#724: Iranian Ali Eslami’s Speculative Design of a Virtual City

Ali Eslami is an award-winning Iranian virtual reality developer who has recently taken an artist residency in Amsterdam in order to continue his speculative design of a virtual city. Eslami’s premiered False Mirror at the International Documentary Filmfestival of Amsterdam’s DocLab this year, where he created a number of different speculative futures in a modular virtual city that explores concepts of scale, identity, embodiment, and temporality through dynamic architecture. His previous experience of Death Tolls was an immersive visualization of over 300,000 body bags to represent the death toll in Syria, which won the DocLab Immersive Non-Fiction award in 2016.

I had a chance to catch up with Eslami at the IDFA DocLab to talk about what it takes to become a virtual reality developer from Iran, become self-taught through the Internet, creating immersive projects with Unreal Engine, and his speculative design process to explore the phenomenology of a post-human sci-fi future.


Here’s a demo walk-through of False Mirror:

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

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. So when I was doing the 23-hour layover in Amsterdam, I had a chance to drop by the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam. And they have a special section there called DocLab. One of the people that the DocLab creators really wanted me to both experience this experience as well as talk to him was Ali Asalmi. He's an Iranian virtual reality developer who basically created his first VR experience without even actually having access to VR hardware. And then his first VR experience was actually something that he had created within Unreal Engine. He eventually submitted an experience to IDFA DocLab, and it actually won the prize. And it eventually led to him winning an artist residency, and now he's going to be spending the next two years in Amsterdam. But it was very interesting for me to see his project and to hear his background and see how he got into VR development, being an emerging technologist and gamer within a country that has a lot of sanctions and a lot of restrictions, and how he was even able to do that. And the type of work that he's also creating, he had a piece there called False Mirror. And you're essentially embodying an avatar. You have to take on his identity. You're walking through the city. It's this speculative design where he's actually mapping out and creating an entire city, all these user interfaces. It felt like a level of world building where you're actually stepping into some sort of science fiction future. And you're seeing things be really plausible. Like, yeah, I could see this is exactly how something like this would work. And so I had a chance to talk to Ali Al-Salmi at the IDFA DocLab to talk about his journey into virtual reality being from Iran, as well as the different types of speculative design and sci-fi futures that he's creating. So we'll be covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Ali happened on Monday, November 19th, 2018 at the IDFA DocLab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:04.467] Ali Eslami: My name is Ali Islami, I'm originally from Iran and I just moved to Amsterdam like more than a month ago for an artist residency. So I would call myself, I don't know, it's hard to say but I mean titles in VR is still getting defined so I would rather say I'm a VR artist, developer and practitioner because most of my projects involve with some practices So I wouldn't say research because maybe some academia people would get disturbed with the research as an artist thing. So I would say it's a collection of practices based on creations as a creative process. So I create virtual realities to sort of reflect what I'm obsessed with, which doesn't have to do with technology. It might be some phenomenological questions I have or just basically my passions with cognitive science or anything else that I just feel naturally curious about. I think that VR is a good platform, after like five years of being into it, to simulate and create space and times and bodies and be there, try them hands-on and figure out how they work.

[00:03:23.813] Kent Bye: So how does one get involved with VR development being in Iran? Because I imagine it's not that easy to get a hold of the VR equipment in Iran.

