When Robin McNicholas decided to explore the impact human activity had on the environment through a virtual reality art installation, he turned to the world of Alice in Wonderland for inspiration. What he ended up with was an experience even wackier than Lewis Carroll’s imagination.
A Colossal Wave is a real world and virtual world experience that plays with scale and shared context to explore humanity’s obsession with producing things, marine pollution and nods to Isaac Newton’s theories of cause and effect.
At the Hull UK City of Culture festival 2017, you can stand at the top of a nine-meter high tower and drop a bowling ball onto a gong. The impact triggers a reaction in the virtual world: a tsunami of ‘voice fruit’ debris experienced by people standing under real-life umbrellas wearing Virtual Reality (VR) headsets.
The ‘voice fruit’ are being created by people next door who are standing inside a room around a fuzzy, spherical sculpture. By using fluctuations in their voices they augment computer graphic debris in real time. The shape and size of the fruits vary according to voice and sound, meaning each one is unique to the person creating it. Collectively, they are meant to symbolize the billions of manmade waste particles that pollute the world’s oceans.
McNicholas is the creative director behind Marshmallow Laser Feast – a studio that has been experimenting with 360, immersive experiences since it was founded in 2011. A Colossal Wave was produced in collaboration with Canadian artist and coder Presstube; digital creative studio, Dpt.; and immersive audio firm Headspace.
“We wanted to juxtapose a virtual reality experience with a visceral, overtly physical act of dropping a bowling ball onto a gong; this energetic burst being the trigger to a flurry of activity in a virtual world,” said McNicholas.
While the inspiration for the piece came from human activity, the team wanted to think beyond the impact on the current world and instead think about what it would be like if something triggered an event that kickstarted another era. “Moving past smokey cities and predicted sea levels, we thought why don’t we just leap frog forward and imagine that the Anthropocene has passed and that maybe life will find a way once again.”
To achieve this, Marshmallow Laser Feast incorporates all the senses to create an experience that is as immersive as possible. Sound, voice, and touch, are created help people inside the VR and real world engage socially. “They don’t necessarily have to be constrained by the things we associate in the real world – like geography – so we designed it with this idea that the experience could exist in multiple places at once,” said McNicholas.
The scene is purposefully slapstick, said McNicholas, to spike your curiosity. “We want to invite people into a VR experience without them feeling too self conscious because for example, they’re being shielded by umbrellas.” Those using the headsets assume a character while they’re playing within the world, to further enhance the experience of being in a different time to one we are in now. Plus the sheer joy of being able to do something they would not usually be allowed to do: hurl a bowling ball from a great height onto a gong. “We wanted to juxtapose and lay side by side the very visceral basic instinct that is scratching in people – the tower essentially is a naughty kid magnet.”
McNicholas hopes people will take away a sense of curiosity about the world and a different perspective on the issues impacting it, such as the great Pacific garbage vortex. “It was a big challenge because VR has got its own technical issues but we we wanted to create something that was a curious scene and people from all different backgrounds would think: ‘jeez, what’s going on here?”