#804: Minimalist Design Experiments of Light, Sound, & Shape within “Phenomenology”

Richard Lemarchand directed a minimalist VR experience with the USC Game Innovation Lab
called Phenomenology, which debuted at IndieCade 2018. It’s a fascinating exploration of the qualitative experiences of simple geometries in a variety of different spaces with different types of lighting and contrasts punctuated by interactive musical game play that was composed by Jacques Brautbar and Prashanth Srinivas.
Architect Andreea Cojocaru asked me if I had seen any minimalist VR experiences, and this experience by Lemarchand immediately came to mind. It’s an elegant exploration of the power of shapes and spaces, and it was inspired by the California Light and Space art movement that started in the 1960s. I talked with Lemarchand at IndieCade 2018 about the inspiration and experiential design process of Phenomenology, as well as some of his philosophical inspirations about the symmetry of time and space, the research on Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and an exploration of minimalist experiential gameplay using interactive music puzzles.


Here’s the trailer for Phenomenology

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So continuing on my series of looking at the future of immersive architecture, there was an experience that I saw at Anycade back in 2018. It actually came up in my conversation with Andrea Kashikaru, where she was asking me if I had ever seen any experiences that were really exploring minimalism within VR. And the experience that came to mind was called Phenomenology. I saw it at IndieCade 2018. There's a number of different VR experiences that were there, but this one really stood out in terms of just its approach of taking a very stark minimalist design approach. It was like there was a sphere that was moving around these different spaces, you would see the lighting shift and change, and I had a chance to experience this experience and then talk to the creator and director Richard Lemarchand, where he was very inspired by minimalism as a movement in contemporary art, but also this California light and space artists who were really playing with the phenomenological experience of light and shape and being able to play with that within these different spaces to see how they would be able to modulate your perceptual experience by your body moving through space and seeing these different light objects. And that was kind of the basis of what they were exploring here in this experience called phenomenology. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Richard happened on Saturday, October 12th, 2018 at the Indiecade Festival in Santa Monica, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:46.353] Richard Lemarchand: My name is Richard Lemarchand, and I'm an associate professor in the USC Games program at the University of Southern California. And I'm a game designer by trade. I worked in the mainstream of the game industry for over 20 years, most recently at Naughty Dog, where I was lead game designer on the Uncharted series.

[00:02:04.707] Kent Bye: Great. And so I just saw the piece, Phenomenology, here at the IndieCade. So maybe you could describe how this project came about and what you were trying to explore there.

[00:02:13.833] Richard Lemarchand: So as part of my role at USC, I make games for research to explore what's possible with game design. And so this game is an informal sequel to a game that I co-created with Marzi Campos called The Meadow, which was in IndieCade in 2015. which explored mine and Marci's interests in virtual reality, in experiential gameplay. So gameplay that isn't so gamey with scores and goals and gameplay that is more like a designed experience. And we also experimented in that project with a kind of themed entertainment part, a physical space that kind of drew you into the world of VR before you even put your headset on. So this project is kind of an informal sequel to that, and this is a music piece. I worked with the incredible composers Prashanth Srinivas and Jacques Brautbach, who created the wonderful music that's in our game, and then At the same time as they were composing, I was prototyping, and that grew into the collection of vignettes that you experienced. Some of them minimalistic, real-time computer graphics, some of them immersive live-action video, to create a kind of narrative with no story. It's a music game where some of the music is just noise. I'm very interested in traditions of experimental music, as well as being very interested in pop music. And my last influence was contemporary art. While I was working on this project, I'd recently discovered the work of the California Light and Space Artists, the most famous of whom is James Turrell, who use light and space to create exhibits in art galleries that they always saw as interactive. Because even though you're just walking around an art gallery, you're actually performing this complex action of navigating through three-dimensional space perceiving it, understanding it, and hopefully in some way, maybe some subtle way, being emotionally moved by it. And so that was really my goal with this game.

[00:04:20.569] Kent Bye: Yeah, and the thing that was really striking to me was creating tension and releasing tension in different ways and how... I was just at a spatial reality art show last night and saw a piece where there was one scene where there's nothing that happens for a long time, and then Then there's a release at the end, but, you know, it was talking to the creator. He's like, he's trying to deconstruct this sense that you always have to have progress. And so there's a lot of spaciousness in this piece, but also I feel like there's the building of the tension and releasing of the tension through different ways, and especially through the music as well. So I'm just curious to hear about that process of how you think about that progression forward through this creation of those polar opposites, creation and release of tension.

[00:05:03.048] Richard Lemarchand: Well I'm very glad that you've picked up on this aspect of the project because it is very intentional. I am very interested in sort of wordless narrative. There's some language in this game but mainly it's up to you the player to interpret this sequence of vignettes and I was interested to see how I could modulate your experience perceptually, cognitively, emotionally through these kind of abstract means, through color and shape, and very importantly, through sound and music?