[00:03:31.836] Ali Eslami: Yeah, sure. I mean, there's a huge story behind it. So if I go to my background, I used to be a hardcore gamer. So when I was a kid, my first introduction to generally creative practices was editing games, modding games. I started learning 3D online when I was a teenager through forums, how to create new spaces. 3D models are important to games like football games. So modding was my first experience as a teenager when I was like 14 or so. But then over time I was really obsessed with architectural visualization and 3D more sophisticated simulations and realistic visualization in 3D. So I did lots of practices by myself when I was in high school, by myself as an obsession. Then going forward, I studied civil engineering in Iran, which is also weird, because I have no idea what is civil engineering. It's like so many mathematics and physics involved, but it was so boring that it encouraged me to do something with the opposite. One thing that's just a personal thing is I get bored very easily. So therefore, I jumped into many different disciplines in digital art, like creative coding, VJing, projection mapping. But then at one point in 2014, I dived into VR for the first time. I tried to install Unreal Engine for the first time in 2014. And I was really obsessed with the real-time quality of... Because, you know, when you come from a rendering culture, waiting for things to get rendered, and when you see the real-time stuff happening, it's like an emancipatory moment as a 3D artist. So then I started to play with that, and, like, you know, when you start learning Unreal, like a game engine, you have to teach yourself basically coding, because it's not just meant for visualization, you want to code as well. So, I found really obsessed with just learning the software by creating projects. You know, I didn't just want to learn it as a skill. I wanted to create projects and learn more through developing those. So yeah, I would say most of the influences were coming from the internet. I learned everything from the internet, self-taught totally. So yeah, I would say internet was the most inspiration in terms of motivation because I also used a lot to share my stuff online. And so those were really fulfilling when you see the people are reacting and complimenting you through sharing your online stuff. So yeah, that was very fulfilling. But then, like three years ago, that was my first VR project. It was called DevTools Experience, which was a data experience, because before that I was kind of really obsessed with data visualization and processing. But then I wanted to do something in VR. So I started to create a data experience where it was based on death tolls that you hear in the news. Like, I tried to visualize the death tolls, like the Middle Eastern crisis, like a war in Syria, which was like 300,000 bodies, like refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, which is like 3,000 So I literally created those numbers in body bags in their exact scale. So you as a visitor or user, you have to go through all these intense data sets with basically an honest data visualization. So you get the idea how big 300,000 dead bodies is when you hear in the news that Syrian war casualties had. So it's kind of surreal as well and the experience is surreal because you go through some towers filled with graves and then you come out of one of these towers and you see a landscape with lots of towers to let you imagine this big number and I think VR is a great way to give that sense of scale and numbers which is uncomprehendable by mind. So that was a very successful project two years ago. I premiered it at IDFA, this festival that we're talking now, and it won the Best Immersive Nonfiction Award, which was a very pivotal moment for my career and I found that, yeah, I could do more and I can stay here, you know. And then I also did another project with a London-based musician called Ash Kusha. It was a musical experience. It's called Snow VR. We haven't released it yet, but the whole idea behind it was about creating a VR album. It was a bit ambitious. It didn't happen as a VR album, but the whole thing that we ended up was creating two tracks of his album, which was released in Ninja Tunes label in 2016. So I created two different virtual hyper-reality spaces with two different bodies. So in each of these tracks you have a different body and you go through the whole journey of these tracks and the whole your body and your environment around you reacts to the sound. And that was also a good experiment for me. So this was happening in Iran. But getting back to your question about how hard it is to provide hardware in Iran. So in 2014, by the time that I was speaking that I started to learn Unreal, I was really obsessed with VR, but I didn't have a VR headset then. I tried to create a VR project without a headset. She's really weird, I know. But I knew that a friend of mine in the Netherlands was about to come to Iran with his Oculus DK2. So I created this project after four months he came to Iran and I tried it in VR and it was super unoptimized, crashed every four seconds, but almost gave me the idea that yes, this is amazing because I made something in 3D. It was the first time that I could see my own thing. It was actually my first high-end VR experience. And my first high-end VR experience was the thing that I made for four moms and myself in Unreal. It was not a sample or something. So that's why I was really shocked by it. But also providing hot headsets and because of sanctions against Iran, you cannot get paid at all. You don't have an international bank account and nothing gets shipped to Iran. So you always need to work around this. Like if I want to release my content on online platforms like Steam or Oculus, I cannot get paid. I should put them for free. So yeah, that was a big challenge. So I had to work around it. And so these are like really geopolitical issues that affect us. So I'm sort of happy to work around it, but also sad that this situation let us dive into this moment that you have to also let go of your home to get privileged enough to be able to just share your content online and get paid.

[00:10:50.097] Kent Bye: Was there any sense of a virtual reality community that could form in Iran, or were you pretty much the only one that you knew that was into VR?

[00:10:58.858] Ali Eslami: Well There are some stuff going around but Because again of these sanctions. I mean devices doesn't come there. So it's mostly the stuff that's going around is mostly around enterprise and Advertisement projects. I mean in artistic ways. Yes, very few. I cannot name Anyone else? So yeah, it's a bit Isolating but I found that also I mean, it's a bless and a curse Because the blessing part was the fact that this isolation, I found a peace. So you're not get exposed by many other of the industry that you face every time. So you don't subconsciously conform to other people's ideas and stuff. Because even by hearing stuff, you might reflect them subconsciously. So therefore, I found that a little bit of a bless to be a little bit isolated in that sense. like more freedom of mind not to be involved in the industry at the high and like events every now and then so Everything was more online for me if my engagements was more online following the news

[00:12:12.213] Kent Bye: And so we're here at IDFA DocLab, and you have a new project here called False Mirror. Maybe you could tell me a bit about how this project came about and what you were trying to explore here.

