VR and Dance-Somatic Practices as tools for Embodied Perception and Living Well in our Environment.

How can VR and dance help us to rethink the human perceptual systems and the bias toward vision; the inherent nature of the relationship between perceptual systems and environment for wellbeing; and the ways in which we can re-centre the design for spaces away from visual conspicuity frameworks for sensing, movement and interaction?

“When stepping into the VR environment, I was struck by the visual clarity of the space, I noticed a felt and heightened sense being within a three-dimensional world and I had a strong felt sense of this within my own body.” (Holly Thomas, Figuring 2018)

An environment impacts directly on the health and wellbeing of the people who move within it, and also the way in which they move and interact. Environments are perceived through the senses and, whilst humans are multimodal animals, more often than not vision is by far the most dominant of the senses and underlies much of human perceptual experience – in that the other senses are governed by what is seen. To assist people with visual impairment, the current accessibility / disability approach is to build environments which increase the visual conspicuity of areas of danger (e.g. steps or edges), encouraging people with VIs to use what vision they have left rather than rely on potentially more useful non-visual cues to orientate in and navigate spaces. This increased conspicuity can lead to negative side effects (e.g. migraine, epilepsy) for many people without visual impairment, and it is in stark contrast to design thinking for other senses in which noise reduction is at the forefront of design. We are interested in how we might evoke a new way of thinking in design by re-examining the theoretical design framework surrounding visual inclusiveness.

What did the project involve? 

This Ideas Exchange sought to look into the use of Virtual Reality (VR) as a tool to understand more about the human perceptual systems and their bias toward vision; the inherent nature of the relationship between perceptual systems and environment for wellbeing; and ways in which we can re-centre the design for spaces away from visual conspicuity frameworks for sensing, movement and interaction.

The first step involved a case study in which a visually impaired dancer, Holly Thomas, registered as legally blind, used VR under different experimental conditions. Indeed, in a pilot study, Holly already interacted with a strongly reduced but highly dynamic and interactive visual structure (Figuring) in VR, and discussions of her experiences led to this proposal.

The aim for this ideas exchange was to bring together experts from the different fields of Visual Science, HCI, Computer Science, Dance and Somatics to explore the perceptual narrative for Holly’s experience in VR, and the relationship between perceived experience and dance, as a way to tackle the broader issues around inclusive design for spaces, architectures and technologies. For this, the researchers were keen to undertake some practical processes in order to find out more about the instances in which Holly feels and senses an embodied connection to the world, and to gather qualitative data around these instances:

  • Holly’s lived experience of a) VR and of b) dancing through practical sessions in the dance studio and in the VR lab;
  • To undertake very basic studies in VR – as a tool for controlling the variable of visual noise to find out how this affects Holly’s experience of depth in this specific simulated environment.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Lisa May Thomas (Computer Science / Theatre, University of Bristol) is a contemporary dance artist who has worked extensively with body-technology relations in performance-making practices.
  • Ute Leonards (Psychological Science, University of Bristol) is a researcher whose work falls into two areas: cognitive neurosciences and humanoid robotics. What unifies her work is its focus on human vision.
  • Oussama Metala (Computer Science, University of Bristol) is a researcher whose academic and research vocation is to explore and demonstrate how Human-Computer interaction as an applied field of inquiry can contribute to making human society more inclusive of people with disabilities.
  • David Glowacki (Chemistry, University of Bristol) is a scientist, artist, and cultural theorist. He is the founder of Bristol-based tech company Interactive Scientific (iSci), and also led development of the danceroom spectroscopy digital science-meets-art installation and the Hidden Fields dance performance.
  • Mike O’Connor (Computer Science, University of Bristol) is a computer scientist and software engineer with broad interests ranging across high-performance computing (HPC), machine learning, and human-computer interaction.

What were the results?

The project held discussion (panel/Q&A) events at Bristol Old Vic and Barbican Centre in London, as well as part of Brigstow Ideas Exchange event to bring together the key researchers and Holly to discuss the research and outcomes – knowledge exchange, VI community interaction.

An initial outcome of the project was the hosting of practical workshops for people to try out VR/dance in Figuring at BOV and Barbican.

Since the project’s completion, Lisa May Thomas has published two related essays. One with Multimodal Technologies titled ‘Employing a Dance-Somatic Methodological Approach to VR to Investigate the Sensorial Body across Physical-Virtual Terrains’ and one with Body, Space, and Technology journal titled ‘Returning to the Body: Somatic Sensing in Multi-Person Virtual Reality Technology’.

Another outcome of the project was the team received a substantial award from Arts Council England, South West for ‘Developing and delivering flexible models for presenting participatory performance Soma’ – a new series of online and live participatory experiences developed through VR and dance.

Finally, the team developed a documentary of their case study and the process of the project found below with a brief synopsis following.

Synopsis for documentary; Bringing together multi-person Virtual Reality technology, dance practice and visual impairment

This documentary highlights the experience of visually impaired dancer Holly Thomas with Soma, a participatory performance which combines multi-person Virtual Reality (VR) technology with movement-based practices. Holly reports on how her experience of Soma allows her to perceive depth in the visual virtual environment, something she does not experience in her usual, everyday perceiving of the physical world. A sensation she is starting to be able to ‘recall’ as specific sensory attention without the need of the technology. This new addition of visual depth perception in the virtual environment enables her to feel, sense and move more freely, the embodied sensation of depth manifesting as movements of reach, expansion of space and a new experience of place itself. The documentary moves between the dance studio where Holly is exploring movement practices with artist Lisa May Thomas (artistic director for May Productions Ltd. and for Soma, and a PhD researcher at the University of Bristol), the rehearsal room in which the VR technology is set up in a Soma development process, and a meeting room in which there takes place a discussion between Holly, Lisa and vision scientist Professor Ute Leonards from the University of Bristol, on what might make these experiences possible. Many of the images involve strings: physical strings between bodies as means by which to guide and be guided, and to sense each other beyond the reach of touch; and interactive visual strings in the VR environment that can be moved by the performers through VR controllers held in each hand.