May 242018
Arts Council R&D award weaves together VR, scientific computing, aesthetics, and dance

Bath Spa University dance student Sarah Stone in residency with Lisa May Thomas (2017), image by Chris Lewis-Smith

The project is called Figuring: Exploring bodies, materiality and touch in multi-person virtual reality. The aim is to take a dance perspective to investigate the convergence of the physical and virtual worlds using a VR framework that has arisen through collaborative work involving Bristol-based tech company Interactive Scientific, and researchers at the University of Bristol (UoB). Whilst the vast majority of VR experiences are solitary and sedentary, this project employs a state-of-the-art cloud-mounted VR framework which enables multiple people to share, explore and interact in a virtual environment.

Figuring takes its name from its intention to explore ‘string figures’, which are created through simple movements of folding, looping, twisting, and knotting strings between the hands, fingers and thumbs of one or more people. They have evolved as a generational mechanism for the transmission of stories, knowledge and value systems. Through the Figuring project process, Lisa May Thomas, co-principal researcher and project artistic lead, will transpose and re-choreograph string figures, bringing them into the dance space as physical structures for bodies to collectively move within. String figures offer a mechanism for connecting bodies like nodes within a network, enabling bodies to feel the dynamics of other bodies through space. Lisa is interested in seeing how these structures evolve, and also how they can be used to physically connect bodies which are simultaneously embedded in virtual spaces.

Research with physical strings will guide the project collaborators as they also explore how bodies embedded in the same virtual environment can collaboratively construct string figures using simulated strings. Proteins, which are effectively pieces of molecular string that make life possible, will form the ‘raw material’ for these virtual string figures.

The ability to make folds, loops, twists, and knots in a simulated molecular string is possible using a multi-person VR framework that lets people reach out and touch real-time protein simulations. The development of this technology has been led by Philip Leverhulme and Royal Society Research Fellow Dr. David Glowacki, co-principal researcher and scientific lead on the project. He explains: “I remember when my collaborator Becca Rose and I first went into VR together. We unravelled the folds of a small helical protein and tied it into a knot. We talked about how protein strings make up every organism on our interconnected planet – from the tiniest microbes to the largest plants and animals. Each protein string has evolved into a characteristic set of folds, loops, twists, and knots, providing a record of evolution over the aeons. String figures similarly capture generations of cultural evolution and concepts. This conceptual resonance makes proteins a fascinating material to use for constructing virtual string figures. VR has been particularly useful in facilitating rich exchanges between the artists and scientists on our team, highlighting relationships between modern bioscience on the one hand and older forms of knowledge and narrative on the other.”

Another project aim is to understand in further detail the ‘felt’ sensations which people often report as they manipulate virtual molecular objects. Glowacki said “We’re interested in how physical structures feel compared to their virtual analogues. We’ve realized that people do indeed feel virtual objects, although the sensory mechanisms involved are largely proprioceptive and therefore more subtle than conventional senses of touch. Dancers are attuned to sensations like these.” Lisa says “I look forward to seeing how the embodied knowledge of dancers engages with the more abstract modes of thinking that tend to characterize science and technology.” Lisa is developing a fluid choreographic framework which will explore how physical experiences and choreographies are transferred or passed through the group of professional dancers who are involved in the project as a form of distributed and embodied knowledge.  

The project brings together an experienced team of dancers, designers, digital technicians, and computational scientists, enabling an exchange of skills and knowledge between scientific and artistic practices.

Lisa says: “It’s exciting to be working in an interdisciplinary team in which artistic ideas are integrated with scientific ideas and used as the raw material to drive technological and algorithmic developments which then feed back into artistic and scientific practice. I’m interested in the interplay between the physical, the virtual, and the ‘imagined’, and how these might converge in new artistic and participatory performance formats that awaken new forms of collective sensory perception.”

The project dancers include Laila Diallo, Ben McEwan, Bryn Thomas, Ania Varez, Will Dickie, Fernandez Munoz-Newsome and Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot. The team also includes digital artist Mark Wonnacott, who will investigate the aesthetics of protein strings and virtual bodies. Working with Dr. Tom Mitchell and Prof. Joseph Hyde, computer Scientist Mike O’Connor and sound technologist Alex Jones will play a key role in developing the VR interaction capabilities and devising algorithms to generate sound from the virtual string dynamics. Becca Rose will explore how the aesthetics of different materials mediate between human and nonhuman bodies in physical and virtual environments, while Tanuja Amarasuriya and UC Berkeley Professor Abigail de Kosnick will provide dramaturgical support. Human-computer-interaction researcher Helen Deeks will help guide the team as they undertake creative experiments examining how people perceive differences in ‘felt’ sensation between physical objects, imagined objects, and computer-simulated virtual objects. The project is produced by Emma Hughes.

Phil Gibby, Area Director, Southwest, Arts Council England, said: “We’re delighted to be supporting Lisa May Thomas and the Figuring project with a grant from National Lottery funds. We are excited by the potential that VR technology has to unlock new forms of artistic and cultural practices and this investment in Figuring is part of our commitment to ensuring that creative talent has the opportunity to experiment with cutting-edge immersive technology to deliver new experiences that inspire audiences.”

The project begins this month (May). There will be a series of public events through the project timeline. These will include HCI tests, public workshops and sharing events at Knowle West Media Centre on the 16th and 23rd May and at the Wickham Theatre on 21st September.


Notes to editors

If you would like to arrange an interview with Lisa May Thomas please contact project producer Emma Hughes at


About Lisa May Thomas  

Lisa May Thomas is a contemporary dance artist who has worked with dance for screen and whose award-winning film work has been presented globally and broadcast for BBC and Channel 4. She trained at Laban (BA) and received an MPhil in performance and technology at the University of Bristol (UoB) as their first hybrid arts scholar, with a grant from Interactive Scientific. Her research sits between the departments of drama and computer science and takes a dance-somatic approach to her investigations into how digital technologies mediate interactions between human and nonhuman bodies, and ways in which digital tools can be used to develop an aesthetics of interaction. Her PhD studies are funded by a UoB arts scholarship, with additional support from David Glowacki’s Royal Society Research Fellowship and Phillip Leverhulme Award. Lisa played a key role in developing Hidden Fields, a multi-award winning sci-art project that ran from 2013 – 2015. Her award-winning inter-generational community dance project The Touch Diaries led her to further develop the dS technology which underpinned Hidden Fields, producing an interactive performance work called ‘Dances with Avatars’ in 2016. She is a resident of the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol and a member of Dr. David Glowacki’s trans-disciplinary research group. In collaboration with Glowacki’s team, she has been awarded an Arts Council grant to develop a project entitled Figuring: Exploring Bodies, Materiality and Touch in multi-person VR. Lisa has a broad-range of teaching expertise which includes lecturing in HE across UK universities, running workshops in education, working with inclusive dance groups and with communities of elders. Lisa is committed to developing a practice-based dance culture and community in Bristol which is accessible and available for all dance practitioners living and working in the city, she is developing such a programme with Laila Diallo for Autumn 2018 and beyond.

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