How do you tell a first-person story about a tree? How do you give its wordless life a narrative, or explore its timeless inner world? Treehugger: Wahoma is an attempt to do just that for the giant sequoia. The exhibition, which launched recently at London's Southbank Centre, mashes together virtual reality, data visualization, and installation art into one poignant, breathtaking experience, transporting participants through the nervous system of a 3,500-year-old redwood—one of the world's largest living creatures, by volume.
"We've heard the experience isn't that different from like, doing mushrooms."
Treehugger was created by Marshmallow Laser Feast, an interactive creative studio based in London. The experience begins in a small studio space, containing a single, fabric-covered column that stands in the middle of the darkened room. The name of the exhibition only makes sense once visitors don their HTC Vive VR headsets: In virtual reality, the dark column suddenly blooms into a magical, multihued sequoia before visitors' eyes.
In appearance, this virtual sequoia is stylized to resemble a sequoia you might find illustrated on some biology class blackboard, perhaps with a box of fluorescent chalk. Eddies of colorful lines diffuse through the soil, whorl through the air, and spread up through the trunk—a visualization of the surprisingly complex networks that cohabit a sequoia's invisible micro-ecosystem. Soon, a thunderstorm bursts overhead, denuding the sequoia and its soil with rain. As the drops patter around you, you can actually see the sequoia's subterraneous root structures swell and throb, sucking up the moisture and drawing it skyward through its trunk.
Physically hugging the tree begins an even trippier journey. By pressing your head into a knot in the sequoia, you can become a part of this suddenly visible lymphatic system, carried up with the water into the sequoia's canopy. From there, viewers are shrunk down to the size of molecules, droplets of water in the mineral mist breathed forth from a sequoia's uppermost branches. "We've heard the experience isn't that different from like, doing mushrooms," laughs Ersinhan Ersin, creative director at Marshmallow Laser Feast.
The process of designing Treehugger began last year, after Marshmallow Laser Feast completed work on In the Eyes of the Animal, an award-winning VR experience that let participants explore real forests through the eyes of the creatures that live there. Like Treehugger, In the Eyes of the Animal attempted to give people a new way to explore the natural world, but Marshmallow Laser Feast wanted to figure out a way to create a similar experience that could exist indoors (In the Eyes of the Animal involved installing and operating VR headsets in live forests).
The real-world component of Treehugger is more abstract than it was In the Eyes of the Animal, but no less important. The physical column in the middle of the room gives participants something to physically interact with as they explore the virtual sequoia. And since a sequoia can be hundreds of feet tall, Ersin says that being able to grab the column has an important secondary purpose: This real-world physical interaction helps prevent VR vertigo as participants travel up the trunk.
Eventually, Marshmallow Laser Feast hopes to do around half a dozen different Treehugger "chapters," each one exploring a different kind of tree. The end goal, says Ersin, is to use virtual reality as a way to connect people with the natural world, and prod them toward conservation efforts. "When most people look at trees, they don't necessarily see them as being as alive, because they move and grow so much more slowly than we do," Ersin says. "We're trying to give people a new perception of trees as creatures just as vibrant and alive as we are."