[00:12:21.119] Ali Eslami: Yeah, sure, about False Mirror. So more than a year ago in Iran, by the fact that whatever I'm doing is focusing on a product rather than a process. And I found that maybe I should also have a project that can scale over time and can never have a deadline or anything. It's always growing. So I can always add something to it and it always remains fresh. So something scalable. So therefore, as a reaction, I started to create some spaces, some virtual spaces. Then I tried to connect them together with an elevator. So this is a very early prototype of it. There was only an elevator, some floors, like six floors. Each floor was different surreal environments. But then I found that, OK, this is scaling. I don't want to have an elevator with thousands of buttons and thousands of levels. Then I found out that let's frame it as a virtual city and then it opens up by developing a virtual city and that would open up lots of great questions. Therefore I made this as a groundwork of this project. So now after creating this basement for the project it's now like a city, a virtual city where you have to log into your own virtual home through your own identity which the system identifies you. And then when you go inside your virtual home, there's a city hub, or let's say an atlas. It's at the center of your home. When you go there, you have access to many other districts in the city where you can navigate into. And basically, the idea is that you're kind of a post-human living in some time in the future. I'm not sure when or why. It's now developed for Oculus with hand controllers, so there are some attachments to your hand that each of them gives you some post-human abilities to navigate and experience your virtual world through different perspectives and gives you different abilities basically to interact with your world. So now the system is very scalable. I can add attachments to my body to enhance my experience no matter where I am or how I'm there. Also the whole city concept can also expand in a sense that the map of the city can expand and I could add different districts. Each district could have different inner spaces and I found it's very interesting that I could apply many different politics to this visual city, like try and test the speculations of sovereignties, how identities are defined in the visual city, and how users are defined, how objects are defined, and how are these correlations. So this is becoming a very unique research groundwork for me as an artist.

[00:15:21.615] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a number of things that were really striking to me after spending about a half hour walking through the different levels that you created on False Mirror. The first was just entering into the space and having like, you're now entering into another realm and you're already going into VR but it's something nice about you going through like a little ritual to then go into your actual VR place and so I just did an interview with an architect and one of the things she said is that you don't just get teleported into a place, you're always entering into a place. And so if you want to enter into a cathedral, then you go through this process before you get there of like going through a small hallway, for example, so that you have this contrast. For me, I would ask you if you had an architecture background because I've felt that the spaces were just so well considered, but I'm just curious to ask you like your architectural influence and what your design inspiration was, especially this process of having space and how that space translate into some sort of emotion. and what your iterative process is of doing that, of creating spaces and see how you feel and what kind of emotions that you're trying to evoke as people are going through these spaces.

[00:16:23.732] Ali Eslami: Yeah, that's a very interesting question, because as you said, yeah, that's true. I'm kind of born and evolved through the traditional design practices over time. But then now, I mean, recently, especially with this project, I realized that now that I sort of tried the traditional design approaches and the UX, taking care of the user and stuff, now I'm trying to betray that in a way through the speculative design approaches. which I found it could result to many interesting undefined experiences. For instance, I would say, if I want to give a good reference, I would say J.G. Ballard. So he's a sci-fi writer, his short stories, they're very speculative and I found really a good inspiring writer in a sense that He speculates some stuff that doesn't really make sense, but he emphasizes them, tells a story on them, and they become real. So the whole idea of this speculative virtual city is, let's make a wild speculation, let's betray all the UX considerations, all the stuff that we took as granted, let's twist them and see how they feel. I mean, this is the whole idea I'm having about expanding as a post-human entity, I guess. And I found a lot like by just betraying these things to get granted. And one thing I really am happy that achieved in this city is also something personal. But I made some spaces as like timeless spaces to go. There's no story involved. It's basically like parks in a city. If you feel a little bit frustrated and alone, and you want to just have some air, you go to a park in a city and sit on a bench. You don't think about anything. You just go there and sit, you know? Then you daydream and stuff. Then I made a space in VR in the city, and I found myself at some point, even as a creator, Hanging around there while I was testing my space, how it looks and how it works, at some point I found already immersed and already daydreaming inside VR. It actually worked as a park could work for me. So I found that virtual spaces can be as neutral and as real and weird as real spaces. So therefore, I mean it's a different topic, but I totally see virtuality as material as the reality is. Because I would take this example, which can sound very weird, but when I put the headset on, the reason that I'm experiencing this virtuality is It can be, or should be, or might be, the oil that was buried in the earth thousands of years ago and now we extracted it from the earth. It came into electricity. The electricity pumped into the computer. The computer is generating this reality. So isn't it material? I mean... So it's so real, I guess. I'm trying to just emphasize on that. That's how I'm treating the virtual city as a very real city.

