#1203: “Body of Mine VR” Uses Full-Body Tracking Embodiment to Explore Gender Dysphoria & Transgender Testimonies

Body of Mine VR won a special jury prize for the SXSW Immersive Competition for it’s potent use of virtual embodiment to explore gender dysphoria and testimonies from a number of different transgender folks. Director Cameron Kostopoulos leaned upon his own queer-identify story of being exiled from his family due to his queerness, and wanted to create a safe refuge in a virtual space to explore stories from the LGTBQIA+ community, and particularly from trans-identified folks.

The experience uses a seven-point tracking system to give the audience a full embodied experience, and you spend the majority of the experience in front of a mirror as you’re able to track your embodied movements as they shuffle through nearly a dozen different trans-identified avatar representations. Kostopoulos leans heavily into the slight offsets in the trackers or the proprioceptive differences of the different shapes and sizes in the avatars across a broad spectrum of avatars in order to evoke a certain amount of either gender dysphoria or body dysmorphia that is thematically mirroring the themes of the the trans-identified testimonies that Kostopoulos collected and that you hear in the experience that are by touching different parts of your body that these clips are related to. Overall this was a really powerful use of embodiment within VR, and was rightly honored by the jurors with a special jury mention.

I had a chance to catch up with Kostopoulos at SXSW where we talked about his journey into VR, his design process, some of the technical difficulties of Bluetooth interference with the Vive trackers in the context of an exhibition space, and some of the underlying financial constraints and costs for exhibiting a piece like this.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So continuing on my 24-episode series of experiences and people at South by Southwest, today's episode is with one of the special jury prize winners at South by Southwest called Body of Mind VR. So this is by Cameron Kostopoulos and it's a full body tracked experience where it's exploring different concepts of body dysmorphia, gender dysmorphia, and using the virtual reality trackers to create this juxtaposition of your own sense of embodiment and creating a little bit of offset or just going through a number of different types of trans identified avatar representations. in order to elaborate some of the deeper themes that are being explored. There's a number of different oral history interviews from different trans-identified folks that are talking about their own identity, their experiences, and so by using this deep sense of embodiment and exploring different aspects of virtual embodiment, they're able to more fully explore these experiences of gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Cameron happened on Wednesday, March 15th, 2023 at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:31.044] Cameron Kostopoulos: I'm Cameron Kostopoulos. I'm a director, a multimedia artist. I come from live action filmmaking as a director here at South by Southwest with my first VR experience body of mine.

[00:01:41.990] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into making VR immersive experiences.

[00:01:48.093] Cameron Kostopoulos: Totally. So I come from filmmaking. I've always been an experimental filmmaker. In all the work that I do, I'm always looking to turn things on their head and kind of push the line of where cinema and experiential work is. So I work a lot with choreographers and with dancers. I gravitate a lot towards the human body. A lot of my work explores magical realism and visual storytelling. And so through experimental filmmaking and kind of doing dance films and interactive dance films and pushing that envelope, naturally VR kind of came out of that as one of the most experimental forms of cinema just, you know, inherent in any new medium. So I gravitate towards it with a cinematic lens and it's just been a fun roller coaster since.

[00:02:32.905] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe you could talk about the project that you had here at South by Southwest and how that came about.

[00:02:37.809] Cameron Kostopoulos: Totally. So the piece, we had our world premiere here for Body of Mine. It's an interactive, fully immersive, full body experience that puts you into the body of another gender. And you can interact with your skin to discover stories and interviews of trans people. So this came out of a really personal and really deep place. I lost my relationship with my parents after having been outed and I was behind on rent and was lost and didn't really know what to do and didn't really have a safe space and so not having that space I decided I wanted to build one and build one not just for myself but for others to share, to connect and to invite others to experience and try to understand these intimate queer stories. So at the time, I didn't know how to make a game. I'd never done interactive VR work before. I had no money. I was behind on rent. I had nothing but an idea. And I had a computer. And I had some amazing friends. And one year later, we had our world premiere.

[00:03:32.642] Kent Bye: And is this also associated with the Arizona State University and Na'i Delapena? Maybe we could just talk about that context.

[00:03:40.459] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, so the project started at USC as my undergraduate thesis. My professor connected me with Nani de la Pena. She was just starting her program at ASU and she saw the piece and she really gravitated towards it and she really loved it and so she invited me to join her program and was super supportive from the beginning. and has just become such a dear mentor and friend. She was the first person I called after we got the special jury prize last night. She's just a huge champion of me and my work in this piece and just an incredible human.

[00:04:12.812] Kent Bye: So yeah, last night was the award ceremony for South by Southwest. And you picked up a special jury prize for Body and Mind. So yeah, maybe just talk about what that was like to receive that honor.

