Return to Flatworld
Yesterday, I went back to the Flat World facility run by the Institute for Creative Technologies of USC, which has designed many digital environments for military purposes. This time I went with the local LA chapter of SIGGRAPH; I had been there before while doing research on the Virtual Iraq virtual reality simulation, which is designed to help treat combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The first thing I tried was Jacki Morie's Memory Stairs, a "series of artistic, immersive virtual environments designed to represent an aesthetic journey through a lifetime of memories." Although there are to be eight different environments in all, I only visited two rooms from one era, wearing a head mounted display. There was a lot to contemplate, however. Magazine covers, wallpaper patterns, and even scenery through the window. Unfortunately, I kept attracting the attention of my minders, because I kept accidentally climbing on the tables when exploring the room. Since I have been doing work on the method of loci from the era of classical rhetoric, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship of spatiality to memory. It was interesting to see see the military-funded project based on Morie's work, DarkCon, in which the clues that are closely tied to pathos include "a baby doll" that "squeaks when stepped on" and "family photo albums" that lie "discarded in the mud." The story unfolds in an Eastern European city, and the user must negotiate through a sewer tunnel and be prepared for both "civilian refugees" and "militant rebels."
Given that Henry Jenkins was blogging about the Lego paradigm yesterday, it was interesting to see how often Flatworld Producer Diane Piepol kept referring to the Lego metaphor to describe the modularity of the mixed reality elements that they were developing for military training scenarios. Flat World creates digital sets using many of the techniques of traditional theatrical flats, some using transparency and layers. We were ushered into a room with broken ceiling panels and smashed furniture in the center of the space, and given 3-D glasses. Loud music from a mosque played. A door could be opened revealing an armed insurgent with his face obscured, who might pepper the walls with bullet holes. In another scenario, an unmanned aerial vehicle whizzes by. Perhaps, the ground shakes with concussive force as conflict intensifies. Outside, in another mixed reality environment, a child taunts soldiers and throws rocks.
I also saw other work from this Mixed Reality Research Group at Flat World. There is a great emphasis on life-sized figures at FlatWorld, such as Sergeant John Blackwell (clip runs better in Explorer), who uses natural language processing to answer questions from those who might potentially interact with him. Of course, even though he claims to know Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto (along with Korean), the virtual Sgt. Blackwell wouldn't answer the main question posed by our group: "Where is Usama Bin Laden?" He also replied to our question "Can you move your arms?" without demonstrating that ability, as though we were supposed to just take his word for it.
The tour finished with a demo of the "light stage," which was once largely used for Hollywood applications, but is now being repurposed by the military as well.