Leeds student Kayleigh Smyth on why you could soon 'visit' a music video, thanks to virtual reality

Imagine being able to ‘visit’ a pop video -  in the same way you might a park or a museum - and then being able to wander around and explore it. Leeds Beckett fine art student Kayleigh Smyth is a pioneer in the field and she’s even turning heads in Silicon Valley...

It’s 43 years since pop band Queen’s video for Bohemian Rhapsody changed the way people experienced music - today, it’s hard to conceive of a pop song without a video. Now, however, one Leeds fine art student could be about to cause a similar copernican shift.

Kayleigh Elizabeth Smyth, a final year student at Leeds Beckett University, is one of only a handful of pioneers in the world in creating virtual reality (VR) worlds - fully explorable spaces which are accessible via a VR headset.

Indeed, she’s already been commissioned by singer Hattie Briggs to produce the official pop video for her single Just Breathe (available to view on YouTube) and her efforts have even drawn the gaze of the cyberworld uberlords in Silicon Valley.

Leeds Beckett University student Kayleigh is using virtual reality to make music videos

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    The creators of Google-owned Tilt Brush, an application which lets the user ‘paint’ virtual worlds in which they can then spend time in, saw her work and gifted her a headset and she’s recently been in touch with Oculus, who make the hardware she prefers to use.

    What is she doing?

    For her final year project, she will be singing an original song (about VR), while playing an electric ukulele, all while wearing a VR headset to create a one-off, bespoke music video in a world she created.

    The 23-year-old, originally from Darlington, explains: “What I’m doing in terms of performance is unprecedented, because VR is so new, people are still exploring it. There’s only a handful of artists working in the area. I use a motion tracked headset and controllers to make my 3D environment. It’s a bit like stepping inside a computer screen. I then use the controllers to draw or paint in the air.”

    Leeds Beckett University student Kayleigh is using virtual reality to make music videos

    Kayleigh originally enrolled on a graphic design degree at the University of Leeds but dropped out in her second year - a big decision for her at the time - to begin again at Leeds Beckett, specialising in VR.

    “I struggled to fit into that course [at the University of Leeds] and it was a difficult decision to start again, because everyone was saying ‘why don’t you just finish it’ but for me, I think the whole point of going to university is all about innovation, to do something no-one has ever done before, I was interested in VR and I really wanted to get a high mark.”

    Even then, because the field of VR is so niche, it meant there were only a small number of academics working in the area with a solid grasp of what she was attempting to do. Still, that hasn’t stopped her being noticed.

    “Earlier this year I was really struggling to get people to understand how massive this is going to be in the future and I needed new kit, so I put a message out on twitter and the guy who made the Tilt Brush app - so, essentially god to me - responded. He was really impressed and basically said there’s a headset on its way. I was gobsmacked because they are quite costly.”

    Leeds Beckett University student Kayleigh is using virtual reality to make music videos

    Who is she working with?

    Still, even when she received the headset, she was initially unable to use it and had to buy a £600 graphics card for her computer. The investment has already more than paid for itself. Last year, she befriended pop artist Hattie Briggs (discovered by singer Alfie Boe) during a ‘house gig’.

    Kayleigh recalls: “A house gig is where an upcoming artist will perform in your house for free in return for accommodation. Hattie came to our house in Menston to do a gig and we got talking over breakfast about what I do and she said it would be amazing if I could do a video for her song, Just Breathe. I was really pleased to work with her. In some ways, I can’t believe it, I haven’t even finished uni and I’ve made a music video. It’s crazy.”

    Kayleigh, the eldest of five, says she moved to Leeds because it offered the perfect mix of city life, while still not being too big.

    To create the virtual world for the music video, she spent over 50 hours ‘painting’ using virtual brushes. Now she has plans to expand her universe.

    “I’d love to do more videos. Just Breathe is like an island, it’s its own little world. So, theoretically, we could make another song, another video and that would exist in the same universe, so essentially you could visit the song as if it were a place.”

    Virtual reality in the future...

    The concept is, she admits, a little mind-boggling but she believes it will become the norm in the near future.

    “You can already get VR videos on YouTube but the idea that you can go somewhere, to a place which someone else created, and then come back, is amazing. The same technology is already being used by the medical profession and also to treat phobias.” On that, she’s even discovered one she never knew she had. “It’s not something I experience in real life but in VR, I found I have megalophobia, which is the fear of gigantic things. When you are in a VR environment, it’s not like GTA [blockbuster console game Grand Theft Auto] where everything is like it is in reality. Instead, you come across huge objects and it can be quite scary.”

    But she’s not fazed by the scale of the possibilities.

    “You are in a different reality so everything is spontaneous, you don’t know what you will get when you are in there. I never plan anything when I’m in VR. I would love to do a more extensive environment, where you discover things along the way.”

    Recently, she’s been concentrating on her ‘degree show’, which will combine many (but not all) of her talents - she’s also an avid skateboarder and a member of the Leeds-based urban collective Rolling With The Girls, based in Hyde Park.

    Kayleigh adds: “I’m so excited about it and about working in the field in the future and I’d love to work with industry leaders and other artists.”

    Principal lecturer in art, course director in graphic design at Leeds Beckett University’s

    School of Art, Architecture and Design, Ian Truelove, says: “Although the term 'virtual reality' wasn't coined until 1989, head-mounted displays similar the today's VR headsets have been in use by the military since the late 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, artists such as Jeffrey Shaw and Charlotte Davies started to explore the artistic possibilities of VR, but it's only in the last few years that VR headsets (and computers powerful enough to make them work) have become cheap enough to be purchased by Fine Art courses like the one that Kayleigh studies on at Leeds Beckett."

    Read his full interview here.

    Contact Kayleigh:-

    Instagram: @kayleigh_eliza_art

    Twitter: @kayleigh_eliza_