Mark Jackson leads the LI’s Digital Realities Working group. Here he shares some personal insights into virtual reality (VR)

    man wearing a VR headset

    Virtual Reality (VR) offers greater immersion for experiencing the landscape compared with more traditional 2D visualisations. It can portray the landscape more realistically, granting us a greater ability to access and explore it, whilst increasing our expectations of real world landscapes through good design. So far so good.

    With the exception of Eagle Flight (2016; Ubisoft), my experience of VR game environments has generally been of those not depicting real-world locations. In the instance of Eagle Flight, you took to the skies and streets of Paris from the enlightening perspective of an eagle. One of the merits of this particular game environment was that even those unfamiliar with Paris could readily identify with its prominent landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame. Set 50 years into the future, the game had a notable absence of humans, creating a provocative interpretation of a city reclaimed by nature (reminiscent of Alan Weisman’s ‘The World Without Us’).

    You may recall the shocking images of the fire that occurred at Notre-Dame in 2019. In the wake of the disaster there was no lack of support for its reconstruction, which became a news story in itself (Greta Thunberg coining the term ‘cathedral mode’ to highlight climate change inaction). The creators of Eagle Flight, Ubisoft, were one such donor for the reconstruction. In addition to Eagle Flight, Ubisoft previously created another 3D model of Notre-Dame for Assassins Creed Unity (2014). Use of this was offered (where accurate) for reference in the reconstruction proposals for the cathedral. Familiarity with such places clearly brings a level of attachment, whether experienced as part of a virtual experience or in the real world. How could this relationship manifest itself and be explored in a local landscape context?

    This month I created a VR interpretation of Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens from the late 70’s and early 80’s, prompted by ongoing public sentiment for the former sunken gardens that once featured there. Having never experienced Piccadilly Gardens at that point in time, I relied entirely on old photographs, films and maps for reference, much in the same way I had done with the Keona Road project. The resulting model could be explored in VR but has been most viewed via the youtube video. I was curious to see how this would be received by the general public through social media.

    Here is a summary of the responses:

    • People could readily associate with the former sunken garden despite it having not existed in almost 3 decades.
    • ‘Likes’ aside, comments were predominantly based on comparison between the video and what Piccadilly Gardens currently looks like.
    • People often reflected on the social conditions, past and present, as oppose to the aesthetics.
    • Some reminisced of past experiences in the space, mostly in a negative light where expanded upon, but some positive.
    • Positive experiences related to shared experiences with family members, or friends, and in local shops – not just the gardens themselves.
    • Negative comments related to the impact of alcohol, drugs, homelessness, physical and sexual misconduct.
    • Some wished the gardens reverted to the former layout, as interpreted in the model. One media channel focused on this sentiment, goading the city council to take action.

    From an aesthetic standpoint, the most apparent criticism related to the former sunken aspect of the gardens. The restricted view into the space had made it feel unsafe and stoked the perception of danger.

    ‘The change in levels meant visibility was horrendous. You were always told to walk around rather than through the gardens at all costs’

    There was recognition of limited ability to improve the current situation of Piccadilly Gardens with aesthetics alone, which would need to be supplemented with effective social improvements. It raised an important point on the necessity for both environmental and social sustainability in our urban centres, in a coordination between a number of agencies. I reflected on our output as designers; to what extent are we responsible for addressing or attempting to remediate the ‘ills’ of society, and are we stoking false expectations with some of our output?

    VR environments can appear every bit as utopian or dystopian as the real world. As designers, we often populate our concepts with idealistic scenes of families laughing on picnic blankets, children skipping merrily with a balloon in hand, and a cyclist with a basket of fresh veg under a bird-filled blue sky. It can seem trite. A utopian snapshot in time to win a job, to satisfy a stakeholder. Of course, we should depict nicer places that don’t include the smashed beer bottle, the sleeping bag in the alcove, the goat track across the grass verge. It is a designer’s aspiration for a better world, but we know an alternate reality often awaits. This familiar dichotomy became more apparent as I reflected on the VR model of Piccadilly Gardens. I had instinctively made it as utopian as the previous 2D photomontages created for landscape projects. There was no litter, no homeless person on a bench, no muddy grass or poorly tended flower bed. The model was an interpretation of an historic aspect of the gardens, but were its associated follies something people really wanted to see?

    Virtual environments experienced in popular games are frequently depicted as dystopic. City 17 in Half Life 2 (2011), for example, was a fascinating urban environment with its oppressive, atmospheric setting. Earlier this year there was a return to City 17 in the VR exclusive Half Life: Alyx (2020). Like Half Life 2, it journeys across a city of decaying eastern European-style architecture and abandoned landscapes, through a gloomy, post-soviet lens. What made it such an interesting place to venture? It might link to the realm of dark tourism and which has its place in society. People line up to visit places that have been struck by tragedy; Chernobyl and Auschwitz spring to mind.

    Research of the Piccadilly Gardens during the late 70’s brought its own tragic event to light. A fire in the former Woolworths building adjacent the gardens killed 10 people and hospitalised 47 in 1979, although it does not have the notoriety of the Manchester bombing in 1996 or the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. The point is, although the VR model of the former Piccadilly Gardens is artificial, the stigma attached to it is real. People associate with it based on their personal and collective experiences. VR environments depicting real world locations or those reminiscent of it, bring both positive and negative connotations, whether it is created in the context of a design, a game, or a piece of art.

    Mark Jackson

    (If you are interested in finding out more about what the LI is exploring with regard to Digital Realities, please contact technical@landscapeinstitute.org)

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