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'Is this the ‘happy’ sound?' Testing Congregation in Bristol

Students from the MA Virtual Reality testing Congregation in Bristol

There is always a sense of uncertainty when someone first hears the spheres start to make their sounds. Which is the ‘happy’ sound? Is this the ‘sad’ sound?

Is the sphere happy or just a bit too excited?

This was the first time we’d done a test of Congregation with people I’d never met before. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’d met Verity McIntosh once before at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol and explained the project to her during the development period last year. She was sharp, critically engaged and immediately pointed out the similarity for her to Duncan Speakman’s work. This was fair enough as they are within the same broad arena of locative sound, although in my opinion Congregation is trying to do something distinctly different to Duncan’s work. So, when Steve said he’d managed to get Verity’s group of MA Virtual Reality* students who are studying the idea of immersive narrative to take part in our latest test I was excited, because they seemed like a perfect group to test Congregation, but also a little apprehensive about how it would go with such a potentially critically informed group.

The VR Lab is based near Millennium Square in Bristol and Steve and I designed a test walk for the group that would start relatively close by and, if all went well, take them by different routes up to College Green. We wanted to get an idea of how communicable the Congregating sounds were to a group who had no prior experience of the project. After giving them a brief ‘briefing’, we set them off from two separate locations and observed their behaviour…

Some of my group seemed to quite quickly get the sonic vocabulary and followed the ‘happy’ sound. Some others were not so sure immediately, and evidently some of them just followed the others at first until it became clear. I followed on at a respectful distance trying not to give any indications of where they should be going, hoping to see if the sphere would guide them. As I followed behind, several members of the group were stopped by passers-by asking them what they were doing. What was this strange pulsing sphere they were holding and where were they going?

They answered as best they could, given that they didn’t know where they were going, before the sphere encouraged them to move along and find the destination that had been set for them. After about twenty minutes all of the group had successfully arrived at the same destination, the large open green outside the University and Cathedral. Here they slowly wandered around the green listening to how the spheres changed sounds in the final congregating zone.

Thanks to Verity and the MA VR group.

* The MA Virtual Reality is a University of West England programme and is based at the Bristol VR Lab which is a joint venture between UWE Bristol, the University of Bristol, Watershed, and Opposable VR.


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