Thursday, November 3, 2016

Virtual Reality: Inside the jellyfish

Steel strapped the Oculus goggles to my head and placed two controllers in my hands. Inside the simulated world, I could lift my hands and see two ghostly images of them, as though contemplating a live X-ray of my own body. Looking up, I saw the jellyfish hovering above, bobbing softly in the blackness like an immense Portuguese man-of-war. The music part of the simulation wasn’t operational yet, so I could hear the real world around me as I gazed at the imaginary dancing creature. “You can smack the side of it,” Steel said, and I did; the jellyfish flinched, and a blast of purplish color rippled off from the point of impact.

I found myself trailing my fingers through the tentacles, watching them dance. At Steel’s encouragement, I pulled the whole creature over my head, as through grabbing the ends of a blanket, and suddenly I was inside the body, draped by tentacles on all sides. It was, by a wide margin, the most sensual encounter I have ever had with an invertebrate.

“Our starting point when we first began experimenting with virtual reality was: What does it enable that wasn’t possible before?” Steel explained, after I emerged. “And then, what are we interested in? How can we expand our experience of reality?” The world that we experience is obviously limited by our senses, he pointed out, but many more potential senses exist than those we possess.

That line of thinking led not just to the jellyfish but to another V.R. installation called “In the Eyes of the Animal,” which Steel and his colleagues staged in a forest in Britain’s Lake District. Donning V.R. goggles, visitors entered a parallel version of the forest, where they could shift in and out of the perspectives of different creatures, from midges to frogs to owls. As you switched among the animals, the software simulated the unique perceptual tools of each organism. The midge, for instance, could detect carbon dioxide being exhaled in an ordinary human breath from hundreds of feet away. When you adopted the midge’s perspective, carbon-dioxide density was represented by swirling red points in the forest. “We tried to imagine the trees breathing,” Steel explained. “What it would look like if you could see the chemical composition of the air.”
It's NOT 3D immersive movies. It's something different:
“This isn’t an evolution from cinema,” Bryn Mooser said after we put down the stereoscopes at the RYOT offices. “This isn’t storytelling.” If V.R. allows you to project yourself onto the deck of the Titanic, I suspect we won’t want the entire James Cameron-style back story about a dashing artist and his fleeting romance with a wealthy young woman facing an arranged marriage. We’ll just want to experience the sinking of the ship. Plot points will be a nuisance. A V.R. equivalent of “Jurassic Park” won’t bother with the relationship between John Hammond and his grandkids; we’ll just stroll through the grassy plain and gaze at the brontosaurus.

The most surprising twist in the evolution of V.R. may turn out to be the pace of the new medium. Quick cuts are an almost physical act of violence in V.R.; jumping from one perspective to another can create a literal sense of nausea. But more telling, perhaps, is the fact that people don’t want to move on to another experience once they’ve put the headset on. They want to linger. “I want to just put you in a field,” Mooser told me, “and you just do what you want to do in that field.”

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