The Poetics of Space

CataclysmVR by Maya Pruitt

Cataclysm VR seeks to recreate the most recent mass extinction in history - the destruction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago - so we may experience a cataclysmic asteroid impact that we could never have witnessed first hand.

How? This VR experience was designed in Unity. Users are encouraged to sit in a swivel chair to give them 360 degree movement. The mechanics work so that user will move forward in the direction of their gaze when they push a remote button.

Why? CataclysmVR was an exploration of the balance between explanation and self-discovery. When illustrating a time in history, should it be a cinematic experience or an interactive narrative? We were really curious about choose-your-own-adventure style dynamics and how users might be affected by different possible endings. We played with ideas of eliciting emotion, granting/restricting agency, as well as creating suspense and surprise.

The experience incorporates technical applications of NavMeshes, AI, animation, transitional scenes, and spatial sound in Unity.

Link to presentation deck.

VR Manifesto by Maya Pruitt

VR is a complex multi-faceted medium. I don’t think I can possibly organize all my thoughts about it, and this manifesto will probably change many times as I learn more about it. I don’t really feel qualified to write a manifesto at all, but it’s cool to record my current opinions about VR – what it is, what it isn’t, and what it can do for me (right now).

  1. VR is a powerful tool with many applications. I’m starting with this point to simply highlight what we all know. VR is still a relatively new medium and is growing and ever changing. What makes it so powerful is its ability to transform time and space, whether for storytelling, simulation, or world building. It can be applied to any context and discipline, but I want to focus on how VR changes the traditional framework and boundaries for creatives. Visual artists used to a 2D space, now have a 3D canvas. Filmmakers that imagine their stories on a rectangular screen can now give an audience 360 degree views. Architects accustomed to designing functional space can use their knowledge in a new context that, by choice, abandons or adheres to physics. And users can have first-hand experiences in far away places in the physical comfort of their living rooms.

  2. VR emphasizes presence by hijacking our perceptual abilities. We started this class with discussions of presence and immersion. I believe that VR is truly an exercise of these ideas. I personally find VR to be incredibly immersive. I give over to my presence immediately, and it doesn’t take much for me to disassociate from the real world. I place myself fully in the VR space. However, I acknowledge (and I think it’s important that VR creators, in general, also acknowledge this) that the hijacking of perception is only one aspect of presence. The other aspect is the ability to suspend belief, the mental part, the dealing with this complicated human thing of consciousness. I believe it’s easy to convince the brain that what it is seeing is “real”, but it’s a lot harder to convince the mind.

  3. Because perception in VR is mainly visual, this is both and advantage and a disadvantage. As a visual person, VR blows my mind every time, because it makes me “see” differently. Humans are certainly visual creatures, but we have other senses. I definitely think that while visuals and sounds are powerful in VR, it never feels quite “whole” without smell, taste, and touch. When you limit the senses, you emphasize the virtuality. Ultimately, it frustrates me that VR’s heavy visual component makes it not completely accessible.

  4. VR can make you feel things. I always thought of VR as having the capability of creating empathy, a conclusion I had come to more from just imagining uses for VR rather than from doing VR experiences or looking at research. After these readings this week, I’m not too sure how to think – empathy might be too strong of a word. So instead I’d like to say that because of its immersive quality, VR makes you feel. These emotions can be anything from a quick scare to more profound lasting effects, which leads me to point…

  5. We have tools to elicit certain kinds of feelings, but reactions to a VR experience are unpredictable…and

  6. Unpredictability is what makes VR awesome. We have built a toolkit as creatives, as storytellers, as people, of what sorts of things elicit emotion. We know that color, space, sound, etc. are elements that in combination or in absence can be provocative, but just because we intend for something doesn’t mean it will turn out that way. That’s one of the things I like most about VR. Since it enhances first-person experience, certain emotions and perceptions might feel heightened, but the ultimate impact is subjective.

  7. VR is temporary. When thinking about creating for a VR experience, I think it’s important to consider that the experience is fleeting. You must create interest for your user while they are in the headset and whether or not that experience sticks with them after is probably more up to them than up to you. For a new user the novelty of the technology may be enough to enthrall them, but for the VR veteran, what makes them stay? Make for the moment.

  8. VR is virtual, but believability and immersion come from being grounded in reality. I think the most successful VR experiences for me were ones that still borrowed principles from reality, meaning our world or something that resembles things we already know. However, if you create rules for your world to abide by, then users are more likely to buy into it. It can be the most fantastical place in the world, where the most unrealistic things happen, but if it’s meant to happen that way, I know that it belongs there.

  9. VR spaces can become places. I have enjoyed thinking about the distinction between these words, and have gravitated to the word “personal” as being the key difference. Space is an abstract concept, place is somewhere meaningful to the individual. I think that whether a VR experience is modeled from an more abstract space that feels general or obscure or it is modeled from a personal childhood memory or somewhere familiar to the creator or the user, the experience itself can become a place for the user. No one will experience a VR experience the same way, but once they have experienced it, that world is now a place for them.

