Several weeks ago I got in the mail, quite possibly the most amazing toy I think I’ve ever received. It might also end up being the most incredible tool for making art I’ve ever had the fortune of using as well. Thanks to a rare burst of being way more socially forward/confident than usual, and knowing the right folks, I was able to get an Vive Pre VR setup early.
I have done very little more than eat, sleep, and make things will it since.
Oh my goodness I don’t even know where to start it’s almost overwhelming. Perhaps a bit of rambly personal history first. This whole Oculus/Vive generation of VR is not my first rodeo with this stuff (even though companies like Oculus like to pretend VR before them is irrelevant). VR is huge part of my creative background. Back in undergrad, I originally wanted to be a 3d animator, and was following the path (albeit a meander-ee, speed-fueled, 28-credits-a-semester-how-didn’t-my-heart-explode path) of that career, but was growing disillusioned by it. It was booooring, and all the other student’s (and the prof’s) interests were all oriented towards advertising, and 3d models of cars, etc. etc.
I was totally going to drop out of undergrad.
Thankfully, a wonderful Computer Science professor (whose name I don’t remember, which makes me feel super guilty) pulled me aside after I aced his weeder course as “the weird art student” and told me about some cool half-code-half-art stuff happening in the media studies program, with this class in virtual reality art running in the next fall semester. The question over what that even was, was enough to make me go “what the hell, I’ll give this another semester”.
So the next semester comes and the class is this delightful free-form, fairly touchee-feely class about making networked VR experiences using what is basically a budget-CAVE system. Single screen, rear-projected stereo, but the thing that made it come ALIVE was that it had a magnetic tracking system, that tracked your head and two hands, in 6 degrees of freedom. Beyond the general rush of Interactive work > Animation (personal life-work preference only, no offense meant to animation or animators), I had never had my FUCKING HANDS in a video game before. It blew the back side of my cranium off into chunky gooey bits. Of note, this was like… 2005? so this kinda thing was something baaaaasically no-one outside of research universities and the military had gotten to see/play with.
Anywho, that VR system was the center of my creative existence for several years. I took both classes that used the system. I hung around a 3rd semester doing all my personal work in it. I did my undergrad thesis using it, and I ended up co-teaching the VR class in my last undergrad semester (a thoroughly unconventional situation that is its own story). This bled directly into a full time adjuncting position at the department, and I did another 2 years of teaching and playing with the system. Theeeeeen the financial crisis happened, all the adjuncts were laid off at the university, yadda yadda, no more VR for Anton.
So it was for much of that experience, that when the Rift Kickstarter happened, that I jumped on that train within the first few hours of it being posted. At the time I totally didn’t think it would even reach its funding goal, but I felt an obligation to buy-in (even being a cash-strapped grad student at the time), because of what an amazing medium I had found it to work in. Since then my feelings for VR have ebbed and flowed, at times effusively supportive and exciting (like at the launch of the DK1, DK2), at times incredibly negative (seriously, neau-vr culture, oculus’ public corporate culture, etc. are at times so fucking douche-ee). Aside for contracting work we do, I had creatively fallen away from VR as the 6DOF-focussed element of Null Operator had fallen to pieces.
And then I got this damn Vive last month.
It wasn’t until I had finished playing with it the first day that I realized what I had truly missed the most wasn’t the stereo (which I could take or leave, I’m a 3d artist, 3d on a 2d surface is 3d to me, my brain has the training, does the work), it was HAVING HANDS AGAIN. Oh my goodness, reaching out and picking stuff up, throwing stuff across and environment, knocking a bunch of objects off a table is still making me giggle regularly, and I must already be… 120 hours into working with it. As for what I’ve been making, I’ve basically picked right back up where I left off with the CAVE System.
Back then (and now), what interested me the most was fine multi-hand interactions with virtual objects. Environments are swell, but if were to be abandoning the standard gamic interactions of the central click of the mouse, and we had the rich data of position, rotation, velocity, acceleration of the tracked hands (and a few buttons), surely that was enough to do a degree of object manipulation that would flatly impossible with any other combination of game controller inputs. So that sort of experimentation has been the center of what I’ve been doing the past week. It’s mostly been guns (cause deep down I guess I’m still a gun-nerd, regardless of how you feel about guns, they’re fascinating tools to operate/manipulate). Here’s a couple vids of what I’ve managed to get working:
That third video contains what is easily my favorite virtual object I’ve made yet (the match). It exemplifies how great a tiny virtual object can feel. It requires precision to pick up, to use, and it burns down getting smaller with use. It begs that you pull it right up to your face to watch that happen. Incidentally the match is like… almost 1000 tris, and has 6 joint in it to do that deformation-from-burning trick 🙂 Anywho, it’s been a _delight_, and I intend to keep pushing the interactions, and trying new combinations of them.
So, bringing this back around, what does this mean for Null Op? In short, I think roomscale VR is the medium that I’ll be taking my Null Op experiments and inclinations towards (probably still doing something rift-oriented too). There are many logics behind this decision, and they include:
VR is the perfect medium for short-form digital experiences that sit somewhere between game and ‘experience’. It’s a medium dominated by a demo-and-share culture, and likely will be until much wider adoption has occurred. This same social culture means that it lends itself to immediate conversation about experience. In this way it shares properties with experiencing artwork in a gallery.
I am… fucking bipolar, which means that it is remarkably difficult for me to maintain a psychological/emotional connection to the essence of a project for more than 3-4 months. The expectation (or rather acceptance) of length for VR experiences is, and will likely continue to be, fairly short for a while now. If you want to dabble, if you want to author via vignette, if you want to make a piece that’s about a single action/relationship, its a medium both built for it, and with a content-hungry audience that will only grow.
Playing Valve’s aperture demo, the feeling of the robot BEING RIGHT THERE NEXT TO YOU is soo incredibly powerful. In their demo it’s used for a sort of slapstick physical comedy, but I think the possible emotive space of that feeling of agent presence is just massive. I want to see what it feels like to have a robit next to me the size of a dog, the size of a person, the size of a bear, the size of a whale.
Mostly though, if there’s one central thing that was… how to put it.. that was the thing I was trying to get at, and loved the most out of my Remnants demo, it was this feeling of presence, of almost intimacy and wonder next to those robots. I just never had something compelling to DO with them. My ideas in the last prototype were circling around simulation, the body, robots that could hurt, robots you could help. I’m thinking I want to make an experience with a wounded/grounded machine-creature. You can’t understand it, but it can look around with its one eye, it can maybe move a few of its damaged pieces, make noises in a tone/tempo that you can interpret. Around you both is refuse, machines that are equally unfamiliar, bits and bops and pieces of this and that. Things you might be able to pick up, manipulate, understand. You can approach the wounded robot, try to help it, try to understand what’s wrong with it. All you have are your hands, and the desire to help.
This is where I’m headed next.