Category: VR

Flagscape: Data-visualizing Global Economic Exchange in Virtual Reality

Overview

Scott Kildall is conducting research into data-navigation techniques in virtual reality with a project called Flagscape, which constructs a surreal world of economic exchange between nations, based on United Nations data.

The work deploys “data bodies,” which represent exports such as metal ores and fossil fuels that move through space and impart complexities of economic relations. Viewers move through the procedurally-generated datascape rather than acting upon the data elements, inverting the common paradigm of legible and controlled data access.

Economic exchange in VR

Details

The code constructs data from several databases at runtime including population, carbon emissions per capita, military personnel per capita and a United Nations database on resource extraction. All of these get combined to construct the Flagscape data bodies. Each one represents a single datum, linked to a specific country.

The only stationary data body is a population model for each country, which scales to the relative value for each country and resembles a 3D person using a revolve around a central axis. The code positions these forms at their appropriate 3D world location, such that China and India — the largest two population bodies — act as waypoints as their forms dwarf all others.

Population bodies of India and China

A moshed flag skins every data body, acting as a glitched representation that subverts its own national identity. Underneath the flag is a complex set of relations of exchange that exceeds nationhood. For example, resource-extraction machines are made in one country that then get purchased by another to extract the very resources that make those machines.

Brazil flag, moshed

Flagscape reminds us that our borders are imaginary and in this idealized 3D space, there are no delineations of territory, only lines that guide trade between countries, forms magically gliding along an invisible path. What the database cannot tell us is how exactly the complex power relations move resources from one nation to another. Meanwhile, carbon emissions, the only untethered data body in Flagscape, which affects the entire planet spin out of control into the distance only to get endlessly respawned.

Carbon emissions by Canada and Australia

The primary acoustic element triggers when you navigate close to a population body. That country’s national anthem plays, filling your ears with a wash of drums, horns and militaristic melodies that flow into a state of sameness.

Initial Inspiration

The project is inspired by early notions of cyberspace described by writers such as William Gibson, where virtual reality is a space of infinity and abstraction. In Neuromancer, published in 1984, he describes cyberspace as:

“Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

Neuromancer

While this text entices, most VR content recreates physical spaces, such as the British Museum with the same artwork, floor tiles and walls as the real, or it builds militarized spaces in which “you” are a set of hands that trigger weapons as you walk through combat mazes. At some level, this is a consequence of linear-thinking embedded in our fast-paced capitalist economy, arcing towards functionality but ignoring artistic possibilities. This research project acts as an antidote to these constrained environments.

OverkillVR, a virtual reality game

It was with these initial conversations around virtual datascapes with Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli that I was invited to be part of the Reality Remix project and was included in the AHRC Reality Remix grant which is part of their Next Generation Immersive Experiences call. My role is a “collaborator” (aka artist) who is creating their own project under these auspices.

Spatialization and Materializing Data

Unlike the 2D screen, which has a flatness and everyday familiarity, VR offers full spatialization and a new form of non-materiality, which Flagscapes fully plays with. One concept that I have been working with is that since data has physical consequences, it should exist as a “real” object. This project will expand this idea but will also blur sensorial experiences, tricking the visitor into a boundary zone of the non-material.

At the same time, Flasgscapes is its own form of landscape, creating an entire universe of possibility. It refers to traditions of depicting landscapes as art objects as well as iconic Earthworks pieces such as Spiral Jetty, where the Earth itself acts as a canvas. However, this type of datascape will be entirely infinite, like the boundaries of the imagination.

Spiral Jetty

Finally, Flagscape continues the steam of instruction-based work by artists such as Sol LeWitt, where an algorithm rather than the artist creates the work. Here, it accomplishes a few things such as taking the artists hand away from creating the form itself but also recognizing the power of artificial intelligence to assist in creating new forms of artwork.

Alternate Conception of Space in Virtual Reality

VR offers many unique forms of interaction, perception and immersion, but one aspect that defines it is the alternate sense of space. Similar to the religious spaces before the dominance of science, as described by Margaret Wertheim in the Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, this “other” space has the potential to create a set of rules that transport us to a unique imagination space.

As technology progresses and culture responds, the linearity of engineering-thinking often confines creativity rather than enhances it. Capitalist spaces get replicated and modified to adapt to the technology, validating McLuhan’s predictions of instantaneous, group-like thinking. The swipe gestures we use on our phones get encoded in muscle memory. We slyly refer to Wikipedia as the “wonder-killer”. The flying car is often cited as the most desirable future invention.

Flying car from Blade Runner

At stake with technological progress is imagination itself. Will the content of the spaces that get opened up with new technologies be ones that enhance our creativity or dull it? Who has access to technology-inspired culture? How can we use, enhance and subvert online distribution channels? These are just some of the questions and conversations that this project will ask — in the context of virtual space.

