Inevitable Collisions: Art and Technology Meet
ICON Creates A Virtual Reality Performance

When a conference celebrating the inevitable collisions between innovation, technology and creativity comes to Ann Arbor, it only made sense for us to get involved. The event we’re talking about is Intermitten, a two day exploration of creativity’s role in innovation and technology through panels, presentations and performances. Our part was creating a fully immersive virtual reality (VR) experience for a pop-in event Friday evening at the Ann Arbor Art Center, as well as having our Boston-based Creative Director, Jon Sulkow, give a presentation on creativity and technology the following afternoon.

For Friday’s pop-in event, Ari Weinkle and Sarah Babski were the main forces behind the VR experience. Ari was the lead creative behind the project. He designed the look and feel of the three environments participants could explore, as well as created the 3D assets to be interacted with. Sarah was the lead developer. She brought everything together by adding the VR components, interactivity, particle effects and scripting. The project used a HTC Vive and took advantage of its room-scale VR technology. This allowed players to explore and interact, both visually and audibly, in the three different environments, each one punctuated by the sounds of local Ann Arbor DJs Shigeto and Charles Trees through the interactive 3D elements designed by Ari.

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“It was an iterative process,” Ari explained. “Since we only had about two weeks to design the experience, we needed to see what worked (and what didn’t) quickly. This meant I’d work on an environment, send it over to Sarah.”

“Development was done in the Unity game engine, using the SteamVR plugin to interact with the Vive hardware. The SteamVR Unity Toolkit helped streamline interactivity,” explained Sarah. “Many of our assets, created by others on the team, were imported from separate software, and I added coded functionality to make them behave in the environment. The way that the Vive tracks your position in space makes it pretty easy to determine collisions and program interactions between the controllers and objects in the game space, so it’s a fairly quick process to take an object from a 3D modeling software and integrate it into the VR experience.”

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One of the most interactive portions created was the relationship of Shigeto and Charles Trees’ music with the 3D objects. The idea for a level interactivity that involved music came about when the team saw Shigeto’s name on the roster of speakers for Intermitten.

“Since we have a background in music, we thought it would be cool to collaborate with him to create something unique for the event,” said Ari. “We all listened to a bunch of Shigeto’s music while we were working. As a result, I’m sure it affected our unconscious design decisions! But primarily, his use of digital and organic sounds inspired the look of the environments.”

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In order to infuse musical interactivity into the experience, a variety of 3D assets were implemented into the environments. When any of these objects were interacted with, the sounds of Shigeto and Charles Trees radiated throughout the world.

“Our goal is to augment and enhance the music Shigeto and [Charles] Trees play. We want people to feel like they’ve taken a journey and shaped both what they’ve seen and heard,” said Ari.

intermitten-12“Testing the interactions was probably my favorite part. Placing any sort of object in the scene, then being able to put the headset on almost immediately after and interact with it was great. Using natural hand movements to throw the object around, or graze against it and hear it emit sounds, was very rewarding,” said Sarah.

It’s with these infinite possibilities of interactivity within digital spaces that makes VR so immersive and enticing. VR fosters a very human connection between the participant and technology in ways other technology does not. After all, VR allows for the user to be within the virtual world, as opposed to merely being on the other side of a screen.

What VR does more effectively than any other technology our team has seen is to completely immerse users in its world. In doing so, it brings audiences closer to whatever is in the experience. All of your focus is on it. In this case, the worlds were about music, and the user could walk around and interact with that music. It created a deeper connection.

When it came time for the VR performance Friday evening, it went off without a hitch. ICON’s Associate Art Director, Jon Crays, played a major role in the experience’s execution by ensuring that all the logistical aspects of the performance were in line.

“Setting up the Vive is a cool experience,” said Jon. “The challenge is to ensure that you have a big enough space to meet the minimum required footprint size.”

After setup was complete and all the details accounted for, it was showtime. And, it went great.

“The performance was received better than I could have ever imagined,” said Jon.

What stood out to Jon the most, though, was the the looks of amazement that were spread across players’ faces during (and after) the experience. It was these reactions that made Jon positive that the experience did exactly what it was supposed to do: foster a deep human connection with technology.

“We had 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds smiling and wanting more. Their reactions to the experience made our team really feel like it was a total success,” said Jon.

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Our videographer, June Bae, captured all of this on video, and created a mini-documentary series of everything from the team getting ready for Intermitten to the actual VR experience. He felt that it was fundamental to document. After all, the conference mirrored what we do here at ICON daily.

“The theme of the Intermitten Conference was ‘The Confluence of Art and Technology,’ said June. “Not only was the VR performance an embodiment of that theme, therefore an excellent reason to document it, but it’s something we do every day at ICON. We love to take new technology, play with it, explore it, and then make something beautiful out of it that both our clients and our team can be proud of.”

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