Looking back on a great 5 years with Bristol + Bath Creative R+D
For the past 5 years CAMERA has been a delivery partner in the Bristol + Bath Creative R+D programme, a £6.8 million collaboration aiming to improve the performance of the Creative Industries in the Bristol and Bath region. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the five-year programme, running from 2018–2023, operated at the intersection of 5G connectivity, XR technologies, and live arts, forging partnerships between Cluster partners and industry.
This region supports a creative industries sector including 7000 businesses making around £2 billion for the regional economy, and it is one of the areas key economic development areas.
Bristol + Bath Creative R+D was a collaboration between the University of Bath, UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University, the University of Bristol and digital creativity centre Watershed.
During the programme, 3 Key questions were raised:
1. How to best ensure inclusion and diversity?
2. What were the future technologies that would make a difference?
3. What are the new ways to reach audiences in the future?
CAMERA collaborated with a wide range of creatives and creative organisations in the South-West on areas ranging from 3D Environments, Volumetric capture for live hybrid events and Social VR for making Theatre, to XR experiences and our in-house Avatar pipeline.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
CAMERA have been working with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to support their curriculum in new forms of visual technology, by welcoming students to CAMERA’s University of Bath studio for workshops. During the pandemic lockdowns CAMERA loaned out VR headsets and introduced ways of meeting in Social VR to allow students and staff to continue to meet and rehearse.
Springing from a discussion between Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Director and academics at CAMERA, a research intervention was designed and delivered in 2021 to learn about the experiences of directors and actors using social VR for rehearsals. The study’s findings suggest that Social VR could be adopted more widely by theatre makers and traditional theatre houses during the production process to work remotely, whilst retaining the embodied presence and ‘being there’ feel of meetings in real life. This can also have both financial and environmental benefits for the sector.
R&D with avatar production: A low-cost pipeline + real-time manipulation
CAMERA has conducted in-house R&D with photogrammetry techniques for a number of years. During the Bristol + Bath Creative R+D project we instigated the in-house development of a low-cost photogrammetry-based pipeline for producing photo-realistic avatars. Paired with Unity game engine coding CAMERA’s studio engineers were able to house a system for manipulating avatar outputs via real time motion capture. CAMERA’s subsequent ability to offer an end-to-end system for manipulating photo-realistic avatars in real time was taken up by creative sector users during the Cluster.
One example of this is CAMERA’s collaboration with performance maker Naomi Smyth, investigating the potential to incorporate CAMERA’s avatar R&D into live event experiences for audiences. By using this system Naomi is able to see and engage with an in-person live audience whilst simultaneously manipulating their avatar in a virtual setting.
Through further R&D, it is CAMERA’s intention to shorten the time currently required to produce photo-realistic avatars. Once achieved, the prospect of an affordable low-cost system capable of offering anyone the option of being ‘themselves’ in virtual settings will exist.
The Egg Theatre in Bath approached CAMERA to assist in building a digital replica of their theatre space. The digital replica was to be accessed via complimentary VR or browser-based platforms. CAMERA achieved a 3D digital model of The Egg through a mix of photogrammetry techniques and 3D modelling tools. Producing 3D environments through such methods can be a painstaking process often relying on talented software engineers constructing 3D worlds and environments from scratch.
Thanks to heritage film maker Andrew Panton CAMERA was able to access an excellent example of this, a 3D interior of an Avro Lancaster aircraft replica, put together over many months by a collaborator. The quality of this environment formed the basis of CAMERA’s A Matter of Life and Death immersive prototype, experienced in VR.
CAMERA, along with collaborators Lost Horizon and Condense Reality are actively looking to shorten the pipeline to generate 3D Environments using experiments with different camera and scanning products to shorten the 3D modelling process. This includes using a 3D Scanning solution that, if friction-free, could significantly speed up the creation of useable good quality 3D models, scanned from real world spaces.
CAMERA PhD student Anca Salagean worked on a Bristol + Bath Creative R+D project for her multi-disciplinary PhD thesis. Anca’s research looks at how embodiment, avatar perception, behaviour and presence in VR change, after repeated exposure to high photorealism personalised avatars. This has never been investigated in a large-scale longitudinal experiment before. Find out more.
What’s next for CAMERA?
As an educational tool, capable of supporting the teaching of directors and actors in immersive performance and demonstrating the basis for what constitutes live immersive digital theatre, our A Matter of Life and Death prototype could prove versatile if developed further. Further research into flexible yet fuller facial capture beyond eye and mouth tracking via machine learning to bring additional innovation to the developing scene for XR and liveness will continue to support this. Through our delivery role in other regional programmes such as MyWorld, CAMERA’s research leadership in this area, plus ongoing R&D with volumetric capture and virtual production will provide critical knowledge and fresh pathways for the creative sector to access in the future.
We would like to thank the South West Creative Cluster (Bristol + Bath Creative R+D) and funding partners UKRI/AHRC for supporting this programme.