[00:19:38.845] Kent Bye: I was wondering if you could expand on this speculative design process that you're working with, because it seems like you have this character in Avatar, you have things like a VPN on your watch, you're able to have this UI that has a tablet interface that you can start to go to these different worlds. But also like, you know, the whole entrance into the place, you're getting your body scanned and then it's coming up. But basically you're creating the whole pipeline and workflow of, you know, imagining a future where you would need to have all these things scanned in and it feels like you're, you are getting verified. And then once you get in there, then you have your avatar and a lot of buttons that you're playing around with. But what does it start with for you? Is it a question? What are the steps in this speculative design process for you?

[00:20:23.580] Ali Eslami: Yeah, so I would say most of my creations are involved with play. So I take something, like let's say a gun, that is a good example. I made a gun in this virtual city, but it's actually not a gun. It's a gun dictionary, I would call it. So the mechanics is as typical as a gun you have to reload like put ammos in it and then but there's only one screen attached to this gun where if you shoot at any object around you it will actually Define that object by shooting it And the definitions that this GAN dictionary tells you is a little bit also rude. It's kind of very dank sort of definitions. And I found it's like, okay, this is a GAN, so let me try it as a GAN dictionary. I tried it and I said, wow, this is cool. And the reason I think that it worked was, like, yesterday, a 12-year-old kid just bumped into me and he said, dude, I tried your experience. It was very great. I got into everything. I found all the mechanics. I just didn't know how to reload the gun. And it was so amazing for me that this teenager could get all this, like, weird and, you know, could cope with all this weirdness and speculations involved with the project. So yeah, I think it's also something, but getting back to your question about what the speculative design helps us with the project is by just negating something that took us granted and applying it in practice and testing it. questions just arise so in my example when I speculated this VPN idea I found that okay maybe there is a sovereignty there's some inner politics in this city which for now the whole city only detects me as an identity, as this user. So I made this VPN to make a sense out of it. So this VPN actually fakes identities of everyone who gets into this virtual city as me to get access to the city and my home. And I found that, okay, so how should I show it in a installation position where you need fixed time frame? So as the project is timeless, but I wanted to limit the time frame. So I made this VPN to only work for 25 minutes. So when the VPN expires, you basically get kicked out of the home and so it's like the whole virtual city doesn't understand you as a user. Then the question that arises out of this very basic speculation is in the future we might have some sort of economy about time and how much access that we have to virtualities or our virtual realities and words by corporates or anything that we are provided with.

[00:23:20.656] Kent Bye: It sounds like that you as a virtual reality developer from Iran have been dealing with the implications of the geopolitical situations just from the sanctions and the relationships to Iran and the difficulties in getting hardware. So it sounds like that you're taking that geopolitical awareness and context and starting to explore speculative futures that still have a dimension of that politics. So what is the politics of this future that you're speculating on? Maybe you could expand on that a little bit of like what you see and how that is playing into your design process in VR.

[00:23:52.728] Ali Eslami: Yeah, so yeah, that's a question that I'm also trying to discover, but I found that it's something that I cannot answer it by myself. Therefore, now that I moved in Amsterdam, I'm planning to run some participatory workshops, like in Hochschule, it's like a university in Amsterdam, and also in Arnhem, I'm planning to run some workshops with students. So then with that I would disseminate this project for the students and then we will think about, let's see how we can expand the city, what we could apply to this city. I would like to grow it as a collective project in a way that everyone can put their own expertise and ideas into it as long as it's possible. For example, let's say if you're a sci-fi writer, you could contribute creating some news articles for the embodied OS in FalseMirror. Like, you could only just write. You don't have to be an Unreal Engine developer. Therefore, these workshops could be always inspiring. And I think this approach can enable people to think about VR not as just something technical and obscure, but something that they can contribute and add to it as an extended reality.