I see VR in a similar place as Video Art was in the 1970s, which thrived with access to affordable camcorders. However, VR and this specific project has the ability to easily disseminate into homes and public spaces through various app stores. Ultimately, with this project I hope to direct conversations around access and imagination with art and technology.

Marshall McLuhan with many telephones

Work-in-progress Presentation

Our Reality Remix group will be presenting its research, proof-of-concepts and prototypes at two venues in London on July 27th and July 28th, 2018 at Ravensbourne and Siobhan Davies Studios. Both free events are open to the public.

Bibliography
Gibson, W. (1993). Neuromancer. London: Harper Collins Science Fiction & Fantasy.
McLuhan, M. (1967). The medium is the massage : an inventory of effects. Bantam Books.
Wertheim, M. (2010). The pearly gates of cyberspace. New York [u.a.]: Norton.

Reality Remix: Salon 1

I just returned from our first Reality Remix workshop in Dundee, Scotland. The prompt that we gave ourselves afterwards was to write up things that came up for us, returning thoughts and think about what is next. I write now on the train journey back to London.

The background is that Reality Remix is part of an Arts & Humanities and Research Council AHRC grant around Immersive Experiences and I am one of the “collaborators” (artists) — others include Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli (Ruth is the Principal Investigator), Joe DeLappe, Darshana Jayemanne, Alexa Pollman and Dustin Freeman. We are also working with several “partners”, who are in academia, industry and government to act as advisors and contribute in various ways. These are Nicolas Lambert (Ravensbourne University), Lauren Wright (Siobhan Davies Dance), Alex Woolner (Ads Reality) and Paul Callaghan (British Council).

The short project description is:

Reality Remix will explore how we move in and around the new spaces that emergent technologies afford. Through the development and examination of a group of prototypes, initiated from notions of Memory, Place and Performance and with a team of artists, computer programmers, fashion and game designers, we aim to uncover the mysteries of these new encounters, focussing on human behaviour, modes of moving, and kinaesthetic response. Reality Remix brings a unique dance perspective in the form of somatic enquiry that questions concepts of embodiment, sensory awareness, performance strategy, choreographic patterning and the value of touch in virtual worlds.

Within this framework, each of us will be developing our own VR/AR projects and possible collaborations might arise in the process.

Some of the reasons that I was invited to be part of this project stem from core inquiries about what we call “Gibsonian” cyberspace versus a simulated cyberspace. I find it odd that when we often depict virtual reality — and for the purposes of simplicity, I will treat VR a subset of cyberspace — as a simulation, a weak reproduction of some sort of physical reality. VR has immense possibilities that most people don’t tap into. With the dominance of first-person shooter games, reproductions of museums, and non-spaces such as TiltBrush, I have often wondered about how we can conceptualize VR landscapes in new ways. And so, this was my starting point for our first session.

Improving the functionality of the headset

However, technical skills are not a precursor to producing compelling work and, in fact, this is part of my artistic practice. I quickly adapt. For example in 2014, I quickly dove into 3D printing without knowledge of any real 3D modeling package and in the space of a few months, produced some conceptually-driven 3D print work that drew strong responses. I will easily pick up Unity, Unreal, 3ds Max or whatever else is needed.

It is with this lack of technical knowledge, that I can approach concepts with a beginner’s mind, a core concept of Buddhist thinking where you approach a situation without preconceptions and harvest a disposition of openness. Without deep investment in the structures of discourse, it is here that you can ask questions about the effectiveness of the technology such the nature of immersive spaces, the bodiless hands of VR and hyperreality.

For this initial meeting, we each have our own project ideas that we will be researching and producing in various forms. Some of my own inquiries stem from these Gibsonian landscapes. On the train I re-read Neuromancer and was still inspired by this seminal quote from Neuromancer:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

I arrived with this general framework and began to ponder about how to incorporate threads of previous work such as physical data-visualizations and network performance. What about the apparatus of the headset itself? How can we play with the fact that we are partially in real space and partially out. And as one of our partners (Alex) pointed out rather than being immersed in VR, we are absorbed by it. Like a fish in water, we are live in full reality immersion. And when we talked about this, I chuckled to myself, remembering this David Foster Wallace joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?

The first day was a full-out setup day, installing our Windows work machines, getting the Oculus Rifts working, Google Pixel 2 phones, Unreal, Unity and anything else. We all centralized on some specific platforms so we can easily share work with each other and invite possible collaborations. Fighting with a slow wi-fi connection was the biggest challenge here but within a few hours I got my Alienware work machine making crude VR on the Oculus.

Goodies! This is the Oculus Rift hardware that we will all be using for project production

I yearned to visit Dundee despite the cold weather but all of our time was spent in this workspace, supported by the NEoN Digital Arts Festival (where I showed my Strewn Fields pieces last November) and in the evenings, we saw some art lectures by our own Joe DeLappe and my friend and former colleague Sarah Brin. We are food and drank in the local speakeasy bar, chitchatting about ideas.

