Ivan’s Virtual Island: Critique

This session I’ve been following Ivan’s project in which he’s been attempting to build a virtual space using Unreal Engine, extending the experience he got working on the virtual reality recreation of the Yellow House gallery with Chris Moore. His original aim was to create a learning environment. We had discussed this concept early on with ideas of a digital building inside which various subjects for study could be found. The idea of a globe of the Earth was suggested, molecules which could be examined to learn more about their structure; something that could educationally engage a user on an interactive three-dimensional level.

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Think Viki from ‘I, Robot’. But not terrifying and homicidal. And also a globe. Maybe think XCOM instead.

Upon testing the waters and coming to the conclusion that this would be a lot of difficult work for his skill level and areas of knowledge, Ivan altered his aims to focus on the second of these ideas; building a 3D model of a molecular structure within a virtual space. Once again FEFO (Fail Early Fail Often) reigned supreme and this attempt, too, was scrapped after some building. Attempt number three saw a VR recreation of Howl’s Moving Castle from the Studio Ghibli film of the same name. This iteration was fairly successful and Ivan’s work was of a high standard, however he ultimately put this project aside as well, citing foreseeable legal issues with copyright that he wanted to avoid.

Finally, Ivan settled on the concept of a relaxation space which he calls “Meditation Island”. Throughout all of these changes the core methodology remained the same, with Ivan continuing to practice the use of Unreal Engine to create virtual spaces, maintaining his goal of development using the medium. From an early pitch phase of this finalised build Ivan talked with the class about immersion through details and wanted to be able to include such things as audio to go along with the island’s shapes and textures in order to create that sense of reality. By the time of his Beta presentation he had very successfully integrated not only effective audio but also an imitation of a light breeze moving the leaves of the vegetation on the virtual island, confirming the significance of these details and highlighting their importance within Ivan’s project.

The Beta presentation did a great job of covering Ivan’s reiterative process and development from his early concept of a learning space to the final product of Meditation Island. Having the space available to be experienced on his laptop was a huge bonus to the Beta as a whole, allowing those viewing it to experience the space for themselves. Securing access to an Oculus Rift headset as he had done earlier in the session could have allowed the class to experience the island to its fullest extent, but it certainly wasn’t necessary for the impact to be felt, and in all honesty an improperly adjusted virtual reality headset and earphones may have wound up detracting from the finished artefact counter productively.

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We all hate having to contend with too-loose or too-tight, heavy, unfocused VR goggles, amiright? Right? Who can tell that this has been my general Oculus Rift experience so far? Everyone? Ok cool, just checking.

I would have enjoyed more detailed descriptions on the process of deciding which avenue of creation Ivan was pursuing and specifics as to why each attempt was scrapped or deemed a failure; more along the lines of the perceived potential for legal issues with the third project attempt for each of the other efforts would have been well received. In addition to this I would have liked to hear exactly how Ivan arrived at the success of his immersive audio, which had been brought up during earlier updates as something he wasn’t sure how to implement with verisimilitude. The addition of ambient sound had been a great point of interest for the class during previous discussions and I think the group as a whole would have liked to hear how this actually played out functionally. Further detail in annotation on Ivan’s blog post regarding this project would be interesting also, along the lines of his progress updates posted to twitter.

As far as feedback on the project itself… it’s difficult for me to speak on with technical sense since I have no experience in generating virtual spaces and am not familiar with the inner workings of Unreal Engine. Speaking from my limited position, however, I would recommend tweaks to things like water movement speed as was discussed by Ivan during the Beta itself. On the whole, I feel that small changes make a huge difference with this project, as seen with the addition of audio and leaf motion. Small details along those lines could be expected to continue making a massive positive impact. Perhaps splitting of the two different bodies of water, for example, making the lake on the island and the water surrounding the island into two separate pieces of water with their own distinct feels could go a long way to enhancing that sense of reality in Ivan’s virtual space.

The subject of the project’s public presence was brought up during the Beta regarding exactly how it will be released with no real definitive answers, Ivan wanting to present it as the intended VR experience and not just showcase the space in video form. I agree with this method as there has been plenty of public documentation across multiple sites of the full process, enough that I don’t feel more necessary until he’s identified a method of distribution which credits the project as it should.

Online Anarchy and Twitch Plays Pokemon

At one stage in the lecture this week, Ted spoke about anarchism as almost an aesthetic choice applied to the internet. This struck me as interesting given that anarchy has shown up time and time again in the subject as a descriptor for the online world, but this was the first time (as far as I can recall) that it has been deemed a deliberate choice of how we want to treat the web. Running with this idea I want to take a brief look at an example of exactly how this concept can manifest: Let’s talk about Twitch Plays Pokemon.

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To get all the details you can follow the hyperlink above, but the gist is that an unknown Australian decided to experiment with the idea of crowd sourced gameplay – something which the theatre student in wants to explore as a peculiarly postmodern performance art. The individual developed a program that would translate statements in the Twitch chat of the streamed game into commands for the lone player character of that game, leading to everyone watching having to cooperate in order to get things done. The whole thing was chaotic enough once the number of participating viewers grew, but (after a particularly difficult hedge jumping scenario) the developer added an extra function. Viewers could collectively vote and choose between play modes of either ‘Anarchy’ or ‘Democracy’. In Democracy mode the game would hold onto all of the commands to come in over a short period and execute only the most popular one, however, audiences consistently opted for the much more difficult Anarchy mode instead. Even if the majority DID vote for Democracy, the minority identified ways to disrupt play until Anarchy was restored once more – almost taking on their own kind of hacker role, and using what power they had to stop any one voice from being discounted no matter how counteractive to the current goal that voice may be.

This anarchy may not be functional, but I guess this example indicates that what it DOES do is keep things equal and put everyone onto a seemingly even playing field. For better or worse though, I’ve really no idea.

Social Media and Social Justice

Connectivity as power is something we see in practice ALL. THE. TIME. on social media. Just think of the recent spread of the hashtags for #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter as well as the general rise is sharing evidence of police brutality. It exemplifies as well how these movements aren’t tied to one specific social media website. It encompasses Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine: its spread is frankly enormous. As discussed in the lecture, social media provides an avenue for mass communication that doesn’t rely on or enforce passivity. Think about using a telephone, even – in order for one person to get their information across, the other must be silent in order to hear. Whereas, on social media you can be putting out information and absorbing information from others at such a rapid pace that it is effectively simultaneous.

And it isn’t only in areas of massive political significance (‘only’ seems very much the wrong word for a statement about such a hugely important thing). The applications for this massively powerful system of communication are crazy numerous! During the Christchurch earthquake a few years ago, Kiwi friends of mine living in Australia where entirely unable to get onto family back home through the clogged up phone lines, and so social media became a hub for New Zealanders abroad looking to find if their loved ones were alright, in a huge organised effort which took place and was communicated entirely over social media like Facebook.

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And one more for the road.

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Makes claims that young people spend too much time on their phones seem pretty trivial, huh?