How we made ‘Curious Alice’ a (virtual) reality: part one

Digital Media
December 7, 2020

Curious Alice, the V&A’s first full-scale trip into virtual reality, is finally here! This is a major moment for the museum – and for Alice fans everywhere – as we launch our own virtual re-imagining of Wonderland, extending Alice’s adventures in a new digital dimension.

Screenshot from Curious Alice, The Queen's Croquet Garden
Still from Curious Alice, ‘The Queen’s Croquet Ground’, featuring original artwork by Kristjana S Williams, 2020

From the word go, Curator Kate Bailey wanted to feature VR within the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition. She explains, “Since their creation the Alice books, with their mind-blowing ideas and concepts, have been a source of inspiration for new technologies from silent film to CGI.” In his own lifetime, Carroll was fascinated with creating games, solving puzzles and manipulating logic, “not unlike a twenty-first-century game designer working in algorithms and code”.

Happily, HTC VIVE Arts, whose mission is to enable cultural heritage through digital innovation, came onboard as exhibition sponsor and official virtual reality partner. For us as a Digital Media team, this was a fantastic opportunity to shape a digital experience in a new dimension, using emerging technology to push the boundaries of traditional storytelling.

Testing Curious Alice in a VR headset
Testing Curious Alice in VR. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We teamed up with immersive games designers PRELOADED who had previously done amazing things with the Tate Modern on Modigliani: The Ochre Atelier VR experience, to join us on this exciting creative journey down the rabbit hole. Our initial aim was to create a 5-minute VR installation via headsets within the gallery that would enrich the exhibition experience. There was plenty to consider: narrative, tone, interactivity, aesthetic, audio, UX, and how the virtual environment would mesh with the physical exhibition space. V&A colleagues from Interpretation, Curatorial and AV joined us at PRELOADED’s office for our first (and what would prove to be our last, due to COVID-19) in-person concepting session, sat around a table armed with post-its and snacks.

Post-it notes from Curious Alice concepting session
Curious Alice concepting session with PRELOADED

Together with PRELOADED, we matched key themes and characters from Lewis Carroll’s story with the mind-bending possibilities of VR, to design an experience that would give the user agency, allowing them to step into Alice’s shoes, and reward curiosity, exploration and imagination. We wanted to play with scale and perception, exploiting the discombobulating sensation you get from falling, shrinking or growing – so central to Alice’s adventure in Wonderland – in VR (but without inducing vertigo!)

(Left) Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel, 1866, p.15. National Art Library. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (Right) Concept sketch for Curious Alice.

Narratively, we wanted to reflect the books’ themes of self-discovery and empowerment, pitting our player against the Red Queen in a bonkers game of hedgehog croquet. Visually, we wanted the experience to be an artistic reimagining of Wonderland, one that embraced the playful quirkiness of Lewis Carroll’s Victorian imagination.

A paper peepshow expanded and the view inside
‘Perspectivische Ansicht des Tunnel unter der Themse’, paper peepshow (left image) showing top and bottom views (right images), about 1835, Germany. Museum no. Gestetner 118. Photography: Dennis Crompton

That’s where artist Kristjana S. Williams came in. Her eye-popping artworks combine layers of digital collage and Victorian engravings to create richly populated landscapes, full of hidden details. In fact, Kristjana’s work is directly inspired by the V&A’s own collection of ‘paper peepshows’, 19th-century optical toys, which, like the virtual reality of their day, expand to create an illusion of depth which the viewer can get lost in.

Illustration of the Queen's Croquet Ground from Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser
Original illustration of the Queen’s Croquet Garden by Kristjana S. Williams
kristjana S Williams' illustrations for Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser
Creating the illustrations for Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser

Exploring this link between Victorian and ultra-contemporary optical technologies was irresistible. We had already commissioned Kristjana to create a suite of Alice illustrations for our exhibition book, and so it made complete sense to build on these for our immersive experience.

Screenshot from Curious Alice, the Queen's Croquet Graden
Still from Curious Alice, ‘The Queen’s Croquet Ground’, featuring original artwork by Kristjana S Williams, 2020

The next challenge was how to go about transforming Kristjana’s ‘flat’ artworks into a 3D, 360 degree world, full of objects, characters, gestures and interactions. You can hear more on that in part two, when PRELOADED’s Jon Caplin talks about the creative challenges and technical solutions we encountered in Wonderland, and how the global pandemic prompted us to create a downloadable version of Curious Alice, extending Alice’s adventure across two additional interactive chapters: the White Rabbit’s House and a Psychedelic Mushroom Field.

If you can’t wait for the exhibition to open next March, anyone with a VR headset can now download Curious Alice through VIVEPORT, priced at £4, and embark on their own curious adventure from home!

About the author

Digital Media
December 7, 2020

I've created digital content for the exhibitions 'Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion', 'Ocean Liners: Speed and Style', 'Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up' and 'FOOD: Bigger than the Plate'.

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