You can’t try this at home, even if you wanted to. Today’s premiere of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier exhibit proved there are vivid opportunities for a third kind of virtual reality beyond tethered and mobile: VR installations. Outside the headset, custom art and physical effects set the scene before you enter, deepen the immersion while you’re enveloped in VR, and cement the memory after you emerge.
This is the evolution of VR. Head-mounted TV screens gave way to motion tracking and the ability to walk around. Haptic controllers let us see and feel our hands. But now vibrating suits, elaborate settings, fantastical props, projections, augmented reality, and scenes you act out push VR experiences into meatspace.
Here’s how the next generation of story tellers are putting the reality back in virtual reality.
Crystal Vibes, Rez Infinite, and the full-body Synesthesia Suit
The most visceral collision of VR and our traditional plane of existence comes from strapping a jumpsuit covered in 26 vibrating actuators to your body. Suddenly, you can feel what you see and hear with much more articulation than two haptic controllers can offer.
Designed by a Japanese media lab team and Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the Synesthesia Suit is too expensive to sell, but perfect for an exhibition like Sundance where two games built for the suit are on display.
15 year ago, Mizuguchi made a single “trance vibrator” accessory for his Sega DreamCast game Rez. The new sequel Rez Infinite from Enhance Games sees you flying through cyberspace to a pounding techno soundtrack you can feel all over your skin. You shoot down viruses and soar past shimmering polygons, with your success or failure made much more consequential through the suit’s force feedback.
Rez Infinite player wearing the Synesthesia Suit
For a less frenetic but wildly psychedelic introduction to virtual synesthesia, Dr. Benjamin Outran designed Crystal Vibes. “What’s beyond virtuality reality are these embodied experiences, not just for your eyes or ears but your whole body” Outran tells me.
Colored orbs of every color sprawl out in all directions, like the The Matrix’s “guns, lots of guns” construct scene mixed with the Yellow Submarine and a sizable dose of acid. You can squeeze and bat around jello bubbles that satisfyingly ripple through your suit.
“People want to experience things they’ve not experienced before” Outran tells me. “Maybe it’s a cheap and easy way to do it, but just to overwhelm people’s senses with bright colors and synesthesia is one way to achieve that goal.”
While both Rez Infinite and Crystal Vibes are rather blunt assaults, Outran believes with time, artists will find ways to be “subtle” with haptic feedback to create “more mature” narratives.
Synesthesia Suit diagram
Tree, AfroFeminism, Life Of Us, and VR as theater
Teleporting your brain to a VR dimension can feel so jarring that you don’t acclimate to your new reality before it concludes. So just like you might read a book or use a Night Shift red light filter on your phone to get in the mood for bed, VR creators are seeking to put you in the right mindset before strapping your face to a screen. Then, using physical effects, artists can fool more of your senses into feeling present somewhere else.
In Tree, you start your experience by planting a real seed in a box of soil. Inside the headset while wearing a subwoofer backpack, you become that seed, watching and feeling as you grow from beneath the ground and sprout into a rain forest sapling. As you burst above the canopy, a real-world fan blows cold air in your face, simulating the foggy sky you’re entering. But as humans invade the forest, chainsaws buzz and fires blaze until you see yourself topple while a haptic floor shakes your legs, nay roots.
What you grow into, first-person, in Tree
Once you remove your head gear, you find a light projection of the tree you became has blossomed from where you placed your seed at the start. I watched one woman come out of VR crying, having so fully identified with the now fallen tree, because as Outran described, “Vibration has a very powerful effect on empathy.”
You’re even given another seed to take home. “We really like the idea of planting the seed. Then people have an amount of responsibility” says Tree co-creator Winslow Porter. “When they get the seed back, it becomes something you can take with you to always remind you of being in the experience.”
First you plant a real seed in real soil, then you virtually grow into a tree, and finally you see a light projection of your tree growing out of the seed.
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism builds a whole physical set to convince you that you’re actually in a space-age hair salon. A team of black engineers, scientists, and architects known as Hyphen Labs built functional products that hang on the walls, like sunscreen for high-melanin skin, and a ScatterViz hater-blocking visor you can see out of but others can’t see in.
