Since the popularisation of technology, the virtual world has grown in leaps and bounds and has become a normal and common element in society. Life today is largely digital and framed by the tools available both for work and for access to entertainment and culture.
Indeed, technologies such as the metaverse are already emerging as the next big step towards the digitalisation of society. Now a new project led by researchers at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) is to analyse new immersive technologies, such as virtual reality, augmented reality and extended reality, through the lens of digital art, in order to understand the importance and dynamics of the space that digital technologies have created between the virtual and the real. It is a study that will be carried out not only in the creative domain but also from a social point of view.
“This is a project involving an interdisciplinary team that will study the creative strategies behind several experimental projects in a space of hybridization of the real and the virtual, with the aim of generating a dialogue between established creators and making these strategies accessible to emerging creators,” said Joan Soler-Adillon and Pierre Bourdin Kreitz.
They are members of the teaching staff and researchers at the UOC’s Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications; Soler-Adillon is the project’s coordinator and a member of the Design, Art, Technology and Society (DARTS) research group, and Bourdin Kreitz is a member of the working team and a researcher from the Learning, Media and Entertainment (GAME) research group. “It is important to value artistic research, which is based on practice, as a type of advancement of knowledge that is just as valid as any other,” they stressed.
In recent years, the hyperconnectivity of society and the pandemic have accelerated this blending of the digital and the real. Hybridization will become increasingly prevalent in the coming years, and the analysis of the opportunities and shortcomings of new technologies will therefore be a priority.
“We must get ahead of this process and draw conclusions from the contributions of past and present artistic research in order to advance application scenarios that are not aimed at commerce, but instead based on social advancement. So, we want artistic practices to regain that element of research and exploration of limits, as we believe this to be fundamental in relation to both hybridisation and interaction with users,” said Soler-Adillon.
As such, the research is aimed at being better prepared for new challenges. “Future scenarios will force us to rethink many of the activities we have carried out in the past few decades. And here, hybridization, achieving a good balance between in-person and virtual formats in many areas of our working and social life, will be a key element,” said Bourdin Kreitz.
Digital art is a key element of experimentation
Digital art has always been one of the main fields of experimentation and exploration of the different opportunities that new technologies have to offer. “Art has proven to be a space that throws itself into testing, hacking and playing around before anyone else, and this naturally places it in this experimental space. What’s more, digital art often seeks to push the boundaries of the technology behind it,” the researchers explained.
Thus, in this quest, artistic practice participates fully in the advancement of research. And in some cases, it even moves ahead of traditional research. “Digital art offers an incomparable position to explore these new hybrid spaces,” said the experts.
To this end, they will study the use of new technologies, such as extended reality, which encompasses both virtual reality and augmented reality, with the aim of analysing the interactions between different users and creators, as well as the various interactive and immersive strategies that are developed. “Although the general public is familiar with these technologies from a recreational or entertainment point of view, both augmented reality and virtual reality have a significant track record in terms of research since the 1990s, particularly in relation to health and education,” said Bourdin Kreitz.
Analysis of perceptions and behaviour
In fact, a major part of this work will focus on studying how the use of and interaction with these new technologies is processed from a cognitive neuroscience standpoint. This is all to analyse aspects such as the brain’s representation and perception of the virtual world. “The different experiments will allow us to study the mechanisms of the internal representation of the body and how this perception can change our behaviour,” explained Bourdin Kreitz.
Furthermore, the experts argue that the progress and popularization of these technologies are largely in the hands of big corporations and platforms. This context could lead to major conflicts in the future, as the development logic of these corporations and platforms is focused on survival and profit.
“As researchers, we believe that our duty is not to leave this process exclusively in the hands of the big platforms, since the question is not so much whether the population is ready to take on these developments, but whether those who are responsible for how this process is done are ready,” the experts said.
“The project fits into a context of strengthening the relationship between art, science, technology and society, which will be a key area of work in the coming years, with the UOC playing a major role, working together with other organizations to promote the Hac Te hub, which will be specifically focused on this task,” concluded Soler-Adillon.
This research and practical experimentation work will be carried out over the next three years with funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation’s Knowledge Generation Projects R&I programme.