[00:05:34.943] Kent Bye: Well, usually when you're listening to a piece of music, it naturally has this progression of creating tension and releasing it, and then there's one moment in the experience where you take your reticle, or the little sphere that's in the center, that's kind of moving around in space actually, but you hover it over a piece, and it plays a little piece of music, and then it cuts off. And then you go back over and it plays another piece. But it's like, again, it's like that frustration of like, oh, you've started something. Now you've just ripped it away. And it's kind of creating this anger or tension in that you're starting to, I guess, rather than just use the music itself, you're kind of playing with putting the music in and taking it out.

[00:06:11.475] Richard Lemarchand: So what I really wanted to do was to strip the interaction in this project down to its bare bones. Partly to look at what it means to interact with a virtual space. Partly in the service of accessibility. I would love for a very wide range of people to be able to play this. People who have never played a video game or have never been in virtual reality. from young to old, from all walks of life, with different levels of ability or disability. And I think that I've barely begun to explore this. I think we all have barely begun to explore this, the ways in which we could interact with the space and have it be meaningful in some new, non-traditional ways.

[00:06:49.922] Kent Bye: Well the other thing I noticed is the relationship between space and time where you have objects that are falling or you're in a music visualization where there's rings that are going upward and so it's giving you the sense of looking up to see in the past and looking down to see into the future. So I'm just curious to hear your perspective on how are you using space and time and the relationship between those two.

[00:07:10.845] Richard Lemarchand: So for my undergraduate degree I did physics and philosophy and it was when I was studying those subjects that someone pointed out to me that space-time is symmetrical. The universe doesn't really care whether it's moving forwards or backwards in time. You just reverse the charges of everything and you're going in the other direction in time. But it's a funny thing about human consciousness that we are always progressing forwards through time. We're snagged on to something. maybe something to do with entropy, something in the grain of the universe. And so yeah, the idea of temporality I see is very tied up with the nature of human experience that we're trying to explore with this game and I'm glad that you picked up on it. I'm interested in the way that in VR sometimes time speeds up and sometimes it slows down. I'm used to that phenomenon from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow. you know, this psychological concept that when we are engaged in a task and doing well at it, we get these strange time expansion and contraction effects. And I'm just beginning to get to grips with what's going on there. But I see it as another tool for artists to use in pursuit of creating experiences.

[00:08:22.657] Kent Bye: Well, on the door of the phenomenology, it says philosophy is happening here. What are the philosophical concepts that you feel like you're exploring in this piece?

[00:08:31.649] Richard Lemarchand: Well, the project has the most pretentious name that I could think of to choose for a virtual reality project. It's called phenomenology. And even though I have a degree in philosophy, it took me until a few years ago to really understand what phenomenology was. It was an aspect of post-war continental philosophy where suddenly the objects of perception were back on the table. Maybe this line of inquiry became acceptable because of things like MRI scanners where we could now look inside the human mind and get experimental data about that where we couldn't before. and the light and space artists were interested in phenomenology, what it's like to experience a thing, how our senses might be tricked and how our perceptual understanding of the world around us is not a kind of passive, out of remove thing, it's dynamic, it's in action. So the game is also partly about our bodies in space and the way that perception and cognition and our physicality is all kind of co-dependent, co-existent, and that's fundamentally kind of a mindfulness thing, you know, people who meditate and draw their attention towards their bodies, their breathing, and I hope that this game might do a little something around that.

[00:09:51.065] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that the exploration of the sphere, moving around and seeing the shadows in a space that was pretty sparse. There wasn't a lot of things in there. It was really just the light and looking at it and seeing how it changes over time. But I'm curious from a philosophical perspective, what were some of the insights from the philosophy of light and space? And what were their big conclusions? And how would you kind of like your approach of trying to synthesize that in this experience?

[00:10:17.295] Richard Lemarchand: Well that's a good and interesting question. It's not one that I know that I'm really able to answer. Those are big philosophical questions and I'm really a bit of a dilettante as far as philosophy goes. But also I like art that is ambiguous, that leaves room for interpretation. So I might turn that question back to you.

[00:10:39.422] Kent Bye: Well, I think that there's a fundamental question, which is, how do you turn architecture into experience? So there's space, and then there's certain context and meaning that each of us are projecting onto that. And when I talk to architects or game designers, there's an approach where you have your own intuition as a creator, but then you iterate and you show other people. But I guess there's the fundamental question of, is there some platonic form that is transcendent that has some sort of universal aspect that can translate some of these concepts into experience. And I feel like music is probably the best in terms of analogical reasoning because it's something that you have individual notes, but how those combine together, it evokes a quality. So it's the thing that takes the quantity into the quality based upon the relationship of how they're related to each other. But there's also how space does that as well. It's also similar to that music in the sense that it's how everything adds together and how that gets translated into experience. And so from my perspective, it's like, well, it's an open question as to whether or not there's kind of a universal translation function to be able to take how things are related to in space or through You know, the Pythagoreans and the Greeks had the quadrivium, which is numbers, which is just mathematics, numbers in space, which was geometry, numbers in time, which is music, and numbers in space and time, which is astronomy. And so everything kind of goes back into number, but you have this space and time through the mediation of numbers. So in this piece, I see that you're really Using this exploration of both music but also space to try to see if like maybe there's something about number That is that transcendent dimension that then gets translated down into the quality of experience certainly when I was introduced to the idea again probably in college by my clever friends and professors that mathematics is somehow

[00:12:24.577] Richard Lemarchand: kind of universal. For someone with a physics and philosophy idea, that's a tempting idea and things like Bertrand Russell's set theory kind of point towards that. But I'm also wary of making anything that seems like some kind of essentialist proclamation. Maybe simply like one of the main character in the game alludes to, we're all the same because we're all different.

