#512: Experiential Poems: Exploring Emotions & Embodied Vulnerability with Cabbibo

cabbibo2Using language to translate an experience into words is one of the highest levels of abstraction that you can have. Using the power of visual metaphor through poetry is able to get to deeper levels of emotion, and virtual reality is able to remove nearly all levels of abstraction by tricking your senses into having a direct sensory experience within your body. Indie VR artist Isaac “Cabbibo” Cohen has started to create a sort of “Experiential Poem” with virtual reality exploring how to invoke complicated emotions that transcend words.

I had a chance to catch up with Cabbibo at GDC to talk about his process of using VR for emotional exploration. He was previewing a couple of new experiences at the Valve booth including a picture-book VR narrative called Delilia’s Gift, and a social VR environment called Ring Grub Island that was designed for mutual exploration and embodied vulnerability.


Cabbibo has released four brief experiences and games on Steam so far including Blarp, L U N E, Warka Flarka Flim Flam, My Lil’ Donut, which explore new types of embodied gameplay in VR that begs us to use our bodies in new ways. The building an imaginary fortress type of experience in L U N E catalyzed a deep emotional reaction from many users like this one from Hyperion, Half way through this I crouched to the floor and burst out in tears.”

Cabbibo told me last year that his favorite experience to date has been Irrational Exhuberance, and there haven’t been a lot of other experiences that have inspired him to use his body to explore a space and contemplate the meaning of existence in quite the same way.

Now he’s on his own journey now to create more of these experiential poem VR experiences that try to capture the essence of an emotion. After starting therapy last year, he’s been finding VR to be a robust expressive medium for exploring and playing with his own emotional states that is more interesting than his early experiments in embodied gameplay. He’s beginning to explore what it means to explore vulnerability within embodied and social context, and in the end wants to use VR to help people realize how being alive is such a miracle. Cabbibo is doing some of the most groundbreaking explorations of discovering some of the unique affordances of VR as an artistic medium, but more importantly using VR as a mirror to learn more about what it means to be human.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So I'm back from GDC this year, the Game Developers Conference, which happens every spring in San Francisco. And I was there for six days and did about 32 different interviews covering all the different latest innovations in the realm of virtual reality. And there's lots to cover, lots to unpack from my trip that I'll be putting out over the next couple of months. But I just wanted to start with an interview that I did with Isaac Cohen. It goes by Khabibo. So Khabibo is an artist at heart who is trying to cultivate these experiences where you're fully embodied and able to have these highly dynamic interactive experiences with these environments. And so He had just released a multiplayer experience, which was really trying to just cultivate this sense of emotional vulnerability in a group context. And Isaac has a lot of deep thoughts about this and has created four other experiences that are on Steam right now. So I'll be diving into some of the latest thinking from one of my favorite VR artists, Khabibo, on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Voices of VR Patreon campaign. The Voices of VR podcast started as a passion project, but now it's my livelihood. And so if you're enjoying the content on the Voices of VR podcast, then consider it a service to you in the wider community and send me a tip. Just a couple of dollars a month makes a huge difference, especially if everybody contributes. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Khabibo happened at the Valve booth at GDC in San Francisco on March 3rd, 2017. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:01.068] Isaac Cohen: I'm Isaac. I go by Khabibo. I've been making a bunch of games. I have four things on Steam now. Blarp, Warkafarkafumflam, My Little Donut, and Loon. And I'm working on a piece right now called Delilah's Gift that I don't know exactly when it's going to be out, but hopefully soon. Great.

[00:02:18.321] Kent Bye: So what do you think is kind of the underlying theme amongst all these projects that you've been working on lately here?