[00:04:22.596] Cameron Kostopoulos: If there's one thing, it's our team worked for that prize. We put in the sweat and the tears and the all-nighters building our booth. We had no budget, fresh out of undergrad. And so what we do have is just a lot of passion and a lot of work ethic. So this whole week has just been an effort of love. Every single morning, we were the first ones here at 8 a.m. setting up our booth and ready to go. We put in the work, and this whole week has just been kind of a roller coaster. When we showed up the first day, even though we had tested this piece a million times, it was still our first time showing it to an audience en masse, and our first day, we actually weren't even operational. We had so many tech issues because, essentially, the wireless tracking systems that we're using to do full-body mocap to put you in another body, relies on bluetooth signals that was having some major interference with our neighbors who were doing like live streams and had their own routers and stuff and so after like troubleshooting and testing it was like the room itself was the issue and we couldn't have our piece in the ballroom with everyone else even though we had already spent Countless countless hours building out our space in our booth. And so that first day was just so devastating I was a press and industry day and I think we showed maybe like five people that day just because we were scrambling we had like we just had like terrible terrible luck and so what ended up happening is The people at South by Southwest had kind of told us, like, no, you can't really leave this space. You have to be here. We have to make it work. But we knew that it wasn't going to work. And so we just grabbed our shit. We just grabbed our computers and just ran out the door. We were like, we're going to set up. And if they don't like it, they're going to have to drag us out. And we just set up shop in a room. And even though they tried to get us out, they saw our passion. They saw our tears. eventually let us stay and eventually we worked out the kinks and it was uphill since then. So getting that award after having been through that whirlwind and showing up here for the first festival, first VR piece, first everything and to have that emotional rollercoaster, emotional arc was just, you know, there's no words. It was, it meant a lot to receive that.

[00:06:35.267] Kent Bye: It's kind of a interesting metaphor if you look at it in terms of like the experience of the LGBTQ plus IA community that has different dimensions of being exiled. And here you are trying to be in the main ballroom of everybody else, but you, from technological reasons, you have to get exiled into another location. And so, yeah, I don't know if you want to comment on your own experiences of that feeling of exile and what you wanted to create with this piece to have this place of refuge.

[00:07:01.726] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, it's funny. Someone from our team said that too. They're like, oh, here we are again getting kicked out. But, you know, obviously in a joking way, because the team here has been super supportive and wanted to see us shine. But yeah, you know, it really was kind of like a funny metaphor. But it was also it also, you know, I believe things happen for a reason. And I think it actually ended up making the piece a little more special. And I think it worked out really well. We were forced to take our own little private room and so we had this kind of like intimate space away from the main chaos of the XR experience, away from all the noise. This silent room we were guiding people to and the experience is obviously very meditative and very intimate. We're very cathartic, so to have our own little space, yeah, it was a little bit of an exile, but, you know, just like being queer, you make your own space. You take it, you take what you have, and it's what you fill it with that matters the most.

[00:07:59.757] Kent Bye: Yeah, and the actual experience of Body and Mind is that, you know, you go in and it's a full body track experience, so there's the onboarding process of getting all these Vive trackers on, both two on your feet, one on each hand, and then one of each elbow, and then on your waist, and then the calibration process, so there's a bit of like a a ritual of technology before you're entering into that space. But then once you're in, then you're like looking at yourself in a mirror, but flipping through different identities and then hearing a narration of like oral history testimony of people talking about their identity and their experiences of their body and gender and sexuality. And so, yeah, maybe you could give a bit more context as to like, as you're trying to address the story and create this place of refuge or this place of home, where did you begin with trying to tell the story?

[00:08:45.981] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, what we were trying to do is an experiment in how through VR can you create a moment where even just for a moment you forget that you have this bulky headset that's like weighing down your face and you've got seven trackers strapped to you and these cables running down your back and all this kind of like friction that's literally like tethered to your body like How for a moment can we create an experience where you forget all of that and you can just exist somewhere else. And as someone else, we wanted to look for really organic material and really intimate experiences. through all this tech. And so, yeah, in a perfect world, you know, in the future as technology progresses and these headsets get better, you know, it's gonna be awesome when you can just throw on a headset and just step into it and you have your full body in there. That's gonna be super cool. For now, you know, there is a bit of a process. And with such a small team, getting people in and out causes delays sometimes. And so showing pieces like this isn't always the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes you can't always show as many people as other people can have the ability to just because of the challenges that come with There's a tracker down or there's interference or all those things but in actually building the experience, you know We wanted to embrace all of those imperfections Specifically with the body tracking that you mentioned, you know at home mocap systems We're using one of the cheaper ones because we had no budget but actually I believe that it served the story very well because at home mocap systems are not perfect yet, you know. Your shirt covers your waist tracker and all of a sudden your body's flying around. There's glitching, your calibration, sometimes your elbows are off. You're not really touching yourself. There's all this kind of jankiness and this kind of uncanny valley in those mocap systems. And so we wanted to embrace that as just, you know, part of the experience. That is the dysphoria of the piece. That is the misalignment between your brain and your motor functions and what you're perceiving, what you're seeing with your body in a mirror. And so all of it just becomes part of this transgender exploration. And it's been super cool seeing people get to experience it.

[00:11:01.991] Kent Bye: Yeah, it was interesting for me to go into that experience and to have things not be perfect. Actually, what happened the first time was that I went in and it wasn't aligned. And I said, is it aligned? And it's like, oh, it's a little off. And then they tried it again. And then not all the trackers ended up tracking it. And then I actually had to come back. And so then I came back another time. And then I was like, okay, like whatever disconnect that's going to be is like, I think it's part of the experience. And then even when I was in the experience, I have what my proprioceptive experience of where my body is and where things are at. And then have this visual representation that you're actually kind of cycling through a number of different types of avatars and embodiments. And each of them were different, but none of them felt like it was my body. And so as I was like thinking about it afterwards, I was like, oh yeah, that did actually create this sense of a disconnect or dysphoria of not actually being completely connected to my body. And so was that something that was very deliberate and intentional of trying to like, because the avatars that you have are kind of like skewed in a certain way that, or stylized that probably don't fit anybody's body perfectly. And so you have these sets of different avatars that are kind of like, Different things are aligning in different ways, but through cycling through all those you get this experience of this misalignment So maybe could connect the dots a little bit about how that embodied experience of misalignment is connected to the themes that you're covering

