I . . . spent a lot of time at Tribeca. I lived in Spring Studios for 12 days, and may or may not have taken over a green room with the Where Thoughts Go team and used it as a command center. I feathered my cable nest when I was helping set up The Day The World Changed, had a nice little cable fort behind the scenes (and behind the wall of the physical install), and spent so much time wrangling cables that I called myself Cable Mama. Which somehow led Darragh to bestowing upon me the moniker Mother of Cable Dragons, which I now fondly use in my Twitter bio.
And then I spent hours wrangling curtains for the intimate blanket fort for Where Thoughts Go, the project wherein I did a lot of narrative design, user experience/interaction design, user testing and logistics, and helped build the set. (I also did some consultation on the environments).
There's not much more to be said since I think the lack of sleep in building these two installations completely wiped any recollection I have of this day (these two days) from my memory.
However, in my time in the spaceship that was the Hub, windowless and constantly losing track of time in a caffeinated yet food-less haze, somehow I was able to try every single project on the floor with the exception of one.
The following is a list of all the experiences I tried at Tribeca and a few notes/thoughts about each experience (in order of booth proximity to the entrance door):
Queerskins: A Love Story
With Queerskins I'm seeing a new genre of VR. When I went through it, I could only think of Firewood. The same, extremely physical environment. Then a VR experience, exploratory. Reflective. Looking at objects with a small amounts of context. Then you come out, and cement your relationship with the piece by leaving your own (anonymous) mark. In Queerskins, you find an object that speaks to you. And then you can have your photo taken, anonymously. And you can write something, a little note as well. And it is then posted on social media for posterity. This is the same format as Firewood. Even the anonymous posting on social media is the same. I can't say that I was really invested in any of these artifacts shown in the VR element. It makes me wonder how invested anyone was in the artifacts I left in Firewood. But certainly I was intrigued by the story of this person, and when I was able to speak to the creators and they said there was so much more to the story, I was excited. It felt like it was going to be a novel in a series, and I had only explored the first novel. Though short, I was definitely intrigued for later installations. How will they follow this up? Will they stick to the same format? How are they going to tell this long-form story with multiple VR installations? I wonder!
Battle Scar was so well done! The art direction was gorgeous, unique, always unexpected. The audio was great. There's this moment where everything is dark and then something goes flying across the scene, shatters - your eyes follow it naturally and when this object shatters a light goes on and illuminates the rest of the room. There's an interesting interplay between 2 dimensions inside 3 dimension, and a nice moment where you can peak your head into a room as if the set was a dollhouse. There were just so many nice moments - the polish was also fantastic. Really this is probably one of the favorite pieces I saw at Tribeca this year.
Objects in Mirror AR Closer Than They Appear
I feel like the first thing you have to recognize when you see this exhibit is not the exhibit itself, but the title. What a pun. And then you approach the exhibit, and the informational video is a werewolf tutorial telling you how to go through the exhibit. And then to look at the augmented world of these boxes, your mask could be ridiculous things like gas masks or spyglasses. And then you go into the exhibit and the anchors are lighthearted, and some even have physical feelings like a radio playing and a fan blowing for a little beach sequence. Overall, Objects in Mirror was nice and fast - a simple execution that was enjoyable. It didn't feel like anything special, but that felt like its strength. It was just a bunch of boxes piled up and you could see some cool things. It was a nice break from all the heaviness from the other exhibits.
I think Biidaaban was the experience where I felt most peaceful. It's taken place in an almost dystopic futuristic world where nature has overgrown the megopolis of Toronto. It was so peaceful, especially with all the spoken quotes (which the sound design made sound so ethereal) from the indigenous peoples about nature and harmony. The graphics were absolutely beautiful, and the solitude amongst the urban decay but flourishing nature . . . I never wanted to leave. I felt like this was the place where I wanted to be home.
