How do we say what we mean?

Post-it Notes.

I find neon coloured notes a fascinating medium for communication. They are bright and can stick to anything, as they are intended as attention markers. In our world of constant transmission of information from all types of sources: electronic, paper, spoken, etc. it is hard to make out where to look. And post-it notes make it easy to know where the attention should be.

In books and textbooks notes allow us to point out and bookmark the most important facts, or the ones that are the hardest to remember, or the ones that were missed in the text, but said in class or found out somewhere else. They encourage more engagement with the original media by allowing us to add more to it, something that came from outside the original. They encourage putting thoughts in words and sticking them to the right places. A very useful media indeed.

However, they are also anonymous and small. There is no conversation between many members of a culture that can happen on a post-is note. Post-it notes keep it simple but that doesn’t allow for too much interaction between people. They are a one-sided medium that allows for engagement with future and past self, but not so much with others.

This has a power in our culture. The anonymity is something that for the most part has gone away, forbidden by culture because it allows for giving up responsibility. There is a reason our society has decided to put an author underneath all ideas, opinions, and thoughts – be it plagiarism, honesty, credits, accountability. Post-it notes can go against this they allow for skipping these virtues. On the one hand, there must be ways to not follow the herd and having this medium of adding information in such an obvious and concise matter is a good option. On the other, it can evoke the worst parts of humanity with it. Hate-speech, treats, false comments, distractions are vices that society struggles with and post-it notes can facilitate them.

This is an example of how post-it notes can be used to do bad.

VR.

Virtual reality is an amazing new media. Amazing because it is so new, a completely immersive way to communicate ideas that has never been seen before. And thus has both good and bad implications.

For the most part right now it permits a one way communication – from creator to audience. I believe that in the future with things like PhotonNetwork and other assets for communication (be it facebook, chat interface, some twitter sort, being able to change the environment) people would be able to leave their mark and use it as a multi-communication channel. Because it is so realistic it will multiply the effects of both virtues and vices. Beautiful, useful creations will be more easily sharable and so will be spreading around mean and awful things.

It encourages thinking about reality as a very personal thing that can be manipulated. I think that this is a perspective that people should adopt, because it will help them understand it and employ it. Additionally, having something that seems real but is not will allow for more experimentation and less consequences, which can serve to release tension in people and teach them how to act in the real world. I think that culturally it can serve to create a very clear action-result relationship, without damaging individuals. This is the good way it can go.

And there is a bad one which is the exact opposite. People will lose the connection between action and result, and thus lose the value that it has. It will seem as if anything that you do is okey to be done because consequences are unforeseeable, unlike in the VR world. But this seems to be happening now anyhow, so VR has the potential to induce the distinction, so I have hopes it will be good.

Progress on Beta 1

Finally, sun lit my house too. We started writing the plot and ark of our game. Before that in the team there wasn’t much focus on storyline. However, now we have the arc.

The story line has been shaping very well – it is a dystopian futuristic space colony plot. The Earth has been left behind, along with all of its surviving citizens, and now has an enemy in the face of the galactic colony that started from the old world.
The characters are the Phoenix Empire, the space station manager, the player, the scientist from the old Earth, the radio broadcaster.

