From left: Lim Yan Bing, Carla Castle, Angelina Ang and Lionel Fong.
Earlier in November, Year 2 and 3 BA (Hons) Arts Management students from LASALLE boarded a plane to Busan. But rather than fleeing a zombie apocalypse, Lim Yan Bing, Carla Castle, Angelina Ang and Lionel Fong were instead representing Singapore in the finals of the ASEAN-ROK Youth Metaverse Idea Contest focusing on cultural heritage.
The contest was open to teams across ASEAN nations, and challenged participants to come up with proposals that integrated extended reality (XR) technology with cultural heritage and tourism. Following a series of online lectures and activities in August, the LASALLE quartet emerged amongst the top five of the 48 teams who participated, clinching their place in the finals with their idea to use immersive technologies to juxtapose tangible and intangible cultural heritage side by side, so as to showcase the cultures of indigenous communities in their entirety.
As Yanbing explains, the team pushed for a ‘win-win’ scenario for all stakeholders involved. “By removing physical barriers [through the use of VR], the public can now get up close with the artefacts, forging an emotional connection with the heritage of these communities,” she points out. “And whilst the use of tech caters to the general public’s experience, we wanted the idea to also bring about more collaborative opportunities between museums, heritage institutions and these communities.”
Experiencing space buddha in a 1,000-year-old grotto
In Busan, the finalists were whisked off by contest co-organisers Busan IT Industry Promotion Agency (BIPA) on a series of tours and lectures.
One notable stop was the visit to the coastal city of Gyeongju, which is colloquially referred to as ‘the museum without walls’, due to its abundance of Unesco World Heritage Sites. In Gyeongju, participants were treated to several novel integrations of heritage and XR technologies.
Recounts Carla, “At the Seokguram Grotto VR experience, we were taken through a gamified experience of the UNESCO Heritage Site. In that experience, we were sent into fantastical environments, the most amusing one being the Buddha Statue in Space. It was really fun, and helped to give a different perspective on the heritage site.”
For Angelina, the trip helped to soften the tech-sceptic in her. “Before the contest, I had always been interested in technology and how it could be used to improve experiences and help us connect with people and art. But with the implementations that I have seen in galleries and art experiences, I remained sceptical that technology could deliver as much as it promised. This experience definitely gave me a new perspective on the possibilities of the metaverse and XR technologies.”
However, the risk of chasing novelty for its own sake also opened up further questions. “While it was clear how such technology could be adapted in the context of culture and heritage, as arts managers we have to ask if art actually benefits from such technologies,” Angelina pointed out.
Teammate Lionel concurs. “We need to find meaning in why we are doing a particular XR implementation and whether or not this technology is actually suitable for the stories that we are trying to tell.”
The field trips to cultural sites were complemented by guest lecturers such as archaeologist Dr Kim Yong Jun, who did a deep dive into Korea’s approach to their cultural heritage industries. “As many of us are more interested in intangible cultural heritage, learning about the preservation of tangible cultural heritage from an archaeologist was a refreshing experience,” says Carla.
What was intriguing to the students was how technology was seen in Korea as a new way to generate revenue for the cultural industries by increasing audience engagement. It also cultivated a sense of excitement in how far the Singapore heritage sector could be further enriched.
“What I loved about Korea’s perspective was that the culture and heritage sector made things very fun for the audiences,” reflects Carla. “It had a very low barrier to participation, making it easy for anyone to enjoy themselves. In the past, I admit I was more adverse to XR technology, especially with its many ethical concerns. But this trip made me feel excited to play with them, and see the possibilities that can come out of experimenting their use in my practice.”
The friends made along the way
While Team Cú Mèo from Vietnam ultimately took home top honours in the contest, Team LASALLE are pleased with their showing, proving that arts management students can more than hold their own against teams from computing backgrounds. “Given that the competition targeted IT and media students, we already felt like winners for making it into the final round,” Carla muses.
The grit displayed by the team in juggling their studies and the competition is something that Angelina also takes pride in. “I am so fortunate to be surrounded by friends who work well together and motivate each other to give our best. I admire the passion and drive we all showed in the lessons and challenges in Singapore and until the end of the presentation in Busan.”
The congenial atmosphere of the competition also meant that plenty of friendships were forged amongst the ASEAN students as they exchanged personal stories from their home countries. “Speaking to the other participants from Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia gave me a deeper understanding of one another’s countries, culture and heritage,” Lionel recounts.
Similarly, Yanbing found the cross-cultural exchanges meaningful, noting that the conversations highlighted “insightful explorations of the different perspectives, identifying both the commonalities and differences of priorities in the different countries” regarding their cultural heritage efforts.
All in all, the competition has been an odyssey that will not be soon forgotten. Says Angelina, “The ROK Metaverse Ideation Contest has been a surreal journey that delivered more than I imagined when I signed up in August. The people we have met, and friends we made in Busan will last a lifetime.”
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