Campfire Creepers was a huge letdown. It was supposed to be a horror, but also a comedy? Regardless, it really missed the mark. It wasn't scary enough to be horror, it wasn't funny enough to be comedy - it was a project that seemed to have an identity crisis and it tried to cover for that with the haptic chairs. The last jump scare is obvious and although I jumped because of the haptics, I left the experience just feeling completely unenthralled.
Coral Compass: Fighting Climate Change in Palau
This was surprisingly only a 4 minute experience. I remember listening to the Voices of VR Podcast with Jeremy Bailenson and he talks specifically about the effect of showing the politicians on Palau what tourists are doing to their natural wonders. I was a little disappointed because I was expecting a much more in depth journey, and especially given that the resolution wasn't the best for this experience and that some of the attention direction wasn't seamless, it didn't hit my expectations. Perhaps that was just the Tribeca version - I'm guessing what was shown to the people of Palau was very different.
1000 Cut Journey
I sadly watched 1000 cut journey when I was in a rough headspace and struggling with whiplash from an almost-car-accident, but wow. So powerful. And it makes sense, given that it's going to be used for research at Columbia University. At the end I also saw Jeremy Bailenson's name on it, which makes absolute sense given that Jeremy Bailenson is doing research at Stanford about the longevity of the effects that VR has on someone (see the study of the VR experience about homelessness). A lot of this resonated somehow with my own life, although nowhere near to the degree that is explored in 1000 Cut Journey. As I came out I really understood the name of the piece - each cut deepens the wound, and this is a collective wound shared by such a large group of people.
This is a piece by InnerspaceVR - I struggled with it because the moment I was given the controllers I use it to start the experience, but then I can't use the controllers for a long period of time. The exposition was heavy-handed, and while I was told to embody the character of the Curator, the only work I did while in VR was chiseling, as if I were not a curator but a sculptor. There was narrative dissonance in this piece, and I felt misled as to how much interaction there was going to be. The fact that I am holding the controllers for the entire 20 minutes when I maybe only use them for 3 minutes really paints the wrong picture for expectations.
This is the piece by Laurie Anderson, which I thought was 'neat.' It was abstract, which was 'neat', but I didn't really feel that there was a strong message nor was there anything special about what you could do in chalk room. I think the most 'neat' thing that almost because neat was when you could make a sound sculpture. Otherwise it just felt like a narrative-less sandbox.
Of all the 360 videos, Dinner Party was the most experimental. It follows the story of this interracial couple from the 1960s who claimed they were abducted by aliens. The scene is at a dinner with friends where they tell their friends - rather, show the tape recording of them telling this story as they're hypnotized by a therapist. It starts as 360 video for the dinner sequence, and when the alien abduction begins to happen it uses mostly particle effects. All of the camera movements were just so strange and unnerving, but it really worked for the piece. I went in not having any context and while I feel for many, many VR experiences it's okay (if not better) to go in with no context, but for this piece I really wish I had known that it was about an alien abduction because I really did not understand. I can speak to the craft more in that sense, but the story does not make it obvious (which would be a failing on the experience's part).
The Day The World Changed
This was the piece by Tomorrow Never Knows (Gabo Arora (of UN, Clouds Over Sidra, etc), Saschka Unseld (of Dear Angelica and Oculus Story Studio, etc), more), Superbright (Igal, Nate, Erica), and more. It's a social VR experience telling the story of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, nuclear weapons, and the stories of those affected by the bombing. The graphics were beautiful, and I wish that the story was a little more compelling. I appreciated some of the design details to keep 3 people in one space, such as the globe in the center during one scene, large enough so that if no one broke the spell and walked into the globe, no one would hit each other. The statistics about all the nuclear weapon testing and nuclear weapons in existence were very compelling, but at the same time it ended on a hopeful note.
SPHERES: Pale Blue Dot
I was actually quite surprised by this piece. It was written by Eliza McNitt and narrated by Patti Smith, and in the beginning I wasn't quite sure what to expect. It is definitely an art piece. The art and graphics are absolutely beautiful, Patti Smith's voice is smooth and lulls me into this state where time passes and I don't even notice. The idea about the shaking controllers and the "song of the stars" seemed kind of cliche, and I couldn't differentiate the so-called different songs that different stars or planets sang - they all felt the same to me. Mostly I just really loved the graphics - I wanted to stay on the rings of Jupiter forever.
