Day in the Lab

XXVI.2 March - April 2019
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Mixed Reality Laboratory, University of Nottingham

Steve Benford, Jocelyn Spence, Pat Brundell, Teresa Castle-Green, Lewis Hyland, Murray Goulden

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How do you describe your lab to visitors? Two of our researchers described it as "a place where lots of weird and wonderful stuff randomly appears in the name of research. Most of the time I have no idea why," and "like the band Gong—the people may come and go to other places, but the spirit of collaboration and innovation stays the same." A previous lab manager described it as an "adhocracy" while a recent visitor described us as "promiscuous"!?

ins01.gif A design workshop for the Enchanted Forest children's theater production.

What exactly is it you do here? We were founded as a flexible studio space for exploring the interleaving of physical and digital interactions. We pursue a broad spectrum of mixed-reality experiences, from virtual and augmented realities to locative and embedded interfaces. Applications range from the artistic—innovating provocative cultural works—to the mundane—everyday interactions at home or work. Indeed, it is the ongoing and productive tension between those who seek to make the ordinary sublime and those who seek to bring out the sublime in the ordinary—between the artists and the ethnomethodologists— that defines our worldview, and this helps us make extraordinary new technologies work in the wild.

ins02.gif Trying to fly in a visual-kinesthetic experience.

How old are you? Well that's a rather cheeky question, but seeing as you're asking, we will be 20 years old next year. That makes us nearly grown up.


Why don't you tidy up more often? Back in 1999, we learned some lessons from the experience of the university setting up a "reality center" demonstration facility that proved unwieldy and inflexible for research. At the same time, we'd been working in configurable theater spaces to deliver early artistic projects such as Blast Theory's Desert Rain. The contrast was stark and led us to set up our lab as a messy, reconfigurable, flexible, and, let's be clear, untidy creative space, 30 meters by 12 meters large, with curtain partitions, wall and ceiling mountings for scaffolding, and a toy box of equipment. We've kept it that way ever since, though we must admit there have been at least three occasions in the past 20 years when we have tidied up.

ins04.gif Adding sensors into the Carolan guitar.

It is the ongoing and productive tension between those who seek to make the ordinary sublime and those who seek to bring out the sublime in the ordinary that defines our worldview.

What is a unique feature of your lab? We have a neon sign, a swing made from scaffolding, a bucking bronco, and an interactive guitar. Other labs may have some of these, but we're confident we're the only lab with all four.

ins05.gif Falling off the breath-controlled Bucking Bronco.

A swing? Really? What is that for? It was for a project called VR Playground created by artist Brendan Walker. The idea was to overlay four different virtual worlds on a playground swing, using various sensory misalignments to deliver what we call visual-kinesthetic experiences in which the sensation of swinging is amplified or distorted to deliver thrilling experiences. The work has toured internationally and might even be appearing at an HCI conference coming your way soon. So keep an eye out and come and give it a ride.

ins06.gif Riding VR Playground.

And the guitar? Well that's Carolan, in many ways a regular acoustic guitar, except that you can scan its decorative inlay or play music on it to conjure up episodes from its life story. So, more generally, Carolan is an example of a new kind of hybrid product that overlays digital services onto physical goods so as to add value to the user experience, perhaps telling people how to play it better or maybe enhancing its personal meaning to them.

ins07.gif The Data Archway in the Nottingham city center.

What is one feature of your lab that you could not do without? Our barista coffee machine. It's not only the source of a top-quality brew, but often also the source of a great conversation with someone from a different research discipline or school, or another cultural background. Oh, and our students leave with a transferable skill as well as a Ph.D.

What is one feature of your lab you want and do not have? A time machine. It would solve so many of our intractable problems with deadlines—and we'd be better at commercializing our research too!

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