[00:12:17.688] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, absolutely. So when building our characters, I believe we had 10 different skeletons and the skeletons had different proportions, different sizes. And so when you calibrate that, they all, even though your physical body has one calibration, you assign 10 different skeletons, they all kind of move a different way. So that to me was really fun in developing and experiencing and just kind of like seeing how changing the size of the neck affects looking in a mirror, and giving these characters that stylized sense of movement that you're talking about. And what we really wanted to do through all of that is, without saying it explicitly, we wanted to touch on The thing that connects all of these throughout the experience is the soul. You are the soul. This glowing entity that you dissolve in and out of, that's the soul. It's the one thing that we all have. It's why our experience takes place inside a human ribcage with heart and lungs and veins and arteries. That's a genderless space. It's something we all have. We all come from the same organic material, the same parts. We all have that same intrinsic thing and we come in all sorts of different Sizes and movements and shapes and colors and genders and expressions and identities and we come in all sorts of different forms But we are all human.

[00:13:34.128] Kent Bye: We're all one Yeah, and maybe you could talk about the environmental design of being inside of that body because you have this heart beating you have these other things that are organic in a way, but maybe Creatively interpreted because it's a hollow body. Obviously if you're inside of a body, it would look a lot different So it's a it's a creative treatment of a body. So what were you trying to create that sense of being inside of that body? I

[00:13:56.670] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, organic material, things that you can touch and feel, that kind of like tactile sense of touch and organic matter is super important to me in all of my work, through my films, through my performances, and now my exploration in XR. So with this piece, what we really wanted to do was two things. One was create a genderless space, one that was explicitly human, but had no gender assigned to it. without realizing it, assigned gender to certain things. Certain types of architecture have a gender to them. A brutalist architecture has a different gender than a neoclassical one does. And so we wanted to create something that was totally genderless, while at the same time, we wanted to visualize the metaphor of being trapped inside your own skin and being trapped inside your own body. and that sense of discomfort and claustrophobia and entrapment that one gets when you feel literally trapped and held hostage by your own skin. And throughout the experience, as you saw, the world blossoms into a garden, the heart transforms into a strawberry, the lungs become a tree, the veins become vines, and the whole thing grows into this safe space, this garden, and it becomes a big metaphor for growing into your own skin. for reclaiming your body and making it something beautiful.

[00:15:16.530] Kent Bye: It's interesting that you point out that the experience had this constrained aspect of being a prison-like experience of being trapped in your body, especially considering that when you moved into the physical installation it was in this like super tiny conference room that was you didn't have a lot of space to move around there wasn't it was way more constrained than most exhibition spaces that I've seen because you're you know having two people go through this experience in a way that doesn't have a lot of room and so I'd love for you to maybe expand on that metaphor of like this being a prisoner of your own body and how that is specifically part of the trans experience.

[00:15:51.190] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, absolutely. I think one thing that has been super interesting to see is the reactions that people have and the different reactions, even from cis people, a lot of times there's such strong emotional reactions because even though this idea of being trapped inside your own body and being hostage by your skin is obviously a very specific trans experience, there's also universal qualities to that and not feeling right in your own body, not feeling comfortable in your own skin. So, you know, with the trans experience, what this experience was doing was taking stories from trans people, taking interviews and stories that we collected with them, and building a space that allowed them to just speak and be heard and be, like, truly listened to. And so the whole garden metaphor came from one of those interviews with a close friend of mine, a trans woman. She described her existence as a human, as being in this garden, and through all these interviews, the world just kind of, like, naturally came out of that. It's been a lot of tears and a lot of hugs here at South by Southwest. And a lot of those come from just this people who just relate to that idea of not liking a certain part of your body, not feeling comfortable with that, not feeling comfortable with the way you move or the way you see yourself. And what's been really, really, really special is seeing the transformation that some people have had coming out of the experience and literally looking at their skin in a different way.

[00:17:19.200] Kent Bye: Yeah, what were some of those reactions that you were getting throughout the week?

[00:17:23.468] Cameron Kostopoulos: Again, a lot of tears and a lot of hugs, which is super special. So because our experience and our booth was set up in the main ballroom, and the actual headsets and computers were in a space across the hall, I was mostly only getting to see people after they had already come out of it. So I didn't get to see too many people inside the experience, but a lot of people would come find me afterwards and would be crying, giving me hugs, and that was always just so special. I always loved seeing that. You know, we had one person who They came, gave me a hug, the tears, and I said, I can't talk to you right now. I'm going to start crying again. I'm going to walk around. I'm going to take a breath. I'll tell you 50 minutes. I'm going to come back. And they came back and started crying again. Jessica Brillhart, one of the judges, had a really, really strong emotional reaction, which our team was ecstatic about. It meant a lot coming from her. But she was crying. And when we gave her the whole back story, she was crying even more. We had one man who, he was a cis man. You could tell. The transformation he had, taking off the headset, taking it off, the way he was moving was suddenly much more free and loose than when he had come in, which was more stoic and rigid. So seeing people actually relate to this trans narrative is super special because you know it's one thing to hear about these issues with trans legislation and trans politics and and trans bodies and you know we'll never fully understand anyone else's experience but to actually form that connection and form that empathy with queer people an emotional connection. You need that emotional connection. So seeing people relate to that and relate to themselves and through that connect to trans narratives has been just super, super special and super rewarding.