Meeting a Monster
This was a 360 video. I feel like it's not necessarily any different from other 360 videos, and it follows the trope of telling a story. I think for sure the subject matter was interesting, but it didn't feel different from watching a short documentary in my own home.
I felt the same way about The Hidden as I did with Meeting a Monster. It didn't really do anything special, and while yes it highlighted and touched on impactful subject matter, for it being a 360 video I feel like it didn't really take advantage of the medium. It also didn't feel different from watching a short documentary in my own home, not in VR.
This was one of the few lighthearted pieces. Really brightly colored, entertaining, and social because you're talking with another person and trying to build a song using ridiculously animated sequencers (for example blowfish chords, or kangaroo punching bag drum machine). I did something funny with my partner, and we used code names: I was LAMBda, and he was CaLAMBity. I also loved having such a bright lamb avatar, and little rainbow flaps coming off our arms. For whatever reason, I felt very embodied in this avatar. I also appreciated the mode of locomotion, by moving your arms as if you're running. That was something I first thought of when I first started getting into VR and performing experiments in Ken Perlin's Advanced Computer Graphics class in Fall 2016.
I'm surprised at how entranced I was by the animals in this 360 documentary. Especially when the elephant came so close to the camera, I felt like this was something I would never get to see so closely in my real life - it definitely felt special. There were a few moments that stood out to me too. The moment when a helicopter is landing and the wind kicks up a wall of dust is one, where I could viscerally feel it given all my experiences in Phoenix with the haboobs during monsoon season. The other was when I look to the narrator and I see this shadow, and I get really excited because I think the shadow is me. Alas, when I turned to check, the shadow is actually another person - but it made me really excited to have my own shadow . . . as if I'm part of the world for once.
I thought the gaze for watching the show felt natural. I couldn't tell how the story branched because it seems like it would just be unfolding as it was regardless of where I was paying attention. Some of it was a bit awkward like if I kept gazing at multiple screens, the enlarging animation just felt like a lot of overhead and bulky.
StarChild was interesting, because it felt like it was straddling some line between being designed for a specific audience and attempting to please the uneducated masses. It's a strange side-scroller that's somehow in 3D, and you can move your head to view things a bit . . . but the only actions are movement, jump, and 'interact.' I had a problem with this 'interact' functionality because it meant you could really only pull levers or grates. The game was creepy, and I definitely think they did a good job with sound design - my heart was definitely racing and things were getting creepier and creepier as time went on. The problem is I was expecting creepy reanimated scientist-corpse-android things to start attacking me, but instead all they did was stare at me. Also every piece of me that is used to playing 3D games where I could move through space in 3 dimensions was frustrated at the inability to do that, because the character could only move on one plane since it was a side-scroller. It was a frustration that I couldn't really get over (especially when it came to dodging enemies).
I loved the physical set for Fire Escape. Literally using a reclaimed fire escape and putting someone one that in VR was a brilliant idea - if only the meetup between the virtual and the physical fire escape worked. I was leaning against the fire escape for support, but never did it match up with the virtual fire escape, which lent to some weird physical-virtual-placement-dysphoria. As for the plot - I felt like it was overtly fan-service-y. With ASMR Cutie or Sweetie or Darling (or whatever her name was in the game) seducing me, it felt very obvious that I was not myself and that I was this (presumably) male character. It did have an interesting, multiple-things-are-going-on-simultaneously-and-you-can-only-pay-attention-to-one-thing-at-a-time thing going for it.
Into The Now
This was the first experience I did. Normally I'm not too into 360 video, only because I'm not much of a TV or movie person in general, but I really enjoyed this! The egg chairs (as everyone is calling them) move and make you feel like you're actually in the water, which I think really helped me. Also, because you're sitting in this chair there's only so much you can move your head to look at things, which was a nice design choice. As science says for humans, more choice does not lead to greater happiness.