[00:02:23.894] Isaac Cohen: Yeah, that's a really hard one to answer. I think that's sort of, for me, the biggest thing is like, what is the thing that can be said that could not be said before? Sort of how do we begin to expand our concept of what reality is? And for some of them, like Blarp and Waka Flocka Flim Flam, The expansion is like a physical one, it's just like how do we use our bodies in new ways, how do we create new game mechanics. I'm not really interested in what they're saying about that new place that they're discovering, aside from like there's some things about like when you design for physical spaces you can design for delicacy, you can like make somebody move slowly, you can make somebody move calmly instead of like the way that we normally interact with computers but in general it's just about the fact that like it's a new thing and it's a new physical thing and that's fun but for things like Loon and Delilah's Gift it's like okay what are these emotions that might have been difficult to say before that now are less difficult and Loon specifically is this one that like I didn't really know what the emotion was until I like read these Steam reviews and I was like oh my god like people were like crying and like one person was like this hit a particular nail on the head the tritone nail of beauty awe and boundless love and I was like oh wait that is actually absolutely emotion I was going for and I couldn't even describe that emotion so that's the stuff that really really gets me and with Delilah's Gift it sort of is this like it's a story about like learning to breathe deeply and be present with sort of the unknown and the unknown what scares you which I think is sort of like a really important thing for us now in our world is to sort of like practice breath and practice being in this place where we think that we deserve something but it is all the worlds. And I've actually sort of been beginning to describe Delilah's Gift as sort of like a 20-minute picture book that is only there to frame the particle sim at the end. So sort of at the end there's no pages and so all the particles are free to move about and I found that people will like go through the book and it gets them to the place where they're calm enough that now a simple particle sim sort of allows them to explore and contemplate and really unpack the emotions that they had during the experience and then sort of be present with them in the particle sim itself.

[00:04:33.332] Kent Bye: Yeah, it seems like, you know, just as music can express emotions, I feel like VR in the same way can express an emotional feeling in a holistic way that can transcend the ability to be able to break it down into thoughts or words, you know, you just have the entire experience and, you know, in Loon I feel like there is this process of almost like taking me back as a child and building a fort around me and just that sense of creating your own home and that sense of private space and It's almost like a time travel portal to take me back to when I was a kid creating these forts. And I think I heard people talking about that a lot as well. I don't know if that was part of your intention to try to recreate that experience.

[00:05:10.714] Isaac Cohen: Yeah, I definitely made a lot of pillow forts as a kid. So that was a huge part of it. But I think that, yeah, for me, it's the point of that is actually sort of like you spend a lot of time in the home. But in Loon, it's when the home falls away from you. And it sort of is like knowing that the sunset must come and that sort of like, This thing that brings you warmth and brings you comfort from the void and sort of like moves you away from that Scary thing is going to slowly fall away Like I really wanted to make that part as like comforting and loving and as homing and hopefully nostalgic as possible So when it fell away, it's like no, but that thing is like the thing that I was with and like I think that for me that's a lot of what media does is it takes these truths that like for me if when I start to think about like oh my god my childhood oh my god I'm going to die oh my god like everything that has been will never be again it can become so overwhelming and so sort of For me, a lot of the sort of role of media is to almost like be a therapist and sort of like help you unpack these concepts and these emotions that are difficult to describe. But then like when it's like this thing where it's like, OK, like when you get to know that, like, I got to be with this thing and that was enough, that sort of like being present with the emotion and being present and getting that time machine, even if you only get that time machine for just a moment and it's gone before you know it and you destroy the thing itself, just having that moment is enough.

[00:06:37.832] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you're also starting to experiment a little bit with these multiplayer experiences, and I think just yesterday you premiered a new experience where you had many people interacting within the experience at the same time. Maybe you could describe what type of experience you were trying to create in this social context.

[00:06:52.735] Isaac Cohen: Yeah, totally. I mean, I think the thing that I'm the most interested in is letting people be vulnerable with each other. I sort of like imagine, I mean, this sounds pretty hippie, but whatever. All of this has, but sort of like, I kind of imagine us as sort of having this like little tiny rainbow crystal gem at like the very center of our soul and it sort of is this thing that like shimmers light and truth and it's so beautiful and strong but we're so scared because that is our entire being so we sort of put these walls of defense up about it these like black curtains that sort of try to like make sure that nobody ever gets to that crystal gem and every time one of those black curtains break we go oh my god like if that thing was so flimsy and frail like there's no way that my crystal gem could like withstand that much pain and the hope is that like by giving people a toy that they can experience together by giving people a place that sort of puts them in a fragile childlike place they're actually able to remember that like That crystal gem is stronger than like any sexism, homophobia, racism, like all of those evil defenses that we put up. It's so much stronger than that could ever be and it's okay to show that to other people.

