Commentary by Heidi Biggs
Rebecca Rhee’s research reaches. Literally and figuratively. Rhee’s thesis translates rock climbing into a virtual reality experience. However, her VR climbing concept moves beyond a game or a mostly visual rendering — she designed a concept where designers can climb in VR using full-body movements and body weight. In her design, a climber moves up a shifting wall that can mimic and help them train for or test out difficult remote climbs. Mental visualization has long been a part of high-level athletic training, and this project was inspired by how elite climbers train for difficult and remote routes by watching videos or looking at images of the climb while miming the movements and imagining climbing the route. Rhee thought, what if you could move through the route in a more full-bodied way in a virtual environment?
Rebecca wanted to stretch the collective imagination of the ways VR could be experienced and used, and this meant imagining not only a new experience within virtual reality but also the external infrastructure that would support full-body climbing movements. She had to consider safety, trust in the system, and how one experiences one’s body in virtual space, as well as things like the height of the wall, and which parts of a climbing simulation would be transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque to instill trust in the experience. Ultimately she invented a climbing wall for VR that has 8 points of contact, four points which the climber is in contact with, and four that move to prepare the next set of movements a climber will perform in the simulation. In my mind, I imagined some kind of giant, mechatronic spider that a person would ‘dance’ with — but in her final concept models, the wall comes across quite gracefully. The wall is comprised of 8 points that shift beneath what I perceived as a piece of flexible fabric as the climber moves through the climb, wearing a headset.
She described her research as a ‘speculative design in an open space,’ which gave the impression of someone lighting a flashlight in a big, unlit room, where there are just a few people scattered around the space, each with their own small source of illumination. Perhaps in 10-20 years in the future, this room will be fully lit, but as it stands today, Rhee really took a leap into a relatively new space and tried to envision how VR could be applied and experienced beyond games or entertainment. She hopes to inspire people to imagine the complex ways that VR can break dimensions and engage full-body, spatial experiences.