Volumetric Performance Toolbox (VPT) is the collaborative project of Valencia James, Glowbox and Sorob Louie, envisioning live online 3D dance performance as a new way for artists to share a communal experience while performing from remote locations requiring minimal equipment.
Developed with the support of Eyebeam’s Rapid Response for a Better Digital Future Fellowship in the wake of the pandemic’s effects on the ability to connect with live audiences, Volumetric Performance Toolbox (VPT) offers accessible, user-friendly technology built to empower creators to perform from their own living spaces for a virtual audience. VPT ushers in new possibilities for the creation of and experience of live performance in immersive web environments, while focusing on the creation of a product that requires minimal equipment or previous technical expertise. The toolbox aims to build an expansive community amongst the creators the tool is built for: Movement Artists of all backgrounds, orientations, and abilities, with priority on Black, Indigenous, POC, disabled, and other marginalized communities.
Valencia James is a Barbadian performer, maker and researcher interested in the intersection between dance, theater, technology and activism. Valencia’s work explores remote interdisciplinary collaboration with creative technologists and how emerging technologies like machine learning and computer vision might enhance creativity in her contemporary dance practice and vice-versa. This research has resulted in collaboratively built, novel open- source software tools that push the boundaries of live performance. She has presented her work at several international forums such as the 2015 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, ISEA2015, TEDxGoteborg, SIGGRAPH and Gray Area Festival. She was a 2020 Rapid Response Fellow at Eyebeam and a Spring 2021 Remote Resident for Open-Source Art Tools at Carnegie Mellon University.
Volumetric Performance Toolbox: a tool for accessibility
When and why did you get the idea to work in this direction?
Volumetric Performance Toolbox (VPT) consists of low-cost performance kit hardware and open source custom 3D video live-streaming software for use in Mozilla Hubs and Spoke, a free social virtual reality platform and virtual environment builder. This project is a collaboration between myself, the spatial interaction lab Glowbox, and the creative technologist, Sorob Louie. The first seed for the project came during the first lockdown of the global pandemic when I had been thinking of restaging a performance from a previous project called AI_am where I have a duet with a dancing avatar that would learn my movements and respond with new ones. So this was my first encounter with the idea of dance in virtual space but I had been projecting the avatar onto a flat screen while I danced on stage.
Then in the pandemic I suddenly thought, “What if I as the performer got into the computer and danced in virtual space?” Then I contacted Sorob with this idea and he introduced me to Thomas Wester, the co-founder of Glowbox and we applied to Eyebeam’s open call for the Rapid Response Fellowship in the summer of 2020 and were able to develop the project.
From the beginning the goal was to create a way for artists anywhere from any background to perform from their own living spaces without the need for expensive equipment and massive funding – which was the case before VPT and presented a huge barrier for entry. We also wanted the performances to be accessible to audiences anywhere in the world using just their computers and not requiring special headsets. Thomas recommended Mozilla Hubs as the performance and creation platform because all you need is your computer to access it and it is also designed to respect user privacy.
Limitations become invitations towards creative solutions
Can you tell us more about the Volumetric Performance Toolbox and the community you’re building around it?
What excites me the most is how the performance kit now makes volumetric performance streaming accessible to artists anywhere using low cost lightweight equipment.
I want to shout out Sorob Louie, Thomas Wester and the team at Glowbox for making this a reality. We use off the shelf equipment including an Intel Realsense depth camera, Raspberry Pi 4 computer with a display screen and a microphone. It cost us around $350 at the time and through the Eyebeam fellowship we shipped eight of these kits to artists across the United States for our pilot residency program which I co-developed in collaboration with Simon Boas, who was working at Glowbox at the time.
The residency was fully remote and ran between December 2020 and January 2021 and it was an amazing time of co-learning and co-creation. At the end of the residency we had a public launch with online volumetric performances by the artists in Mozilla Hubs that were projected in real-time on the public facing doors of the Abrons Art Center in NYC. Actually I met three of my collaborators through this program – Terri Ayanna Wright and Carlos Johns-Dávila participated in the residency and Marin Vesely taught a Spoke workshop.
Our goal is to build a community of creators experimenting with volumetric performance so that this new genre can develop and become more widespread. I believe that there is so much powerful potential in this form of creation, where the artist has control over the design of the performance environment and can reach audiences around the world simultaneously!
Interview with Agnese Pietrobon, 2022.