Community spotlight: François Garnier

Researcher in spatial media & film director.

To coincide with the Virtuality event happening in Paris this month, we spoke to François Garnier – a leading name in digital media and creation, and one of the first computer graphics artists in France. Now a researcher in spatial media and a film director, he tells us about the creative applications of virtual reality and immersive experiences, and what the future might have in store for virtual reality.

Nia Cason: Great to meet you François. Could you introduce yourself in a few words?

François Garnier: I’m François Garnier and I live in Paris. I’m a film director and a media designer, and a specialist in immersive format and virtual reality. I’m also professor at EnsadLab, the research laboratory of École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where I’m the head of research for the Spatial Media research group.

NC: What is your background and how did you become interested in virtual reality?

FG: I was initially trained in sculpture and also studied technology – so when I saw the first 3D computer in ’84 and began to learn how it worked, my choice to move into this area was natural. I began working on things like TV animation. Slowly, I moved to fiction, working on some feature films and some animation films. I was always a bit frustrated with the fact that we were working on 3D things and yet the picture was flat, and so I was interested in a way to feel the space and sense of depth through stereoscopy and interaction. I became a specialist in large-format IMAX 3D, 4D theatre, and interactive installations for museums and theme parks. Stereoscopy was also the subject of my doctoral thesis. And so naturally, when I saw the first possibility to interact in virtual space, I found it very interesting.

NC: Is there a film you’ve worked on people might have seen?

FG: One example – I was the 3D advisor for the director Wim Wenders on the film Pina, which is a German 3D documentary film about the choreographer Pina Bausch. It was nominated for the Oscars in 2012. And so now I divide my time between working in film and in research.

NC: So EnsadLab research lab is at the interface of art and technology?

FG: Completely, humanities and technology. Years ago, the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs called me to guide and advise student projects in computer graphics. And for the last 10 or 12 years, we’ve been running a doctoral program there – amazingly, it was the first art school in France that offered a research doctoral program about art practices.

Creating this new research groupe was very interesting to me, because it explores the spatial medium. A media can be defined by its materials and dimensions of expression. In the case of the VR, this includes the digital support and 3 spatial dimensions plus time. The last time we saw this type of spatial transformation in art was the evolution of photography into cinema. One important difference with the cinema example is that artists now have a medium that uses the same geometrical level as our perception – with VR, for the first time, artists can work on a medium in 3D that also includes time. As humans, we perceive things in time and space, not time in pictures. So now, with these tools, we can express ourselves in the same dimensionality that our perception works in. Of course, this can also cause confusion between reality and virtual environments. This is what we’re researching in my lab. 

NC: Could you tell me about Virtuality, which is happening at the end of this month?

FG: It’s an international tradeshow about virtual reality and immersive technologies that will take place in Paris. It’s basically a place that people in the industry can present their work, there’s demos, conferences, and it keeps people up to speed with technological developments.

NC: What are you going to be talking about at the Virtuality event?

FG: I will present a virtual reality tool we’ve developed called Tamed Cloud. The idea is based around two concepts of presence that contribute to spatial embodiment and agentivity. The sensation of presence in VR space is how you feel the presence of both yourself and the virtual objects, which comes from the fact that you are surrounded by objects that have a real distance – you can put your arm out and touch them, for example. Agentivity presence is how much you can interact and act in the VR space. Filling the space and being able to act within it makes the experience more real.  We’ve also spoken with cognitive scientists on the concept of embodiment and how you react with information. A large part of that is the way the brain works when processing abstract information versus information that you can touch. For example, you can remember thousands of objects in your apartment just by thinking about it, but you can’t do this with a list of items on your computer desktop, for example. And that’s not so much visual memory than it is spatial. Some things can only be expressed in relationship with space and the presence of objects.

We asked, can we use this ability of the brain when in VR space? Can we use VR to organise and process this information? For example, you might want to work with a look book; VR space allows you to explore images and filter images in virtual space, so that you have all the information in front of you. In previous years, you could put all the photos in front of you and make creative decisions by looking at everything altogether. Now that everything’s digital, this isn’t really possible. So we created this tool to take back control of this creative process. For example, we can take 500 pictures that are connected to an artist, and we think of this corpus of pictures as a cloud of birds. We consider them as a group of living data (the images), and this then gives you the possibility to organise the images and data around you in a more visceral way.


NC: Does Tamed Cloud have applications outside of art and creation?

FG: A lot of people from different markets were interested by our approach. It could also be good for anyone with lots of data, including in the field of medicine, museums that want to show the public their archives, for example, and also those in research. This tool would allow people to have a more global perspective, and to see the bigger picture.

A big challenge now is to understand what we can say, how we can say that, and the transfer of information between the spectator and the technology. An important aspect is to put humans at the centre of VR experiences; humans mustn’t think like computers – computers are not there to replace human thought, they must remain a tool at the service of human thought and creativity.



NC: What advice do you have for those who want to get involved in your research field?

FG: They need to be curious of everything, and they need to experiment. We always ask our doctoral students in art and design to conduct art experimentation, which they need to consider as science experimentation. You have a concept, you develop it, and you test it. It’s difficult if you’re an artist, but it’s also important to look at your work with a critical eye.

NC: What does the future hold for VR and immersive experiences?

In terms of technology, I think we already have all the basic technical aspects in place. Slowly, the VR headsets will get smaller, and the interfaces will be your actual hand and not a captor, but that won’t completely change the experience. The issue now is to examine how it works, what it does to the user, what the quality of the experience is, and how to design this experience. In the cinema example, after the very first film, it took more than 30 years for cinematography to become a mature mode of expression. There is technological time and human time – so it will certainly take us another 20 years before we understand everything we can do with VR.