About 300 years ago on Earth there was a war that has unclear origins and sides, in which nuclear weapons were used that damaged the planet and its atmosphere. Moreover, because of the radioactive fallout big portion of the population died and the future of the living was marked by genetic mutations and famine. At that point humanity had advanced enough to have started slowly colorizing the near planets and had space home in the orbits of different planets. There were inhabitants of the space-home which had taken permanent space residency, but it was still an expensive way of living so they were only the chosen few. The story told to the citizents of the space nation about the happenings on Earth is that because humans were divided they fought against each other which brought destruction to the planet, made it uninhabitable and unescapable, so it is supposed there are no survivors. In reality the war wasn’t because of division on Earth. It started as a conflict between the powerful and rich inhabitants of space didn’t want to comply to the motherland’s law and didn’t want to share their extraterrestrial resources with the poorer population left on Earth, so the nation which started the galactic project helped them to wipe out the Earth and it’s population. Planning took years, the last valuable resources from Earth were taken to space and then masking it behind a political agenda they destroyed their brothers.
The Phoenix Empire is the new intergalactic human nation that has started from the orbital colonies around Earth. In the last 300 years they have been drifting away from the Solar System creating stations in further planets even galaxies. The government is run by computers with human intervention by a board of directors, chosen by the population every 10 years. After they left Earth, many were doubtful about the events on the planet, so the story about the divided humanity was fabricated by the then-people in charge in order to keep peace on the colony. Although, it is not a totalitarian government in charge and the free media is one of the major ways for the citizents to have a voice, the story about Earth echoes through time. With the advance of technology and civilization interest in the origins of the human kind wasn’t present. However, the newly elected government is worried that such interest can arise and thus decides to go back to Earth and finish what their ancestors have started by diminishing the planet.
The space station manager sends the player, or first human satellite on a pretend mission of space exploration that will be broadcasted and added to history books in the Empire. However, unknowing even to the manager, who is in contact with the player, there is a bomb attached to the spacesuit that is to be detonated once the destination Earth is reached. There is no knowledge available to the mission control and player that they are in the Solar System from which their kind originated.
In the orbit of Earth the player and the space station which is receiving the recording, see a satellite and hear a recording that is playing from it. The recording and the satellite are proofs that humans have survived on Earth and have continued to develop after the attacks. They also proof that they don’t know the attacks were organized by the colony and think that they have been left behind and are searching for the others if they have made it.
The player knows little of this in the beginning of his journey and has to go through challenges in order to get to the final destination – Earth. On the way he sees artificially created objects, which hint at the survival of the old world. Once he gets to Earth she/he starts to realise what is happening and recalls a speech made in the Empire about the origins of humanity and the old world and realizes that there is a discrepancy between the reality and the stories told. Then he there is a malfunction of the trajectory of his path and he uncontrollably starts going towards Earth’s atmosphere. Then there is a message that pops up and asks if he wants to detonate the bomb that will be the end of Earth.

Up is Down and Down is Up

The unlimited possibilities of VR turn out to be a problem from me rather than a liberation. As times passes and I have to come up with more and more ideas about VR I am realizing how limited my mental space has become. Although, I have always been on the creative side in writing, coding, creating in any possible way, my brain has become limited by the limited resources that I have (I guess that is just growing up and facing reality does). And now this new VR opportunity presents a mind-bothering issue.

I mentally went through any superpower and magical thing that I can think of and then on my own found them all to be already existent in one video game or another, not necessarily in VR. So, I set out to think of something which would engage more senses in VR and would thus make use of how real it all seems once you put the headset on. Seeing and hearing have been engaged for decades now, movement is engaged in HTC VIVE as well. But I wanted to dig deeper, engage the unseeable – our sense of spacial position and balance.

Readily in my mind came the movie Inception and how by manipulating spacial position the characters were able to do many things. And then into mind came the concept of the impossible staircase.

Relativity
July 1953
Lithograph
27.7×29.2cm

The only way to go through this maze is if you are able to rotate your space according to the position of the next staircase. “Up” and “down” become not something set, but something you have control over. In this manner one becomes more aware of their vestibular sense. In real life almost no one (except of aeronauts and people using fly machines) pays much attention to this sense because special equipment is needed in order to affect it. For us the sky is always up and the Earth is down. However, like everything these concepts are subjective and not set, but for evolutionary purposes we have gotten used to calibrate according to these two big objects that are always in sight.

Thus, a game that makes you break the tradition of up and down can cause some trouble for most people. It is incredibly important for coordination and balance to know which is where, so when this certainty is removed many people might feel sick. But just like any other sense or muscle you have to go through the pain and trouble in order to improve. So, I feel like this has an application in body training and also poses a challenge.

It is also a challenge to make. For the past week I have been trying to create a level of impossible staircases and it is very hard for me to imagine everything in 3D while imagining to change my spatial rotation. Using other softwares like TiltBrush allows me to better imagine how it might look like, but it is still a struggle to open up my mindset to remove the usual concepts of up and down. Which makes me believe even further that having a way to learn it (like in such a game) will bring us closer to unravelling our full human potential.

As a second interaction me and my group discussed scaling of the world, similar to the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. This makes the design of the level even harder; however, it also works very well to present an “out-of-the-box” way of thinking. It is an interaction that again messes with one’s mind-set about position and control over the world that they are in.

Fire All Mighty

Life

My idea behind the creation of my first project for Cardboard had many dimensions – social, humanitarian, and pure joy of creation. I portrayed a calm night in a forest, with a full moon in the distance and peaceful background of night bugs singing. This whole utopia was extended by a not-so-utopian factor – it was all on fire. There were fires burning everywhere around the player, their sounds blazing and covering the peaceful melody of the night. The only possible interaction with the environment was to shoot out more fireballs, thus making the player unable to prevent the disaster from happening, she could only make it worse.