[00:08:04.971] Kent Bye: Last year I remember talking to you and it seemed like the theme was all about like curiosity and being able to like create these feedbacks of curiosity such that you go into VR and get curious but then you get connected more to the real world and so you have this thread of there of you know going into the VR and this year I feel like the thread is a little bit of like getting connected to your emotions and getting connected to your emotions in a group situation which is like this vulnerability and so with this collaborative experience what were some of the reactions and how did that actually play out in terms of how people actually experienced it?

[00:08:37.165] Isaac Cohen: Yeah, I mean I think that sort of the fun stuff was when it would be strangers. So a lot of people experienced it together and Chet and Sarah Vogel actually went in there together. It was so cool to come out because like Chet was like oh my god Sarah was a perfect person to do this with because like she knew how to play and she knew how to like he transported inside the golden space worm and then she was just like grabbing the space worm and shaking it. But one of my favorite parts about all of that is that Engaging in the process of discovery with another person, to me, puts you in the place where that vulnerability is paramount. Even for me, I go in there and I made one of the tall green grasses. I had made a version of that before that was on a photogrammetry scan I did a while ago. And I didn't have the interactivity where you could pull on it. And so since I had experienced that, like my view of reality was that tall green grass you can only push, you can't pull. But then I did it in multiplayer and somebody's like, oh cool, you can pull it. And I was like, you, you can pull it, you know? And so sort of like that process of discovery, like I do think that we are totally naked in that moment where we take something from the unknown and we make it known. Like we're totally naked in the moment where we just go like, oh my god there's more and I think that sort of like being together with somebody in that moment is the thing that like puts us in that place.

[00:09:54.436] Kent Bye: Yeah and I'm just curious that like as you're moving forward if there's different types of experiences that you're trying to create for yourself or you're trying to give to other people or what is sort of driving you forward now of some of the big open questions that you're really trying to answer?

[00:10:09.147] Isaac Cohen: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of it is sort of like the stuff that helps me deal with these issues. So like enough, the kid's book that I did with WebGL, it was sort of like after I went through this really hard thing, it was like, why, why am I here? Who am I? Like, what does it mean to be alone? Like, what does it mean to like never get to know exactly what the divine is, you know? And the same thing with Delilah's Gift, it was like, I got cut off by a car once while I was biking and I felt this rage, but then I like took this deep breath and it's like, oh, it's the deep breath. And so I think a lot of it for me is like, it's been really interesting to me because I started doing therapy about like a year ago. And like that has informed my artistic creation so much because I'm exploring these emotions in that place. And then I'm like, oh my God, these emotions are so much richer and deeper and like more fun to play with than like any of the, you know, than Blarp or Warka Flarka Flim Flam. That's for sure. So I think that sort of, it's going to be a lot of that.

[00:11:03.177] Kent Bye: Yeah. It's interesting because you know, I have this elemental theory of presence and last year you were really excited a lot of fire a lot of agency of like Exploring gameplay and it was embodied. So is the earth element. So it was like earth and fire you were like Embodied in your body trying to create new gameplay within VR and this year it's a little bit more of the water element which is all about the emotions and and also the air element, which is doing it in social context. And so it's like an elemental shift from comparing it from last year to this year. You're kind of like taking a holistic approach of exploring the whole realm of gameplay and embodiment within VR, but also what's it mean to go into the depth of soul within a VR experience in a group context.

[00:11:44.582] Isaac Cohen: Yeah, I think that's sort of like the analogy I like to use is that like an artist sort of has this role of being this explorer and they sort of sail around this massive sea and then they find these islands and so they sort of have to decide if the island's worth telling people about or not. So they sort of, there's this first role of like finding truths or islands or whatever we want to call them, but then there's a secondary role which is like building a vessel or a method by which people can get to that location. I think even something like Transformers, the person who found the spark of truth that created that entire thing, maybe, I don't know, but maybe it was a beautiful island. But then they're like, okay, we got to get as many people here as possible. So they built this huge freeway and just plowed over the island itself. So everybody got there, but there's only empty Doritos bags when you finally get there. Whereas somebody like Miyazaki feels like his group, They lovingly and painstakingly craft this canoe or do this thing that is really handmade and row with you out to that place and take you there so that when you finally get to experience that truth, you're prepared for that truth. I don't want to mince any of the understandings of the elements, but I want to get people to err. I want to get people to water. I want to get people to these things that I feel like a lot of our society does not actually value. Not that balance is never not the most important thing, but just that it feels unbalanced towards these other elements. But I do think that one of the most beautiful parts about Akira is that it starts with motorcycle races and violence. And it ends with like, what is God? You know, and I think that taking people and like creating a vessel by which you can take them to a place that they would not normally go to. I think if you started with just a transformation scene of Akira, there'd be some people would be like, yes, I'm there, you know, but the act of moving people from a place where they were to a place that they can be, you know, I think that that's the goal of all of this is not to speak to people where they are, but to bridge gaps and communicate to people we would not normally communicate to.