[00:25:08.494] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the other things that I found striking about your experience was the diversity of the rooms and you've created like a virtual city with all these different apps and rooms and experiences so I could see how you can start to continue to expand this virtual city out and keep adding these little mini experiences in there but they're like these little installation art pieces where you go in and you have a space that's there and then some sort of interaction, usually some buttons on the wall where you're able to remix and change the experience in some different way and I was really struck by how just by changing the pattern of the textures on the wall that it was just changing the whole quality of the experience in different ways. Probably the one experience that impacted me the most was the one where it looked like a sun radiating out but that it was like a texture that was moving on these different curves and I was just talking to an architect and she was telling me how as an architect you can start to Create a space that as people walk to that space if you have the same distance but different space you'll have a different quality of time as you go through it and I felt that in this space after I talking to her it just felt like the time dilation or being able to actually turn around and look and to have an expectation of what it might look like once I turn around but then to have that completely transcended and it not look anything like I had expected it so you have this novelty of being in a space that's oddly shaped, but dynamic. So it's like this dynamic architecture, but showing my inability of being able to project out to see what it would look like, which I'm not used to experiencing that within architecture. So it was like this being filled with wonder and awe. So yeah, I'm just curious to hear about that design process of that specific room, that that was very dynamic and you changing the textures and giving that different quality of feeling from that.

[00:26:54.742] Ali Eslami: Yeah, I found that, for instance, I can give some examples that could shed light on what you said. So there are many spaces in the city, like as you said, there are many inner spaces. But then it's a new idea, like last month I implemented a very simple district to the city, which is called storage.zip. So there, it's very simple, you go there in the district, there are only two warehouses, warehouse A and warehouse B. In warehouse A, it's basically an infinite space that includes all the assets, main assets used in the whole city, like an IKEA warehouse situation, like only objects, like 3D assets with some spotlights on them. And just by doing this, I found a very unique space. And I was super surprised. It was so simple. Nothing is going around this space. It's just some objects in a dark room with large, weird scales next to each other. But then this new assemblage of objects make a very unique Geshalt and very unique sense of experience that you couldn't get. But also everything looks familiar because you've seen them in other spaces. It's kind of like a warehouse of the city. Or also in the Warehouse B, I put all the materials, like all the textures used as like these spheres in rows that you can go through them and see them. Or in another example, I made a room which is called Big Toy. It's like a big vertical concrete room where there's a toy inside of which you can play. But then at the end of the space, I put a button where this button is like in your mobile phone, you have a portrait mode and landscape mode. So you can basically push this button and it will rotate the whole space 90 degrees. So when you look back by pushing this button, the whole space is already rotated 90 degrees. And just by this simple interaction, I discovered, wow, what I mean. I discovered many stuff out of this simple twist because, for example, it really depends on your initial experience. If first you come into the vertical room and play with this toy and if you rotate it 90 degrees it becomes horizontal and when you rotate it it feels like you're kind of falling down because it's like everything is rotated and it's like already built into your perception and embedded into your perception and you want to fight that. So, there's so many phenomenological questions that just get answered and challenged by these speculative twists, these experiments. Yeah, it's very fun to play with these.

[00:29:43.152] Kent Bye: Yeah, doing a lot of things that you could never do in real life and then you don't even think about that this would be a thing that you would want to do or could possibly do because you just don't think about rotating an entire world 90 degrees. So for you, what do you want to personally experience in virtual reality?

[00:30:00.206] Ali Eslami: Well, in the future, yeah, I would love to expand the city, but as long as I can monetize it, that's the challenge of it. The challenge of creating this process is also how you want to survive as an artist to conduct this research. And there's not much good funding models for processes, I guess. They all demand some sort of a product at the end to be disseminated. Therefore, that's a challenge to keep it going on. But if I could find a way to keep it going, I would love to add also some multi-user experiences and play more with the temporality of the spaces. Because I already played a lot with the spatial aspects and speculations in the space. But I would love to also do some nasty experiments with time and temporality. That's whereby like where you go to one space, each space can have their own independent temporality, which you can alter them. Or maybe there could be some sort of a hidden tool that lets you alter those temporalities. Or also in the multi-user aspect, you can have, let's say, if we both go to the city, then we can have some parallel interactions and weird interactions across the city, even though we don't see each other, but we can see our traces in the space, which is kind of some sort of indirect interaction. Also, the other thing I'm really curious to find out is to have less anthropomorphic approach with VR and care less about the UX standards and just try to expand what's possible to interact and just less forget about our human biases. and let's also think about how we can relate to inanimate objects in VR and how we can think of spaces and visual spaces and think about different relationships with objects. This is also very interesting for me to discover, like this big toy that I said, I found that there was something intimate going on between the user and this toy when you play it with your hands, this huge rope and physics. because it kind of plays with you. It's not a character, it doesn't talk, but you still feel some sort of intimate sort of relations with this object. So that's also something I would like to explore more in this VR thing.