[00:19:19.907] Kent Bye: Yeah, I wanted to dive into both the embodied aspects of the experience, but also maybe first touch on the oral history testimonies that you included in here because it's like an audio stream that's coming in. So in that sense, it's sort of a disembodied voice of God that's sort of like you hear these different trans people talking about what it's like to be in their bodies and So maybe you could talk about that process of reaching out to different members of the trans community and what kind of arcs you saw of the types of stories that people were talking about that you wanted to cover in terms of different themes that you wanted to talk about.

[00:19:53.388] Cameron Kostopoulos: Totally. Um, so I'm, I was, I'm come from Texas. I was raised in Texas. And so obviously lately this has not been the most welcoming state or kind state to trans people. So a lot of these stories come from trans people living in Texas who have not just the experience of being trans, but being trans in a place that is not kind or super welcoming to them simply existing. And so throughout this whole process, we've just talked with so many people, trans men, trans women, non-binary people, intersex people, gender fluid people. One of my favorite interviews was with one of my friends who's a pregnant trans male. And that was a super fascinating conversation and a super unique perspective. And what we did is just put all those together to kind of try to show that gender dysphoria is not necessarily one thing. It's different for everyone else. For some people, it's more a social thing. For some people, it is more a biological thing. For some people, it exists in certain parts of their bodies, and for other people, others. Even what trans means, the definition of trans, or their understanding and expression of male, female, in between, whatever, those things that you sometimes take for granted, that is so individualized as well. So each of these conversations comes at it from a very different point of view of what it means to be trans and what dysphoria is. And so by putting them all together, we kind of just offer an exploration of all these different experiences and allow you to just discover them yourself.

[00:21:35.967] Kent Bye: Yeah, I thought that the stories were really quite compelling. And sometimes what happens to me is that the embodied experience and the visuals that sometimes can be so overwhelming that I almost would have to go back and listen to some, like, I feel like I got probably an 85 or, you know, 75% of all those stories, but sometimes there'd be like moments of me really focusing what's happening in my body and the experience of what's happening in my body and the environment, and then have this other more cognitively or mentally delivered abstract Communication that's coming from this omniscient place and so I feel like the juxtaposition of those two things for me at least My brain tends to prioritize both the body and the visuals and then has to kind of like think about what's happening And so like I guess that's the the challenge of a piece like this is that it's fusing those two together So if there's anything for me, it's like trying to like integrate all that together

[00:22:25.397] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, you got it right on the head. So the experience is divided in like two halves. The first half, you're exploring your body, touching different parts of your body and finding these different interviews. Touching your stomach is that conversation with a pregnant trans male and your chest is an interview with the top surgery. You're kind of discovering these things yourself at your own time, your own pace. And the second half is when this whole thing blossoms with a garden and it becomes more about gender euphoria and reclaiming your body. And that's where more my filmmaker, my storytelling brain comes in. And those interviews are selected and play out and you are cycling through all these bodies and you're still interacting and moving and existing and looking at yourself and interacting in that way. But as far as the world transforming and the interviews in that part, it plays more like a film because we wanted to still have that drama and still that creative control as artists to give you a curated experience.

[00:23:23.953] Kent Bye: Yeah and so this first part where it is focusing on your embodiment in this avatar and you're looking into a mirror and Mel Slater has done a lot of research in embodiment in VR and there's this idea of the virtual body ownership illusion which is that if you feel like there's a correspondence to as you move your body and you have the proprioceptive experience of where your hand should be and you see a corresponding reflection of that hand then you can start to identify with that body. And then on top of that, if you see a reflection of yourself and you are like touching yourself, then that can also start to invoke different dimensions of the virtual body ownership illusion. I think a lot of the research that he's done, there's like the rubber hand illusion, which is external stimulation of people touching you because When you're touching yourself, you kind of have that self-feedback system. So invoking the virtual body ownership illusion by touching yourself is not as easy if someone else is touching you. And so for me, I don't know how much I was fully believing that was my body. I've done so much VR. But maybe someone who is newer to VR can maybe sort of slipstream into that virtual body ownership illusion. But having a full body at least helps guide that to that point. But I'd love to hear any ways that you have tried to figure out this challenge of how to get people onboarded into their body, you know, having things like the mirror, having things like people touch themselves, and if there was other considerations for trying to really invoke this sense of the virtual body ownership illusion.

[00:24:43.278] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, definitely. Having that sense of ownership that you're talking about and being able to believe in that enough to immerse yourself in the experience is definitely super important. That's why you chose the headset that we did, the Vive Pro Eye. The ability to see yourself blink, to me, was one of the most immersive parts. I thought that was crucial to be able to get up close to the mirror and actually blink to look at your hands, see your fingers move. We glued a leap motion to the front in order to do that. and with the legs that the quests don't have yet so the tech we are using was chosen with all of that in mind and you know I think that with experiences like this especially when they come from a team with like no budget and like no crew or anything just super super indie super there is also you know a level of expectation of what you are and are not gonna get from experience like this and so You know, we had a couple people who afterwards, we were like, what'd you think? And kind of their only comment was, oh, the tracking was a little off. And you know, for me as a storyteller, and when you're presented with a story, there is a level of disbelief. There is a level of suspense of disbelief that you give in order to immerse yourself and experience something. And so the, the couple of people who just said, oh, the tracking was a little off. I couldn't get into it. Well, I don't think you tried hard enough. I think you were focused on the wrong parts. Obviously all this is kind of worked into the piece and that this is the dysphoria and that's why it's perfect for VR because we're able to kind of embrace where tech is right now and use that to comment on something. But if you just come into it with the mindset of I want perfect tracking and if it drops out at any point, if it ruins, you know, if the body gets ruined for even a moment, then I hate it. I'm done. Then, well, just, you know, just take the headset off because you're just not going to enjoy the story. We are artists and we are storytellers and we're using this medium. We're not, yeah, we're not, we're not, we didn't build these trackers. We didn't, we're using what we have to tell a story and kind