Lecture by Joe DeLappe

Within the first couple of days, what was previously a mystery to me now became more clear. While some of the collaborators had well-developed projects (Dustin and Bruno/Ruth), others such as myself, Alexa and Joe were approaching it from a more conceptual angle with less technical aptitude.

I kept in mind that our goals for this project are to create compelling proof-of-concepts rather than finalized work, which makes it more of a research-oriented project with a forward-face rather than something that will compete in the already littered landscape of the good, bad and ugly of the Oculus Store.

We started each day with movement exercises led by Ruth, reminding us that we all live in “meatspace”. Our minds and bodies are not separate as we hunch over the machines and then stand with a headset on and wave our arms around. We began experimenting with the technology. I vacillated between diving into Unreal or Unity, each with their own advantages. While Unity has more generalized support and is easier to learn, Unreal undoubtedly has a better graphics engine and is the weapon-of-choice by Bruno. So, solving the early technical challenges began to help coalesce my ideas.

Ruth leading us on some Skinner Releasing exercises

We soon entered into a vortex of artistic energy — some of us from performance, wearables, immersive theater with various conceptual practices and the parters from other organizations who had a less artistic approach but loads of experience in the gaming worlds, university community and impact studies. I knew this on paper, but in reality, the various talents of our Reality Remix dream team soon became apparent.

Twice a day, each of the collaborators led workshops related to their practices. Alexa treated us to her performance-based clothing which registered AR markers and asked us to do an exercise where we tried to perceive something through someone else. Bruno and I made a drawing where he wore the VR headset and I sketched on his back which he replicated on paper. The process was fun and predictability the drawing was unimpressive. The process was fun and predictability the drawing was unimpressive.

 

Ruth is wearing fabric created by Alexa while she shows us some of her responsive AR augments

 

Our collaborative drawing in response to Alexa’s prompt

Dustin led us on a prototype for a sort of semi-immersive experience where actors jump into various avatars. With his deep background of improv, theater and role-playing, I began to shift, thinking about how to involve people not in a headset, which make up the majority of people in a VR experience as essential players.

Darshana in the VR headset while Dustin demonstrates some ways in which “non-players” can interact in VR space

I am not wondering about intimacy and vulnerability in VR. There is a certain amount of trust in this space. You are blind and often suffused in another audio dimension. Then, could you guide people through a VR experience like a child in a baby carriage? What can be done with multiple actors? So many questions. So many possibilities.

One thing that I was reminded of was the effectiveness of simple paper-prototyping and physical movement. Make things free from technology; keep it accessible. Stick to the concepts.

My own orientation began shifting more into virtual landscapes and thinking about data as the generator. I asked people to brainstorm various datasets and come up with some abstract representations based on that earlier quote from Neuromancer. I do want to get away from the sci-fi notion of cyberspace since it is limiting and enmeshed in VR 1.0, but will still claim this as the starting point to an antidote to the often mundane reality-simulation space.

This was useful for my own brainstorming. Alexa brought in an interesting point of view because she was thinking about time rather than landscape and brought in conversations around anticipation, reality and memory, which reminded me of the work by Bergson. Her movements were around personal data and captured her attention.

Meanwhile, Ruth made marks on the wall, translating gesture to 2D. Bruno worked with abstract visual forms. Despite being a poor draftsman, the question arose: how can we incorporate movement into a system? My own perception is highly visual and orientation towards abstract patterns. The success of my exercise was based in the fact that some useful (to me) renderings were produced while I also quickly learned that the a line-based VR landscape doesn’t resonate with everyone. How can we incorporate movement into a system.

Drawings by Bruno Martelli in response to my workshop prompt

As a manifesto bullet item: the scriptedness of VR is something we would all like to break. With all the possibilities of VR, why are the dominant forms assuming a feeling of immersion. Why don’t we consider what can be done before rushing to produce so much content.

Where is the element of surprise? VR is a solitary experience. I’m reminded of Joe’s work with the military and what one can do with a gaming space. Could we intervene or somehow interfere with VR space?

Darshana, the theorist amongst the group, did a beautiful summary of the session. My head was spinning with ideas at this point, so I can’t even recall everything he spoke about but certainly ideas around how to both be engaging and critical in this space surface. He envisioned a nexus around abstract spatialization, performance, role play and the body that tied our various projects together.

Bruno, Ruth and Alexa wearing some of Bruno + Ruth’s Dazzle Masks

There is much more to write and think about. I made progress on the technical side of things, such as getting an OSC pathway to Unreal working, so that can begin playing with electronic interfaces into a VR world.

More importantly, I feel like I’ve found my people with this Reality Remix team: one where we understand the history of new media, subversion of forms, aren’t dazzled by simplicity. We got along so very well with mutual respect and laughter. I’m excited about what comes next.

Reality Remix group phptp