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Electronic Media Pulse at Field of View

Electronic Media Pulse at Field of View

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.

Photo © Can Buyukberber, Morphogenesis.
With all the interest in pop culture currently with VR and other immersive technologies, what kinds of things are artists and filmmakers doing to explore these continually emerging mediums?
Kathleen: In my research, I've found that artists have really been the boundary pushers. While videogame makers have found a way to use VR that appeals to their audiences, in the realm of filmmaking the rules are still being written. It is an interesting balance -- in the narrative VR I've watched, I've noticed there can be a tendency to either throw out the rules of narrative / documentary cinema and attempt to rewrite them --- or to simply stick to the rules and not truly fulfill the promise of the technology. I think one of the reasons Collisions is so successful is that it finds the balance in between. Wallworth really honors her subject and thought deeply about story structure. The film does maintain many of the key aspects of successful story telling. However, within the visuals, there are often multiple things happening. A difficulty in VR is that the viewer can look wherever they'd like. A filmmaker can cue someone on where to look, but that can also affect the story. Collisions is very successful at this cuing, but wisely chose a story focused on a single landscape -- the viewer can look anywhere and be visually immersed and be seeing an image that furthers the storytelling.
For artist explorations, we've seen a lot of smaller, fun experiences. We are working with a few groups who are simply exploring and seeing where their explorations and research takes them. Others have a history of experimenting with technology and are now creating smaller experiments in VR. One things I've noticed is that many of the artist demos are constructed as open ended. The person using it finds their own way and it becomes a mutual exploration for the artist and the user. 
What are some challenges to making immersive experiences playful?

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.