Tree of Life

By Carla Rapoport December 5, 2018

Interactive art is all about stepping into the artist’s mind. But what about art that allows you to step into something else entirely, say a tree, for example? To accomplish this, artists around the world are selecting Virtual Reality as the toolset of choice.

No surprise then, that the 2018 Lumen Prize AR/VR award went to a collective of artists who did just that – applied Virtual Reality to create the sensation of actually being a tree.

For how the project evolved, I spoke with Milica Zec, a NY-based film-maker and member of the New Reality Company, who won the award.

“It began 3 years ago with the project, Giant. My team and I wanted to tell a story about a family living in a war zone, and I realized that VR was the best medium to tell such a story, because it allowed us to put the audience inside the basement with the family as they take shelter from the approaching bombs,” she says.

From there, Winslow Porter and Milica  developed another concept called Tree. In this piece, they aimed to show the implications of climate change first-hand by placing viewers inside the body of a tree, she explains.

The idea was to get viewers to witness the full life cycle of a tree from its inception as a seed, reaching its full height, and ultimate fate as humans arrive to destroy the rainforest. This fusion of art and technology, she says, allows viewers to participate in the narrative and be placed into the shoes of someone else.

Milica, who has a Masters in Film and TV from Belgrade, Serbia, says her inspirations are both filmmakers and artists including Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, and Julian Rosefeldt among others. But she’s particularly excited about the outlook for VR & Art.

“The technology is developing at such an exciting rate, in 5 years we are going to see it be even more refined, affordable, and easier to use. This will allow us to reach larger audiences and introduce more people to the capabilities of VR and AR. I see amazing possibilities in creating new and larger bodies of interactive work that is able to engage audiences in ways we couldn’t before,” she says.

It’s an exciting prospect and one we at Lumen look forward to.

Details about the Making of Tree:

‘Tree’, a location-based virtual reality experience, transforms you into a majestic rainforest tree. With your arms as branches and body as a trunk, you’ll experience the tree’s life from a seedling to its fullest form, and witness its fate firsthand. Users enter the tree’s body and perspective, beginning the installation as a virtual seed and growing to the highest point in the forest before being slashed and burned by industrial loggers.To fully immerse you into the experience, it is enhanced with sensory elements such as a scent track, wind, heat and haptic vibrations to simulate growth.
With ‘Tree’, the artists wanted to personalize the effects of global climate change and deforestation. Climate change feels more prominent when it appears as something that is happening to you. To ensure that ‘Tree’ encourages not just awareness, but action, they partnered with The Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit with 25 years of experience working with local communities, governments, and corporations to end deforestation. ‘Tree’ is a fully immersive experience. It uses custom scents, heat elements, air movers, and bass transducers which activate during key moments of the experience to engage both the body and mind into the tree’s narrative. Its extra-sensory partners include Subpac (providers of the vibrating vests), plus Scent Communication and International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), who helped create the unique “scent” tracks of ‘Tree’.

The artists developed a custom pipeline in the Unreal Engine which allowed them to be able to start from the size of a seed and transition smoothly to tallest tree in the forest, seamlessly growing our trunk, branches and leaves towards the sky and witness the full life cycle of the Kapok tree. In order to maintain a sense of immersion they couldn’t at any time break the illusion that the user was the tree. The biggest challenge  faced was the question of how can we move and deform our arms – as the animation of growing leaves and branches is happening at the same time – while still keeping them attached. There was no ready made solution. To overcome this, the artists created a custom pipeline that merged two different types of software which don’t often play nice together – Maya and Houdini.

They developed unique solutions for being able to combine the growing alembic (Houdini) files for the tree’s branches and leaves with the evolving morph targets (Maya) of the tree’s body for a seamless user experience growing from a small seed to the tallest tree in the forest. This, as well as our attention to detail in bringing the rainforest to life with photorealistic lighting, shadow and textures, with the help of their art director, Jakob Kudsk Steensen, once again allowed the team at Epic Games to award them with a second Unreal Development Grant.

‘Tree’ made its debut at Sundance 2017 before travelling to Tribeca Immersive Virtual Arcade and TED 2017: The Future You in Vancouver. It also screened at over 50 festivals and events around the world, and just launched in 2018 in IMAX VR Centers in LA, New York and Toronto.

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