I wasn't really impressed with Vestige. I heard it was about grief, and people were getting very emotional while going through the experience, but for myself I didn't really feel anything. I felt like the storytelling was awkward - a woman telling a story on an old, corded phone. Graphics were lackluster and weren't on theme with the story (hologram shaders). I felt like this project missed the mark - I didn't feel connected, a lot of the design choices didn't tie well into the story . . . What I really did like though was the physical install. The dome with the shattered pieces was gorgeous, and I really appreciated the pulley system to handle the wires coming from the Vive Pro. At the very end of the VR experience there are shatters flying out which resemble the dome, and I think that was perhaps the nicest effect. It ties the physical to the virtual - and that's my MO.
Jack was everything I wanted the next step for VR to be. It used motion capture, the HP VR Backpack (which I've worked with before and absolutely adore), had live actors, mapped accurately virtual props to physical props in the room, and did the lovely thing where objects smelled or felt like they were supposed to (heat from a stove, the smell of grass for the bean). I'm so interested in the construction of a space, that to have all of these elements and to see them so professionally done (with the resources and budget I myself don't have access to) was one of the greatest highlights of Tribeca for me. <3
By far Terminal 3 was my favorite installation at Tribeca. It was really so powerful. The team was also able to do so much with the limitations of the Hololens (of which there are many, including tiny FOV and low resolution). What they did was really powerful - make people use their voices. I wasn't sure what to expect when I was told that I was going to be an interrogator. But when I sat down in this cold, sterile room, and I see this hologram walk in . . . and all of the sudden two questions appear before me, it makes sense. I have to pick which questions to ask. And then I have to ask myself, before I even ask a question, what kind of interrogation do I feel comfortable giving? And before I even asked the first question I learned something about myself. I am incapable of asking the harsh questions. And so then I spoke. And the voice that came out of me was strange. Almost disembodied, echoing in this white room. The voice I heard was low, strangely authoratative. Punctuated its sentences calmly, perhaps intimidatingly. And I heard answers. This woman - she was from LA. She was visiting Pakistan, to visit her family. She was half Pakistani, half white, and grew up between cultures. Just like me. A lot of her stories - I understood where she was coming from. A lot were my own stories. And then there was a question I couldn't ask. I had to pick the other question that was available. "Did you grow up religious?" I asked. And then, for some strange reason, the program glitched. I lost sight of the women, and none of my questions were registering. One of the women on the project came in, helped me. Reset the program. Said, "well now you can explore the other questions you didn't ask." And while I was slightly annoyed, I did just that. But then there was the question that had made me really uncomfortable earlier. And then I was faced with another huge question. Do I ask that question to hear the other answer? Or am I too uncomfortable asking this question that I can't even do it to 'hear' another response, and explore more of the story? I ended up not asking the question, which was something along the lines of "During your stay, did you ever cross any territory that was run or occupied by the Taliban?" It was only after reflection, days after I did this experience and chatting with others about the experience, did I realize that the reason I couldn't ask this question was because of multiple reasons: 1) I didn't want to be perceived as judgmental, for asking such a (what I perceive to be) judgmental question. 