The world’s first major photography exhibition was held in Birmingham by William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1839, he presented his photographic prints and experiments in the processes of early photography. Through Thresholds—a multisensory journey presented by Mat Collishaw—you can now visit that same exhibition almost 180 years later through the use of cutting-edge virtual reality technology.
As you walk through a digitally reconstructed room, you can interact with scans of the original print material by using your hands to pick up the virtual photograph and get a closer look, a rare opportunity to handle museum artefacts with your own two (virtual) hands. The bespoke vitrines, fixtures, windows and mouldings of the original venue have been carefully created in 1:1 scale, and visitors can even feel the warmth from the crackling fireplace as they walk through the virtual environment. Collishaw has also created a soundscape to accompany the visual exhibition: it features the demonstrations of the Chartist protesters who rioted on the streets of Birmingham in 1839.
During the installation of the exhibition here at the museum, we got the chance to look at some of the technology behind the experience. The user carries a portable computer on their back with a powerful graphics card and processor; this runs the program created by the artist in collaboration with VMI Studio. The HTC Vive headsets provide the graphics seen in full HD and also track your head position in 3D space and an additional sensor replicates your hand movements for interaction with the pieces on display. Sensors mounted in the corners of the installation locate each user within the virtual room and share these positions across each of the headsets, allowing ‘ghostly’ figures to represent your fellow virtual tourists. The movement detection technologies were developed by Nottingham Universities Mixed Reality Lab.
We were also lucky to assist in the calibration of some of the headsets, helping to make sure that the virtual room in our eyes was properly aligned with the built environment around us. If you’ve never experienced the feeling of leaning onto a table which looks to be five feet away from your hand, then I wouldn’t recommend it. The result though, is phenomenal. Having experienced several virtual reality experiences already, we had a certain level of expectation going in. However, the mixed reality exhibition is a perfect blend between artistic expression and technological magic. Holding onto the bars of a fake window, looking out onto a virtual street, seeing people who don’t exist and hearing sounds of a city 150km and 180 years away is a level of immersion as I’ve never experienced.
And once you’re finished, you take off your headset and leave behind the Victorian street and grand hall and you’re left standing in a blank space, a white cube. And you truly understand why Keanu Reeves is always looking so confused in The Matrix.
Experience Thresholds at the National Science and Media Museum until 7 May 2018 (£3 per person, age 13+ only). Our accompanying exhibition of immersive sensory technology, Immersion, continues until 24 June 2018 (free entry).