[00:13:44.506] Kent Bye: Yeah, I kind of think of it as, you know, people who create VR experiences are a little bit like shamans in the way that they're going into the depth of their experiences and then trying to come back. So a shaman will walk into these esoteric internal worlds and get information, come back and then give it to people. And so in the process of giving to people, you create a VR experience that is trying to replicate that same type of dynamic so that people can have a flavor of what that experience that you're really trying to talk about.

[00:14:12.653] Isaac Cohen: Exactly, I think and I think that sort of you know it's a bit scary to say shamanistic I think that it's like very important for us to understand that like this is just another technology you know just like a guitar it's just like you know like any other instrument that we've ever seen but I do think that it's really exciting to sort of have all of the things you're pulling from the ether be new. Like, there are so many times, like these little moments, like I was working on My Little Donut, and I created a gold, pulsing version of it, and then the tracking screwed up, and for a moment, boom, I shot out, and I could see where my hands were, and I could see where the donut was, and I was just like looking down with this crazy, out-of-body experience, and then tracking kicked back in, I was back in there, and it was just this moment of like, oh my God, but like, no human being ever gets to see that but me, and that's pretty sad, but also like really exciting.

[00:15:02.143] Kent Bye: So what do you want to experience in VR then?

[00:15:04.565] Isaac Cohen: For me, it's all about physical, emotional things. I think that, like I said this last year, irrational exuberance is my favorite thing. Still, not that much has even come close to that to me, of sort of like using our physical bodies to understand an emotion that is deep and moving, powerful, and makes it feel like why we are here matters, and makes life itself feel worth it. and I think that obviously that's what I want is to like feel like being here and being alive is worth it and I think that sort of we forget that a lot especially with like all the noise and the jitter and the politics and everything that's happening to us and sort of like wanting to fight against it being like wait like we are a miracle. Like, it is so delicious and I had no words to describe how amazing it is to be alive, you know? And I think that having those moments and giving people those moments is, to me, feels like a deep breath that allows you to engage in a deeper way, in a calmer way, in a more peaceful and loving way with the world.

[00:16:06.374] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:16:13.759] Isaac Cohen: I mean, I think that a lot of what we're talking about of sort of like letting people get closer to the vine, letting people sort of like understand that reality is so much more than we possibly could imagine, is pretty close to the essence of it. For me, a lot of that is through education. I know I talked about Earth Primer last year. To me, like that is again, another part of it. Like sort of educational systems, like I was thinking about designing this educational experience, you know, you start the first week doing springs. second week like doing more springs, third week, you know, like going out, going out, and then finally by like the fifth or sixth week, you like grab two people, you pull them up, and you sort of bring them in and say like, I want you two strangers to talk to each other and like get them to like actually have a conversation and sort of like do learning as much as possible and sort of understand like why the educational system is amazing right now, why it's broken right now, but understand that like teachers are like all superheroes and how can we like let them do their work in new ways. Awesome well thank you so much. Yeah definitely thank you so much as usual.

