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SIGGRAPH 2018: Virtual circus comes to town

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To telescope nearly five decades of experience into just 180 seconds, Gipson serves up lyrical mini-vignettes interspersed with staccato riffs of time-lapse animation. He relies on lighting effects, sound cues and subtle choreography to direct viewers’ attention – all without compromising the illusory 360o  freedom of motion that lends VR its sense of immediacy.

Inside the goggles, Gipson points out, there’s no proscenium, no curtain, no stage right, left or centre, no clear-cut demarcation of one scene from the next. Makes for a whole different story-telling grammar, which packs its own special emotive punch.

At SIGGRAPH Gipson’s seen gruff, tattooed Goth-type patrons swagger into the Cycles booth, only to emerge teary-eyed three minutes later. And I must admit the mini-movie even inspired me to fog up my own bifocals a bit inside the wraparound goggles.

That said, the film settles for mere sentimentalism, rather than aspiring to high drama – a wise self-restraint in this limited format and at this rudimentary phase of VR narrative. More dramaturgically ambitious fare screened in SIGGRAPH’s VR Theatre, hard by the Disney booth.

Results were mixed. Some of these films – a lurid take on the Hindu demiurge Hanuman or a hokey promo for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration – amounted to no more than grandiose propaganda.

But the best of the VR Theatre offerings were minor masterpieces in their own right, like the jazzy – almost abstract – Trans-Dimensional Designer (跨界师) from the Beijing Film Academy. Others presented teasers for very promising coming attractions, such as Arden’s Wake, a visually lush subaqueous feature by Penrose Studios, or Trinity, an existentially angsty, dystopian sci-fi series from Montreal’s UNLTD-INC.

Aquaballet: Arden's Wake. Photo: Penrose

Still, these stories all unfolded within the isolated ambit of one’s own begoggled skull. Edgier SIGGRAPH offerings attempted to incorporate multiple viewers interacting in real time with each other and with the virtual simulacra of the VR tableau.

In Cave, an “untethered room scale collocated extended reality installation, ”New York University VR rock star Kenneth Perlin uses state-of-the-art electronics to propel his fellow techies, a couple of dozen at a time, back some 10,000 years into the past.

We huddle in a ring around a (virtual) subterranean campfire celebrating a shamanic succession. As we don our goggles, each of us gets to view the rite from our own perspective – including ghostly images of our fellow-celebrants, bedecked in Neolithic regalia and moving in real time. Ironic, that it should take state-of-the-art VR to light our way back to Stone Age retribalisation.

Platonic cave-men (and -women). Image: Meghan Welles

Or forward to cosmic transubstantiation. From the Swiss start-up Imverse comes Elastic Time, a little thought experiment that invites you to juggle a conveniently palm-sized Black Hole. With this orb, you get to wrap your own personal space-time continuum around a 3-D simulacrum of the Harvard-Smithsonian space observatory, where presiding astrophysicist Tony Stark attempts to explain the science of it all.

Hard to follow him, though, not only because the subject is intrinsically abstruse, but also due to the gravitational warp that often slows down his speech to unintelligibility. Even more distracting is the real-time apparition within the VR space of anybody in the Imverse staging area.

That includes yourself, as well as Elastic Time creator Mark Boulos, who attended SIGGRAPH to serve as a virtual Virgil to your cyber-Dante. The digital passerby manifest inside your goggles as moving, shimmering holograms.

This marvel is achieved by melding images from six real time cameras deployed around the Imverse booth. But when hologram Boulos high-fives your own ghostly holographic hand, the absolutely concrete tactile reality of the slap comes as an eerie shock.

Even more disconcertingly, you presently get sucked into your own black hole and reemerge as a formless (but free-moving) Point of View hovering all around your own real-time holographic self – as close as I’ve yet come to an out-of-body experience.

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