[00:32:32.087] Kent Bye: Well, the thing that's really striking about your story and what you're doing in VR is you saying that in order for you to really openly do VR and have the support you need, you need to leave your country to come to Amsterdam to have this artist residency. And certainly not everybody in Iran has the luxury to do that, and you have to leave your home to be able to do that. What would you like to see in terms of moving forward if if you could have your wish to say? This is what it would take to have the virtual reality ecosystem and Iran really grow What would need to happen in order to even make that possible?

[00:33:04.167] Ali Eslami: Well, that's a really hard question because it requires lots of world orders to change to make things work, I guess. Let's say, people at Oculus, they might love to work with VR artists from Iran, but they still have to follow the rules that are being dictated by the states of the US. So, there are many layers in this fact that There's so many sovereignties involved with these states and markets and stuff, which are really out of our hands. I mean, I don't have a sharp answer to that, but I can only hope to get better, I guess.

[00:33:41.429] Kent Bye: Well, if the HTC is based in Taiwan, does China have a similar set of sanctions, or is it easier to have VIVE virtual reality headsets within Iran?

[00:33:51.659] Ali Eslami: No, I would say no because there are international bank sanctions. It means Iran is out of the international banking system. Therefore we cannot, as an Iranian, you cannot really ship anything to Iran because you cannot pay online. Because the whole Iranian bank system is like isolated, it's not connected internationally. So therefore you have to do it through a friend outside of Iran. This means you cannot get paid, you cannot ship anything. It doesn't matter wherever it is in the world, you still cannot do that.

[00:34:23.078] Kent Bye: So as an Iranian having an artist residency in Amsterdam, then do you get some sort of stipend from Amsterdam, but you can't have a bank account? Does that still apply to individual Iranians? You just have to take cash and deal with cash?

[00:34:37.047] Ali Eslami: So yeah, that was the thing is if you come here in any country outside as a visitor, as a tourist, then yeah, you should survive by cash. But because now I moved as like a long term residence, my visa is for two years, then I can actually register in the city and have a residence permit. It's more viable than a visit visa. So therefore I can open up a bank account and become a privileged person in the world.

[00:35:08.173] Kent Bye: And so I know when I went to China, there was a great firewall at China where I actually couldn't get access to like social media and other websites. Are there restrictions of the internet in Iran? Or can you have basically access to everything that's available?

[00:35:21.657] Ali Eslami: Well, yeah, there is. I mean, many things are already filtered, but it's not, I think it's not an issue because everyone knows how to use a VPN. I mean, even my mom knows how to use a VPN. Yeah, it's not really a restriction in a sense. So whenever I'm in Iran, when I use a VPN, ironically I fake my IP to somewhere in New York to get access. So it's just stupid firewall.

[00:35:50.795] Kent Bye: I see. Yeah, it was a similar thing in China. I think people found like workarounds. But it seems like even in the context of your VR experience, your identity is being faked. And so in some ways, you're kind of embodying that to give people the feeling of you are now in this experience, but under the auspices of somebody else's identity. And that's kind of like what the life of being on the internet and around is like, is that you always constantly have to do that. But you're giving people kind of an embodied experience of that.

[00:36:16.292] Ali Eslami: Yeah, that's also true. But also the analogy can also kind of be extended to sovereignties. Even as an Iranian, if I want to go to the US, there are still some travel bans. I'll go through some crazy security checks. So if I want to go physically, my VPN process takes a lot of load and stuff. Therefore, it applies to the whole borders and visa process and passports as well, which you can play with that in VR and try different workarounds for that.

[00:36:50.006] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:36:59.090] Ali Eslami: I think we are already having enough tools to get great stuff out of it. I think we have to be grateful of what we already have. We shouldn't be very greedy about it. Because we already can simulate good fidelity of spaces and virtual spaces. And we can already simulate different temporalities, test different bodies. So what else do you need? Space, body and time and then just play with them and expand them and see how they go. Because I think it's really enabled these as a medium but it already enables for creators to create alternate spaces, fluid spaces, dynamic spaces which is hard to grasp in any other way around and create alternate temporalities, alternate bodies and then get into them and experience them. I mean, that's enough. I mean, that's already sounding ultimate, but yeah, I think we should be grateful for what we got.

[00:38:03.110] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:38:07.733] Ali Eslami: No, except that I'm really happy to have you here because, you know, you're here for a flight layover, so good to have you and be in this podcast. I got really great inspirations just by following other podcasts.

[00:38:22.733] Kent Bye: Yeah, I put this out on the internet. I don't know exactly where it lands, but to hear that it's sort of landing in Iran, I think it would be fun for people to hear, like, what type of stuff you're taking from the rest of the VR community to kind of drive into your own work.

