Weird Reality

IMG_6316.pngFor the past few months, we’ve been working away on a number of lab experiments that consider how virtual reality can be used in a museum context. We’ve been curious about how it can be social—simultaneously engaging small groups of visitors using network technologies—how experiences can utilize inexpensive materials such as Google Cardboard, and how to connect virtual worlds to the physical spaces they’re presented in. So we were excited when The Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University announced that it was going to host the Weird Reality conference on the topic of VR.

Weird Reality, which took place last month, was the fourth installment of a celebrated series of hands-on conferences looking at new technologies. Its goal was to examine and discuss the burgeoning genre of virtual reality through an independent and artistic lens. A group of developers and creative technologists from our Atlanta, Portland, and New York studios gathered in Pittsburgh to attend.

The conference was the most diverse I’ve ever attended—the large number of female presenters set a good example for creating inclusivity in an industry that has always been male-dominated. Presenters included a mix of long-term practitioners and theorists from the first wave of virtual reality in the ‘80s and ‘90s, contemporary artists, VR and AR platform creators (Hololens, META, Google Daydream, Three.js), and students exploring the medium in their classes. The organizers did a splendid job blended long-term experience with fresh points of view.

From a practical perspective, the panel “Contexts and Conditions for Independent World-Making” (featuring organizers from the Museum of the Moving Image, Tribeca Film Institute, VIA, and the National Endowment of the Arts) offered lots of best (and worst) practices for exhibiting virtual reality as public installations in galleries and museums. Panelists encouraged creators to think about VR experience from a holistic installation-art perspective, considering how to treat the physical space that the experiences are presented in in a way that’s cohesive and supportive of what’s displayed on screen. They also reminded us make sure that bugs in our notification systems aren’t inviting participants to see work at 2 AM.

Artist and researcher Michael Naimark brought the long-term view on VR, sharing his works from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s that built upon the history of perspective and illusion. Many of Naimark’s early works, such as Aspen Movie Map and Displacements, directly inspired technologies that are now part of our daily digital experience.

Other highlights included creative technologist Laura JuoHsin Chen’s wonderful VR masks, “Famous New Media Artist” Jeremy Bailey’s performative augmented reality talk, Claire Hentschker’s transformations of the iconic film The Shining into navigable 3D architectures using photogrammetry, and Sarah Rothberg’s speculative vision for how Facebook might place our memories in virtual worlds that look just like our childhood homes.

IMG_6389.pngOn the last day, sound artist and CMU professor Jesse Stiles led an insightful workshop on creating surround sound audio soundtracks for VR experiences. Showing delightful imagery of how our bodies are designed to perceive sound in space, Jesse pointed out how stereo sound in VR is perceptually confusing. He also introduced us to a handful of tools, such as Facebook360 for authoring surround sound for 360 videos in the browser, and demonstrated Unity’s built-in spatialization engine.

We’re excited to bring some inspiration and playful ideas back to our virtual reality research and development at Second Story. Stay tuned for more.

– Jeremy Rotsztain, Senior Technologist 

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Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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