2) I didn't want to hear the answer, because no matter what answer it was it felt like it would incriminate her. Alas, I continued on. I ask a question 3 times, glitches and I can only ask the second question of the set. And then there's a question about "What's the most religious experience you've had?" And the woman begins to wax poetic about a moment with her friend in the desert, amongst the rolling sand dunes and the setting sun. She speaks more and suddenly her hologram isn't this cold blue, and I can begin to see her face. Her skin color, her facial expressions, her clothes. And it's a beautiful warm moment, and I marvel at the design because really, how brilliant to humanize her by fading this cold hologram graphic into her real body. At the end, I must choose, and say out loud to my counterparts: "Yes, she's good to go," or "No, she seems suspicious." And that moment was another huge moment for me: this is a decision people make all the time, and how many people would say "No, she seems supsicious" because of the color of her skin, or because she grew up Muslim, or whatever other reason? And so I say, "Yes, she's good to go." The experience ends, I take of my Hololens, and the woman who helped me said, "Okay, you go into the next room now." I get up, walk towards the exit sign, my footsteps echoing through this empty, empty space. I round the corner into the next room, and sitting in the same stool, in the same position of an identical room . . . is the woman whose hologram I had just interrogated. And I look at her, I see her gentle face, and I just burst into tears. (And how powerful, that as I write this now I'm tearing up). I see her, and I just can't. She listened to everything I said! She heard every question I chose to ask! And that realization, that really she knows me so well because of what questions I asked . . . I'm sobbing now. I walk up to her so slowly, and I just ask her "Can I hug you?" And she says yes, and kind of starts to cry as well. All of the sudden Viva is there with tissues, Asad walks in, the other woman . . . And I'm just crying for a solid 2 minutes. Asad reaches up, points the security camera far away . . . changes his mind and straight up unplugs it. And I can't say, but I'm pretty sure most, if not all, of the Terminal 3 team is beginning to cry with me.
I have never cried in any VR or AR experience, ever in my life. I was just so struck. I can't say enough good things about this project. I wanted to ask the woman's name, but I didn't want to break the spell. So I didn't. And while I met her later on in the festival and now know her name, the magic still isn't broken.
I actually had so much fun in Vacation Simulator. It's just a ridiculous game by Owlchemy Labs, which also created Job Simulator which is just as ridiculous. They should call their genre "physical comedy" because it's just such a physical game, and it's hilarious. I actually burst out laughing a few times, and I had a great time just running around and trying as much stuff as possible in the time limit. You can take pictures with a camera, and then I tried dropping the polaroid on the pool floaty and literally the mass of that polaroid is so heavy the pool floaty just went flying. It was hilarious. Unexpected and hilarious. And then I was cooking, and had at the end grabbed one bottle of mayo and one bottle of ketchup, one bottle for each hand, and then a dance party happened and I was just making it rain ketchup and mayo. As I came out, the docent who had put me through was laughing and said that I had the best reaction that he's seen to this game, because apparently too I had gotten on my knees and was wandering all over the floor . . . it was great! I'm so amused that he was amused as well.
I dissociated hardcore for HERO. I had no clue what it was going in (unintentionally, but then intentionally), but when I was face to face with going into this experience, which is about Syria, I had a vague sense. The moment I was put into VR, I knew exactly what was going to happen. And I dissociated. And even though I lost tracking after the bomb hit, I was able to make it over to the screaming I heard, where I reached into the rubble and grabbed a real hand. I tried lifting the bar to save the girl, but I couldn't - and then the experience ended. Even in my dissociated state, I had this inkling of feeling helpless. It was only after did I have some really good discussions, talking with people who couldn't handle it (and it's a lot more than I had thought who told me they broke down crying, and couldn't finish the experience, or had to talk themselves into finishing the experience) was I able to process some of the things, like this idea of "Disaster Porn" and that you are supposed to save the Syrian girl, which is why it's called HERO. Which is inherently such a sick, Western idea. Imagine all these people, with a VR headset, so priveleged to be at Tribeca, and the feeling they'll get in saving this Syrian girl. It's like White Savior, but Western Savior. Then there's this entire idea of trauma - they don't tell participants what's going to happen when they enter HERO. The project imparts almost a little bit of PTSD into so many people, that they're dazed for hours. But then, even with no warning, there's no hand holding, no further questions outside of this bombing. Who did the bombing? What's the statement?