[00:38:34.159] Ali Eslami: Well, one of the very episodes among all of them that I followed, which kind of stick to me, was your discussion with mathematicians, that they make some amazing spaces where it was not 3D.

[00:38:49.551] Kent Bye: Oh, yeah, the Vi Hart. And I have actually an interview with Henry Segerman at the joint mathematics meeting where he was looking at hyperbolic spaces.

[00:38:58.235] Ali Eslami: Yeah, I found that very like, I think space is one of the biggest biases of our perception. And playing with that is a really big deal. So found that very interesting, except that temporality and time is also very abstract thing to play with. So yeah, again, I would say, except the space, time is a thing that is very interesting to explore more through VR and also the most challenging part, I guess.

[00:39:24.620] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me. So thank you.

[00:39:27.482] Ali Eslami: Thank you. It's lovely to be here.

[00:39:28.663] Kent Bye: Thanks. So that was Ali Alsami. He's an Iranian VR developer who had a piece at the IDFA DocLab called False Mirror. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, well, I really just enjoyed the experience that Ali had created. He's got a very particular design sensibility. just his life experience of being able to kind of funnel everything in to be able to communicate in an embodied way. It was just really powerful to be able to actually walk up and to embody him as a character. You get this embodied experience of masking your identity. And the city was really fleshed out, had a lot of interesting concepts and ideas. And I think there's something distinctly different from seeing an experience that is meant for a commercial audience and something that is just experimenting and trying to take ideas and push them to their logical extreme. It was a bit of a playground to be able to see all these different concepts and ideas played out. And it was just really interesting and novel. And just to hear that, what is it like for someone from Iran to try to make it as an emerging technologist? I mean, first of all, you have to get the access to technology. The VPN technology seems to be pretty widespread. I mean, there seems to be pretty easy workarounds for most people in Iran to get access to what's out there on the internet. but to actually sell things and to be a part of the international economy, like you can't have a bank account. And for me, I didn't know any of that. And so it was just interesting to have this interaction with somebody who's an artist from Iran telling me like, yeah, this is what it's like for me to create. And also I wouldn't run into Ali in the United States. And so it took me being in Amsterdam to be able to have access to that level of diversity of what's happening in the larger ecosystem and the virtual reality community. and how he can't even name the other people that are in Iran that are part of this community just because they have to violate so many of the protocols and rules even just to have access to the technology and to be able to do what they're doing. And so for me, when I met Ali, it was super humbling to have him know me, but I was just hearing of him and meeting him for the first time. And just to know that everybody that is putting anything out on the internet to actually broadcast this information out around the world, and you never know who it's going to land with and who you're going to be able to impact and to inspire, to be able to actually go out and create these next amazing virtual reality experiences. I think another really interesting point that Ali was alluding to was, what does it mean to visit a country, especially in the realm of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, where you're going to be able to have a sense of telepresence, where it's going to feel functionally the same as having a social interaction with somebody, but they may not actually legally be able to come into those physical locations due to restrictions around travel or whatnot. In Ali's case, he's from Iran, so he basically has no chance of coming into the United States. So what does that mean for these rules and regulations and how does that apply to virtual representations of people within these virtual spaces? In some ways we have these social environments that are happening in virtual reality where people could be coming from VPNs from all over the world and you have no idea if you're able to physically interact with those people in your homeland or not. But there's these, almost like these international waters where there's these combinations and groupings of people that may never be able to actually physically take place anywhere else in the world. So that's what I find really fascinating. Also, it's just like the implications of virtually mediated technologies. And what's that mean for some of these deeper geopolitical laws around the restrictions around travel through what would normally come through a visa? What is it about that experience that is going to be able to be replicated through a virtual reality technologies? And what is it about those experiences that will never be able to be fully replicated? So there's something about this speculative design process, which to me is super fascinating because it's a form of world building where he's projecting out into the future and trying to mediate these specific phenomenological experiences that we can only have in VR right now. But in the future, we're going to totally be able to have access to them with augmented reality or potentially just our only access to these types of phenomenological experiences will be through VR. And so he's trying to create these different dynamics and these different interactions and really focusing on both the spatial design and how that spatial design is interfacing with your phenomenological direct experience. And so there's certain things that he was doing with space and how that you're experiencing within your body that was just, you know, really wild and crazy and stuff that I'd never seen before. the type of architecture that you could only have within virtual reality, which is like these bending shapes that would be very difficult to build with the constraints of gravity, but also the dynamic textures and how things are moving through that space. It reminds me of Kevin Mack's Polartasia, where he was able to do these really crazy shaders and has a very specific dynamic feel that is