Young adults and adults with a physical disability in Salford are wanted to share their memories of hugs as part of a virtual reality project including ‘shawls’ for the audience to replicate the feeling of an embrace.
Eccles-based video and lighting designer Tracey Gibbs hopes to recreate the sensation of a hug through virtual reality and haptics – technology that stimulates the senses of touch and motion – which will be combined with Salfordians’ stories to make a moving virtual experience told through theatre puppetry.
Hugs are what many people say they have missed most during the long months of social distancing due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gibbs is seeking adults in Salford living alone between the age of 19 to 29 – and adults in Salford over 18 with a physical disability to contribute their stories.
Meanwhile she and her creative team have designed a shawl and are using air and haptics to replicate the feeling of an embrace.
She said: “We went through a whole lot of different things and ultimately there’s a lot of stuff that’s gone on with air, they do these pressure jackets for children and adults with autism which is compression, which makes you calm, a bit like a hug.
“At the moment, I’ve designed some bags which are going to be strategically placed on various parts of the back, around the sides and tops of the arms. We’re going to programme it so you watch, feel and hopefully it will make the person feel like they are being hugged.
“We’ve got to create this world to convince the person that they’re getting that hug. It really is the correlation between the physical and mental wellbeing and touch, and in particular the slow touch.”
The shawl is also being developed to be made accessible and environmentally friendly by using organic and sustainable materials.
Gibbs added: “If we can prove that it works [the air bags] the next stage would be bringing it into the game engine technology and we’re using programming that you use in theatre via code.”
She wants the Hoyo project to bring back the sensation of a hug and gather Salford residents to reinforce that the city is indeed built from communities full of love and determination.
“I’m a great believer that Salford is an independent state, just come and share the warmth of Salfordians, the humour and everything about Salfordians is a very particular thing and I just want to celebrate that and share the stories of Salford and to show that we care about each other,” she said.
Describing what a hug means to her, she said: “It’s one of the simplest most powerful human connections we have. It cements relationships, it creates relationships. They are just incredibly powerful. You don’t need words, it’s an international language.”
Previously winning an award for her video design in 2019, Gibbs will be using her excellence in the industry to create a storyline with puppets and VR acting out the memories provided by Salford residents.
She said: “We’re looking at the world of virtual reality, it absolutely fascinates me, it’s just another form of light and light is my thing, I’m obsessed with the imagery.
“My reason for choosing puppets is that I find they are so wonderful because they’re blank. You can put whoever you want onto them. There’s no gender, there’s no race, there’s no body size.
“At this stage it’s all very basic, in my original sketch the puppets are quite big and I’d love it eventually to be an extended reality so it would be a live performance that you could watch and just enjoy.”
“We’ve got a rough storyline of little two minute pieces, one’s being hugged by a child, the second is lovers and that’s going to have a bit of dancing, another one is going to be family and friends and that’s based on some stories of Salford terms, cuddles! And the fourth as it stands is based on my story of a hug of just humanness.
“We’ve had four interviews so far, unfortunately no one with a physical disability yet but we are not giving up!”
The idea for Hoyo came to her over the first UK lockdown.
She said: “I was basically sitting in a corner going oh woe is me, what are we going to do now? Then the sketch pad came out and next thing you know I’m drawing this thing and it’s got to be called Hoyo.
“I’d never put a VR headset on in my life, and it blew me away, I was astounded! The narrative, the world of opportunity of creation, that kind of started it off really.”
Another inspiration was the physical realisation of just how many people are missing hugs and experiencing ‘skin hunger’ in the pandemic.
“I think it was June 2020 when things got lifted a bit, and I’ve got a shoulder that doesn’t like to be a shoulder anymore so hugging it’s just not the same.
“I went down to see my mum in Birmingham and that was the first time I’d seen her and I couldn’t even give her a hug.”
She then went to read a report on loneliness in the pandemic from the UK Office for Statistics giving her the idea of creating a narrative based on this data.
The artist graduated from LIPA in 2019, with a degree in Theatre and Performance Technology, and getting back in touch with one of her alumnis who was having a hard time had painted an even bigger picture for her.
“Initially in my head I thought it was going to be older people, and it was weird, it’s the kids and physically disabled people. You’ve lost your peer structure, you’ve lost romance, it did, it really struck home,” she said.
Working through lockdown has posed some challenges to the team which has extended the research and development stage.
Most of the small but wonderful team with me on the #hoyo journey, a remote production meeting @ace_thenorth funded R&D we will bring you hug soon @jovanabackovic @crys_stew @s_gilmourdesign and our @LIPA_Alumni @EllieFergDesign @DatedRhyme #vr #haptics @BW_SciTech pic.twitter.com/eaDyHAX3nY
— traceygibbsuk (@traceygibbsuk) February 9, 2021
Gibbs said: “It’s like trying to work with your head in a bucket, most of the team are up here but the sound designer is in London.
“Interestingly enough it would have never have happened without Covid, I would have never gone into that world of VR.”
Hoyo has also brought many networking opportunities, including meeting two neuro scientists who introduced her to their research surrounding touch.
She said: “They discovered that the importance of touch is really new in science, the discovery of these special neurons, mostly on the hairless parts of our body like our backs.
“Those two guys are really excited about what I’m doing so that’s really cool because that gives me another tick to take us forward after the R and D.”
One has shared his research papers with Gibbs and her sound designer Jovana Backovic.
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For now the Hoyo project will continue its development and the team would appreciate any Salford residents within the target demographic to come forward and share their stories.
She said: “I would love by 2022 to be able to put in with a headset, some form of shawl that you can box up, post to your family or mate on the other side of the world or country and it will be a live delivered hug from that person, still with the puppets per say but they’d become avatars and you could live hook-up and it’s your hug.
“That’s the wonderful thing with the world of virtual reality, you can either be an observer or a participant and if you need that hug right now, you could go in and get it.”
You can also find out more about Gibbs and her Hoyo team through her website.