Figuring: Exploring bodies, materiality and touch in multi-person virtual reality

The Figuring Project brings together artistic, scientific, and technological expertise and practices. The project takes a dance and somatic approach to investigate what happens to moving, sensing bodies embedded in simulated virtual worlds. Dance artist and researcher Lisa May Thomas is the project artistic lead, alongside molecular physicist and Computer Scientist Dr. David Glowacki, who is the scientific and technological lead. Glowacki's collaborations with Interactive Scientific (a Bristol-based tech company which he and Phil Tew co-founded in 2013) as well as researchers at the University of Bristol, have produced a state-of-the-art cloud-mounted VR framework which enables multiple people to share, explore and interact in a virtual environment. This framework is distinct from the vast majority of VR experiences, which are solitary and sedentary.

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.

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. The aim of the Figuring project process is to 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.

Filmmakers will be using camera-stabilising technology to capture the dancers and their interaction with the physical and virtual spaces; aerial cinematography to simulate VR perspectives and to play with perspective. This work moves from the molecular to the panoramic in terms of scale, and from Newtonian to Quantum in terms of the physics of the environments that Figuring explores.

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 multi-person VR framework developed by a collaborative team including Dr David Glowacki, lets people reach out and touch real-time protein simulations, making it possible to make folds, loops, twists, and knots in a simulated molecular string. A key aim of the project aim to understand in further detail the ‘felt’ sensations which people often report as they manipulate virtual molecular objects like string, and how these compare to their physical and tangible analogues. 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, imagined and computer-simulated virtual objects.

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. Project dancers include Laila Diallo, Ben McEwan, Bryn Thomas, Ania Varez, Will Dickie, Fernanda Munoz-Newsome and Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot. At no one time will all the dancers be present; instead the project will evolve through the passing of information through each different constellation of dancers in each research phase. Lisa is interested in employing sensory and somatic practices to support a perceptual understanding of different real, virtual and imagined environments. She is developing a code toward an 'ethics of care' with the dancers and to support a collective agency in the different real, virtual and imagined environments she is creating.

Dr. Tom Mitchell and Prof. Joseph Hyde, along with computer Scientist Mike O’Connor and sound technologist Alex Jones will all play a key role in developing the VR interaction capabilities and devising algorithms to generate sound from the virtual string dynamics. The team plan to experiment with what connections between networks of things might sound like; specifically the sonic affordances of multi-person VR. They will be exploring the ways in which sound operates in connection with the sensory modalities of touch and vision. As an integral part of creating a common ground amongst groups of people, Figuring will use sound to help construct social 'doing' and reflect the changing spaces, as well as to communicate information about these processes.


The audience experience and performative element is an integral part of Figuring research, and the creative process for the project has brought together designers, creative technologists and dramaturgs to collaborate on the design of these different spaces and to consider how a participant might navigate through them. The aesthetics of both the physical and virtual environment react and relate to one another, having equal significance to and impact on the participant’s journey. The presence/absence of a virtual ‘body’, and what this ‘body’ might look like, has been a key focus of research for Creative Technologist Mark Wonnacott in his work on Figuring.