Once you’re accustomed to the scene, you sit in the stylist’s chair and dive into VR where you find yourself in a similarly decorated digital cosmetologist office. There you’re steeped in black communal knowledge in a future where the First Amendment has been revoked, before having your brain cleaned so you can better battle against cognitive tyrrany. Back in the real world, you can peruse neurocognitive impact research in the salon to keep up that fight in the present, and leave with some tasty little “brain candy”.
Co-creator Ashley Vaccus Clark tells me NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is modular and can be presented purely as an in-headset art piece without the physical objects and education. But she notes that “Virtual reality is a place that’s so new that having the tangible products in front you gives you a deeper experience”.
Along with casting the audience into a VR theater, creators are also giving them these ad hoc actors their own audience. Most virtual reality apps are boring if you’re not the one in the headset. But to propel the medium into the mainstream, and make installation VR more suitable for public exhibition, there must be a communal consumption element.
Chris Milk, the VR director and creative visionary who leads Within (and formerly VRSE), has divided his Sundance display for Life Of Us into three rooms. Participants in two separate VR cubicles experience the evolution of humans from protozoa to tadpole, dinosaur to gorilla, and office worker to cyborg. The whimsical first-person journey lets you frantically wave and gesture to each other, and even talk, with software modulating your voice to sound like a watery sea creature or Daft Punk robot.
But what’s special is that when you emerge, you join a crowd watching the scenes replayed in third-person from two black-and-white projectors flanking a massive egg. If you frantically tore attacking monkeys off your body or expressed your inner android dancer to an original song by Pharrell, you get to see those actions on screen while the audience giggles.
After acting in Life Of Us, you join the crowd to watch your performance on giant projector screens
“Traditional media is all about a story teller recounting a tale that we’re witness to” says Milk, but that can isolating in a VR. He railed against how at most virtual reality exhibits “You have bunch of black boxes with black headsets inside. “We’re trying to build something more communal with people gathering around it.”
Heroes mixes VR with AR
What stole the show at Sundance New Frontier was a single art piece that begins in VR, then opens up into augmented reality using the Microsoft HoloLens. It demonstrates how multiple mediums can be combined to provide a more robust set of perspectives on a theme.
Set to the David Bowie song of the same name, Heroes puts you on a VR stage with two acroyoga dancers lifting and climbing each other before they grow to Godzilla-size to spread love through the city. You’re then placed into a specially-adorned HoloLens, which projects graphics on its clear visor so they seem to appear in the real world around you.
Your faithful author wearing the HoloLens in Heroes’ custom-decorated set
As you walk around a custom designed room of props, palm-sized versions of the same dancers prance in the air and strut through digital dioramas of an opera hall. Each time you say aloud “And then”, the dancers dissolve and appear in another corner of the room, fostering a sense of exploration.
“The most exciting thing about AR is it’s giving us the ability to put ourselves back in our bodies” says Heroes’ creative director Melissa Painter. Music exists purely in our mind. Films subjugate our bodies, demanding silence as we sit motionless in a dark room. And VR prevents us from even seeing our physical form. But AR places us, not an avatar of us or a character we wish we were, at center stage. When mixed with VR, we can achieve both a complete fantasy and the seeping of that fantasy into our own reality, like a dream followed by a hallucination.
Heroes’ dancers appear life-size or enormous in VR, then palm-size in AR
New Frontier‘s chief curator Shari Frilot calls this year’s New Frontier exhibition “Humanity 3.0”, juxtaposing it against the presidential inauguration as as “another story of how the future could unfold.”
No one at New Frontier, or Sundance, is really talking about what’s going on in Washington. There’s a hope that art can be an escape, but also that the creative community will band together now more than ever to lend insight and context to current events. For some artists that means mimicking the effects of drugs or reimagining our progress as a species, while others seek to reveal grim truths by giving us a different set of eyes.
What’s so striking about the rise of VR installation art is how it exposes the limitations of our ability to manipulate atoms, which can’t keep up with our growing mastery of bits.
In a darkened building in snowy northern Utah, a quaint moss wall and tiny flower bed strive to ready us to be a Tree. Then we slip on the headset and our whole field of vision is consumed by the rainforest. A synesthesia suit’s vibrations on our body feel like physical noise until they’re synced with imaginary sound and vision.
Just a few years ago, it was the Halloween haunted house or an immersive play like Sleep No More — full of actors and props with no screens in view — that most vividly transported our minds and bodies. Now, the whole history of theater and performance art have become merely accompaniments that make the virtual world a little more real.