Palimpsest allows VR viewers to meet the ‘ghosts’ of Euston residents affected by HS2
When I first meet him near Euston station in central London, the Norwegian architect Haavard Tveito is carrying a copy of Ernest Cline’s dystopian novel Ready Player One. The book is set in the year 2044, and tells the story of how people have turned to a virtual reality simulator, Oasis, to avoid facing the poverty, pollution and societal problems that contaminate the real world.
Tveito is also holding a VR headset.
When I put it on, I find myself sitting opposite a woman in a grainy armchair. The woman explains how she might be forced to leave her home when the construction of the HS2 high-speed rail link starts. “I’ll have to go into residential care … and that’s frightening,” she says. She continues talking as I examine her scant possessions, and then glide over her shoulder into St James’ Gardens; the ground disappears beneath me as I soar above the trees while streams of red and blue light show the projected route of the new line.
The woman is one of the “ghosts” of Euston residents captured in Palimpsest, a new UCL Bartlett School of Architecture project of which Tveito is one of the creators, along with John Russell Beaumont in New York and Takashi Torisutrio in Tokyo. The idea is to meet the real people who will be hurt by the HS2 construction, and to get a feel for their plight – a feel that might not come across as easily in a piece of written journalism, for example.
The trio’s bigger idea was to test a bold assertion by VR pioneer Chris Milk – namely, that VR technology can make people more compassionate, more empathetic, more connected and ultimately more human.
With VR suddenly the public were like ‘Ooh, this is what you were talking about. I just didn’t understand the plans' - Amanda Gregor
This idea has been seized on by city planners and others – a way of using VR beyond its early applications in video games.
“The true power of VR … [is that] it connects humans to other humans in a profound way,” Milk said in a TED talk. His film Clouds Over Sidra, for example, puts viewers inside the life of a 12-year-old girl in a Syrian refugee camp. “When you’re sitting there in her room watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window – you’re sitting there with her. When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on. And because of that you feel her humanity in a deeper way, you empathise with her in a deeper way, and I think we can change minds with this machine. It can change people’s perceptions of each other.”
Is this true? Benny Arbel, founder and CEO of Inception VR, says that after Milk’s film was screened, donations went “through the roof”. Inception is currently working on a homelessness project: “The idea is for people to experience what it’s like to sleep with eight others in the same room,” he says.
Inside a VR headset, barriers and borders vanish ... Photograph: Aliide Naylor
But while VR is undoubtedly full of promise, how much does documenting the potential fallout from a controversial urban planning project such as HS2 actually impact whether they become reality?
Mohammed Salique is one of the “ghosts” captured in Palimpsest. He is the owner of the Diwama restaurant on Drummond Street, whose community and independent businesses – it is a popular restaurant strip – are likely to suffer long-term disruption from the HS2 construction. “You can understand the feeling and anxiety of a person of the community,” he says about the VR project. “But it won’t be as heart-touching as if we would speak face to face.”
Yet, of course, few people ever would get that chance to speak to Salique in person. Palimpsest’s Beaumont argues that sitting down with someone in VR could be more effective than watching a film or being confronted by a sea of protest placards. “One thing that happens with protesters is that they’re painted as this sort of blind ‘We just don’t want it because it makes me upset’ [group],” he says. “A lot of the people we spoke to weren’t necessarily against the project – they were just against the way it was being carried out, because of how it was impacting their lives.”
What if VR could communicate the drilling, the incessant loud noises, or the cramped living conditions about to be imposed on the people living near Euston station?
Salique remains unconvinced it would make a difference. “We can’t make a living off sympathy,” he says.
Another project using VR is London Boulevard, which traces a potential two-mile cycle route along London’s congested and polluted Old Street. The London Cycling Campaign enlisted engineering consultancy Witteveen + Bos UK to use VR to bring their bike lane proposal to life and to “allow people to immediately grasp the difference between what is now, and what could be”.
Amanda Gregor, an urban designer at Witteveen + Bos, says she was initially sceptical but has been convinced that VR can be an effective tool for facilitating communication between designers and the public. The company has used VR at community engagement events in the Netherlands to highlight alternative street designs. On one occasion, she says, the regular 2D plans were met with a muted response – but “with VR, suddenly the public were like ‘Oh, this is what you were talking about in terms of the parking. I just didn’t understand the plans’.”
Elsewhere, VR is being used for entertainment. Inception has worked on a project that allows people to “attend” sold-out parties. Arbel’s company has also partnered with Time Out to create VR city guides for Tel Aviv, London and New York. The idea, again, is to allow users to explore cities through someone else’s eyes. “What does it feel like to be a DJ?” says Arbel. “What does it feel to be the chef at a top restaurant? What does it feel to be an actress in a West End show? It’s not just about being in places that you couldn’t go, but also having the perspective that you couldn’t have.”
Skywand: filmmakers directly design camera movement in 3D virtual reality by pinning key frames in the air with their hand. The film is then shot by drone
More practical urban uses include accessing hard-to-reach areas. Botao Hu founded the Silicon Valley-based Amber Garage, which makes City VR and Skywand. He used aerial photogrammetry technology to convert the whole of San Francisco into a 3D VR model, allowing users to “walk in the city like Godzilla”. In Skywand, users hold a “screen” in their right hand and can capture accurate shots of the city from any direction. A drone can then be sent out to film that exact path. This trick has predominately been used in film-making, but Hu sees its potential application in city planning “if people want to inspect a tower or a bridge but don’t know how to fly a drone”.
If VR can break down barriers and “revolutionise” urban planning, can it also allow the public to influence plans before they are announced? “Often these projects have gone so far that once they’re actually being shown to the public, it’s almost bound to go ahead anyway,” says Tveito.
The Dutch company Tygron Engine aims to do just that by uniting representatives of the government, residents and other stakeholders to shape the urban planning processtogether. It has already been used by the New York City Economic Development Corporation to “model the costs and benefits of different storm surge barriers”, and assess flood risk.
The old criticisms haven’t gone away, though. In a separate project, where Tygron Engine was used to encourage debate around affordable housing projects, zoning issues still arose.
But VR is a relatively young field and its advocates work in “coulds”. Unlike the literary characters of Ready Player One who use VR to escape reality, these designers are trying to better engage with that reality. “It’s a new medium,” says Arbel. “The language of VR – we’re still writing it.”