Robin Stethem & Colin Northway want to start a movement of virtual reality art. They’ve built the Museum of Other Realities (aka “MOR”), which is a virtual gallery space that has VR pieces from some of the top virtual reality artists in the industry. Stethem design the virtual art galleries, and Northway did the majority of the programming on the experience.
Northway previously worked on Fantastic Contraption, which he says gave him a lot of credibility when reaching out to fellow VR developers and artists. They’ve been holding regular events in a private beta for the past year to cultivate the artist community & allow them to show their work to their peers and be able to talk about it and connect on their social VR platform. They recently released an early access version timed with the launch of the Vive Index last month.
Northway & Stethem showed the Museum of Other Realities to press at GDC 2018, and I had a brief 25-minute slot to be able to have a brief demo, and then grab a quick 10-minute interview. We talked about the cultivating the VR artist community through social gatherings, the minimalist avatar representations, whether or not there are genres of art that are emerging yet, and future goals toward cultivating a viable economic ecosystem that can sustain virtual reality art.
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[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 I've been doing this whole series of looking at VR artists and talking about their process. It came about because I asked my Patreon supporters, because I've got like over 400 episodes in my backlog. And I was like, I could do all these different series of these 15 different deep dives in different topics. And the one that got the most votes was talking to VR artists about their process. And so for The last nine episodes have been talking to different artists. And then this episode is the 10th and final one in this series of installations. It turns out that I could do a whole series of AR artists and I've done dozens and dozens of interviews with different VR artists talking about storytelling from lots of different film festivals. So this is a series that's going to be ongoing, but after this, I'm going to be diving into the future of immersive architecture and the gathering that I went to at the architectural association and. London, and then I'm going to get into lots of issues around neuroscience and virtual reality and virtual production. Uh, there's lots of other topics are going to be doing these deep dives, but this was a bit of an experiment to be able to just do a bulk production of 10 episodes. And I wanted to end this one with this interview that I did with Robin Stethem and Colin Northway. They've created something called the Museum of Other Realities, also known as MORE. And it's a bit of a art museum in virtual reality, simply put. And it's beautifully designed and it's got lots of different artists. They've been having lots of different social gatherings and kind of rolling out and building up this art community to have artists be able to show their work and have these art showings. And they're hoping to create this whole art movement within virtual reality and potentially have more economic models to make it sustainable for people to make a living of creating art within virtual reality. reality. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Vistas of VR podcast. So this interview with Robin and Colin happened on Wednesday, March 21st, 2018 at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:15.138] Robin Stethem: My name is Robin Stethem, and I am doing a lot of the design for The More.
[00:02:19.591] Colin Northway: I'm Colin Northway. I previously made Fantastic Entraption, and now I'm doing the programming on The Moor. And Robin and I share pretty much, Robin is the designer, modeler, and I'm the programmer, but everything else is shared.
[00:02:30.993] Kent Bye: So I just saw the Museum of Other Realities, Moor. So I'm walking around, and it felt like I just went to a VR art museum. The first legitimate, just like, the way that it was presented, nice, stark, white surroundings to really put the focus on the art. So maybe you could talk about that process of creating what this visualization of a VR art museum would look like?
[00:02:52.541] Robin Stethem: So every month we have a function and we invite some people and we get some feedback. So we've been iterating on this for about a year now. And Colin and I go back and forth with little features and tweaks. And so with that iteration, eventually it's kind of ended up where you see it today, which, yeah.
[00:03:09.477] Kent Bye: Yeah, I mean, so you obviously are working with some of the most premier VR artists. Maybe you could talk about that collaboration of gathering all the art that's out there and sort of really featuring it in this way.
