We’re on the ground in Austin for SXSW this week, where three VR for Good Creators Lab projects are making their world premiere. We’ll highlight each of them with a dedicated post in our VR Visionaries series—but first, we’re taking you behind the scenes of A Colossal Wave!
Created by Marshmallow Laser Feast in collaboration with Canadian artists Presstube, Dpt., and Headspace Studio, A Colossal Wave! is a large-scale interactive installation—one of only five projects accepted into the SXSW Art Program. The eponymous mixed-reality wave is kicked off by one participant dropping a bowling ball from three stories up, while others sing to populate an aquatic world with “voice fruit” as those under the VR umbrella stand at the epicenter of the experience.
We sat down with Marshmallow Laser Feast Director Robin McNicholas and Executive Producer Nell Whitley as well as Artist James Paterson (Presstube) to learn more about this playful and surreal exploration of humanity’s impact on the environment.
How did A Colossal Wave! (ACW) first get off the ground?
Nell Whitley: We were originally invited by the British Council Canada and the Quartier des Spectacle, Montréal (loosely translated to the Cultural Quarter of Montréal) to create an interactive public artwork—it was to be a gift from the U.K. to Montréal for its 375th birthday. The project needed to be a collaboration between us and Canadian artists, so when we realized Presstube was based in Montréal, this was the perfect time to work with someone we had long admired!
James Paterson: I distinctly remember the first call from Robin and Nell about the project. I was peering through a face portal at them and listening to a grinning Robin explain the seed of their idea in his characteristically animated, exuberant way: “So the user climbs to the top of a super high tower ... and chucks a bowling ball off! The impact of the ball hitting the ground triggers a massive art tsunami that washes over a gaggle of expectant and semi-terrified Oculus Rift-clad spectators standing on the ground below.”
The taboo of throwing bowling balls off inappropriately high platforms? A chance at making a tidal wave of art? Instantly sold!
Congratulations on your acceptance into the SXSW Art Program! How did that come about?
Robin McNicholas: Our team is really active and participates in lots of the global VR creative community’s festivals and gatherings such as Kaleidoscope in L.A. Some of the SXSW team were in the audience at one of the presentations and called us up afterwards. We were over the moon! In parallel, we’d been on a recce the previous year with this amazing UK organization that helps artists realize their work on the ground at SXSW called British Underground. They did most of the amazing work in getting our application over the line.
NW:A Colossal Wave! is a colossal operation, and getting the work here has been made possible by Arts Council England and their Future Art and Culture program. Support from Oculus Medium has been a huge help, too.
Tell us about the SXSW installation. What should attendees expect?
RM: We feel so lucky to be presenting our work at the festival epicenter, the Austin Convention Center. We’re up on the 3rd Floor Mezzanine and have taken over a whole section of the building. People can rock up, sing voice fruit into existence, lob a giant ball from a great height off the balcony down to the first floor, and check out the namesake “colossal wave” in Oculus Rift headsets mounted under giant umbrellas.
How did you use Oculus Medium in the making of ACW?
JP: The other sculptor on the project, Jeremy Felker, and I used Oculus Medium to craft all of the non-generative assets for A Colossal Wave! There was an initial ideation phase where the whole team got together in-person in Montreal for a few weeks, mostly congregating at Dpt. After this initial face-to-face brainstorming blast, we had a fair amount of pen-and-paper concept drawings and an asset list in-hand.
Then Jeremy and I started chipping our way through that asset list. We would select an item to tackle, then take it through its entire development in Medium. First, we’d use Medium as a place to play around with different looks and feels and do some initial exploration. Then once we had a direction the whole team was happy with, we would take the asset all the way through to its final form in Medium.
What inspired you to incorporate Medium into your workflow?
JP: I had been playing around with various VR creative tools in the year leading up to A Colossal Wave!, but I was mainly drawing using Quill and Google’s Tilt Brush. I had dabbled with sculpting in Medium a tiny bit, but only enough to make me extremely curious. The idea of unlimited virtual clay, not subject to the laws of physics or material costs, was fascinating. More than anything, I think the promise of immediacy is what is most inspiring about Medium.
How does the work you’ve created in Medium differ from your other art?
JP: I did a fair amount of sculpting as a youngling—some lost wax bronze casting and quite a lot of sculpting from life with clay—but for the past 20 years, my work has mainly revolved around drawing, animation, and code. Medium has given me a chance to step into the world of form in a way that I’ve been dreaming about for ages. Ever since reading sci-fi novels in the ’80s and ’90s, I’ve wanted to whiz around through cyberspace conjuring arbitrary forms and casting creative spells. This dream is really starting to take form with Medium.
How did you make the leap from Medium sculpts to an experiential art installation?
RM: What was extraordinary about this creative collaboration was the team’s shared curiosity, interests, and ambitions. The making of the overall experience emerged from a virtual world we created. Once the shared vision of that world took form, we thought about creating different windows into it. The processional experience came naturally from that point. Subsequently, we had the idea to create performative elements where audience members interacting with the work brought the piece to life. It’s a living piece that celebrates user generated art—we love that!
How did you use the immersive nature of VR to your advantage from an artistic perspective?
RM: VR has this wonderful ability to engage people, to transport them, and to present new perspectives on the world they’re used to. We leapt at the opportunity to immerse the audience using techniques we’ve been refining during the last few years of the VR creative development wave. What’s fascinating is that we can utilize technology such as sensors and design settings with physical props that blur the line between virtual and real environments—meaning we can take people on unexpected journeys with new narratives and artistic expression. The advantages keep improving each year as technology and tools to make VR get better with production values ever increasing.
Did you encounter any technical challenges while working in VR? How did you overcome those obstacles?
RM: There are huge optimization challenges getting the work to perform slickly and in the way we want. Lots of the creation process is iterative, and generally we overcome issues by reaching out to the VR creative dev community and through R&D. It feels very much like a time where everyone has to help each other out in this new, unexplored territory!
How do you think AR and VR will continue to impact the worlds of art and play in 2018 and beyond?
RM: We feel VR and AR will increasingly embed into society in a similar way to web-enabled devices. The prospect of creating artistic layers for audiences to interact with on the move, at home, and at location-based experiences (LBEs) is hugely appealing.
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
RM: We’re hoping to tour A Colossal Wave! at other festival locations and adding to the world we’ve created. There’s a number of other multi-sensory artworks involving VR that we’re currently developing, too. Exciting times!
NW: We’re excited to be exploring multi-sensory interactions with sculpts—especially the pairing of our creations with food. We’re exploring textures, movement, deformations—all really exciting stuff to bring to our audience.
JP: We’re fascinated by crossing back and forth over the membrane between physical and virtual. For instance, consider the following creative feedback loop: Sculpt something in Medium > 3D print it > Modify the print by hand using 3D printing pens, glue, blowtorch, paint etc. > Scan that modified sculpt back into VR using photogrammetry > Continue working on it in Medium > Repeat. And for extra spice points: Add some code into the mix on the virtual side and some robotics on the physical side.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, everyone. We can’t wait to see what you come up with next!
If you’re at SXSW, you can experience A Colossal Wave! live today and tomorrow. Check out In the Eyes of the Animal on Gear VR for a taste of Marshmallow Laser Feast at home, and click here to see more of Presstube’s work in Medium.
Stay tuned to the blog for more SXSW coverage this week!
— The Oculus Team