Arts Based VR/XR approaches to media research with children
Dr Eleanor Dare
A few weeks ago, while teaching Games Design at UCL, I invited undergraduates to create origami swans, this was part of an exercise exploring the so-called ‘Ikea Effect’. The Ikea Effect (Ariely, 2012) is the premise that people value things more or feel psychologically ‘boosted’ if they’ve made (or partially made) something themselves. I realise now, how much this concept resonates with the approach we’ve taken to our part of the research project, The Future of Broadcast (FOB). For this project I am co-investigator in collaboration with my colleague and Xordinary Stories co-founder, Dr Dylan Yamada-Rice, in association with University of York’s XR Stories, led by Nikki Stearman. The project is funded by the AHRC. Our part of the project aims to work with children aged 7-11.
This blog post discusses the methods we’ve developed for the project, as well as our methodologies – our approach to the research process and our core values and beliefs as researchers. The post looks at some of the specific approaches we’ve used and the responses children came up with, including their models and questions, their speculations and theories about the future of broadcast – television programmes, stories, technologies, characters and working processes. There are several key principles that can guide creative research with children, foremost for us is a respect for children’s agency. Like many other researchers we believe that research with children should be designed in a way that is conducive to such agency, that involves children and takes into account their opinions and perspectives.
Our creative research with children recognises and values the unique ideas and epistemic contributions that children bring to the research process. This principle requires us as researchers to approach children as active participants in the research process, rather than passive subjects. Though such terms also come with a history of neoliberal baggage, which we as researchers must carefully negogitate. We must also be wary of the hype surrounding VR and Machine Learning (‘AI’), which needs to be balanced by an understanding of the surveillant and extractive nature of such technologies, see Williamson et al (2023). Understanding the way workflows and assets are increasingly entangled with Machine Learning processes and corporate power structures is an important part of our approach to the project.
In line with our core belief in the epistemic agency of children, on the 19th November 2022, we ran our first FOB workshop in the Museum of Science and Media, Bradford. Throughout the day children wondered in and out of the space with their carers and parents, with and without siblings and friends; they engaged with making characters in response to the Beano comics we’d placed on each table along with a workshop brief. We estimate between 150-200 people came to both workshops. Throughout the day children often made models in collaboration with their parents/carers, or seemed to enjoy adults sitting with them as they played/made characters and environments. Our choice of Beano is explained by Dylan Yamada-Rice in other blogs, but in brief, it has very high rates of recognition with the children we worked with, very few of whom have never heard of it, this was also true for parents/carers.
On the 21st of January 2023 we followed up with a workshop focusing on the environments in which characters in future programmes and stories might live/play/work/perform/explore. For that workshop we used modular cardboard buildings which children could construct themselves or in collaboration with adults. Children then used the cardboard models as surfaces to draw upon, and also to add PlayDoh or Lego fixtures. Some children reconfigured their cardboard houses into new types of buildings and spaces, including gardens and swimming pools, skateboard ramps, sky scrapers, apartment complexes and a TV room for a cat.
For both workshops, some children stayed for over an hour, others stayed for a few minutes. Almost all of the children drew, or read comics or made characters with PlayDoh and Lego, but they also made models by adding self-made PlayDoh heads and legs (etc) to a range of toy animals/robots as well as paper and card, often combining objects and materials in unexpected ways. By the end of the day, in the second workshop, when we were running out of PlayDoh and Lego, we noticed children were also using the PlayDoh pots and packaging to make things like characters, cars and hybrid creatures.
VR and AR : from objects to animated characters
In between the workshops Dare developed a range of VR and AR apps using the Unity Game Engine, while Yamada-Rice used Roblox, which almost every child we spoke to had played. During workshop 2 we invited children to try the AR and VR apps as well as to play in the Roblox platform Dylan created. For the VR and AR Dare used children’s models from workshop 1 which had been scanned (using photogrammetry). Dare then rigged and animated the children’s scanned 3D models and placed them within digital environments, these settings echoed the themes we saw in children’s drawings. In VR and AR the animated characters danced with each other, and in response, we observed some children dancing with the animated models, often reaching out with their hands as if they could touch the digital objects/characters.
Dare developed the VR apps for both high and low end headsets. Cardboard VR headsets cost about £5, and Oculus Quests cost from between £300 to £400. Anecdotally, children did not seem to notice much difference between the expensive VR system and the cheaper, less sophisticated one. Nobody made any comments about the image quality or the kind of ‘immersive’ characteristics manufacturers might emphasise.
In response to the app, some children made comments about their own experiences using 3d modelling technology, games and platforms such as Blender, Minecraft, Pokemon Go, and Roblox. Children who used those technologies articulated firm opnions – that making games and characters themselves was the future of television and wider entertainment. The AR seemed anecdotally less engaging for children then the photogrammetry process, again, perhaps pointing to a kind of Ikea Effect, in which children enjoy a workflow from analogue model creation to scanning an object into a 3d mesh, a process of transformation, echoing Dare’s interest in a new materialist ontology for games and games assets, for image making and wider media, in which images, and our relationship to them, are conceived of as kinetic, providing a fluid and constantly changing experience.
This new form of image/subjectivity as conceived by Nail (2019) is created through our own experience of duration, as well as the manipulation/transfer/mutability of analogue and digital data/materiality. Fluidity and constant change are key features of the kinetic image and its perception, distinguishing it from traditional static images or stable subjects. The kinetic image allows us to see the embodied subject in new and dynamic ways and has the potential to challenge traditional understandings of the body/audience/maker as a stable, fixed entity, but it also changes our ontology of images and wider media. This does not negate the socio-political encoding of images, far from it, as Thompson states:
‘Current interest in the visual stems from the simultaneous proliferation of the means of making images (the development of affordable cameras and film processing, followed by the digitization of still and moving-image production), and the proliferation of image-based systems of communication in everyday life (film and television, graphic novels, multimedia and advertising). However, contrary to popular sayings such as ‘a picture never lies’, ‘every picture tells a story’, and ‘it was there in black and white’, the social science community understands that an image is not a simple window on the world. Rather, just like a word, an image is a human construction and culturally specific.’ (Thompson, 2008, p. 9)
Working with children’s images and objects is complex and nuanced, highly generative and inter-textual, connected to networks of meaning and myriad other stories and techno-cultural channels. After both workshops, Dare developed a more complex Oculus app using characters and models made by children as well as incorporating other assets, but above all, the app was informed by ideas and suggestions made by children during the workshops, as well as their embodied responses and detailed, close relationship to the materials they use to draw and make models. This app is therefore the result of a collaborative and participatory approach. Creative research with children often involves children as co-creators and co-researchers, engaging them in active and meaningful ways in the research process. This approach recognises the value of children’s contributions and acknowledges the important role they play in shaping our research outcomes and, of course, the future of broadcast and our wider understanding of media.
More about that and other developments will be explored in future blogs which will also discuss the ethics of working with children and the implications of using proprietry and other machine learning systems, including questions of surveillance, data extraction and finite fuel resources.
Mochon, D., Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2012) ‘Bolstering and restoring feelings of competence via the IKEA effect’. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 29(4), 363-369. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijresmar.2012.05.001
Thomas Nail (2019) Theory of the Image, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ben Williamson, Felicitas Macgilchrist & John Potter (2023) ‘Re-examining AI, automation and datafication in education’, Learning, Media and Technology, 48:1, 1-5, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2023.2167830
Pat Thompson (2008) Doing Visual Research with Children and Young People, London: Routledge.