[00:03:19.121] Colin Northway: Well, that's gone really well. We've been lucky enough through Contraption being part of the VR community to know people like Khabibo and Liz Edwards and Danny Bittman. And so it's honestly, it's nice to have fantastic Contraption in the background, because when I write someone, they don't just delete my email right away. And so that was really good to get stuff up and started. I had a really good relationship with Kevin Mack. So one of the first pieces we ever showed was a kind of a Blurt from Blurtasia, which is still one of my favorite VR pieces. And so now, since the museum is up and running and we can get people in there and show how exciting it is to show your work and have your peers in there, seeing it with you, we find it very easy to excite artists about the possibilities.
[00:03:58.338] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think I attended a stress test a number of months ago where, you know, it was a social experimentation where you were trying to see if you could have enough server capacity and the representation of the bodies were just these squares and very minimalist, I guess you could say. So in some ways you're really putting the focus on the art and not the embodiment. Maybe you could talk about that process of designing these avatar characters to be the most minimal representation of a person that you could.
[00:04:23.997] Colin Northway: Yeah, well that was, it's amazing that you were there, because that was like the very birth of what the M.O.R.E. is now. And so, yeah, as you say, that was Max Weisel's normal API, a very early version of it, and so his default was just Unity Cubes. But it's very surprising, I guess everybody in social VR already knows how surprising it is, how much humanness you get out of just those two hands and a head. So, we like the humanness you get out of that, and we don't necessarily like other things about avatars, like if you've got eyes and a face, if you're telling a joke, you kind of have the same expression on your face as if you're talking about how you lost your job. So we're trying to show people just what we know about people and not more, and also with very simple avatars of, as you saw, it was just dodecahedron, kind of a simple teardrop shape. We also, it fits in the space really well, and you don't compete with the art that is in there, and everybody reacts to each other on an equal playing field. It's also, you can change your height if you want to, which is really interesting. But that's part of the, yeah, I'm sorry, I'm rambling.
[00:05:28.097] Robin Stethem: What we're doing there is we're looking at new ways to connect people and new ways to connect people to information. So when we're bringing these people together from all over the world every month, we're iterating a little bit on how everyone looks and how everyone can act and the gestures that they can have. And again, the minimal approach is basically, again, to focus on the art, but to provide enough that you can gesture and articulate and communicate what you mean. And as Colin said, body language is pretty powerful in terms of its ability to tell what's happening. And we didn't want to show things that we didn't know. You know, don't show what you don't know. So we've kept it very simple and we've been tweaking it a little bit every month.
[00:06:05.888] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, you were talking about being able to change heights, but also scales in terms of being able to actually teleport into an actual art piece. But at the same time, you have it miniaturized so you can see the full overview of it, but it's also contextualized within an architecture of white space. And so that's something that I haven't seen anybody else really do, is actually think about architecture and designing of the museum space. which contextualizes it some way so that then you can fully immerse yourself into it. Maybe you could talk about that process of all those different levels of design that you had to do in order to have that experience.
[00:06:37.725] Colin Northway: Well, one of the things that I found interesting is, so obviously we're, I am more from a games background, and when we started working on the museum, we ended up with the space looking like a museum mostly from scratch, and it's like, oh, now I understand why an art gallery looks like it does. It's because you want to keep the focus on the art itself. But that wasn't a kind of foregone conclusion for us. And then the rest of it has all come just via those, like, long, iterative, gestational period. So, for instance, the scaling was done for the first time in a mountain range by Liz Edwards, a Tilt Brush piece. And so we had to show it small on a table so we could get it in the room. And Liz was like, oh man, I wish I could go down in there and walk around on those roads. And so we're like, well, I guess it's VR. We can do anything. So we did that. And then that was successful and has made its way into all those other pieces like Danny Bittman's Night Snow that you saw. And the good things in the gallery all come from that process of, oh, let's just try a thing, and then it naturally grows into other niches in the gallery.
