Empathy Machine

CROMT Research Fellow Tim Hopkins, with composer Rob Thomas, have begun a major new investigation into uses of Virtual Reality for Opera, focussing on their potential in adversarial situations.

Audio-visual presentation on Empathy Machine project by Tim Hopkins and Rob Thomas

We live in conflicted times. Imagine two people with opposing viewpoints. They might be neighbours, or from different countries, or might never have met. They immerse themselves in a virtual reality environment and reimagine each other through something never seen before - an opera they make together. They feel empathetic connections musicians can feel when they make music together.

In partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum, Glyndebourne Opera, Artists and Engineers, financial support from Arts Council England, and with guidance from anthropologists Dr Nigel Eltringham (University of Sussex), Prof Tom Boellstorff (UCAL), Josh Fouts (Carnegie Fellow, Bioneers), Ren Reynolds, Jim Purbick, Robin Hunicke and others, Empathy Machine entails a programme of Research and Development to find out how to make this possible.

Hosted by the V and A Museum as part of their major exhibition Opera, 400 Years of Passion, Power and Politics,  Tim and Rob looked at

1)  key approaches to conflict intervention - how can these models inform the functionality of the piece -  ie what the piece needs to do. How can we develop experience for participants leading up to and away from the artwork, that allows it to be beneficial 

2)  a comprehensive review of current VR - hardware, software, content - with kit and support from Oculus, Vive, Storm and others - what can the latest off-the-peg work in this field teach us, what creative modalities might we adapt to our aim?

3) Interaction - working with singers to explore how opera artistry can interact with untrained participants inside VR; what experiences are effective, building prototypes 

4) Audience - what is­ it to be an 'audience' here? what is the capacity of the medium? can a 'mixed reality' format overcome tech limitations, e.g. bridging real scenography and virtual worlds?

This research and development stage concluded with a presentation at the V and A Museum in February 2018.  The project directors have subsequently been working on developing a proof-of-concept opera through partnerships with interested opera companies and tech outfits.