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The Virtual Exhibition 2016

It is with great enthusiasm and excitement that I introduce our first ever fully interactive, fully immersive & virtual Sheffield School of Architecture Student Exhibition. Available to all, for free and accessible on any device, anywhere in the world.  Its been several months in the making, starting with the acquisition of new equipment and technology that would help us build this concept from verbal pitch to a fully polished, professional product. I want to explain a bit more about this project, but first, some thoughts on the exhibition its importance.  Our  Summer exhibition is an annual celebration of our School’s achievements and a time for the whole school to come together and reflect on the year past. Students curate their own space to present their best work to a audience that includes sponsoring practices, family, friends and members of the public.  The ability to communicate complex and new ideas to diverse audiences is the hallmark of an architects’ success, and the exhibition, which is the centre piece of many Schools of Architecture, is a key moment to develop and take advantage of this ability before students enter employment and the challenges of a professional career in the discipline.

For many it is a chance to reunite with old friends and colleagues and explore the space we inhabit, the famous Arts Tower, the tallest academic building in the UK and centrepiece of the re-development of the university campus in the 1960’s. The tower has been home to our School of Architecture ever since. This year marks the 50th anniversary of this building, so it felt fitting to capture its spaces and its inhabitants in a lasting and useful way, 50 years after it was first conceived (more on this below). For others it is a pressurised time, an opportunity to show their best and perhaps attract serious interest from employers with potential job offers.  Employability is a core strength of a Sheffield SSoA student, and the exhibition gives employers a chance engage with our graduates on their home ground.

The Sheffield Approach to Technology

Physicality is central to the SSoA, our identity is tied to both our location in the Arts Tower (from which our place in Sheffield on the border of the Peak District can be readily appreciated) and our reputation for the core skills of drawing, model making and presentation that our students leave us with, with practice consistently rating us amongst the best Architecture schools in the UK. In such an environment it is easy to assume that anything ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’ would be treated with suspicion  and scorn. The opposite is of course the case.  When done correctly, the physical and the virtual can compliment, rather than contrast. This is the central idea of the Virtual Exhibiton.

The virtual exhibition is a complete, self-contained digital environment based on the concept of the virtual tour, which wont be new to many (examples include google street view, museums etc…).  As closely as possible we wanted to re-create the experience of visiting the student exhibition, giving virtual visitors the same sensory cues of sounds, visuals and detailed content that a physical visitor would enjoy. At a basic level the virtual exhibition is made of of many 360 degree photographs, videos, images and documents that make up both the physical space and the students exhibition content. This data is then combined into an HTML5 web interface, giving the viewer a resource-light, responsive experience compatible with any device, and on virtually any internet connection (5mbps minimum recommended speed).

The Virtual Exhibiton

What makes this virtual tour different is  the quality of the photography, its uncompromising approach to immersion and most importantly its ability to preserve context.  Each scene within the virtual exhibition has been captured using a panoramic gigapixel robotic mount from Swiss Photographic company Seitz. This rig precisely captures many full-sized photographs for later composition into a single 360×180 degree spherical photograph. Our lowest quality scenes are made up of 150 RAW photographs shot at 16 megapixels each, producing a scene of 253 megapixels in size. Our highest quality scenes are made up of 935 images and produce an image just over 1 gigapixel in size. These are images over 50000 pixels across. All scenes are also shot in a +2 bracket for higher dynamic range.  This quality is more than a experiment in possibilities. From the first pitch of this project, Architects and academics alike cast doubt on the ability of digital representations to reveal detail possible to see with the naked eye, and as such any digital version of the exhibition would be a poor neighbour. With these interior gigapixel images, it is possible to resolve incredible detail on zooming in to displays, models and even while looking out of the window at the view! This ability gives the virtual visitor real opportunity to say ‘i’ve been there’ and assess a student’s work equally to those who could visit in person. The image above shows an actual 100% crop of one of these scenes for context.

Immersion is important. Atmosphere can change mood, and give important context to a display or a exhibition space. What a space sounds like, what it looks like can change minds.   Thats why the virtual exhibition focuses equally on the space, as well as the content of the exhibition. The virtual visitor sees the entire space, 360 degrees, worts and all. They hear recorded sound from our opening night, and they can access video and image content related to each display, enhancing the physical, preserving it for the future. That is the final key advantage of this approach to documenting the physical. Preservation without cost. As a school we face a a yearly battle to efficiently use our spaces. The pressure to remove old student work is overwhelming, but understanding the hour and hours of hard work that goes into each model, each drawing, to see this work lost can be difficult. The virtual exhibition is a marketing tool, an exhibition tool and an archival tool. Everything you see in the virtual exhibition is self-contained, and can be preserved indefinitely.  If this project is repeated for subsequent exhibitions, an archive of past work could be built up, further enriching our student’s craving for newness and difference as they will be fully aware of what has gone before.

Of course as the virtual exhibition becomes more embedded within he School’s yearly cycle, the more we expect students to come up with new and innovative ideas as to how their work can be best presented and communicated using this unique platform. It is our hope that this will become a truly collaborative process that develops in scale and value with each year, because, just like the exhibition itself, here at Sheffield,  students lead the way.

Next Steps

The virtual exhibition is an exciting proof of concept, which we hope will lead to further work utilising this technology in the discipline. We are already exploring the notions of ‘Virtual Site’ – documenting an entire retrofit residential property from construction to completion in 360 degree space, when the physical space is too restrictive for site visits, and ‘virtual pin-up’, our unique concept for remote examination, review and studio work.  A technology with real, tangible benefits for our students a and staff, and one which I am happy to champion.

We here at the SSoA think this could be a game changing platform for our students, our research and more generally a vehicle to showcase our school and our unique spaces to the world. Join us in the Arts Tower for our exhibition below.  Please forward your comments, suggestions and feedback to mediaunit-ssoa@sheffield.ac.uk. We want to continually enhance this platform for future projects and exhibitions so your feedback is essential.

Thank you, and enjoy!

The Media Unit
Media Unit Manager for the Sheffield School of Architecture.