[00:12:47.921] Kent Bye: So for you, what are some of the biggest open questions that are driving your work forward?

[00:12:52.606] Richard Lemarchand: So I want to keep exploring this idea that less can be more in virtual reality. I love all of the VR experiences that are being made right now, but I am very interested in stripping things down to basics and finding ways to build a kind of fundamental vocabulary of VR interaction. I think that all of the people working in this space right now are doing an amazing job and so I'm excited to kind of be in the mix around that. I'm interested to keep working with music and interaction because I see that as a very rich field. I think that many people have some kind of musical leaning But many of us remain a little bit alienated from the creation or the participation of music in the early 21st century. And I'd love to see how we could work around that in VR.

[00:13:43.678] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:13:51.661] Richard Lemarchand: So I think that VR is going to become incredibly important in the next five to ten years for various kinds of professional person... people. I think that the things that it lets you do around 3D modeling, 3D conceptualization, various kinds of experience prototyping are extraordinarily powerful and the tools that we're inventing now for allowing just anyone to make a space that's interactive, for prototyping something in the real world or, you know, to its own kind of digital end. It's going to be hugely important in the very near future. I'm not so sure about VR as a mass entertainment form. I think it might stay a little niche for the time being, but certainly I think we're going to see more and more artists coming towards this space.

[00:14:40.189] Kent Bye: Awesome, great. Well, thank you so much.

[00:14:42.770] Richard Lemarchand: Thank you so much, Kent. This is really good fun.

[00:14:46.015] Kent Bye: So that was Richard LaMarchand. He's an associate professor at the USC Games Program. He spent about 20 years in the games industry and he's created Phenomenology, which was debuting at INCADE Festival in Santa Monica, California. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, I hope this experience becomes available for people to experience because it's something that really stuck with me in terms of the power of having these different spheres move around in these different spaces, playing a lot with musical interaction. And like you said, there's not a clear narrative to what's happening here. And so he's, having music be correlated to different actions that are happening within a space and then you're able to kind of solve these different puzzles that you need to figure out how the behavior is reacting to the music that's being played and then you have to figure out the logic of the system and then you solve the puzzle but it's a bit of this very sparse minimalistic experience and For me, I thought it was super powerful just to see like how much motion could you evoke by having these different spaces like big rooms, small rooms, dark light with shadows moving around and just really playing with a lot of the perceptual aspects of these light and shadows. And I thought it was super powerful, super effective as an experiment to see what's possible to do this different type of minimalism. It's a point that Andrea Kastrikaru was talking about, which was like, you know, her desire to see a little bit more of these types of minimalist experiences to try to figure out like, what are the fundamental qualities of some of these digital objects? And just to see within their own right, how do you determine the different aspects of the qualities of these objects and how they're related to each other? So I thought it was a very interesting exploration and minimalism, but also just to explore, to see what is your phenomenological experience as you're going through this type of experience. Super cool to hear that he's got a degree in philosophy doesn't seem like he was necessarily motivated by some of the deeper philosophical questions But just to think about like the symmetry of time and space and how human consciousness is got a very specific experience of how time is moving forward and I would argue that there's also different associative aspects of time that is a little bit more why we maybe have these different experiences of time when we go into these virtual reality experiences, whether it's we're experiencing an inordinate amount of awe and wonder and beauty, that is blazing new neural pathways for the first time, so we don't have any reference points, but also these flow states, Chi Hai, Mixin Mihai, talking about how there's these different levels in which you're engaging with an experience with your skill that you have, but also the different challenges that are being presented and having like this level of being able to make these choices, but also be in a deep flow state of really pushing your limits, you get into these different flow states. And so just interesting to see how that is also an influence and how he's exploring that here as well. It is a bit of a mysterious process how all these different spatial experiences get translated into an experience, and it's widely varying based upon what you're bringing into these different lived experiences. And so I just like the fact that he's trying to strip things down to their bare essence and starting to play with some of the fundamental component parts of the language and interactions within these spatial designs, whether it's from the music or space and light and shadow and to connect what you're hearing, what you're seeing, and to have a logic of the sound design that's connected to the behavior of these objects as they're moving around in space as well. So hopefully this piece becomes available. I don't know, it was shown at Indicade. It was a little bit of this art project experiment. Hopefully it becomes available at some capacity so you can be able to check it out. And if you do, I'd highly recommend diving in and kind of going through the demo. It's kind of an interesting experiment to see what's possible with this type of style. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener supported podcast. And so I do rely upon donations from listeners like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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