I’m slowly gliding down a tunnel, at the end of which is a dinner table, much like the table I’m currently sitting at — in real life. When I reach the table, I realise one key difference: it’s much higher now. Or, rather, my head is much lower. My tiny hand reaches forward to take a sip of coke from a straw. I can feel both my real hands still resting on my real thighs, and I know that I’m still really sitting at that same real table in my real body, but that doesn’t make this any less disconcerting. This is a Danish family’s kitchen. This is a shop in Lincoln Place. This is an entirely new world. This is The Doghouse.
The Doghouse is the creation of Mads Damsbo and Johan Knattrup Jensen, described as both a film installation and a “First-Person Experience”. The Doghouse seats its audience of five around a dinner table, and each individual witnesses a family meal play out from the perspective of a different family member. This is accomplished using the Oculus Rift, an originally Kickstarter-backed virtual reality headset, now owned by Facebook. While Johan has a background in film and Mads has experience in film and digital media, this is the first time either has worked with virtual reality. Mads says that working with the Rift was a very appealing prospect: “It’s so new, but so accessible, and everyone can start working with it. So it was very tempting to do something with film and the Oculus.” Johan describes the experience as an exciting change from what he is used to: “It’s like going into a medium as a child. You’re looking at it for the first time; you’re so interested in what it can do.”
“My tiny hand reaches forward to take a sip of coke from a straw. I can feel both my real hands still resting on my real thighs, and I know that I’m still really sitting at that same real table in my real body.”
The Doghouse was made with a cast of five actors, each taking turns wearing a set of cameras and microphones to record the entire 18 minute scene from their own perspective. “So we just replaced the actors’ eyes with cameras and replaced the actors’ ears with microphones and recorded that,” explains Mads. “You step into that point of view.” Johan had to engage with his cast on an extremely intimate level: “There was no normal monitor that I could look in, so I had to wear the Oculus Rift goggles. It felt like I was looking through the eyes of the actor. We did the whole scene over 40 times in order to get it right for each of the characters; after a while it sort of felt like I was living in the fiction. It was scary and fascinating at the same time.” One particular story highlights the strange link Johan had to his actors throughout the filming process: “I would say something to Mads while he was standing in front of the actor — which could have been a grown woman — and he would look in the eyes of the actress and talk to me, and I would look at him through her eyes and talk to him. We had a conversation through this human being. So the actress became completely like a medium, like she didn’t exist, or like she was an empty shell of a body that I had possessed in a way.”
BeAnotherLab are an international collective dedicated to performing artistic and scientific experiments with virtual reality. In their most famous experiment a man and a woman faced each other wearing an Oculus Rift and a camera, so that the man saw from the woman’s perspective and vice versa. Their other experiments in perspective swapping have allowed wheelchair users to see through the eyes of able-bodied people and a mother to see through the eyes of her daughter. Their stated goal is “to create a context for these technologies under the premises of empathy, human bonding and an increased awareness of the other”. Mads sees The Doghouse as achieving a similar end: “It’s about learning who other people are. I think there’s a lot of empathy to be learned in stepping into someone else, understanding their input into the world. And that’s essentially what we’re doing, we’re replacing your eyes with someone else’s.”
“I would say something to Mads while he was standing in front of the actor — which could have been a grown woman — and he would look in the eyes of the actress and talk to me, and I would look at him through her eyes and talk to him. We had a conversation through this human being”
How this technology is used is of fundamental importance to BeAnotherLab: “We believe one of the strengths of our project is that while you have a unique and hopefully transformative experience through the system, you also take the gear off at the end and are face to face with the person you were just embodying. At this point the relationship between both of you has been shifted and there is the opportunity to build on that in real life. Other experiences in virtual reality, while impressive, may still be lacking in this fundamental aspect and could ultimately leave us more disconnected and isolated as a result.” Johan expresses a similar sentiment, seeing virtual reality as being beneficial through its contrast to reality: “There is this naval link between reality and fiction, in a way. When you take off the goggles you’re kind of still in The Doghouse, but what you have to do is deliberately cut off your own string to the fictional world. I think there’s something really healthy about that. You have to break out of the fantasy and say ‘I wanna be in reality!’”
BeAnotherLab plan on continuing their research over the coming years: “We have a busy year ahead of us as we build partnerships and run experiments in the field. In addition we are also researching possible applications in learning and healthcare, among many other possibilities that are arising.” The Doghouse team seems less certain about the future. Johan says: “We never had any grand thoughts about the technology, about the possibilities we were exploring. We were just fooling around in a way, having fun and trying stuff out. I’m also working within traditional cinema for the screen which I really like as well, but I want to do more art projects that can work around the language of cinema.” Mads seemed unsure as to whether the future of entertainment lies in devices like the Oculus Rift: “We’re seeing a lot more experiments with technology that will change the way we perceive storytelling or our cinema experience, so let’s keep going with it and see what happens. I don’t think we’re going to see Oculus Rift cinemas or that type of thing. Because in many ways the Oculus Rift is quite a selfish thing; it’s all about closing yourself off from the world. I have some doubts about whether or not this will be the actual ‘future’ of anything, but it will definitely push the envelope of what can be done.” However virtual reality tech develops, as a tool for both scientists and artists, these projects indicate the startling potential that these devices have, giving the barest hints at what might possibly be on the horizon.
Photographs by Matthew Mulligan