Last week, the Exploratorium kicked off a new program series called Field of View: Mapping Emerging Media Technologies, focusing on immersive art and technology experiences. Organized by our Cinema Arts Program curators, the events, which continue through October 22, 2017, showcase dynamic interactive works in the current landscape of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), engaging participants in unique ways to experience stories.
Field of View features a new VR film by artist and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth, Collisions, which puts the viewer into an intimately told account of the Martu tribe in remote Western Australia, sharing their memory of being confronted with the horror of an atomic test conducted in their homeland. There are a number of viewing opportunities for Collisions during Field of View, so be sure to catch a screening of this unique film.
I asked Cinema Arts program coordinator and series curator Kathleen Maguire some questions about selecting the works and how the media creators were innovating in using these technologies to create immersive experiences.
Kathleen: I've found that making these experiences playful (to me) actually seems easy. The open endedness and finding one's way mentioned above forces the user to be playful. Also, one of the great effects of VR is that the user can easily lose their sense of actual place, which can lower inhibitions. One of the pieces we are sharing, VVVR, encourages two people to sing objects into existence - they approach this however they'd like (by coordinating, or going on a solo venture) --- however, you have to use your voice -- and the louder you are, the larger the shapes. I'm a bit shy and was trying this with the creator, who I had just met. I found it only took a minute or so to be overcome by the fun and the possibilities - and to lose that initial shyness. He said that effect is very common, so much so that his co-creator mentions that after one minute in the experience, people are totally open, forgetting where they are.
VVVR by Plus Four
What kinds of things were you looking for in selecting participants and works for Field of View?
Kathleen: A key thing I was looking for when selecting participants was a clear understanding of why they were using the technology they selected. For artworks, it was key for the experience to use the technology in a way that was fluid, integrated, and, in a way, made you forget (somewhat) about the technological intervention because you are enthralled by the experience. In the case of some of the research uses we'll demo, we selected experiences that clearly are furthering the fields they are part of, be it neuroscience, optometry or social science and for those research experiences to be rooted in solid scientific framing, even if they are very experimental and still iterating. Whenever possible, we also wanted the creators of the experience to be present for their demos and to facilitate and talk directly with the public.
Did any themes emerge for you as you developed the event series?
Kathleen: My background is as an archivist and I am very interested in the technical history of moving images. When I started this research, something I suspected and found very interesting was the possibility that history may be repeating itself in regards to VR. While the technology is more advanced than it was during the major first wave of VR interest in the late 80's / early 90's, a lot does seem to be the same. The physical technology of the head mounted displays remain fairly clunky and uncomfortable to wear over time. It's also quite expensive for individuals to invest in --- and very difficult to facilitate in public settings. As with the first wave of VR, the intense interest surrounding it seems to pair with a gulf in understanding of how to make it accessible to the wider public and comfortable to use. In my research I found many of those associated with the earlier waves of VR -- and great thinkers about tech future-- consider the current wave of VR to really be a stop gap as we try to understand how to use AR and MR, which is perhaps where a more solid future lies.
In terms of other themes that emerged in the type of work that people are making, there is a strong interest in documentary in the more traditional storytelling within VR. There also seems to be an understanding that it may be beneficial to craft experiences that, while immersing the viewer in the experience in the headset, somehow tie them back to a community or to a physical space. This is clear in experiences like Sansar, a new immersive VR world from Linden Labs, the creator of Second Life, where its creators are designing an entire community space accessible through the headset that allows users to meet people and to build communities entirely within the headset experience. There also seems to be a big movement of people who map VR experiences back to the physical environment. In our series we have eleVR and Can Buyukberber who have created physical objects that match things you see in the virtual space. There are larger scale instances of this, like with the experience Tree or Carne y Arena from Alejandro Inarritu, which are true large scale installations that incorporate virtual reality.