  10. VR is art. Even with the limited experience that I had as a user of VR before Poetics of Space, I always admired its capabilities and its aesthetics. I’ve discovered now that, as a medium, it melds well with my interdisciplinary nature and I’ve gotten to explore it with my cognitive science lens. However, what I am enjoying most is that it makes me to tap into my artistry. It allows me to revisit principles of visual language, think about concepts and meaning, and delve into ethics. VR doesn’t feel like an unapproachable technology anymore, it feels like something I can mold and manipulate with my hands, and that is really exciting.

VR Midterm Post-Mortem by Maya Pruitt

Some reflection of the VR Viewmaster project:

I am happy that, for the most part, the idea of “child’s perspective” came through strongly in the piece to those who tried it. I was intrigued by the responses to the three environments as a series. I purposefully mixed up the order in which they were presented because two me the environments were more like memory snapshots. It’s interesting how maybe the number “three” or the presentation of something one after another made my classmates search for an underlying narrative. I always thought of viewfinders as a transportive device that took you to many disconnected places, or in other words, the more different the pictures were, the more fun it was to keep flipping through. I wanted to carry that over into my own work and connect them more by theme. In the future, I will try to provide some on-boarding before people start an experience. 

I had many technical problems. A lot of titled cameras, sometimes exaggerated on purpose but sometimes by accident. Moving forward I need to test in the headset regularly throughout my process of making. My biggest frustration which my classmates didn’t actually seem to mind, was that the car was see-through. I had really wanted to make that space enclosed, but it ends up having kind of the opposite effect. I think the transparency has to do with the type of model I imported. I’d like to know more about models and what properties allow for a successful transfer to Unity. 

Overall, I am happy that I was successful in creating 3 separate environments that elicit a similar theme of feeling. I definitely want to challenge myself to create more provocative emotion and present with technical polish. 

VR viewmaster by Maya Pruitt

For this assignment, we were asked to create 3 scenes in Unity to serve as a VR version of a viewmaster. I chose to visualize different snapshots of childhood memories. I purposefully played with scale to make the viewer embody a child’s perspective.

The first view is a fantastical Christmas scene. I remember loving to lie beneath the tree and looking up into the lights.

The second view represents car rides to our country home. I wanted to play with altering the skybox and give the illusion of motion as if truly on the road.

The third view is an interpretation of an imaginary place I created as a child. A particular section of a backyard brook, I deemed “Crocodile Island”. The trees, large rocks, and running water existed in real life, but the crocodiles and adventures I had there were made up.

Tilt Brush Drawing by Maya Pruitt

For this assignment, we dove right into VR, drawing in 3D based on a description written by one of our classmates.

These were the words of MaryAnn Talavera:

This January I went back to the Dominican Republic and I got the chance to visit my mother’s hometown, Enriquillo.  It’s a small town in the southern region of the island. I hadn’t been back to Enriquillo since I was a little girl and it was wonderful to go back as an adult because I think I was able to appreciate it’s natural beauty even more.  My mother has always told me stories about her childhood in Enriquillo. I felt like I was able to connect to those stories by physically being there. 

Her stories were often related to the ocean, which makes sense because the blue color of the beach in that area is so intense.  

One memory was of her as a small child sitting on the rocks below the cliffs that meet the shore.  Although, they scared her, she would be mesmerized by the power of the waves. One day she waited too long to go back to the shore and the tide had risen up so much that she couldn’t swim back.  So she had to scream out for help. Thankfully, she was heard by a neighbor who was able to help her reach the shore. That story always stuck out to me because it illustrated how the ocean is both majestic yet dangerous; it’s important to respect nature’s power.

This was an awesome experience, though quite disorienting at times! It was most difficult for me to establish a ground, in both my drawing and for myself. I had to draw a tree to help me get a better sense of the space. It started to come together once Gilad showed me how I could change perspective and shrink/grow the canvas. Game changer.

I wanted to capture both the serene calmness of the ocean that MaryAnn described, as well as its powerful brutality.

Explore on Poly

Scent Tasting: a Study of Presence by Jacky Chen & Maya Pruitt by Maya Pruitt

Since VR is often highly visual, we wanted to pair it down on what other elements or sense modalities make us feel present or immersed. The experiment invited participants to smell 6 different scent and listened to an accompanying sound, while blindfolded, inspired by a sort of wine tasting.

These were the pairings:

  1. Apple Cider + Informational narration about Cider making

  2. Brazilian Coffee + Personal story from coffee growers

  3. Lavender + Sound of buzzing bee

  4. Smoked Cedar Whiskey + “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton

  5. Chocolate Chai + Ambient sound of an Indian market

  6. Rum + A cappella pirate song

Some pairings had more obvious correlation, others were purposefully contrasting.