DREAMCATCHING

Last year One to One Development Trust were commissioned by Platform8/Jumped Up Theatre to run an arts project and Virtual Reality experience we devised called The Dreamcatcher. The brief was to gather people’s aspirations and dreams about Peterborough – a cathedral city in Cambridgeshire, England – through audio, film, creative interventions and social media, and then to weave it all into an interactive digital art installation.

The project launched on Wednesday 8th November 2017 at the Undercroft in Hampton, a unique theatre space managed by Eastern Angles tucked away beneath Serpentine Green, an enormous shopping centre. Thanks to additional hardware support from the Innovation Lab at Allia Future Business Centre, it was also on exhibit via gaming laptops with glowing rainbow-coloured keyboards and VR headsets for several days afterwards – open to the public, free to view and experience.

The Dreamcatcher’s community-centric roots, unusual venue (which was beautifully decorated as part of the project by Rose Croft with enormous hanging hand-made dreamcatchers) and free-to-strap-to-your-face high-end VR tech attracted audiences that were often completely unfamiliar with digital art, never mind Virtual Reality.

From families who had been involved in the project through to interested local artists, musicians, producers and writers, to teens in hoodies who’d accidentally discovered the Undercroft by zoning down the wrong shopping centre escalator whilst gazing at their phone screens, we saw engagement with the installation we’d produced in unexpected and inspiring ways.

The Dreamcatcher is a realtime 3D application built with Unity that takes a series of films, texts, audio clips and scanned artworks – collected and curated thoughout the duration of the project via workshops, festivals and filming sessions – and displays them within a virtual environment divided into four aspirational ‘zones’.

An enormous floating Dreamcatcher riddled with interactive coloured ‘beads’ provides the central focus for triggering ‘experiences’ that could be made up of any one or more of these media components. The result is an often surreal but always smile-inducing medley of voices that start to build up a colourful and engaging picture of the collective dreams and aspirations of contributors from one the UK’s fastest growing and most diverse cities.

One school child’s dream was to simply ‘live in a house filled with pink butterflies’ – we managed to realise that. Another young person’s dream was to swim with sea creatures – we pulled that off too. These dreamers were able to attend the event with their families and experience the results for themselves.

More complex dreams and aspirations revolved around wanting to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion within local communities – we explored these issues. One atmospheric, wintry VR scene involves the appearance of a ‘red hand’ floating above clusters of houses, a symbol that was once, we discovered, painted on select doors of houses on a new 70’s housing estate to support an influx of 20,000 people moving to the ‘new city’ from London. The red hand symbol on doors in Bretton represented an openness of neighbours offering help if you needed it.

The exhibition pulled in a large cross-section of ages, backgrounds and abilities. The fact that the digital projection and VR experience required no goals to be won, no missions to be accomplished, to tasks to be completed – that it was simply an ‘exhibit’ in itself to float around and explore – seemed to work for it rather than against it.

Fascinatingly, even though we’d presented many of the gathered dreams and aspirations as swirling animated texts rather than every one of them as fully realised experiences (we had to draw the line somewhere and had accumulated over 450 dreams) we found that the majority of people actually took the time to read these texts – even quite young children – and that the flowing movement of language only encouraged reading to happen rather than distracted from it. The ‘reader’ became physically immersed in the text as it literally weaved around their body,

What also struck us was that we weren’t seeing the same old faces in the crowd – this wasn’t an experience that was preaching to the converted or an academic conference where we were going to be asked what we thought about multimodal polylinear digital narratives. Our audience represented the demographic diversity of the local community and included experienced gamers like young men who play Resident Evil 7 on Playstation VR, through to older people who were curious, children and families and random shoppers. We were also pleased to welcome a group of deaf and hard of hearing adults.

There was a warm reception, a genuine interest, curiousness and enthusiasm, perhaps because of the pride, ownership and sense of inclusion invoked by actually talking to and working with the people involved.

For more information about Dreamcatcher visit www.onetoonedevelopment.org/portfolio/dreamcatcher/

Co-written with Judi Alston. Photography by Tom Byron

Where can I recharge my phone out here?

Creating the desert environment – the ‘canvas’ onto which the story is told – for the new Inanimate Alice adventure Perpetual Nomads has taken many months of work. The landscape has undergone a number of significant shifts in style, levels of detail and tone – from slightly cartoonish/illustrative to richly detailed, hazy and atmospheric. Looking back over previous iterations, it’s easy to see the amount of layering that’s gone on to achieve the final look; it’s not a dissimilar process from working on a piece of artwork in Photoshop. Except that there are endless viewing angles.

Perpetual Nomads takes place at the end of the day after Alice’s work-shift at The Last Gas Station – for which Alice wrote her own development blog here 🙂 which means the sun’s going down and eventually it’s going to get dark. To achieve this in game, I decided to implement (and carefully modify) a sophisticated weather control system. This, coupled with painstaking work on the terrain materials to ensure they looked pretty good in VR plus a number of post-processing effects eventually resulted in a striking and characterful story-world – not quite photo-realistic, but enough to show a significant progression in Alice’s game-making skills since Episode 6.

Whilst old rusted vehicles, flowering cacti, weird trees and rocks, birds, lizards and desert wolves – things Alice would definitely want to put into her game – all make a (sometimes glimpsing) appearance, the interface itself for navigating the landscape also sits within the world as a series of movement points (Alice’s signature >> progression arrows from earlier episodes, tipped 90 degrees to face the ground), speech bubbles and triggers. Alice is able to show her thoughts, move through the environment, and pick up/interact with various objects as the adventure unfolds.

Much of this evolved through cross-continent screen-sharing sessions with Mez Breeze, where key decisions/contributions were made on colour, graphic design, object positioning as well as environmental styles, buildings and locations.

