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Australian VR tech features at the Venice Biennale

Technology

A massive visual art installation incorporating virtual reality technology from South Australia will be exhibited as an official Collateral Event at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

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Adelaide-based VR production business Jumpgate VR collaborated with artists James Darling and Lesley Forwood to bring their immersive work Living Rocks: a Fragment of the Universe to life for the prestigious event.

Jumpgate VR Managing Director Anton Andreacchio said the art project provides a platform for the company to further develop their technology for a range of applications in the creative industry.

“We supported this first and foremost because it enabled us to step into a place where we would never have been able to go,” Andreacchio said.

“This is a chance to be at the forefront of tech, not pixels, but on the conceptualisation of what tech is and how humans can interact with the technology.”

“Quite a lot of the time we put the technological cart before the horse of human experience and to have [Darling and Forwood] at the helm of this essentially asking questions that weren’t limited by their understanding of the tech, it was just what they believed and what they envisaged, then it was up to us to push our boundaries to figure out how to rise to the challenge.”

The installation in the Magazzini del Sale depicts an origin story of life on earth. Its centrepiece is thrombolites sculptures hand-made from mallee roots by Darling and Forwood. Thrombolites are microbial structures that were the only living organisms on earth for three billion years and created the beginnings of the planet’s atmosphere. The thrombolites used in Living Rocks are based on those found at Lake Hawdon in South Australia’s south.

Andreacchio said the 3D VR projections, which play on a 20-minute loop, are designed to compliment the sculptures to deliver an immersive experience for audiences.

“Our primary role was the development of the moving image, so interpreting James and Lesley’s vision, but not just creating it as a once off [and] giving them the time and space to explore things has very much been a conversation on what’s possible as the project evolved,” Andreacchio said.

“This has included construction of what the world used to look like in 3D which has been a big challenge considering we’re rendering this in 26K, whereas films are typically between 2K and 4K.”

“We went out to Lake Hawdon and used photogrammetry to reconstruct the thrombolites that were out there, taking photos from multiple directions then reconstruct the 3D geometry as well as work closely with the scientists that James and Lesley were consulting with to get their feedback on the work as well.”

As part of the showcase, the thrombolites slowly emerge from a shallow 30-metre-long pool filled with water that is surrounded by an expansive 36.5m-long and 3m-tall digital screen projecting an ocean landscape. The soundtrack is String Quartet No. 2 by Paul Stanhope and the Australian String Quartet.

Andreacchio said they used ten 4K projectors for the exhibition so the VR projections do not require headgear to be experienced.

“VR tends to be headset orientated; this is more VFX to create an immersive project,” Andreacchio said.

“Creating a scene in 26K has immense challenges, the software can’t deal with it. So, we’ve had to innovate on the back-end to make sure we can live up to the expectations of the artists. This includes the rendering and the 3D program where we’re creating these digital worlds. We used an artificial intelligence up-scaler to take it from 13K to 26K, but it was going too slow so we re-wrote a new AI up-scaler so we were able to deal with this.”

Jumpgate used modelling software Blender to create the 3D images and simulations that include volcanoes, flying flocks of birds, water that laps against the bases of the thrombolites, smoke emanating off the ocean and day-to-night transitions.

“A majority of it is done through Blender which is open source, the non-open source [programs] couldn’t get to a high enough level,” Andreacchio said.

“Carlo who is my brother and business partner contributes to the code on Blender, so that enabled us to get under the hood in a more flexible way to render at a high enough resolution.”

Jumpgate was originally spawned from Convergen, an animation and visualisation company specialising in large projects, including infrastructure and architecture developments.

The company has created VR experiences for organisations as diverse as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Aussie Rules.

They helped build a smaller-scale display of the current installation which was first shown at the Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide in 2018, before it was granted entry to the Magazzini del Sale gallery and expanded for the Venice Biennale.

The group raised nearly $60,000 through private sponsors to finance the collaborative project. Arts SA contributed $50,000 and The Australia Council put $10,000 towards the installation.

The Venice Biennale art exhibition will run from May 11 to November 24.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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