All kitted out for the Virtual Reality experience

I've been to another world! It's probably the closest I'll ever get to time travel...

...Thresholds is the brainchild of artist Mat Collishaw who's recreated the world's first public exhibition of photographs in Virtual Reality (VR). Lacock Abbey is a fitting venue seeing it's where the creator of those images - Fox Talbot - lived and many of the photographs he exhibited in 1839 were of the Abbey or plants in his garden.

Here you can see me all kitted up with battery back pack, wired for sound via the headphones, and peering into the blue screen of the VR headset. National Trust volunteer Bill is ready to guide me into the room where the action takes place... to take me over the threshold as it were.

Mat Collishaw in the room where his virtual world is created

Artist Mat Collishaw poses in the room where the VR magic happens. Before you get to this point you're guided up a slope and just as you enter the room, the screen suddenly changes from blue to another world. The room's layout is synchronised with the virtual one; get it wrong and I'd probably try to walk through those cases you can see.

A lot of work was needed to get to this point. Unlike some art, Mat had to assemble a team of experts to help him achieve the piece he'd envisaged. Funding had to be found too, with some it realised via Kickstarter. The video Mat produced for his funding appeal is an excellent introduction to the work.

If the embedded video doesn't work try this link instead.

Overhead view of the Virtual world

The screen outside the room shows an overhead view of the VR world I saw. The white cabinets now contain objects at the forefront of technology in 1839. Mice scuttle across the floor, a fire crackles in the hearth (an electric fire in reality), moths dance around the candles, and sounds can be heard beyond the windows. Go to the window and you can see people outside.

Fox Talbot's photos are now on display in the cabinets and by VR magic you can pick them up for a closer view. When I looked down my feet had disappeared, but if I held my arms out in front of me, a ghostly almost skeletal version appeared. Now I could hold my hand over the cabinet, turn it over and my selected picture magically popped up for me to look at.

The white 'blotches' you can see on the screen are two things... the one in the corner is a 'null point' where a National Trust volunteer can stand ready to help. The one by the cabinet is a person with a VR headset. When I was in the room I could see ghostly shapes of the other people in there so I could avoid bumping into them. Mat Collishaw says there's a third 'blotch' in the VR machine, which he claims is a ghost, possibly of Fox Talbot himself, though he said this with a twinkle in his eye.

Experiencing the virtual reality world

This photo was taken looking into the VR room from the window outside. When inside, this window becomes a portrait of King Edward VI. It's a reference to the original exhibition held at King Edward's School in Birmingham, which was founded by King Edward VI. Look at the portrait at the right time and a spider dangles down!

Why the 'glass' cases? There'd been Chartist riots in Birmingham in the weeks leading up to the exhibition and Fox Talbot was worried their actions would extend to and damage his work. As a result he asked for display cases to protect his fragile exhibits.

King Edward's School was demolished in the 1930s and replaced with an Odeon cinema which is still there today. It seems the site was fated to go from hosting the first public display of photographs, then go on to house the next major development; moving pictures. I wonder what's next?

Scene of the world's first photograph from a negative
Scene of the world's first photograph from a negative - as lit for Illuminating Lacock Abbey in 2014

Some post-view thoughts

You may think I've shown you far too much of Thresholds for it to have any impact if you go to see it. I worried about that too, but there's nothing you can do to prepare for the surprise of that sudden switch into the virtual world. This is probably the closest we can get to seeing and feeling the excitement of those visitors to the original exhibition. It was so good, just like a child I wanted to go round again. My wish was granted.

What would Fox Talbot think? Could he have imagined how his images would inspire and develop into today's cutting edge technology? And how different would Thresholds be if Fox Talbot had been good at drawing? Describing his efforts on honeymoon in 1833 as "woeful to behold" he claimed it was this moment which led to his experiments with silver nitrate and paper.

I was intrigued Thresholds may end up in a vault somewhere (or maybe in the virtual cloud?), just like Fox Talbot's original photographs from 1839. Fast forward another 175 years... will we still have the technology to view Thresholds? Will VR be part of our everyday lives? Those thoughts give me goosebumps.

Thanks to Lacock Abbey for inviting me to the preview of this must-see experience.

Practical information

The VR equipment in close up

Thresholds is on view at Lacock Abbey until October 29th 2017. A 15 minute slot for your visit must be be booked via the website - 12 people maximum per slot. Tickets cost £4 on top of usual entry fees and the actual VR experience lasts 6 minutes. There is a short introduction plus some interpretation material to look at outside the VR room. Watching others in the room and their reactions is quite entertaining.

Thresholds then moves on to the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford later this year. After that who knows? Mat told me there are a few options in the pipeline, possibly abroad. Until that happens storage for the piece has to be found.

I do not claim to have perfected an art but to have commenced one, the limits of which it is not possible at present exactly to ascertain ~ Henry Fox Talbot.

You may also like

Here's a more technical write-up of Thresholds from the two people I photographed in the exhibit.

Mat Collishaw gave a presentation on his artistic process for Thresholds at July's Association for Photography in Higher Education’s summer conference. NB the video lasts just over 36 minutes.

If the embedded video doesn't work try this link instead.

Review from The Guardian of the inaugural showing at Somerset House. The Times described Thresholds as "genius".

Lacock Abbey are brilliant at putting together an events programme worthy of the home of photography. Here's my look at anthotypes earlier this year, a technique from Fox Talbot's time, courtesy of artist in residence Nettie Edwards.


  1. Ooh, I want to go! I wonder if it would be accessible enough for me (not sure I could take weight of back-pack, or cope if back-pack has picked up scent from other visitors). But I love Fox Talbot's photos - we have a print of one on the wall over our stairs, bought on one of our previous visits to Lacock.

    1. I really hope it is accessible enough for you Juliet. I found the back-pack isn't too heavy... though it would be worth checking how they deal with the headset and earphones between each visitor. I reckon these might be more of an issue re perfume - either from e.g. shampoo, or how they're sanitising each set. Worth giving them a call to find out?


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