Working with Chris Joseph, audio was also an incredibly important consideration: ambient ‘desert noise’ can be heard continuously, emanating from various 3D points in the landscape along with the hum of the distant city, which is just about visible on the hazy horizon. Also noticeable is the digital distortion of a nearby Information Booth (pictured below) as well as Alice’s footsteps across sand and rock as she explores the area around the broken down bus.

Of course, everything here is an illusion: the landscape doesn’t really sprawl all the way out to those distant mountains – indeed the terrain would literally come to a severe edge if you were able to wander across it far enough – and there are many theatrical smoke and mirror effects being applied to keep the experience contained within important boundaries.

This is very much a guided digital narrative; Alice sharing her adventure with you whilst leaving plenty for your imagination to muster up about what else might be waiting out there in the desert. Those are your stories, and she’d be happy to hear them.

Perpetual Nomads is available to purchase now in Early Access for PC and VR.

They all float

Over the last 8 months I’ve been slowly tinkering away on a personal project set within a large flooded cave environment. It’s a concept I’ve had floating around (literally) in my head for years but never quite found the right time or technology to bring to life.

The idea goes way back to 1998 and a series of experimental digital text/art ‘drawings’ I produced in an early version of Photoshop. Although the drawings don’t look anything remotely like they’re situated in a damp cavern, it’s the use of multiple layers of silhouetted, partially-visible/clipped and visual text that sparked the concept.

Last year, I started playing around with some initial assets and techniques that might trigger me to finally pull my finger out and start work on this weird and somewhat vague ‘Water Cave’ concept – but it wasn’t until I met an Indian friend of mine for the first time – Shanmugapriya, doctoral scholar of Digital Culture and Indian Electronic Literature – at the ELO conference in Porto last year, where we discussed the idea of a metaphorical, multiple-language work, that the vision for the project formed a more solid shape.

Another key factor in the mix was discovering the accomplished and compelling work of artist/musician Alex Rushfirth who’s track ‘The Wooden Man’ – which Alex told me is simply “an acoustic guitar plugged into an effects unit/looper” – perfectly suits the Water Cave’s raw, experimental and stripped-back nature. Play the trailer at the top of this post to hear The Wooden Man blended into the cave’s emerging use of claustrophobic audio and sound FX.

This is a return to Dreaming Methods more abstract roots; it’s a massive-scale ‘exhibition’-like environment where language becomes intertwined with naturally textured rock surfaces. Taking inspiration from some of our earlier works such as Dim O’Gauble (from 2006, requires Flash Player), the project is not really a game: navigation is straight-forward and so far limited to a series of simple choices – in this case, which tunnel, passageway or underwater chamber you wish to explore next.

Based loosely on a short poem about rediscovering your identity and finding hope against all odds, the text has been spontaneously written into its environment, and translated into Tamil by Shanmugapriya. Pressing the space bar at any point in the work swaps out the English language for Tamil – or vice versa – the shapes of each language offering different aesthetics and interpretations.

In its current development state, Thanner Kuhai (Water Cave) is a wonderful playground for experimenting with visual language. It has no release date yet, but has been selected for exhibition at ELO 2018 in Montreal later this year.

You can find out more at www.dreamingmethods.com/thanner-kuhai and leave us your email address or Twitter handle if you want to know when it’s out.

Are you an engineer?

It’s July 2017 and I’ve just arrived at the University Fernando Pessoa in Porto for the Electronic Literature Organisation’s conference entitled ‘Affiliations, Communities and Translations’. I’m here to talk about an episodic work of digital fiction I’ve been involved in for the last 8 years called Inanimate Alice, specifically it’s imminent translation into Portuguese and a forthcoming new spin-off for Virtual Reality called Perpetual Nomads.

I’m quizzed over lunch about which university I’m here to represent. “I’m not,” I reply. It doesn’t take long before Inanimate Alice pops up in conversation. “So, what’s your role on it? Are you an engineer?”

I’ve been writing short fiction for as long as I can remember. I’m fascinated with the idea of ‘digitally born’ narratives – stories written specifically for – and to be experienced on computers and devices. This obsession – and it definitely is one – has driven me to develop a lot of different skills, from web application programming through image manipulation and video editing to building complex and immersive virtual worlds.

I’m asked sometimes, “Don’t you miss just writing?” as though, as an artist involved in this kind of work – and particularly one who frequently collaborates with others – I must never just write anymore and that just writing might even be a form of therapeutic activity for me.

Whether the end results are collaborative or otherwise, I write – frequently. Not just into the projects, but also into physical journals and notebooks. Language – text – permeates everything – flows in and around and through every component of these often rich and complex digital stories. Writing cannot be avoided: it’s as much a part of the fabric of creation as anything else.

It would be easy to assume that the roles on big narrative game projects such as All the Delicate Duplicates and WALLPAPER are clearly split down the middle or into easy-to-digest chunks: script writer | coder/developer | visual artist | sound artist | etc. But no matter how things are credited, or roles assumed by reviewers, listings or summaries – that’s not the case.

Upon first installation, an early release of Adobe’s web design package Dreamweaver presented the user with an either/or dialogue box that posed the question: “Are you a coder or a designer?” There was no option to select both, or none; it was one, the other – or quit.

Back in Porto, my response falls immediately into a similar tick-box trap. “Well, not really an engineer…” I find myself saying slowly. The term ‘engineer’ simply feels too cold and removed to describe my role on projects like Inanimate Alice, where I’ve dedicated thousands of hours of genuinely heart-felt time into carefully crafting its increasingly sophisticated narrative-worlds.

In retrospect though, of course I am an engineer – at least in part. Those narrative-worlds wouldn’t ‘exist’ without some degree of ‘engineering’.