[00:17:15.368] Kent Bye: So that was Isaac Cohen also known as Khabibo talking about some of his latest VR experiences at GDC in 2017. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all I love Khabibo. I just love all the experiences that he's created so far, just because I think that he's really actually taking a really holistic approach to some of the unique affordances of VR. And he's not only just really exploring embodiment and what you can do with innovative gameplay, but he's also just trying to now create the context of being able to connect to other people in new and different ways. And I actually didn't get an opportunity to play this in a multiplayer context, but I got to experience it individually. And so I haven't had the direct experience of the multiplayer dimension of that, but I still wanted to really explore this type of cultivation of a sense of emotional presence with other people where it's really trying to cultivate this sense of vulnerability. But I've had a chance to try a number of his other different experiences and just the feeling of taking back to my childhood of building a fort and being inside of it. And, you know, he's got these different other hidden elements in that where it's kind of connected to the cycles of the moon as well. So it's an experience that changes as you come back to it day to day. So the thing that was really striking to me was just the change in tone from last year to this year. I think that, like Isaac said, he's been going to see a therapist and just starting to realize how much more interesting it is for him to be able to explore emotions in the context of VR rather than some of these embodied gameplay. You know, some of the games that he's created are great and amazing and fun, and I think it's really kind of pushing the edge of what's even possible with VR. But he's really starting to explore VR as a means of expression, of really communicating a depth of experience and emotion that is really difficult to capture within words. Robin Honecke at the GDC back in November posted this graphic from Edward Counts, and it's this degrees of abstraction. And she has this kind of map between how we use language and all the way down to our direct embodied experience. As you go down these levels of abstraction, you get these, you know, loss that you have in terms of the full breadth of the experience. And so when you try to explain things in language, then you can only tell someone so much. And sometimes you just get to the point where you say, you know, you just kind of had to have been there. You kind of just have to go through the experience. And anybody that has gone through VR knows what that's like when you try to describe what it's like to be in VR. You really actually can't. It's kind of like dancing about architecture. Words can't really fully encompass that experience. And so I've been just learning a lot more about this principles of embodied cognition and reading the book Embodied in the Flesh and just looking about the importance of our body when it comes to perception and construction of reality. And that you really have to engage the full sensory experiences to give that exact experience. And so a lot of what Isaac is saying is that he's in the process of going into these different realms of experience and exploring all these different islands. And for him, he's trying to really decide what islands am I going to try to take people to? What kind of vessel can I create within the context of VR experience to be able to take people to this sense of emotion and feeling? Going back to this map of abstraction, at the very highest level, you have text and verbal symbols. That's whenever we speak. And then you have pictures and visual symbols. Then you move into audio recordings and photos. And so in some ways, this podcast, you're able to get a richer experience of hearing a higher level of embodiment with tone and how people are speaking, much more than just a written account. but then you go to motion pictures and video and then you might go to an exhibit or a field trip or a demonstration or seeing some sort of dramatized experiences so maybe a theater play where they're having some sort of narrative and story that's trying to encompass deeper levels of emotions and you can have an experience of that and then perhaps the deeper level of that is some sort of contrived experiences where you're kind of set up in a situation where it's trying to replicate the training simulation or whatever it is, but it's not actually the real situation. And then at the very bottom is the direct and purposeful experiences. And these are what I would call the embodied experiences or the erlebnis experiences, where it's a direct experience that's engaging all different four elements of your mental and cognitive sense of presence, your active presence, to be able to express your will and agency within the experience. as well as the emotional presence of having some sort of deeper meaning there. And then finally, the body, this actual embodied perception of being able to engage all of your sensory experience within the actual experience. And so this is kind of like the trajectory of VR is just trying to replicate and democratize experience. So Isaac is just really exploring what is even possible to be able to create new context for people to explore, discover, and to be vulnerable. And his hypothesis is that if you get into that state of discovery, then you can just have this raw and authentic moment of really just deeply connecting to another person in that moment. And it's just a very vulnerable experience. And so he's really trying to start with the emotion and then trying to create an experience, which is a little bit like a symbol or a metaphor, such that people can have their own experience of it, and then describe to him in words that he couldn't even describe, like the example of the reviews from Loon, where someone said that it just filled them with beauty, awe, and boundless love. And it was exactly the type of emotion that he wanted to convey, but he was able to give people a direct experience of that. And so I think some of the experiments that Kibibu is doing is really trying to push the edge of really creating a holistic approach of being able to create these types of social and interactive emotional experiences where you're exploring your body in a new way and having new gameplay mechanics that you've never been able to do before. So if you haven't had a chance to check out some of Kibibu's work so far, then I definitely recommend checking out some of the links in the description here. And it's just a few bucks. It's definitely worth checking out. So that's all that I have for today. And I just want to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do consider becoming a donor. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference. So go to patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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