SXSW: Hands-On with Temporal World and From The Main Square
My time at SXSW is over, but I still want to write a few articles about what I tried there. And today I want to write a short post about two experiences that I’ve tried in the XR Showcase area: Temporal World and From The Main Square.
Temporal World: A Virtual Reality Memory Experience
I got curious to try “Temporal World: A Virtual Reality Memory Experience” because I saw its booth featuring a room with some light projections and the people inside wearing a weird jacket. Since I like strange things, I decided to go in.
The artist behind the experience, Chloé Lee, greeted me and after having said me a few words about the experience, she started to put on me this strange jacket made of fabric. This operation took her a bit more than expected, but that was ok, so I could savor a bit more the moment. She told me that the jacket was a haptic device that was custom-made by her... she wasn’t using any kind of off-the-shelf hardware like bHaptics. I always like when people experiment and try to do stuff by themselves, so I appreciated her effort. After the jacket was on me, and I looked like a weird guy from the middle ages, I entered the room. Chloé put a Quest headset on me and explained to me how to use the experience, then everything started.
Me wearing the haptic jacket at the booth of the experience
The experience started with something that resembled a point cloud scanned from an office where Chloé was sitting down on a chair. Touching something, I was teleported to a black space, where inside there was another more abstract environment made of a point cloud, too. I started moving using a combination of room scale and teleportation. The teleportation could be triggered by putting my two hands one next to the other, while making the thumbs and the indices of the two hands to touch, and then flicking at the same time the two indices so that they touched the two thumbs. It was a quite creative way to provide teleportation, but maybe a UX designer could have helped the artist in finding a better way of offering it, like the one used in Oculus First Hands. This method was unreliable (not always my action was properly detected), and quite tiresome to perform (imagine raising your hands in front of your headset and making a proper gesture every time you want to teleport), so in the end I suffered from the gorilla-arm syndrome.
The environment around me was visually interesting and presented background sound and vibration. The more I moved fast, the more the point cloud that depicted the environment shook violently, and the more the sound was strong, and the vibration of the haptic suit was strong, too. To appreciate what was around me I had to pause or move slowly, so that the particles of the point cloud returned to the original position, to compose different spaces. I could wave my hands at the various colored points, and they would move following the direction of my hand, emitting sounds and vibrations. While I walked and visited these places, the whole environment around me started destroying, until everything was black and the final credits appeared.
The experience was visually nice, and I liked the idea of combining a point cloud with sounds and vibrations. I like also the idea of interconnecting everything with the locomotion. In general, I’ve found the experience interesting for the technologies used (including the hand-made haptic vest). I would have probably chosen a different UX for the movements and a different jacket for the haptics (I mean, bHaptics is pretty affordable…), but for the rest, it was ok.
But I’m the average Joe, and at the end of the experience I was like “Ok, but what the hell does it mean?”. Since I’m pretty shameless about my ignorance in the field of art, I looked the artist in the eyes and asked her “ok, but can you explain to me what it does mean?”.
She answered what I’ve also found on the official website, so let me copy-paste it:
“Temporal World” is a generative, haptisonic VR experience in which artist Chloé Lee reflects on making meaning in places with varying levels of connection to her; from the personal, to the familial to the foreign. We are guided to slow down while exploring Berlin and beyond in our increasingly accelerated time. As an Asian-American artist, she explores themes of migration through discovery, documentation and, eventually, rooting herself in a new place.
This VR world emphasizes the ephemerality of memory. Visitors explore and shape the landscape that is as fragmented and fickle as memory itself while wearing a custom haptic jacket that adds sensation to the typical audiovisual VR experience. These new ways of sensing, and in turn understanding, help create a more nuanced understanding of our interactions and, often invisible, dynamics within our environments.
While wearing a custom haptic jacket which sends vibrational feedback through the body, participants enter the Oculus headset to find a virtual world composed of 3D scanned sights and soundscapes of Berlin, China and New York.
