During the conception phase, I considered my bad experience from the previous 3D animation project. I wanted to make the renderings visually perfect, so I added a high amount of elements difficult for realization: clothes, hair, particles, dynamics, and many more. The resources I had were not sufficient to make it smoothly. As a result, all the work was focused on technical aspects instead of the content. I did not want to overload the Philharmonic realization with too many flashy but insecure elements. They could obscure the kernel of the main idea, and distract the creative process, deviating to less important visual fireworks. This was my first realization in this medium, and I knew that I would have a limited amount of resources. It was necessary to eliminate all uncertain and potentially cumbersome factors. Overcomplicated realization pipeline can prolong the realization cycle and blow up the costs in an uncontrolled manner. I wanted to make it mainstream, a traditional virtual reality application to focus not solely on the VR technology, but primarily on the content.
Virtual reality is such a new medium that everyone has to get accustomed to what can be done, but it is also a tool, like any other. The artist needs to get used to it, in the same way as to the new brush in the collection. The most significant innovation is that, while the classic movies are lean-back experiences, virtual reality gives the audience the opportunity to be part of the show and lean forward. The most important aspect is the immersion. It is more important than the gameplay, even more than the storytelling. You do not need fancy graphics to feel it. The spectator buys almost every illusion as a believable world, but there are rules. The most potent aspect of the experience is “presence”, the immersion in the place. It requires a special position tracking hardware which supports the so-called “6 degrees of freedom” feature. It allows looking around and moving in each direction, while less advanced systems grant only the rotation around the anchor point. When the presentation provides enough cues, the feeling of the “presence” is so strong that you need a while after taking off the goggles to get back to the reality. At that time the only equipment delivering such freedom was HTC Vive. This impression of “presence” was exceptionally well suited for our project, so we had only one choice.
Simply put, our project was based mostly on the reconstruction of the Philharmonic location in virtual reality. This was the main task; all other things were an addition to it. I had to determine the range of space explored inside the virtual space . The essential components were both instruments with three storeys and the balcony. After consultations, I found out that the Baroque organs are more important. Consequently, the presentation of the instruments should be carried out in the proportions of 70 to 30 percent. We wanted to show the differences between them, but the Romantic organs were meant to be shown only as reference. This decision saved much work, cutting down the amount of 3D components created in VR.
My primary intention was to increase the listeners’ apperception and awareness during a real concert by offering them immersive experience in virtual reality before the concert. The best way to do that was to demonstrate the way in which pipe organs create sound. The presentation was supposed not only to show the organs from the inside but also to visualize the musical process. I did not wish to duplicate the audience’s experience from the real concert hall. I wanted my virtual reality presentation to induce in people the desire to see a genuine concert at the Philharmonic.
I started testing the possibilities of the medium, having in mind my intentions. I also did some VR presentations for students, checking their reactions. They were enthusiastic and inspired. This experience of a different reality was the foundation for the story in one of the next students’ films. From my point of view, the intensive exploration of the VR technology delivered invaluable inspiration. It triggered my creativity and opened me to new artistic potential. It was important to start using it from the beginning, not only for exploration but also as a tool. I am convinced that the development of the artistic act should be at least partly pursued in the same medium as the finished realization; this allows opening up for new options.
In each artistic project, it is important to know who you aim your work at, to establish the main target for your presentation. In the new media, such as virtual reality, there are two kinds of audience: the experienced users, and the first-timers. We assumed that the Philharmonic audiences are mostly not experts in new technology and they have almost no experience with VR. The spectrum of potential spectators was narrowed to adults, with the option of showing it to the young. This made it necessary to start the presentation with a short tutorial, and therefore we had to add a training location to virtual reality space.
At that time we did not know how fast virtual reality would spread in Poland, so we decided to make an on-location VR experience instead of preparing it for distribution. During the realization, it turned out to be the right prediction. VR on-location is becoming more and more common these days. Virtual reality became quite standard but it is still not an everyday, conventional equipment for everyone. The aspect of public exposition created a need for maintaining a level of intimacy during events. The feeling of being watched can reduce the level of openness to the experience. I decided that we will need a big monitor showing the transmission from the viewer’s point of view to distract the other people around and direct their attention to the screen, away from the strangely behaving spectator with goggles. We also needed a dedicated place to limit the number of people participating in the event at the same time. The chamber room had this potential of separating the space and allowing to set the equipment properly.
I also had to take into account the needs of the vendor, the presentation contractor company that would work for us. In the VFX industry the vendor is a VFX house chosen for post-production realization because of its best efficiency at a certain type of work.  I knew that the basis of my solution would be one of the most popular game engines: either Unity or Unreal. A ready-made development environment is beneficial for the budget. There was a higher probability of finding a capable and experienced vendor. Differences between both systems were negligible because of the low level of our project complexity. The methods of creation in the game based production are similar to those in the VFX realization. In this particular case, the most important issue was the creation of realistic 3D space which would also be optimized for VR equipment needs.
The visuality and interactive character of “game type realization” may create specific connotations among the inexperienced, especially old generation audience. It resembles the lack of appreciation of computer generated art in the last decade. It was the reason why I wanted to include 360-degree videos. This was the easiest way to introduce a live actor and make the overall reception more “organic”. One of my ideas was to increase the comfort of exploration by adding Leap Motion hardware. This extension is an additional hand tracker attached to the front of the headset, allowing to create the impression of seeing bare hands and operating them in virtual reality. After tests, I gave up this idea because it required additional training for a newcomer and would make the tutorial longer. The pipe organ project had many unknowns and demanded additional time for experimentation and adaptation after the initial development. It was impossible to predict all the problems we may encounter. The concept was designed in such a way as to leave us some freedom of choice at the beginning of the final production.
Technology is becoming obsolete very quickly. The life expectancy of each generation of VR hardware is estimated for two to three years. Game based realizations are getting old as fast as the equipment. Especially their visual side is vulnerable to become outdated. This phenomenon is similar to the aging of CGI-based special effects in blockbusters. Usually, artistic values of a new media realization degrade in half a year to four years. Due to the software development, it is possible to produce more detailed and complicated realizations in short intervals. The knowledge about the new medium increases, allowing more advanced and more accomplished artworks. The expected life span of the pipe organs presentation was assumed to be maximum five years from the implementation.
It was important to create cost estimation, not only for making the software application but also for the exhibition hardware since the Philharmonic did not own virtual reality equipment. All the available VR equipment was permanently on the prototype level, and its installation was cumbersome. I took under consideration using additional headphones for reproducing binaural sound, but instead, I chose the more convenient Deluxe Audio Strap. We needed extra tripods, a protective case, a wireless connection to the monitor and the wireless keyboard to assist the spectator remotely. The growing tendency was to use a backpack PC as a computational unit, and I decided to include it. This solution allowed to eliminate the cables and was more presentation friendly. Another concern was hygienic safety of the equipment, since it was planned for multiple-use exhibition purpose. All in all, a proper strategy was crucial, and I was the only virtual reality expert at the Philharmonic, so I had to make all the compelling decisions myself.
The planned budget was not enough for a complicated, game type realization but seemed sufficient to reach our goals. We applied to the European Structural and Investment Funds and received a grant in November 2016. The next step was to write and announce the tender. All these tasks were part of my regular responsibilities as a creative technologist. Cost estimation is a VFX supervisor duty as well. It is directly connected with resource management. Nevertheless, all the equipment responsibility was directly relevant to the creative technologist domain. In June 2017 we finally chose the vendor, and we could start the production.