Ever since Lewis Carroll first shared his books with the world, the stories of Alice in Wonderland have continued to inspire storytellers, creators and futurists. To celebrate this tradition of innovation, the Victoria and Albert Museum wanted to extend the adventures of Alice into virtual reality as part of their major Alice: Curiouser & Curiouser exhibition. 

To bring this vision to life, the V&A and HTC Vive Arts partnered with PRELOADED to create Curious Alice – a mind-bending VR trip to Wonderland in which visitors’ own curiosity and exploration are rewarded.

DESIGNING A VR WONDERLAND

The iconic story of Alice has been staged and reinterpreted for performative genres such as theatre, film and games. With virtual reality, we had the chance to reimagine what it would be like for the audience to experience the narrative first-hand, as Alice herself.

With none of the spatial constraints of the physical world, the experience plays on a sense of scale and freedom of experimentation that’s only possible in VR. Imagine the ground opening beneath your feet as you tumble down the rabbit hole, drinking a potion makes you shrink and eating a mushroom turns your world psychedelic: these are key moments of Alice’s story that come into full effect in VR. 

The starting point for creating this mind-bending and visual representation of our VR Wonderland was a series of Victorian-inspired illustrations created by Kristjana S Williams for the exhibition. Kristinja’s artwork took inspiration from the V&A’s collection of 19th-century ‘paper peepshows’, as well as John Tenniel’s famous Alice illustrations, and were packed with creative possibilities for developing a unique Wonderland in VR. The main challenge however was coming up with a solution for transforming the ‘flat’ drawings into a three-dimensional world. 

Much like a‘paper peepshow’, the PRELOADED art team looked for ways to unfold new layers. Bringing these illustrations to life involved modelling 3D objects, texturing and developing custom shaders to produce the etching lines and illustrative shadows. The result is a visually bold and layered environment that gives the virtual world true depth.

It has been an extraordinary adventure to work with HTC VIVE Arts and PRELOADED to take our exhibition into a playful new dimension of VR.”

Kate Bailey, Senior Curator, V&A

INSTANTLY UNDERSTANDABLE

Designing for a gallery audience always requires careful considerations. Aimed at people aged 15 years old and above, the experience needed to be low threshold, and instantly understandable, to all visitors. 

As gallery visitors tend to be new to VR, we made design choices that reassured users and made them feel safe as they transformed between chapters in the story. For instance, as users fall down the rabbit hole, props such as books and cabinets help anchor the user’s field of vision to avoid motion sickness. Matching the VR world with the visuals in the exhibition also helped to create a sense of familiarity and improve comfort levels. 

For accessibility purposes, PRELOADED wanted to create VR interactions that felt as natural as possible to the user. Using the VIVE Hand Tracking SDK, we were able to encourage hand gestures that naturally immersed users whilst staying true to the original story. In one scene users can even pick up hedgehogs and throw them to defeat the Queen of Hearts in a curious game of croquet, closely mirroring a scene from the novel. 

Also important is that a lack of controllers helps to speed up the user onboarding, supporting the V&A staff to help more visitors instantly enjoy the VR installation.

Using the VIVE Hand Tracking SDK, we were able to encourage hand gestures that naturally immersed users whilst staying true to the original story.

CREATING WAYS TO CONNECT REMOTELY

As we began work earlier in the year, the initial concepting was for a VR installation and gallery-only experience. However, given the situation with countries across the globe in lockdown and cultural sites closed to the public, the V&A and HTC VIVE Arts saw an opportunity to connect with audiences unable to attend the exhibition. Catering to this global demand for cultural experiences, we decided to create an at-home version of Curious Alice with two additional chapters. 

Whilst the original 4-minute version focussed on story elements that work for a gallery audience, the expansion into a domestic setting opened up possibilities to explore new themes and narrative episodes. This included a race against the clock to capture the White Rabbit’s missing glove and a challenge to solve the Caterpillar’s mind-bending riddles. Together, with these new chapters in place, we could fully explore the themes of identity, curiosity and transformation that the story conveys – maximising the potential of VR storytelling and interactivity. 

From psychedelic mushrooms, flamingoes to hedgehogs, Wonderland has been a wonderful world to explore in virtual reality. Throughout our partnership with V&A and Vive Arts, we’ve worked together to create solutions for our new remote circumstances, connecting dispersed audiences with world-class curation and storytelling in VR. 

The at-home version of Curious Alice is now available for users to download through VIVEPORT, as well as through other online VR platforms.

We worked together to create solutions for our new remote circumstances, connecting dispersed audiences with world-class curation and storytelling in VR.

Working with PRELOADED on Curious Alice has been a brilliant journey. We started and finished this project during lockdown and the PRELOADED team helped us to respond to our new remote circumstances in creative and genuinely innovative ways. Their agile, audience-led approach was a great fit – and the final result is an utterly captivating exploration of the world of Wonderland in virtual reality.”

Kati Price , Kati Price, Head of Digital Media and Publishing, V&A

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