In a cavernous, dark space beneath the Saatchi Gallery in west London, you can walk into a forest clearing where a giant sequoia tree grows.
For a magical 15 minutes, with the assistance of virtual reality headsets, headphones and wrist sensors, you can explore the largest living individual organism on the planet, eventually soaring up through the enormous structure and watching it breathe.
We Live in an Ocean of Air is an extraordinary multisensory installation by art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, which runs until January 20. The work pushes VR technology to its limits. After you enter into the bowels of the gallery, you are hooked into a harness that contains the computer that will drive your experience. The headset and various sensors – including an ear clip that monitors your heart rate – are attached, and then you enter the experience.
Up to six people can engage with the installation at any one time, and you will see them as pulsing human forms contained within the same grid as you. When you look at your own hands, you will see oxygenated blood surge through them, and other sensors will pick up when you breathe and represent it digitally as clouds of sparkling particles.
Gradually, the ground beneath you becomes the grassy floor of a forest, and the majestic sequoia appears. You can circle it or even go inside it, and soon you become one with the tree, an organism that grows to almost 100 metres in the wild, and which can live for longer than 3,500 years.
Emotions run high
The experience is incredibly emotional: from your initial tentative steps, carefully waving your hands in front of you, there is a sense of caution as you become aware of the other bodies around you.
But then as the visual splendour kicks in, and you explore the space, there are gasps of wonder and peals of laughter as visitors explore the possibilities of the artwork. As the world around you begins to fade away at the end of an all-too-brief spell, there is a genuine feeling of loss.
For Barnaby Steel of Marshmallow Laser Feast, a design studio in London whose work focuses on “expanding perception and exploring our connection with the natural world”, the key to the installation is making it as immersive as possible.
“Immersion is everything when it comes to virtual reality,” he says. “The aim is to trick the brain into thinking the simulation is real, and to do this, we use the most cutting-edge technology available.”
As computer processing power increases exponentially over time, moving on from the slow animations of the past provided by clunky and unwieldy pieces of hardware, the quality of the VR experience also increases, he says.
“The technology is constantly evolving. Last year the experiences we created were tethered to powerful computers, but this experience takes advantage of HP backpack PCs and the new Vive expanded tracking system that allows people to walk freely over a much larger area.
“In addition to this we combined a breath sensor and a heart rate monitor so that participants can reconnect to their bodies in a way that draws attention to heart rate and breath. Like a potter working with clay, we are moulding perception through technology and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
'How does the virtual experience flavour your reality?'
And it’s important for Steel that visitors don’t just live the experience for the brief time they are wearing the VR technology; he is equally compelled by thinking what people take away with them. “We ask ourselves what happens when you take the headset off, how does the virtual experience flavour your reality?” Steel says. “Fundamentally, we are interested in experiences that reconnect you to wonder and awe of reality by revealing a world that exists just beyond the limits of your senses. It’s our ambition to pursue this well into the future and education is very much on our radar.”
The shared experience of the piece is also a major part of it. “We Live in an Ocean of Air can be experienced both individually and collectively; experience prioritised over passive contemplation,” he says.
“The wider gallery allows for multiple tiers of immersion, with large projection screens welcoming audiences into the heart of the environment, before expanding to reveal the scale of the digital forest that lies ahead.”
Steel’s colleague, Ersin Han Ersin, emphasises how key the environmental angle of the project is. “In this and other works we have created, we are seeking to repair our broken connection with nature through the experience of art,” he says.
“From the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, humanity’s dependence on the natural world is absolute, placing the audience in the centre of these ecosystems, we aim to bring them closer to an understanding of our interconnectivity.”
We Live In An Ocean Of Air runs at the Saatchi Gallery, London, until January 20. For more information, visit www.oceanofair.com