[00:07:37.286] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's also different genres. There's photogrammetry, there's characters, there's also landscape. Have you discovered that there's any distinct genres that are emerging now that you're working with all these artists and trying to categorize them into different rooms? Right now it's by artists, but I imagine at some point you're gonna move from it being centered on the artist and now here's a whole genre of VR art that some of it may be interactive, some of it being landscape, so maybe
[00:08:03.202] Robin Stethem: I'm curious to hear from you now that you've done this survey of VR art if those genres are starting to emerge I'm not sure if it's for us to say whether genres are emerging or not, but something that we do definitely differentiate is Interactive art and passive art and we've tried to mix the two up so that you don't have one stealing the thunder of the other and we try to do the interactive pieces and the passive pieces in such a way that people spread throughout the gallery pretty evenly. Like if we have a real hot spot during an event, it's either it's amazing and it's new or there's something else that's not working in the rest of the gallery and that's why people aren't circulating. So as far as genres go, there's so much fantastic work and it's just the beginning. So I think we're still seeing those things emerge.
[00:08:49.015] Kent Bye: Great. And it sounds like you've been having social gatherings. So maybe you could talk a bit about what type of events you've been having and what type of experiences you're able to have by gathering people within an environment with all this amazing art and what kind of social experiences are emerging out of that or what kind of vibe it creates by having these parties in the Museum of Other Realities.
[00:09:11.063] Robin Stethem: Yeah, so I mean a lot of different gestures have emerged. The parties are pretty great. They tend to run pretty late, stay in there for you know like three or four hours sometimes. One thing we realized pretty early is that you can put a Vive wand over a long neck beer bottle. So naturally we created the ability to show drinks in the moor and now everyone drinks at these events which is great. It's a lot of fun and we also meet a lot of people from the industry that way. Yeah, it's been great.
[00:09:38.737] Colin Northway: Yeah, a lot of the goals of the MOAR are about the artists showing, so I really like this work, want to see more of it. I think two valuable ways to make that happen is one, connect people with their peers and show each other their work, which we're starting to do now. And then the second one is to bring money into the community, which is I think very important and an important part of our goal. So we definitely, I guess I'm a little surprised at how broad, how just good everything is and how broad the appeal is. So I think it's very doable to connect popular audience with people doing this work for a reasonable amount of money. We don't know how we're gonna do that yet. We're very excited about possibility of actual thriving, commercially successful VR art movement.
[00:10:23.016] Kent Bye: That's amazing. And finally, what do you each think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:10:32.401] Robin Stethem: I think that virtual reality is going to connect people all around the world, tell stories that aren't being told to the wider world, and also connect people from anywhere to cultural centers, be they large centers or small centers. I've had the opportunity to travel to Haida Gwaii recently, and in Haida Gwaii I heard a whole lot of stories that I'd never heard before, and I would love to have the opportunity to share that with the world. and to have those people meet everyone else and have everyone else meet those people. And yeah, that's basically what it is.
[00:11:03.507] Colin Northway: I think Robin articulates that perfectly. Great.
[00:11:07.530] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you guys would like to say?
[00:11:11.092] Robin Stethem: Thanks very much for coming by. It's great to meet you in the flesh.
[00:11:14.695] Kent Bye: OK, awesome. Well, thank you so much.
[00:11:16.576] Colin Northway: Thank you. Thanks very much.
