Exhibition Review | Echo: The Sound of Space (PHI)

Echo: The Sound of Space broadened my mind about the interaction mechanics that are core to a VR experience and how these interactions could be either instrumental to the narrative progress or incidental and auxiliary. It was also an occasion to explore the design strategies which were taken into consideration for the physical installation in order to invite the visitors to try the experience. This event was consisted of twelve experiences of a variety of genres: abstract and musical, 360 recorded videos and a stylized volumetric captured documentary, Pixar-like worlds, and as usual a number of space exploration semi-documentaries. Each had something to learn from but some felt more complete and multifaceted as a narrative and some were more experimental.

Crow: The Legend (Baobab Studios, 2018), directed by Eric Darnell, for instance, had the most fluid animated characters I had ever seen in VR. However, regardless of playing the role of ‘spirit of the seasons’, your presence was not really acknowledged by other virtual characters. Although I totally enjoyed the plot and character performances, I would not consider it a very VR-specific experience.

Tales of Wedding Rings VR (2018), directed by Kaei Sou was very innovative in terms of a bold use of cinematic frames referred to as ‘LiveWindows’ by the creators. They were not just static pictures floating around but actually gates to the other 3D environments, which means your movements and viewing angle affects the perspective of each frame, resulting in a parallax effect; dynamic in size and proportion they were sometimes expanded all around and submerging you into their environments. 

This reminded me of the Pardehs (curtains) in the ritual of Pardeh-Khani and was an inspiring piece in designing the interaction mechanic that I have been trying to implement for my personal project; to let the viewers step into the worlds of curtains or extend the visual components of the painting out of the flat canvas. Such endeavor to remediate ‘Manga/Anime’ as a narrative culture in VR was also very relevant to the objective my project which has been to revitalize a traditional ritual of storytelling in VR. Regardless, the overall experience did not engage me all along, partly due its thirty-minute length which still seems to be hard to persist in a one-take VR. Also, the Japanese voiceovers which required me to gaze at fairly small English text bubbles all the time was causing a bit of eyestrain.

I found the Spheres (2018) directed by Eliza McNitt the most exceptional and memorable experience from this event. It was the center piece and apparently the main influence to its title. The first intriguing aspect of this experience was the large space devoted to its unique installation design; the idea of extending the VR experience into the physical surrounding was working perfectly well. Walls were all covered with black curtains which nicely represented the infinity and darkness of the space. Large circular mirror on the rear curtain and the polished concrete floor further expanded and dramatized the space. The light rings hanging from a high and dark painted celling were the key features; floating like some celestial elements above the viewer’s head, they set a sort of invisible boundary which indirectly regulated the movements. The darkness of the hall where all other visitors were plugged in alongside with me, minimized the anxious feeling of being exposed to others and was letting me immerse myself more comfortably.

As for the content, it consisted of three independent yet interrelated chapters: 1. Chorus of the Cosmos, on our solar system, 2. Songs of Spacetime, on the black holes, 3. Pale Blue Dot, on the big bang. There occurs often a Visceral effect in VR when encountering natural phenomena of huge scales, and Spheres was full of such wow moments. Of course the quality and details of the 3D visualization in this work takes a considerable part of creating such spectacle; even the particle effect which follows your hand and marks your virtual presence is fabricated so neatly. Speaking of scale, in the 1st chapter, our solar system is simulated in a very small size within your hand’s reach, so that you can interact with the planets like a bunch of little marbles. The creative use of scale also amplified the sense of virtual embodiment by; sometimes making you a tiny little observer of the vast universe, and other times a huge phenomenon like a black hole witnessing how everything is drawn towards you. Lastly, I found the use of voiceovers and original soundtracks so effective in not only being meditative and informative but also creating a linear time frame for each chapter within which the relevant interactions are introduced and guided. It was the consistent amalgamation of such strategies that made me try all the chapters (approx. 12 minute each) consecutively and stay in the hall for almost 45 minutes comfortably.