[00:26:52.380] Kent Bye: You know if you're not willing to come with us and give us that suspense of disbelief then sorry Yeah, I think there is there's a sensitive nature to presence for people for what it takes You know what Mel Slater calls the plausibility illusion So what what is it all the things that you believe that it's real and so the way that Mel Slater sort of describes it is like this house of cards in some ways and that if you have anything that takes you out of the experience. And it's sort of like when you're watching a movie and you have your suspension of disbelief, but there's enough of a plot gap and you're basically like, ah, I'm no longer committed to like suspending my disbelief. And then it's like a trust that has to be rebuilt. And so I think when you talk about embodiment and you see different aspects of your arm, move around or something like that like glitch out like there is an element of that dysphoria that's created but it can also like create this sense of like plausibility of the embodiment that is disrupted and it is a thing that kind of has to be rebuilt so I think it's one of those sensitive things that unfortunately with the glitches in the technology it's and also each person has their own sensitivity for what it takes for them to feel really committed into that suspension of disbelief and that sense of plausibility so I feel like the cultivation of presence is like an art that We're still kind of like figuring out in experiences, but you know with the early stage of the technology for me I have less judgment as to like whether or not because I have enough experience of my own where I know that some Specific thing could take me out of an experience. I know that Felix and Paul was showing a little AR demo on Magic Leap and I there was a few show markers on the book and with augmented reality you have this challenge of trying to like keep up with what the movement is but you have all the natural delays because your eyes are picking up the microseconds of things that are moving and that with video pass through you'd be able to completely control that but with like an AR device there's going to be a slight jitter so having that slight jitter was like I don't know if I fully believe that there's a magical portal in this book because it's like Moving around too much for me to completely suspend my disbelief So I feel like that suspension of disbelief is for one gonna be different from everybody But also these things that are gonna like take people out of the experience is a tricky thing to know or predict So anyway, that's my feedback

[00:29:01.797] Cameron Kostopoulos: Oh yeah, absolutely. And you know, if we had used like a $20,000 mocap suit or a $5,000 mocap suit, some of those glitches would have been a lot better, but that's like, that was like our entire, literally the cost of our entire booth. We don't have those resources, that money to do that. So yeah, when we talk about all this being in the early stages of technology, and when we talk about VR and VR experiences in general, we also have to take into account where these things come from because VR is still not an accessible medium and the resources to, get certain pieces of technology especially for like up-and-coming artists like ourselves it just doesn't exist so yeah and i totally agree and believe him with everything you're saying but thankfully for us most of our glitches happen on the back end before you get into the headset for the few people that did have some wonkiness for the most part people It didn't ruin the experience and, you know, we're still taking home an award, so we got some great positive feedback. But yeah, I think as the tech progresses and, you know, we get rid of these microseconds, we get rid of these glitches and things progress, we also should be working towards making sure all of that is, like, accessible to artists like our team who wants to use that to tell their story.

[00:30:18.420] Kent Bye: Yeah, for me what was interesting is that in the moment I had this like as it glitches out. It's almost like this Simulating aspects of depersonalization where it's sort of like my sense of self is kind of like disrupted in a way But it was afterwards I was thinking about I was like oh actually the whole themes of this is all about the dysphoria So like it's kind of like trying to simulate different aspects of the dysphoria obviously it's gonna be different to try to actually recreate the exact experience of a gender dysphoria, but I feel like in this virtual experience of having those different types of affordable five tracker glitches that it thematically actually fits with what you were trying to do so

[00:30:53.352] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, thank you. Yeah. We had people who are way more experienced with this technology than we are come through and try it. Honestly, we're like the newbies here. We've only really been doing XR for about a year, year and a half. So to be at a world class event is crazy. And honestly, like our average audience has been doing this like much longer than we have. So, you know, we had many, many people from HTC come through and experience it. Obviously, they made the trackers, so they know this tech. people have been working in virtual production and VR with these trackers for years and years and years and For the most part the reaction was exactly what we wanted. It was the reaction was oh, we've worked with these trackers before We know how they are. We know that they glitch out. They're not reliable. They're super sensitive but what made them really resonate with ours and yeah, what really sold it to them was the fact that we just accepted it and told a story through that and with that and Just like you're saying, just accept that that is the dysphoria of the piece. Instead of trying... Obviously we're trying to push the tag as far as we can, but... you know, the limitations of seven point tracking is still there, which is what you're wearing. You know, if you're wearing an Apple watch, if you're wearing baggy clothes that cover the trackers, if you like go in a certain pose and you totally obstruct the view of the trackers, like those things are just inherent limitations that sometimes there's nothing we can do about. And so what has been like super cool about getting this, like these reactions from, professionals have been doing this so much longer than us is that, you know, the, hey, you did something cool because you you worked with it and made it work and sold it to us. So that was super special. And I'm glad that for the most part, people were willing to buy into it.