[00:11:18.514] Kent Bye: So that was Robin Steffen, who's a designer for the Museum of Other Realities, and Colin Northway, who did a lot of the programming on the Museum of Other Realities, and previously did Fantastic Contraption. So, I have a number of different takeaways about this interview, is that first of all, Well, this is such a cool project, and I love that they not only created it, but they're actually just trying to create this whole movement of virtual reality art and really focusing on the VR artists. They've been in this kind of closed beta for a long time, and a lot of artists that I know in the virtual reality community have been having these different social gatherings and these showings and being able to share work with each other and have these different conversations about work within virtual reality. And in some ways, this whole podcast series is to give a little lens into the different process and to the way that people are making virtual reality art and what their intentions are. And you can actually go and experience some of this stuff within the Museum of Other Realities. A lot of artists that are creating work, you know, they end up showing it in these one-off shows, whether they're festivals or there's these different art shows, like Jesse Damiani did the spatial reality show. Nick Ochoa did the magic gallery. And I know that there's more virtual reality art shows that are happening around the world. There's specific galleries, like at Sachi Gallery in London, that's starting to show different work and Palais de Tokyo that's in France. I mean, there's lots of different museums and installations that are doing a little bit more of these curated pieces and the Museum of Other Realities is trying to provide an outlet for virtual reality artists to be able to share their work and be able to potentially even get to the point of perhaps selling work or charging admission or having some sort of economic models that are going to be able to make it sustainable. So I actually happened to hear about and attend the very first stress test they had with the Museum of Other Realities when it was very early in its incarnation and using the normal API for Max Weisel, using very simple expressions of your avatar identity and not showing more information than you're actually able to show. So because you can't see your eye contact or your facial expressions, then it's just this whole level of abstraction and also just not trying to take away focus of the work. So they created these whole big white spaces and that you go in and you see the virtual reality art really contextualize as if you're walking in a museum. If you want to actually go into some of these experiences, you can change scale, which I think is very interesting to switch this context and be completely immersed in a lot of this virtual reality art. So, I'm just super excited that they've been working on this project and actually released officially on the same day that the Valve Index had come out. I'd done this interview with them last year at GDC in 2018, and they've since now officially released the version of the Museum of Other Realities, also known as MORE. So this kind of wraps up this first installation of the series of talking to VR artists about their process. I'd love to hear some feedback on Twitter, send me an email, join in on Patreon and reply to me there. I'm about to go off the grid here for an entire week. So unfortunately I'm not going to be able to immediately reply, but as I get back and hack onto the grid a week from now, then I'll be starting to go into these other series that we want to see. I think that the thing that got the number two amount of votes was The Future of Immersive Architecture with a lot of interviews that I did at the Architectural Association. That is something that had a huge impact on me, just talking to architects and the way they think about things in a very interdisciplinary way. It turns out that game designers are kind of like the architects of immersive and interactive and so what's it mean to have game designers get mashed up with the architects and see how spatial design you start to then add all sorts of interactive agency and so just fascinating to see how there's this fusion that's happening now between the fields of architecture and the future of immersive architecture so that's a series that I'm super excited to be able to dive into a lot more We're going to be looking at the future of neuroscience. So this meeting that I went to with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, talking to a number of different neuroscientists, researchers who are using VR to be able to do specific research. But there was also a number of people from industry getting insights about the nature of neuroscience from neuroscientists. And so there's this whole dialogue that's happening between neuroscientists and developers and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research actually had me help moderate and facilitate this conversation at the Game Developers Conference back in GDC in 2018 hosting a panel discussion that was sponsored there talking to the broader game developing community with these different neuroscientists it was an absolutely sold-out panel and I've got a recording of that and be going into some interviews that I did at this Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and also did this interview with Michael Casale of Stryver just really giving an update into all the latest research that he has in terms of what's the cutting edge of using neuroscience insights for training and virtual reality. So that'll be a part of that series as well. And there's a number of other series that I'll be diving into as well. And you can go to patreon.com slash voices of VR, look at the poll and read through a lot of the comments that I had. There's quite a lot of good comments on that post to people just talking about what they want to hear about. And it turns out that for a lot of people that are asking about stuff, I've got tons of interviews in my backlog that I've just been Squirreling away, and I just am ready to start to release things in these different batches like this So if you enjoy this then please do become a member on patreon. I really do rely Fundamentally primarily on the support that I receive from patreon and honestly I could be getting a lot more support there to really get to the point where I'm really thriving and growing and So if you've been listening to this series and you enjoy it, then become a member for however long that you can donate. I have a suggested donation of $5 a month, but really, if you can donate more, that's absolutely great. And just helps me to continue to travel around the world and have these different types of conversations. And I'm looking forward to diving into all sorts of other topics as I get back from going off on a week of vacation. So yeah, reach out, let me know what you think, and look forward to diving into these future series. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.