constantly moving and the shapes are Constantly in flux and it just really challenges your category schemas of anything that you've seen before and there's a couple of different experiences that he had within false mirror that did that to my brain where it was like Wow, I've never seen this before I'm moving my body through this space and it's giving me this weird sense of a really trippy experience to see some of the things that he had created within there and but also being able to switch off textures and to take a scene and to have a new feeling of that scene. And there's a lot of just like experimentation for what it means to kind of modulate these various different aspects of how both texture and space and light is being created within the context of these spaces. And he had this background of architectural visualization, which to me was very clear because the way that he was designing these spaces was also trying to invoke these different feelings and emotions. And so I just felt like overall he was one of the more interesting virtual reality developers that I've seen and his backstory and the fact that he had to create his very first VR experience like spending four months within Unreal Engine and had no access to the hardware and that his very first VR experience was something that he had created and that he had to basically learn how to optimize in order to really fully get the full experience. But it was enough for him to see that there was so many interesting questions that he was answering as an artist. And I feel like that's another thing that we're in this phase of virtual reality, where we're about to have the Oculus Quest come out in 2019. That's going to cross the chasm into the mainstream in a certain way. But a lot of those experiences are going to be safe to a certain degree, where a lot of these really avant-garde, cutting-edge experiences may still be relegated to the artist and the enterprise, but also these places on the open web, itch.io, or on the web VR, to be able to continue to do this type of innovation and exploration because it is these artists and these creatives who may not necessarily be as concerned with how this is going to be monetized to make money. They're just trying to push the edge of what's even possible. And increasingly, I've been more and more interested in tracking what those concepts are going to be filtering out into this technology diffusion curve. I've been citing Simon Wardley's technology diffusion curve model often because I feel like it's a very handy way of thinking about how these ideas start with an idea and it's usually from academia or some sort of artists or someone who's creating something that's never been created before and it's really like this duct tape prototype and that proves out the concept and then eventually those concepts move out into these custom bespoke implementations either through enterprise or the military And from there, eventually it gets to this consumerized product where it's just available for everybody. So you have this crossing of the chasm in the mainstream, it's a consumer product, you have it as a service that you can buy, and then eventually it's just mass ubiquitous type of experience that we all have access to. And that we really see virtual and augmented reality in this phase where it's still in this before the mass consumer productization of those concepts and ideas and that we're still proving out like what's even possible this new medium. We've had virtual reality since like 1968 and then we had it again in the 90s and it's been an enterprise since then and in a lot of ways it's never gone away but it's like what are the compelling use cases and applications and now that the technology is cheap enough to have it in the hands of these types of artists they're continuing to innovate and push forward what's even possible with the medium and so for me on the podcast that's what I'm going to be especially interested in continuing to track like what are these new concepts what are these new ideas going to what's happening in interactive and immersive storytelling, going to Sundance and Tribeca, Sundance is coming up for me this coming month, but also potentially on the back end, starting to re-imagine what it means to have a website and a podcast, and how could that podcast be turned into an interactive memory palace, and a place that you can actually experience with this spatial experience, but also be able to pull data from all these different sources. And that's something that I've been thinking a lot of over the last month as well. I've been, you know, interacting and collaborating with a small team of people, just kind of brainstorming and prototyping different stuff out. And I hope that in the next year, 2019, I'll start to launch and start to experiment with these types of open web technologies, with web VR, with memory palaces, with all these different things to see what's even possible with how do you communicate information online. So that really reminded me of that. You know, it's actually very difficult as Ali was saying to do this as an artist, because you basically have to find these different artists residencies or grants, or for me, in my case, it's just support from Patreon. And if you enjoy these types of conversations that I'm having with Ali, but also want to see what's possible with the virtual reality technologies, then I encourage you to consider contributing to my Patreon. Every support that I get from my listeners allows me to continue to do this type of work. And I'm going to continue to cover what's happening, but I also have this huge backlog of content. And part of the challenge that I've had is that it's been very difficult to just dump like 20 or 30 podcasts. So having something like a completely new, reimagined way of how to experience and find content for a podcast, I have the content. I have these hundreds of episodes that I've recorded. It's just very difficult to have easy access to it. So that's part of the challenge that I want to try to solve this year. And so if you want to help encourage this type of development and exploration and support for this type of work, then please do consider becoming a member of the Patreon. And you can donate just whatever you can afford. $5 a month is a great amount and just allows me to continue to do this type of work. So you can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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