[00:32:40.960] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd love for you to maybe elaborate on the 10 different avatars that you have because, you know, you have a selection of different trans-identified avatars and the way that they look and the style, because you're essentially staying there as somewhat of a naked body, not completely naked, but at least you're kind of looking at your body and seeing all the tattoos and all the other haircuts and, you know, maybe you could just talk about the process of designing these 10 different trans characters.

[00:33:07.865] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, absolutely. So we wanted to represent just like a wide array of humans of all different bodies and colors and sizes and backgrounds and genders. So we've got some characters with top surgery scars, we've got some male presented characters, female presented characters. Some that are a little bit more androgynous, some that are all tattooed up, some that are a little bit more naked and just regular skin. I don't know what you'd call it, non-tattooed skin. So when creating these, we wanted the experience to be as human as it could be. In order to make it feel superhuman, we wanted to just have the characters look as different from each other as they could. While designing them, we tried to make sure that no two characters were super similar. You know, we've got some that are really sexy, some that are really androgynous, some that are really tame, some that are just curvy and thick and thin. And, you know, the whole theme of the piece is about accepting our bodies and reclaiming our bodies and accepting the humanity and the beauty that is in all of our bodies. Like circling back, like inherent in all my work is this sense of body. I've done a lot of stuff with body horror, with dancers and movement, the choreography and the movement of the body. And so this piece was a step further in going inside a literal body and your relationship with your body. So while designing these characters, we wanted that sense of diversity because the more different they look, the better, because that will strengthen the idea that we're all human.

[00:34:41.535] Kent Bye: Right, so now that you've won this special jury award here at South by Southwest, what's next for where you take this project from here?

[00:34:48.713] Cameron Kostopoulos: It's crazy, you know, coming here, we just had like a dream and a hope. We took a big risk. I literally maxed out my credit cards last week and had to put up a GoFundMe. And I'm literally right now just existing off what people have Venmo'd me and GoFundMe. I'm about to make a big return to Best Buy so I can afford to rent. So we took a risk and we had no idea of what to expect, what's come after. And it has just totally paid off. It's been awesome. So many opportunities have opened up, so many people have come up to us and just offered us the most special things. We've gotten invitations to all over the world with our piece, and even after winning the prize last night, the amount of people who have already messaged us and trying to make things happen, just the most surreal opportunities and experiences. You know, this is definitely going to be the first stop of many for this piece. It's definitely going to be traveling around the world. We're just starting our tour. And so, you know, for a first VR experience, it's just a dream come true. And it's just, you know, everything that we hope for. We're going to be traveling with this piece. We're going to be working on the next pieces. Currently, I've got a few other VR projects in the works, some films in the works, but yeah, I'm still like processing everything that was South by Southwest. It was my first big festival as a director and it was everything we hoped for and more. So, you know, we're going to be traveling a bunch and we're going to have to sit down and just figure out, yeah, exactly, I'm not entirely sure where our next stop is, but this is definitely the first of many.

[00:36:24.146] Kent Bye: Yeah, just in terms of the financial realities of this ecosystem is that the unfortunate thing is that there's not, I mean, there are different opportunities to show these things in museums and have commission prices, but the festival circuit generally is a lot of stuff that's out of your own pocket and you have to pay for it. Some festivals have docents. Sometimes you have to do all the emotional labor of being at the booth and making sure that all the technology is working and everything. And especially in a piece like this, I don't know if you'd be able to even have external volunteers do it because it's so technically difficult because of all the trackers and everything else. And so you had a whole crew of support and people that were also here volunteering their time. So yeah, I guess if you were to think about what were other things that you would hope for to create more of a supportive or a system that would make it so that you didn't have to max out your credit cards just to be here.

[00:37:17.173] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, I'm so glad you asked that. It's something that like we've been talking about. Me and my team have been thinking about a lot this week. Coming into the ballroom, even the first day, we had such a crazy imposter syndrome. The first thing we saw when we walked in was like a 15 foot wall that had been constructed for a VR concert. And we looked around, we see literally these projects that have six digits, like two, three, $400,000 behind them. It's crazy companies and all these suits and gadgets and We literally, like, had nothing but, like, we have negative money, we're in debt right now, so. And we were the youngest ones in the room, the least experienced ones there, so that sense of imposter syndrome was just, like, crazy. And as far as, like, the finances of something like this goes, you know, when I've premiered short films before, that's a much easier thing to show to people. You send your DCP, you send the video file, and really the only thing you're spending money on is the flight to get there and some food, it's pretty manageable. For something like this, you know, you're building a whole booth. You need a whole team You can't just go yourself like you need people to run the thing you need you're spending money on all this stuff It's extremely expensive and I think you know with being the youngest ones here It was it was a little bit of a reality check of like, oh wow we are super lucky and super privileged to be here because most people our age like are wouldn't have the means to do this. This was only possible with the support of Nani de la Pena, and both USC and ASU, and I've got the most amazing friends in the world. Our whole team is just a group of friends who just wanted to come by, come through, and they're all super hardworking, super talented. So, I just, yeah, it was, we barely squeaked it by, but at the same time, it's a little disheartening to think of all the indie projects that can't be here because they can't afford to do that. I wish, you know, South By, they don't provide you anything except the space. They don't help cover travel costs, expense for the booth. Blake and Haley from South by have just been amazing though and they've helped us out, they've arranged for some headsets for us and they helped where they could but you know I think that these festivals should have opportunities where you know I just don't think it's fair to expect the same of us that you do from a product completely funded by Facebook and to be in competition with people across the room who are completely funded by Facebook is, you know, it's hard. So I wish that these festivals had more of a support system, grants that you could apply to for emerging artists, you know, like accepted filmmaker grants or something where you can get some money for your booth if you don't have funding. Because without that, festivals are limiting the kind of immersive experiences that come here and they're limiting it to only the people who can afford it. So we are super, super lucky and super privileged to be here and so happy about that. But I just really hope that as immersive technology grows and these experiences, more people get into them, that we start to open that up to more people by giving more support to allow them to do it.

