"PZYK VR – Liverpool Festival of Psychedelia goes virtual"
For the 2016 edition of the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia Draw & Code were invited to collaborate with Pete Fowler and the Super Furry Animal’s Huw ‘Bunf’ Buford on an immersive experience called Perambulator V.1 that formed part of PZYK VR – an exploration of the still embryonic technology of virtual reality and how it works in the psychedelic scene.
This strand of the festival is important as not only does the event celebrate psychedelia, it also asks what this somewhat nebulous concept can be. Musically Psych Fest is firmly progressive with a commitment to modern sounds and artists, so it seems apt that technology should play an important role in the festival. So the question is whether technology has a place in the psychedelic underground?
For us the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’, which won’t surprise you. Technology-infused art is not a new concept, but virtual reality offers a feeling of immersion that offers something emphatically unique. At one end of the scale we have tools to create truly 3D art such as Google’s Tilt Brush and at the other we have the ever-experimental Bjork and her virtual ‘tour’ – VR is a medium that is already making waves in art and music with so much potential still untapped.
Appropriately for 2016 there was an emphasis on virtual reality with a room in Camp and Furnace, the hub of the festival, dedicated to headsets. PZYK VR saw three installations that all used the Samsung Gear VR and SubPac, pieces of kit that we at Draw & Code are already very familiar with.
The process of creating Perambulator V.1 began with being assigned our collaborators – and we were in for a treat. Pete Fowler is a favourite of Draw & Code with his Monsterism world of art and toys while Bunf is well known for his Super Furry Animals role, his taste and talents stretch way beyond what we expected.
The concept of Perambulator V.1 was a simple one – Pete creates a world of surreal moments while Bunf soundtracks it with beautiful sonic vignettes that straddle genres. The initial work was conducted at distance with a dismembered soundtrack and scattered sketches coming our way – but it was immediately clear that the ingredients to this digital dish were going to be exquisite.
Late one summer night we received Pete Fowler’s initial designs and it was hard not to get excited by what we were seeing. Mountains adorned with faces rose from lakes while shops and cities were detailed that felt like the result of watching Cartoon Network on acid. But there was one thing ‘missing’ – our protagonist. This was no accident; in the first-person virtual world you are the lead.
At this point Bunf’s soundtrack was almost fully formed and sounding incredible. It was diverse, spanning hip hop beats, ambient drones and snippets of Asian-influenced atmospherics. It was delivered in vignettes that we were invited to splice into the experience as we saw fit, showing that Bunf understands that the new narrative demands of virtual reality.
The developers and designers at Draw & Code have worked with a lot of people on immersive technology projects, but Pete and Bunf got a handle on the medium better than any other collaborators. For example, Pete’s designs came complete with a small nondescript figure to illustrate the intended scale of the eventual 3D world – an acknowledgement that scale is one of the most important aspects of the virtual experience.
A big challenge for our team of 3D developers and animators was how to take the 2D designs and transfer them into a 3D world. We opted for a stylised look that traversed both styles – think the 2D cutouts of Parappa the Rapper with the feeling of freedom afforded by the fully 3D environments. Working with Pete was a pleasure and he liked that no matter how adventurous his ideas we always tried to make them work, the only limitations being those of the hardware chosen to realise this rainbow world.
The pace of Perambulator was kept deliberately slow for two reasons; the first is that with the Samsung Gear VR there is a danger of causing motion sickness if you go for high speed movement and the second is that we wanted to afford the participants the chance to look around the lurid and lovely world presented within the headset.
Early in the project we were invited to the launch of PZYK VR at FACT in Liverpool. After a couple of hours of playing with virtual reality, including watching Pete Fowler quickly getting accustomed to Tilt Brush on the HTC Vive, we sat down with Pete and festival co-founder Craig Pennington to discuss virtual reality’s potential in the creative space. The lively discussion touched on the medium’s unique ability to transport an individual to a digital world and how Silicon Valley’s roots to some degree are intertwined with the hippy movement that underpinned the rise of psychedelia.
You can hear some of the talk on Laura Brown’s excellent Northern Soul podcast that you can find here.
Fast forward a few weeks and it was time for Perambulator V.1 to debut alongside Forest of Evil and Dionysia as part of PZYK PRYZM – an audio visual trip into alternative realities. As happens with many of the best VR installations, the experience isn’t confined to the headset with a dark room illuminated by video walls and projections already depriving you of some of your senses.
Psych Fest feels like a grassroots festival, a genuine movement and an authentic experience. The rabbit warren nature of Camp and Furnace lent itself well to your journey from a big stage to a pocket of sound to a dark pit of technology, the claustrophobic corridors were no bad thing.
The reactions to the VR experiences were fantastic with one person declaring that they wanted to live there. The most notable reactions came from descending the giant staircase that had a few people looking in all directions around them and in some cases bracing themselves for the drop!
As is the case with most VR demonstrations, ‘wow’ was the word that we heard the most – but in the case of Perambulator V.1 we’re sure that was as much for the brilliant design and eclectic music as it was for the virtual experience.