May 9, 2017

VR is Everywhere You Didn't Know: VRLA 2017

Artists are constantly looking for new tools to make art with. Brushes are classic. A pencil is like coming home. For 4 years I’ve been making augmented reality comic books and children’s books. Sometime in the last year, I got a pretty bad itch to try to make some art with Virtual Reality.

As you walk in the doors of VRLA you’re greeted by a large dark room, strobe lights, glowing effects, and laser displays. You’re at a rave that the 90’s forgot but quantities of E and Molly are minimal. Every cliché in the book is put in your face but don’t let that put you off. You get into the experience quickly, so to speak, because before long you’re letting people take you by the hand and introducing you to new worlds. No, I already said, it’s not a rave.

You stand in a line, they ask you if you’ve played this game before. Your head is suddenly being fitted for a contraption that lets you look in on a different reality. “Are you right-handed or left-handed?” Those banal questions from childhood come back and they are oh, so relevant. You can’t see what you’re holding but someone definitely hands you a set of controllers, or in a more unnerving situation, what feels remarkably like a gun or sword.

Try and confirm this by looking down at your hands and you see someone else’s hands, or gauntlets, or claws. Your eyes and your brain are telling you these are your new hands and when you move they move. It’s surreal. Again, this is my first venture into virtual realities so forgive the noob realizations.

One of the first stops is a globe in the middle of one of the larger intersections on the show floor. The surface of the globe is inhabited by glowing lights that swirl and writhe and respond to touch. Touch and tap and slide your fingers across the globe to get the lights to respond. Rad.

Walking the show floor is unique to someone who’s used to comic-cons or other pop culture shows. It’s a dimly lit experience but the glowing screens at each booth provide practical motivations. Also worth noting, no one is selling anything. Well, not in person.

I’m used to buying art, comics, or shirts from a vendor. Frankly, those booths are few and far between. Most exhibitors want you to experience their visions. They want to take you on a journey and want you to feel a very specific way. Not unlike consuming traditional media but definitely a different medium. 

Everyone seems to say, “Hey, try our new toy. Then, if you really like it, go home and buy it!” If I were a vendor, this would seem to go against all my nature but these are games and experiences to be played on a console. It’s assumed you have the right console, computer, or are going to buy one. I will know this going in next time and I’m genuinely tempted to buy.

I get in line to try out my first VR game.

A nice woman tells me how to play the game I’m in line for. I’m having sensory overload and don’t really catch most of it. I’m watching people with all the VR gear you’re thinking of and they’re making climbing motions with their arms. On nearby monitors one can see corresponding monsters scaling buildings. So rad.

It’s my turn to try and Salim Grant asks me if this is my first time. He’s from the game design company Rank17 and Lead Game Designer on Mighty Monster Mayhem. This game seems to be a love letter to the classic kaiju-style damage arcade game Rampage: World Tour. Again, rad.

We chat and he tells me his favorite kaiju is Gojira, naturally and how that love lends itself to this game. I was a big fan of Rampage but that game always left players wanting a bit more and MMM delivers that. I can imagine the germ but what was the catalyst that put MMM into development?

“We are all very avid gamers, with fond memories of going to arcades and playing Rampage. When we put together the proposal for a rampage-like game we all jumped at the opportunity. We had so many ideas of where we could take the game that there was no way we couldn’t move forward!”

What different types of gameplay that will be available to users? What will surprise fans of the monster genre?

“Our core game mechanics centered around 3 things. Which became our tagline: Eat. Crush. Destroy. Through the demo you got to experience most of them. A lot of the fun we are discovering is coming from the emergent gameplay. Juggling people or cars is quite fun, as is leaping from building to building! We have also gone to great length to put in a narrative that tells the story of why you are a monster and how it is affecting you. For those gamers who have played BladeShield they will definitely recognize our unique sense of humor.“

Tell me a bit about the monsters, and maybe a monster that holds a special place in your heart, from MMM.

The kaiju we created are taken from different flavors of monsters that we grew up with and watched in our favorite shows. Gorzilla being a combination of Gorilla (King Kong) and lizard (Godzilla). Tony the Oni is a characterization of the japanese demon (oni). Rockford grew from the idea of a monster rising from the earth, and the insectoid came from a combination of the movie the Fly and Them. The Cthulu, or Carl as we like to call him, was the first monster we concepted and implemented into the game. He holds a dear place in all our hearts as we first witnessed the game through his eyes and hands!

So rad. I thank Salim and the crew.

Now, where can I go for art? As an artist and writer, I’m here to learn how I can use VR in my art and stories. He points me in the direction of a large section of the show floor called Visual Reality. He tells me he’s working but if he had the chance, he’d check that stuff out.

I make a bee line and find myself in a group of artist weirdos that have taken what seems to be high-end technology and made it so Bohemian that I had my second sense of culture shock since arriving. Not only is VR technology real and accessible, but there’s a whole contingent of users that I feel like I know from art school. It would be naïve to think that there aren’t plenty of other demographics using this medium for their own intents and purposes.

Remarkably, I find a booth with no one in line and strike up a conversation with the artist there. We talk about art and its applications in this atmospheric, mandala-wielding, meditative genre(?) of virtual reality. “Oh, you’ve definitely got to talk to Zach.” Another bee-line.

Zach Krausnick is also friendly and tells me a bit about using VR as a performance and experience artist. I tell him I want to make virtual reality rooms filled with art and he points to his booth.

His particular booth was showcasing “art rooms” where people put on the headset and experience whatever psychedelic shapes, colors, and media the artist has curated and animated. So damn rad.

Other booths he points out are storytelling experiences like an artist who would allow users to get as close as they can to a near-death experience he once had. A DJ mixes music with a headset and goggles and vocalists and musicians do their thing.

We parted ways and I thanked him for his time. I decided to float around the floor.

As an artist, I would love to play with the Google Tilt Brush (paint like a badass in VR/3D). Not coincidentally, that crew was on hand with demonstrations by some of the Titmouse Studio team and giving livestream talks. Fascinating.

Though my turn on this contraption will have to happen another time, I was able to try Sketchbox at another booth. If Tiltbrush is for painting, Sketchbox is for logos. I go through the motions and when I’m strapped in, I go to town.

I’m finally drawing in virtual reality.

Okay, drawing on a flat surface and in 3D/VR are very different experiences. In essence, 3D/VR drawing is more accurately described as sculpting. It’s even more apt to say that you are creating the medium, pigment, or stone from your bare hands (or game controllers) not unlike some sorcerer. You realize this when you walk around, or through, the happy face you inevitably create and you see how far you’ve missed the Z axis. You understand the power in your hands now.

Here we go.

Back in the real world, my host says, “You’ve got the hang of it,” and in the time it takes for those words to travel from reality into my new dimension, I’m looking at a giant virtual primate skull floating in the virtual air in front of me. I really like drawing skulls and drawing in VR is so damn rad. I can’t wait to do it again.

Together with my colleagues, we jump off buildings, ride boats, go on dates. All of this and more in virtual reality. VR gaming is there of course but, as cliché as it sounds, the possibilities for this medium are endless. I’m currently looking for ways to use this platform like a paintbrush and make more, new fun things and share them with my new friends. 

Mighty Monster Mayhem is a fun game that will be eating, crushing, and destroying onto STEAM April 2017. Zach Krausnick and the performance group Vezika are experimenting with Virtual Reality atmosphere, meditation, and new multii-media performance experiences. Virtual Reality LA will be back next year and so will I.