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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 08:10 GMT 09:10 UK
New expression for virtual city
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology staff

The Living Image installation is fully immersive virtual reality
The display allows visitor to control their experience
Virtual reality (VR) has allowed for clever recreations of the past, and interactive tours of historical places.

But an installation at London's Dana Centre uses the latest VR to let people experience cities through their own 3D virtual tour, with sound and images.

The Living Image display, the work of three artists, puts the choice of where to explore in the hands of the visitor.

Video, sound and photos essentially make it art, but it could also be a future museum experience.

The result is not the kind of tourist trail one would expect.

Instead, this is hi-tech art which allows visitors to explore the darker sides of the city, the "in-between" places that tend to be overlooked in everyday life.

City as expression

"We wanted to create a more expressive environment," explains artist Trudi Entwistle, whose interest has been in how people use city spaces and interact in them.

"We all look at places in different ways, and we are using this multi-sensory medium so that you can navigate your own narrative."

Artist Trudi Entwistle
Like any art piece, everyone will get something different. Hopefully, a different perspective of the cityscape
Trudi Entwistle, artist
Visitors to the installation wear a light-weight headset with a motion sensor device fitted on top, and face a 120 degree stereoscopic screen.

Two projectors beam images onto the screen, and the visitor can navigate and move in real-time through the landscape in front of them, using what is called an inertia cube instead of a mouse.

Four areas of London have been "recreated" using video, sound, photography, and computer-generated graphics - Smithfields market, under the West Way, a housing estate and a train station.

At certain points, video will play related to a moment in time, or a memory, to create the impression of a specific place.

It is rather like wandering through a sophisticated video game, without the gameplay.

But the gaming metaphor is one which the three artists, Roma Patel, Graham Nicholls and Trudi Entwistle, are keen to avoid.

You control

What the visitor experiences varies according to where they want to go, and what they see is put together - or rendered - in real-time, accordingly.

The collaboration between the artists means three different artistic disciplines are at play in the installation - theatre design, new media, and landscape architecture.

What the installation tries to do, say its creators, is to make people think about the city - in this case, London - in different ways, through "memories and fantasies".

"It is an artistic expression," says Ms Entwistle.

"Like any art piece, everyone will get something different. Hopefully, a different perspective of the cityscape."

Virtual advances

Advances in VR hardware, processing power as well as 3D software, have helped make this kind of installation possible.

"It reminds me of the early days photography," says Graham Nicholls, an installation artist who has worked with immersive video.

The Living Image installation is fully immersive virtual reality
The darker sides of the city can be revealed
"Virtual reality has a lot of potential as an art form, but it has been stuck in the technology realm, not the artistic one."

Using virtual reality as the medium for their art is not without challenges however.

No one, off-the-shelf solution works for this kind of project, and a unique production system was developed to create the experience.

Initially using 3D Studio Max, then Quest 3D for real-time rendering, the textures, multiple layers, and multi-media elements can be knitted together.

Creating realistic shadows and light effects in real-time, is hard work for artist, computer, and software, and is something that was very much harder to do two years ago.

The artists hope the work will generate debate between technologists and artists about how VR technology like this can be used for future installations.

Ostensibly, they hope the way people see cities will change too.

"My perception of real space has certainly heightened," says Ms Entwistle.

"I hope in some way, people will look at their spaces with a different perspective."

The Living Image display is at the Science Museum's Dana Centre in London until 28 May.

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