James Edwards Marks of PsychFi and Ravensbourne’s DoubleMe HoloPortal talks reality bending and tech democratisation with LBB’s Laura Swinton
What would Aldous Huxley have made of our relationship with reality in 2018? The author may have walked through the doors of perception with his experiments with mescaline in 1953, but today technologies such as mixed and virtual reality have the potential alter – just as profoundly – our understanding of self and the world around us.
In an unpretentious room to the side of the cavernous reception hall at Ravensbourne College in London, a team of pioneers, researchers, students and creatives are playing with developing reality-bending technology, experimenting with multidisciplinary teams to explore just where it might take us.
The DoubleMe HoloPortal and LoopSpace research centre was set up by James Edwards Marks, a new media arts pioneer who describes himself as a ‘tech tinkerer’.
Over the past two years the team has been working with students from different courses across the famous media college. Fashion students have collaborated with computer science students to create a mixed reality fashion show. Animation students have learned how to design 3D models of characters in real time that they can interact with on platforms like HoloLens – bringing the possibility of a real life Roger Rabbit scenario ever closer (coincidentally, one of the animation lecturers who collaborated with James’ team to design this course did, in fact, work on Roger Rabbit).
“There was some research that came out last year that showed young people didn’t want more technology from the university, they wanted the university to be better with technology,” says James of the rationale of setting up the lab. While the traditional approach to education in the UK is fairly siloed, the centre allows students to break out of their preconceived boxes – and be better prepared for a future where nothing is defined.
“Half the skills that are taught to kids aren’t going to be relevant, and it’s also about mindset. That’s why we wanted to create the mixed reality experience playground,” says James. “You look at this thing and maybe it’s a mash up for everything, so maybe you have a more open approach where the skills are different and no single conception of what you’re going to be. But that’s driven by government and it’s driven by parents and it’s driven by the conditioning of where you think you’re going.”
It’s not just about the kids though. One recent convert is Robert Watts, renowned producer, who worked on movies like Indiana Jones, the aforementioned Roger Rabbit and Star Wars. While Robert made films about animated characters interacting with the real world and holographic space princesses, he is now able to experience these ideas up close.
Another project that shows that the technology truly does transcend age is a touching experience made to bring a grandfather together with his ill grandson.
More broadly, James is part of a growing ‘cyberdelic’ movement – a lofi, DIY culture that embraces the trippy aspects of A-,V- and M-R. Between DoubleMe and James’ own venture PsychFi, he collaborates with like minded techno-psychonauts, like the teams at Squire Studios and Dirty Urchin.
“What we’re doing is changing someone’s subconscious reality and if I turned up with this 400 years ago, they’d have said, ‘you’re some kind of wizardy witch, you’ve given me a drug’. They wouldn’t be able to understand this was an object or device in front of their eyes,” he says.
On the day that I visit – coincidentally in the middle of the thunderstorm that ripped apart London’s 2018 heatwave and a massive evangelical conference at the nearby O2 stadium – I get to experience #HackThePlanet, a VR celebration of tech-fuelled psychedelia inspired by the movie Hackers. Wearing a rumble pack, I float through a hallucinogenic computer mainframe. When the experience was first released, it was distributed on Google cardboard and described as ‘a group cyberdelic trip’.
In fact, the democratisation and easy distribution of VR and MR tech is a really important issue for James, who is as inspired by the DIY ethos of the ‘90s rave scene as he is by advances in technology. He is motivated by the potential of these technologies to bring people together and to enhance and evolve artist’s relationship with their creativity – though he is also concerned about the potential for those in power to exploit the tech to manipulate people. That’s why putting it in the hands of the people and showing that creating experiences or tools doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive or exclusive is a big part of what he does.
“If something can give you goosebumps and it’s just a 2D piece of content, then when it’s in your own space and environment, that is going to subliminally going to leave a different kind of impact. That has positive consequences but it also has manipulative consequences,” he says.
That’s why when James talks about a VR experience made for £100 for a horror festival or £500 for a psychedelia festival, he’s not (unlike most people we interview) complaining about budget – he’s demonstrating just how available and accessible the technology can be.