[00:40:20.973] Kent Bye: Yeah, just even as a speaker here, there's, again, no other support. Like, I have to pay my way to fly here and stay here and everything. So yeah, just if you are going to have opportunities to show here, then yeah, just other ways to think about how to support the artists, especially as a for-profit entity. And I don't know what their finances are or whatnot, but just help the industry and for people to open up the access for being able to even create and show stuff. Because yeah, like you said, it's totally not feasible for most people. Anyway, just as we start to wrap up here, I'd love to hear from you, what do you think the ultimate potential of VR is and what do you think it might be able to enable?

[00:40:58.254] Cameron Kostopoulos: Yeah, so I approach all of my content focused on intimacy and empathy and creating really intimate and personal stories. And so when I think about the potential of VR and where it's going to, I think that the real power of VR is going to be in the connection that it forms. The first VR experience that I did that like made me cry and still like one of my favorite experiences is Lucas' Where Thoughts Go. I look up to that piece, you know, the human connection element of it, of just hearing these anonymous thoughts and putting your own is just like so moving and so touching and I think it kind of gets at a similar idea that ours does is that VR can create these spaces and these really powerful connections by forming relationships with people that you may know or may not necessarily know. You know, you see worlds like VRChat and you see, you know, did you see the documentary we met in virtual reality? Like, yeah, you see these really special friendships, these special relationships. you create these intimate spaces where, like our experience, it really only works because it's a private thing. It's your relationship with your body, and through that, you're connecting with trans stories, which isn't, you know, with traditional film, you're watching someone and trying to relate to that, but for this story, it really needed to be you and your body and how that relates to someone else's story. So, you know, I think as the tech grows and grows and grows and You know, the one day when you're able to just throw on a headset and you're just your full body is just there. And we've got crazy graphics cards where everything is just like photorealistic. And, you know, using AI tools to enable creators to create their own worlds and open up immersive content creation to more people, I think and I hope that we see a lot of experiences that connect people. I think with the pandemic we saw, we could have really used that then. We were all so isolated that having something like that would be so special. And I think we're building towards it. But I think, for me at least, one of the ultimate potentials of VR is just an incredible tool for human connection.

[00:43:05.821] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:43:11.787] Cameron Kostopoulos: I feel like I've started to step my way through the door just being here. I'm super excited to continue creating more experiences. Stay on the lookout for more pieces coming from us. I'll also add that, I mentioned we had such an imposter syndrome. We were kind of nervous walking through the door, but being here, everyone was so kind and so nice and so supportive. They call it an XR competition, but it didn't feel like that. Genuinely, everyone was just so inspiring, so kind. They saw us running around that first day, stressed out, crying, and they were like, what can we do, what can we do, what can we do? Everyone here has just been amazing. I didn't expect that sense of community and we're all in this together. It just really made us feel so welcomed and just so great about, like, and the team here at South by Southwest, you know, Blake and Haley and Vanessa, the people who run the show, I've just been, you know, we stress them out so much. with our tech issues, but they were so supportive throughout the whole thing and just wanted to see us shine. And just, yeah, everyone here has just been so, so, so amazing. So it just makes me feel really positive and really great about like where this industry is going. It makes me super excited to keep coming to these and keep creating things alongside these super inspiring people.

[00:44:37.479] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, congratulations on your win here at South by Southwest. And yeah, your innovations with using embodiment and this kind of mirroring effect and full body tracking. And to be able to have this embodied dysphoria connection to these trans stories that are being told, I thought it worked really quite well. And yeah, just a really beautiful piece. And yeah, look forward to seeing where else you go in the future and what else you start to create. So yeah, thanks again for joining me here on the podcast to help break it all down.

[00:45:03.905] Cameron Kostopoulos: Thank you so much. It's been super fun chatting.