In the social context lays the first interpretation of my project. It is about the literal destruction that humans cause in Nature. It is our involvement that only makes it worse, as we are unable to turn back time and prevent the disaster from happening in the first place.

The second interpretation of my project is a little bit more subtle. I imagined this forest as a mind map of human brain and consciousness with its sulci and gyrus as the terrain, a mountain, on which ideas, trees, grow. When destruction, or depression, or any other mental condition takes over – the fires – often times the individual cannot stop it from happening by rushing to take some action, shooting fireballs in my example, and should stay calm and just take it all in; let it flow through them. To me this is a very important issue, both because of my own recent and not so recent struggles, but also because I have come to realise that many people suffer in their everyday lives because they are not willing to stay calm and let go. I wanted to show this struggle and also give a way out of it – listening to the peaceful sounds, looking around and enjoying what one has. This works in the context of NYUAD because we live in a desert so such forests are not present but they are still highly appreciated by many here.
Of course, it can be interpreted also as the inability for humans to prevent entropy and a metaphor for our ongoing struggle. This is a more dark interpretation, but still a valid one.

Lastly, I enjoy forests and fire, and I wanted to experience it. Virtual reality allows to interact with fire like never before, like a superpower, and to be able to manipulate it in previously impossible ways. It empowers people, which makes them feel good.

On the topic of creation I will now say a few words about the actual code behind the project. For the fires spread around the forest I used a free asset available in Unity Store, which had the fires and their sounds already prepared for me. The background, the terrain, the forests and the moon I made using already existing in Unity options. For the realistic forest sounds I used a free recording from a forest I found online.

Shooting the fire, my interaction, was naturally the hardest one to make. At first I wanted to use the Fire Assets’s options; however, I learned that reading someone else’s code and being able to understand, and use it, is not always the most straightforward thing and I was unable to do it. So, I did what my professor recommend me – “Why not make it yourself?”

Thus, I created a particle system that I connected to the Cardboard trigger with an if function, so that only when you press the trigger it fires. Then I got the position of the player’s view in order to make the particles shoot in the right field of view. Using the position and rotation of the camera I told the particle system to go in that direction with the Instantiate function.

My biggest problem was making the particles move uniformly in the direction in which they were shot, because by default they spread around. In the update function of their script I added a transform.forward function multiplies by the time it takes them to travel, which I could control. Then I used a material and sound effect from the Fire Asset to attach to my particles so that they look like little fireballs.

If I had to work more on this project I would do the following:

  • make the fires in the forest appear gradually for the purpose of player immersion
  • make a single particle when triggering the button
  • make the particle induce fire where it lands – this would be made by checking if there is anything on the way of the particle with a Raycast function and then triggering a fire asset or particle system on a spot, defined by the location of the original particle, when the raycast function returns a small distance 0.4f(for example)

What a Beautiful Place

My favourite environment has been already described not once, but many times. It functions in the Bible, in the Hobbit, in Lord of the Rings – it’s a heaven.

Hidden, in a valley surrounded by mountains with an ancient virgin forest, untouched and unexplored by man, lays a stone villa. It has big halls, with no windows, that let the light breeze and the sunlight in at all times. It is two stories high, and on top there is a wall that functions for protection. From the yard in front of the building, you can see and hear the waterfall that comes pouring from the mountain on the East. It is lost in the branches of the trees, but if you walk a bit towards the little chapel, you can see the river that it creates. You have to walk on a small bridge that crosses the river, to get to the chapel. In it you will find stone etchings of the stories of heroes long dead, and an empty altar in the middle of the circular room. From there, the trees hide most of the villa and all of the benches laid out in the beginning of the forest, where the trees are not as tightly packed.

If you go back and start walking towards the West, with the villa on your left, you will soon start to sweat, as the elevation increases rapidly. In a hundred meters you will reach a junction of forest paths – one goes up towards the mountains, one deep into the forest, where you would need a light at any time of day, and one carries you by the side of the valley, behind the villa and further on even behind the chapel. If you take this road you will end up on the river side, and in an hour at the bottom of the waterfall.

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth a place similar to this is named Lothl√≥rien and it is the last place where the ancient race of the elves reside in the third age. Legolas describes it as “the fairest of all the dwellings of my people. there are no trees like the threes of that land. For in the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. not till the spring and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey” (Lord of the Rings).