And then there's the fact that there's actual Syrian people helping out with the installation. I was led in by a woman named Nina, who at the end I asked her. So solemnly. How long have you been here, in the States? Can I hug you? How many times did you witness THIS? How is it for you, putting people through this experience? How is it for you, RELIVING this experience? And she told me. She's only been here for one year. She's witnessed THIS. TWICE. She told me in the beginning, she couldn't even put people through because she would immediately start crying. Or maybe start crying after one hour. She has a sister and brother who are here with her. And they help on the installation.
And it makes me wonder - how fair is it, how twisted, how Western, how anything? - to have these people, who have lived through very real trauma, and put them through this? Put them putting through other people through this trauma?
Is it preying on PTSD, where people unknowningly chase their trauma over and over again in a vicious cycle?
How did people with prior trauma - participants, that is - deal with going through this experience? I know I dissociated.
And so much context is lost. Context about what it's actually like to live in these places, where this fear is very real all the time. Where you drop off your kids at school and don't know if you're going to live to pick them up. Or to know that something might happen to you, but you have to live your life and so you decide to go out partying with your friends because life is too short to live in fear? Or when you leave for work and come back to the news and hear that your cousins neighborhood has been blown up, and you don't know if they've survived? Or when these don't necessarily happen daily, but they're all daily fears?
Needless to say, HERO has stoked a lot of strong reactions. There's [hopefully] going to be a lot of debate in the future about what is and is not okay to do in VR, or what kind of warnings are going to be necessary for experiences like this, and also the nature of bringing people to traumatic spaces. Can VR actually traumatize people? My answer is yes, because the body doesn't differentiate between physical and emotional stress. Even if someone conceptually knows something, their body is going to react very differently.
So much more to talk about with this project. So much more.
The only experience I didn't do was Arden's Wake: Tide's Fall. It was half an hour long, and it felt unfair to take that precious time away from the paying public - the patrons of this festival.
I think one of my largest takeaways from Tribeca and trying all of these experiences is that there was a clear problem with defining who the participant is supposed to be. Are they supposed to be a character, or themselves? Are they supposed to be an observer, or do the lines blur? How successfully and unsuccessfully? I feel like for 1000 Cut Journey, it's obvious who the participant is supposed to be. They are explicitly told. Same as in Jack. However, in something like Fire Escape, it seems like I would be myself, but there are some things that take me out of my own shoes and make me wonder if I'm supposed to be a character (like how I'm seduced by that ASMR YouTuber). I think there were also problems with The Unfinished, where for the most part you're an observer but the experience wants to parade you around as the Curator, although there's no curation involved and the only interaction you have is with chiseling these characters out of stone (and even this doesn't feel productive - there's too much to chisel and the payoff isn't that you've made any effect on the story, the chiseling is basically just a 'press any key to continue').
Another key takeaway from Tribeca for me is a reaffirmation of something I believed before: the experience begins before the experience. And my passion for physical installs, with real objects, shows that there is a huge difference. The human element in Jack, their usage of LeapMotion to give accurate hand tracking so that you can really use your hands as they're meant to be used (holding a broom, for example), the subtle things like stage scents and heat radiators, ground shaking and wind blowing . . . things also used in HERO to produce such similar, striking sensations that add to the element of being really, truly somewhere. Even something as simple as the cold metal chairs and empty room of Terminal 3 really makes a difference.
And at the end of the day, I'll sum things up like this:
My List of Must-Experiences: ((in no particular order))
These are things that do what they do very well, be it evoking really strong reactions, starting conversations, or just use or play with their craft/medium really well. May be experimental. Powerful in some way.
Terminal 3, Battle Scar, JACK, Into the Now, Vacation Simulator, Lambchild Superstar, Where Thoughts Go, HERO, 1000 Cut Journey
My List of Nice-Experiences: ((in no particular order))
These are things that don't really innovate, but were still good experiences.
The Day the World Changed, Dinner Party, SPHERES: Pale Blue Dot, Biidaaban, Queerskins: A Love Story, Objects in Mirror AR Closer Than They Appear
What an incredible journey. I was the most exhausted I've ever been in my life, and I'm still feeling it (not to mention all the school I'm trying to catch up on)