I’ll admit my ignorance: I just thought that those were colored points I could navigate into, while actually, they were her memories from all over the world that I could interact with to connect with her. So I guess now I should feel connected with her. But actually, I do not, which I guess is still a consequence of my ignorance. Now you understand why I usually review headsets and not artistic XR experiences. Or maybe I should also feel more connected with the manufacturers after having tried a headset. And in fact, after having used the Quest, I feel more connected to Zuck, and from this connection, he takes all my data. In the end, it makes sense.
I didn’t ask about the reason of the design of the jacket to not feel even more stupid. Or more connected.
But jokes apart, after I’ve listened to her explanation, actually I liked the connection of the movement to the disgregation of the places… the more we do, the more we go on in our life, and the more we forget the things of the past. This is quite cool as symbolism.
From The Main Square
“From The Main Square” has been an interesting experience I tried at the Showcase. It’s cool and sad at the same time. Beware that I will spoil a bit of it during this review… but not too much.
The experience is a story that unfolds around you. It is mainly like a 360 video, with a comic-like style in black and white. There are actually some interactions possible, so most probably the experience is not made as a video, even if most of the time, it is exactly like that. Sometimes an element of the scene highlights in yellow and you can press the trigger button of your controller to make that element perform an action: e.g. a person with a baseball bat gets highlighted, and if you press the button on the controller, he destroys something with that bat. With the other hand, instead, you can trigger a magnifier that you can use to zoom some parts of the scene: I’ve found it pretty useless most of the time, but I guess it can be great for someone that is visually impaired or people that want to appreciate tiny details of the experience.
From The Main Square starts in the coolest possible way: the scene is mostly empty around you, and two people arrive and start relaxing around a bonfire. Then other people arrive, and slowly they start building a city. There are some nice scenes happening, and the comic-style helps in giving everything a chill vibe. It is also quite cool that after the first moments when things are slow, all the rest of the time, things happen all around you quite fast, and if you focus a few more seconds on an element, the moment you turn your head 180 degrees, you notice that behind you a lot of things have happened without you noticing. This is a genius way of using the VR video format: the authors have exploited the shortcomings of the 360 degrees videos and used them to their own advantage. You can’t look at the whole scene at once, so they make you happen things behind your back by design, to give you the impression that things are happening so fast around you. For instance, you focus some seconds on watching a dog that is chasing a robber, and when you rotate your head, a new building has been created. And so on, until you don’t know how, a full lively city is built.
This is all good and nice, but then, mild spoiler alert, bad things start happening. I won’t tell you more, I’ll just tell you that the story of the city from happy turns quite violent, and the comic style that contributed to the fun is used to depict gore and violence in a way that is less disturbing for the eyes of the viewer. The good things happening around you become bad things happening in 360. It’s a story that goes into a downward spiral, and when I removed the headset I was like “Oh my god”. Let’s say I needed a few moments to recover from the sadness of what I had seen.
For me the experience was great: it is well conceived in everything, from the smart use of 360 degrees to the use of the comic style to drive you on an emotional journey from happiness to sadness. It has been one of my favorite experiences among the ones I’ve managed to try at SXSW.
The Eye and I
The Eye and I is the VR experience created by the award-winning VR director Hsin-Chien Huang and the legend of electronic music Jean Michel Jarre. It is produced by VRROOM, the company I’m working with, but I’ve not personally worked on this project myself. So I also tried it for the first time as a normal visitor when I was at SXSW. I won’t express a review because of the clear conflict of interest… or maybe this is just an excuse to not say that also in this case I’ve not managed to understand totally its meaning. Maybe I should stick to reviewing headsets. Or change my job and fry potatoes at McDonald’s. One of the two.
Anyway, I’ll show you its trailer video, so that you educated people can appreciate it.
And that’s it for today. If you liked this post and want to read other reviews of pieces of art in VR from the eyes of someone that sucks at art, please subscribe to my newsletter to get these posts straight into your inbox!
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