as synchronised laser projections transformed the dance experience into something new. Other events followed, and a relationship was cemented between club culture and computer graphics. Increasingly, live electronic performances and experimental theatre productions also benefited from the team's expertise. When Virtual World was first conceived, Archiv and the Children Of Technology were a natural choice.

"The Virtual World concept grew out of rave/dance culture," says Mike, "and was prepared by Archiv in its entirety, sketch by sketch, after discussions with Obsession's Gideon Dawson in Spring 1993. A full production for 20,000 people was envisaged, to happen within striking distance of London.

"But it was not to be. The proposals were thwarted in mid-1993, with resistance from local authorities. At Archiv's suggestion, Obsession continued its program of live dance parties in regional venues."

Now that's a familiar story. The same fate has befallen Experience, also announced in last month's 'Scanners'. According to the organisers of the Lydd Airport extravaganza, a licence became impossible to secure in the face of all the old authoritarian excuses. It seems that the business of trailblazing hi-tech events demands equal portions of vision and administrative caution.

However, the venue for Virtual World - a mile and a half of Cornish beach near St Austell - became available without hiccups after two Obsession events in the same region passed without incident. To seize the opportunity, Archiv were given all the encouragement they needed to push back the boundaries in a "futuristic" brief from Obsession. It was decided, explains Mike, to develop two separate AVLS's.

"The main arena will feature strongly as the night draws on. Spectacular lighting effects are planned, with the use of lighting towers and an LCI laser projector for video graphics. The screen format and its position are unusual, based on AVLS experiments. Live visuals will be mixed into the system by Children Of Technology, Hex and Siricom. It's unlikely that any of the latest interactive developments will be inputting into the AVLS 1 prior to an evaluation of the screen and projector performance.

"The second AVLS stageshow will feature workshop visuals mixes, with visuals developers invited to experiment. The system will use Barco 5000 and Sony CRT projectors to create an immersive wide screen array. In addition to pre-prepared stock footage, inputs will include data from graphics computers, digital video platforms and live camerawork, all manipulated in real time to either follow the music or inspire the musicians."

It's clear that this is a technology only at the beginning of its potential. Experiments are ongoing, and the will to achieve an integrated whole to some extent still outweighs the practical realities. Meanwhile, centralised audio-visual control is appended by 3D sound and Optikinetics lighting systems in an approximation of true multimedia. Equally important for the future is the technology's ability to handle responsively and interactively, which is why Archiv are currently rubbing shoulders with games and graphics developers. Mike Godfrey is optimistic.

"Our intentions to develop a live visuals manipulation system, as a robust tool for bands, musicians and multimedia developers, enabling the transfer of studio product into the real world, have progressed significantly with further collaborations," he says. And if all goes well at Virtual World, progress is assured.

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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - May 1994

Feature by Phil Ward

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> Scanners

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> Diskovery

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