VR? Virtual Un-reality is the future.

Thresholds Mat Collister

Alistair McKechnie visits Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds at Somerset House.

The only Collishaw work I’d seen before this was his infamous photograph of a bullet hole in someone’s head, back at Charles Saatchi’s YBA ‘Sensation’ exhibition in 2000. At his new Somerset House exhibition, Thresholds, he inadvertently shot me down a rabbit hole.

Basically, the exhibition is a virtual representation of an 1830s exhibition room overlayed on a real furnished space, so it’s really a trailblazing mix of VR and Augmented Reality. In the real world, you’re in a white room with bare white display tables. But with your headset and headphones on, you’re suddenly in a much bigger room (although the further reaches are ‘cordoned off’) with a fire in one corner (realistically hot) and a riotous mob outside the windows baying for an end to the technology inside (a nice ironic touch).

The bare white display tables are transformed into glass-topped display cabinets, full of beautiful mechanical gadgetry from the 1830s and some of the first photographs ever taken. With a bit of patience and luck, you can ‘lift up’ individual photos for a closer look. Other visitors in the room are seen as silvery ghosts so there’s no risk of bumping into them. There are also mice running around the floor, beetles crawling on the walls and moths flying about.

And that’s what you pay your £4.50 for. But fortunately, the tech had more up its sleeve. While I was trying unsuccessfully to pick up a virtual photograph, my vision started flashing blue, then settled down to place me halfway through the floor. So subjectively my eyes were now level with the table tops and my feet were two feet below the floorboards.

So I waded around quite happily, like a semi-subterranean 1830s ghost. I could even look up underneath the tabletops, and was utterly charmed to see that they’d been perfectly rendered in detail by the 3D engine – even though I was probably the first person to actually see them.

And then – another blue flash – and I was once again standing on top of the floor – but my eyes were still at tabletop height. I’d been shrunk to just four feet tall, with everything else looking that much bigger. Curiouser and curiouser. While I was wandering around waiting for the next Alice-like transformation to hit, my allotted time was up. A pity it had to end.

So while we wait for VR to mature, I’m quite happy with the glitches.

Thresholds runs until 11 June 2017. You can read more of Alistair’s adventures in virtual unreality here.