Use a Bowling Ball to Create a VR Tsunami at this UK Art Exhibit

‘A Colossal Wave’ uses Newton’s theory of action and reaction to create a colossal wave.
When it comes to pushing the boundaries of VR, there are very few developers more prolific than Marshmallow Laser Feast. Whether it be a visceral 360° experience that puts you in the shoes, or paws, of a forest-dwelling wild animal, or a 4D VR experience that utilizes physical structures and haptic feedback suits to let users see and feel the flow of water within a tree, the London design house has become synonymous with custom-built immersive experiences.

That’s precisely why it came as no surprise to discover that the studio is behind one of the most ambitious custom VR exhibits of the 2017. Open to the public December 1st to December 10th at the Hull UK City of Culture 2017 in London, A Colossal Wave marries real-time art with VR technology to deliver a visceral collaborative experience in which participants use a bowling ball to create a massive digital wave VR users can experience in real-time.

Commissioned by the British Council as part of a worldwide partnership with Presstube, Dpt. and Headspace, the immersive art installation is divided into two separate areas. The first portion, located outside at the Hull Marina, has participants drop a bowling ball from a 9 meter tower in order to strike a large gong located at the base. Meanwhile, several users in an Oculus Rift headset gather under metal umbrellas nearby as they prep for their virtual drenching.
The VR experience is enhanced further by 360° spatialized audio as well as SUBPAC haptic feedback suits for a physical response. As the ball strikes the gong, the noise emitted by the instrument, as well as local conversations and other abstract sounds projected nearby are recorded and then translated into a real-time virtual wave for those in VR.
Meanwhile next door to the Hull’s Centre for Digital Innovation, visitors can gather around a large sphere while in a headset and suit to experience what the team refers to as “virtual fruit.” These “odd angler fish protrusions” change in size and shape depending on the specific sounds and voices recorded then emitted. This means that just like the gong experience outside, each visitor’s turn is unique from the last one. 

“One of the most incredible opportunities VR offers is the ability to play with scale. In a connected shared context, indoor and outdoor installations can provide settings for real Alice in Wonderland style interactions,” said Robin McNicholas, MLF’s Co-Creative Director. “In the case of A Colossal Wave!, people experience the wave close-up and-personal on the one hand, and in miniature with a macro view in the other. Bowling balls dropped outdoors plunge into the Jacuzzi of Despair in the indoor gallery in an obscure duality; both gigantic and miniature all at once.”
“Virtual reality is usually a solitary affair, but A Colossal Wave! lets people collectively experience visual immersion in a public space,” adds Barney Steel, MLF’s Co-Creative Director. “A physical ball thrown from a great height allows VR headset wearers to experience an eruption of colourful creations. Actions in the real and virtual realms merge, freeing the imagination and stimulating involvement of passersby, intrigued by the range of powerful feelings the players are going through.”

Fun and games aside however, the groundbreaking project is meant to serve as much more than just an entertaining art piece. A Colossal Wave also stands as a visually-impactful commentary on the current state of our environment and the global daily impact being made by the human race. While from a distance the user-generated wave may appear as a moving wall composed of nonsense, a closer look reveals that the monstrous force of digital nature is actually built from a series of confusing CG creatures. These custom-generated 3D animals are meant to represent the immense amount of man-made waste currently plaguing our oceans. As participants speak more frequently and loudly, noise pollution adds to the already insurmountable wave, symbolizing a difficult road towards a cleaner future.

“The transatlantic making of this project gave us a real adventure; a coming together of brains, emotions and visions,” stated Ersinhan Ersin, another one of MLF’s Creative Directors. “From visualising energy, to combining the physical and the virtual, and driving conversation around environmental issues; A Colossal Wave! is a manifestation of everything that inspires us.”
With VR still working its way into the mainstream, these immersive public installations are more important than ever in terms of exciting the uninitiated. On top of an already engaging VR experience, allowing the public to participate without the need of a VR headset is an effective means of ensuring enjoyment no matter you’re knowledge or level of skill. All of this while drumming up attention for an increasingly important cause. I mean what else would you expect from the incredible folks over at Marshmallow Laser Feast?
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