[00:45:07.294] Kent Bye: So that was Cameron Kostopoulos. He's the director of Body of Mind VR, which won a special jury prize at South by Southwest and is a part of the XR Experience competition. So I have a number of takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, overall, this is just a really powerful piece in terms of the themes that it's exploring. And you're in the context of a body, which is in this genderless space. And over time, you see these organs that get transformed into this beautiful garden. It's a deep sense of an embodied presence where you have this full body tracking and you're looking at yourself in a mirror and you're instructed to touch different parts of your body. And as you touch your different parts of your body, then it launches into these different vignettes and oral history testimonies from different trans-identified folks. Cameron wanted to create this place of shelter from his own queer identified experience of being exiled and rejected by his family and wanted to create a place of refuge and to explore these different themes in these stories from his trans identified friends and You know, he's from Texas and has interviews from folks in Texas and he's more conservative red states in the United States there's just a lot of anti-trans legislation that's happening right now and Yeah, he wanted just to create this place of refuge and to create a genderless place inside of the body to connect to how there are these fundamental aspects of how we're all Human in that sense and so it's taking place inside of the body But then over time having these organs get transformed into this beautiful garden that's unfolding So yeah, anytime you have narration of an audio that's coming in through the omniscient voice of God narration where you're hearing these voices, I do find a little bit of like a cognitive load of like the visual sense is completely dominating for me, especially with such a visual embodied experience like this. So it is like a little bit harder to always fully parse all the different stories at least for me I mean people have different temperamental biases for how they consume and integrate information But for me the body is so dominant as well as the visual field and the audio sometimes just thinking about are there other ways to? amplify or to highlight or visually represent to focus in on some of those different narration components, but I There is this deep sense of embodiment and thinking about this concept of the virtual body ownership illusion of what it takes to really feel like you're embodied into these different bodies. And there was a certain amount of glitchiness when I had my own experience. And so there is this concept of a breaks in presence and sometimes when you have the technology glitch out, it does create these breaks in presence. And when you have a break in presence, then how do you start to rebuild up this house of card that's been yanked out? Yeah, I personally had a number of those different types of experiences of the glitching out of the technology that took me out of the experience. There's like a seven point body trackers where you have two on your feet, two on your wrists, two on your elbows and one in your waist. And I'm not sure if I had all of them on my body or my elbow, if they had all seven points, but sometimes my elbow would sort of start to glitch out. So there is a certain amount of sensitivity that can happen when you're really cultivating this deep sense of embodied presence and when there's technology, things that can kind of get in that way. But at the same time, I feel like what Cameron was able to do with this piece was just really powerful to be able to explore these different stories and to do it in a way that you are seeing yourself throughout these different embodiments. And there is this, I guess, sort of induced dysphoria that is deliberate in a way that there's a certain alignment that happens with these body trackers and you know, as it's slightly misaligned, or it's certainly offset, or my proprioceptive reaction of my experience of my body is slightly different with the virtual representation, which could be a blocker for that virtual body ownership illusion. But at the same time, thematically, this piece is exploring aspects of dysphoria, disconnection, maybe aspects of depersonalization that can start to happen where you feel disconnected from aspects of your body but certainly the body dysphoria and to a certain extent the gender dysphoria as you're cycling through these different trans identified avatar representations which in all my different experiences in VR this is probably the most diverse representation of those different types of trans identified bodies that I was able to experience in a virtual environment which was quite interesting to go through and cycle through all these different types of embodiment and just to see what happens in my body and what it feels like to be embodying in these different avatars and to have them be slightly off or slightly disjunctive or they're disconnected from my embodied proprioceptive reaction and to use that in a deliberate sense to kind of really lean into it in a way that it's thematically reflecting this deeper aspect of people feeling outside of their bodies or uncomfortable in their bodies or a this body dysmorphia or gender dysphoria that is being explored in the context of the themes of this piece and so I could definitely see why it was awarded with a special jury prize because it is exploring not only the topics that are very timely and important but in a way that's using the aspects of embodiment of virtuality in a form of storytelling that I think is actually quite unique to be able to give people a direct embodied experience of some of these things. So Yeah, and also just a comment on the DIY indie spirit of these recent college graduates and all the friends that are coming together to come and make this happen and the types of technical difficulties that they had in the first day where they had to go into a whole other separate area to get everything set up. And so I was there very early on the press day and saw all the different difficulties that they were having. you know, what ended up being a lot of Bluetooth interference. And I'm glad that they're able to find another place to actually make it work. And I don't know actually if they're going to continue to have that type of interference problems because of the new self-tracking trackers that HTC just announced at GDC, like a week after the South by Southwest, where it's basically the same thing as like the camera-based trackers of the Quest Pro trackers that have cameras embedded within the controller so they can track themselves. Similarly, these five self-tracking trackers are like the third iteration of their five trackers that are doing a lot of these different embodiment explorations. I believe they were using the first generation trackers and there's a second generation and there's a third generation that are coming out. And so there's going to be maybe a less reliance upon being occluded by the base stations, but you know, any track can still get occluded and we'll have to still have enough features within the environment to latch onto and be able to track. And so, It's just trade-offs in terms of doing this type of full-body tracking because it may end up still be using certain aspects of the Bluetooth communication that is not going to be escaping some of the different interference issues that they've faced at this exhibition context. Anytime you have a bunch of people doing XR exhibitions, you know, this is a challenge that has reoccurred over the number of years of just the way that these different systems can interfere with each other in subtle ways. And so, yeah, just in this case, it ended up being the conference room itself having Bluetooth interference that they had to work around. Yeah, they had to find ways of overcoming different aspects of being exiled out. But yeah, just the perseverance they were able to do that and just the amount of resources it takes to be able to pull off going to these different exhibitions and show something like this and to find that kind of entrepreneurial and DIY artist underground, make things happen type of impulse. Yeah, they had a really epic installation that was there that Cameron ended up hanging out and both signing people up in and then be in a place where people could go check in with them afterwards. Yeah, just the whole financial economic realities of this situation and how he had to go into credit card debt to do all this. And so, yeah, he's got a GoFundMe if you want to support this effort to do an exhibition like this. And yeah, just overall, the economic realities of what it takes to be able to both create this type of immersive art and to be able to exhibit it and all the different financial obligations that are put upon you for both traveling and hotels and exhibition, the installation, everything else. It's just a lot for people to do so. Anyway, glad to be able to talk with him after the award ceremony that happened just the night before and then for Cameron and the whole team to be honored, I think is super exciting and validating for his first festival experience. So. Anyway, this was the body of mind VR and some really powerful explorations of embodiment, exploring different themes of trans identity, and which, again, is a very timely topic as well. So that's all I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, and please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a list of supported podcasts. And so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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