We feel that technology should push boundaries here at T3.com. And no one does this better than London-based art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, which has risen to become one of the leading players in mind-bending VR tech, offering audiences real-time VR experiences through its immersive landscape installations. Renowned for its ability to blend tech with nature, its most notable displays have included the Barbican-ran vibrating Laser Forest created for STRP Biennale, as well as The Measures Taken, which takes a look at our often uneasy relationship with technology.
The group’s most recent VR piece, ‘Observations on Being,’ displays the group’s envelope-pushing tech through a series of newly commissioned and existing VR installations. Each experience situates the audience in an encounter that traces the threads of our co-existence with nature, expanding our sense of self beyond our bodies – all of this facilitated through a hefty dose of cutting-edge tech, which we were lucky enough to take a look at.
By mapping the journey of Breath from different technological and cultural perspectives, 'Observations on Being' hopes to bring us closer to nature through technology. I sat down with Marshmallow’s Creative Director, Barney Steel, to unpick the project, where music, voice, and spatial sound design converge into a cornucopia of technological goodness.
We start with the location. Designed by Joseph Paxton, London Road Cemetery sits within the confines of beautiful woodland that gnaws at the edges of the city center, and isn’t a place you’d traditionally expect to be brimming with cutting-edge tech:
“The cemetery weaves a path through a wonderful collection of native and exotic trees ranging from Giant Sequoias to English Elm and Oak. The site has been active since 1845 and it’s interesting to think about how those spectacular trees are intimately entangled with those buried there.”
Comprising seven smaller sections for audiences to tour, technology plays a central role in the project. Where science has pushed the boundaries of what we can see, our understanding of the natural world has grown with it: "CT Scans can now reveal the inner world of plants and humans, while microscopes help to bring this into view." Observations on Being delves into nature to “explore those unknown dimensions and then bring them back into the field of human experience through technology,” explains Barney.
Where many shun the idea of technology and nature together, it’s these working in concert to heighten our understanding of nature that sets Observations apart. Taking place at different intervals across the cemetery, the first stage is a series of vertical OLED screens that show the flow of oxygen as it moves through vessels. Motion-sensor cameras capture participants’ physical movement, remapping them back onto the screens, while invisible speakers rain down sounds from above – the likes of which would put many of the best Bluetooth speaker systems to shame.
Technology runs at the core of the journey, helping us to see beyond our physical makeup. To be clear: you don't need the aid of one of the best VR headsets to get lost in the experience, as Barney and the team use the large-scale audiovisual piece to immerse audiences without the need for wearables:
“In some ways, it’s an optical delusion of the senses. Invisible threads weave through the web of life, unseen, but essential to our existence. It’s by exploring these threads with the help of our VR installations that you dissolve the boundary between you as a separate individual and you as nature.”
This congruity between life and death is an important feature of the event. Barney and the team help audiences explore this boundary between life and death, using razor-sharp digital projections as they walk through the different stages. Aerial 360-degree drone filming projects panoramic views of the cemetery onto the screens, while LiDAR and CT scanning helps take viewers beyond the forest canopy.
LiDAR is something we've seen before on the iPhone 12 Pro, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and the iPad Pro, though you may have understandably never noticed. Of course, here, LiDAR is being leveraged on a much bigger scale, where the technology is used in conjunction with CT scans to create HD animations of the cemetery's Giant Sequoia trees.
The technology gives audiences a better understanding of nature as a living and breathing organism, like us: "Every time you take a breath, it’s connected to the out-breath of photosynthesizing organisms, whether that’s the cemetery’s trees, algae, or cyanobacteria, that out-breath becomes the in-breath of an animal and, in turn, your exhalation becomes the inhalation of the tree.” LiDAR is one useful component in creating a feeling of oneness, which audiences can soak up during the journey. Technology can help create an experience of being part of nature, not just as a concept or description, but how it “translates to a multisensory experience.”
The conversation turns to audiences visiting the installations. In the same way that the project’s tech helps visitors engross themselves in nature, it strikes me that the city encircles the woodland. Visitors arrive from bustling streets into serene greenery, swapping the busyness of daily life for a meditative experience. Barney is conscious of this: using the project’s innovative technology to prepare people is important, priming them for the journey ahead through nature.
“On arrival, we calibrate people’s senses through a multi-sensory walk. People will then go into a series of immersive binaural installations, featuring large projections and interactive screens. It’s a mix of visually stimulating audio-visual pieces spaced along a relaxed walking path.”
The experience caters for all: children can explore pathways with friends and family, even taking time to sit back on the custom-made furniture, gazing up at the trees, as audio falls from above and sounds ooze upwards from the soil. The journey will offer different meanings for people, but one thing remains the same for each visitor: that of tapping into the essence of being itself, with a little helping hand from the journey's pioneering technology.
One thing left to discuss is the wider goal of the project, aside from all the mesmerizing tech; it occurs to me that conservationism is a powerful theme, that of environmental safekeeping, and ensuring its safe passage for future generations. Barney stresses the importance of environmental stewardship on a local and global scale:
“There’s this disconnect that goes hand-in-hand with living in an urban environment, especially when we’re living in a time of globalization. As you reach for something on the supermarket shelf, through the smokescreen of logos and advertising, your arm can extend around the earth causing a devastating impact on ecosystems you will never encounter. Because the real impact of our consumerism is so far removed from our lived experience, it’s easy to partake in destructive behavior without realizing.”
Though a serious thought, it’s also one that Barney treats with care, hoping that the project might “nudge people towards a conservation mindset through offering an experience of being part of nature and not separate.”
After all, we are pattern-seeking, interconnected souls — seeing the natural world as more attuned to us and less random, Barney hopes, link by link, we can rekindle a new appreciation for these spaces with the help of audiovisual technology.