Cultured Magazine

February/March 2016

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106 CULTURED S p i r i t G u i d e With a little help from artist collective FriendsWithYou, New Tropics is pioneering virtual reality one alternate universe at a time. BY GREG J. SMITH At Art Basel Miami Beach, New Tropics virtual reality studio and art collective FriendsWithYou debuted Light Spirit, an interactive experience using new VR technology. If the consumer electronics industry has its way, 2016 will be the year virtual reality (VR) becomes part of our media diet. Moving beyond mass- market entertainment, what role will the medium play in creative expression? New Tropics is one of the new breeds of VR studios that are working to answer this question. Revealing some of their intentions at Art Basel Miami Beach 2015 with Light Spirit, the studio and collaborator FriendsWithYou invited participants to don a VR headset, peer into the cosmos and cavort with a supernatural being. "I just remember thinking: This is it, this is what we've been promised for two decades," says New Tropics' Daniel Rehn of the first time he tried an early build of the HTC Vive VR headset last spring. "You're truly in another place. You can move within it and even forget where you are." Inspired, he and fellow Angeleno Adam Robezzoli and Toronto's Henry Faber are working to cultivate a "directorial" approach to authoring VR. Their goal? Instead of verisimilitude, the trio's mission is to develop "lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences and bizarre adventures." Light Spirit summons an amorphous jellybean-like entity from FriendsWithYou's aesthetic universe and allows a viewer to not just encounter, but commune with it. Approach the creature with warmth and it will coo and zoom around or snuggle you. "It allows the user to merge with the light, bringing them to a place of transcendental being," says FriendsWithYou's Samuel Borkson. "If a user touches the spirit with the wand they will create a link between the spirit and the magic energy residing in the wand," says New Tropics' Robezzoli. That connection, between Light Spirit's wand and the Vive's hand controller, reveals the technology driving the piece. The Vive's SteamVR system offers room-scale position tracking and its wireless controller captures gesture; move in the room, move within the experience. Using the game engine Unity and drawing on visual technology produced by Funktronic Labs, New Tropics and FriendsWithYou crafted an embodied narrative, and that—plus compelling character design—was the allure. "Many said that they wanted to spend more time with the Light Spirit, even take it home with them," Robezzoli says. Aside from participating in PanelScapes, a showcase fusing comics and VR presented offsite during Toronto Comic Arts Festival last spring, New Tropics was primarily operating in stealth mode until Art Basel Miami Beach. Light Spirit is emblematic of the per-project partnerships the trio aspires to foster, acting as VR "facilitators" rather than technical contractors. "At the end of the day, we're directing experiences alongside whomever we're collaborating with," says Rehn. "Maybe because we are based in Los Angeles, we see ourselves as a production studio rather than a game studio." That said, combine the game development pipeline with the cinematic tradition when creating spatial media and we're clearly headed into new territories—New Tropics may just be among the first "auteurs" of out-of-body experiences. COURTESY OF FRIENDSWITHYOU AND NEW TROPICS

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