Multisensory Meltdown @ Culture House DC

Sometimes being UR LOCAL CYBORG while a full-time student means I'm running around reviewing my instructors' work, in which case it's quite lucky that my department has artsy faculty. In this post I'm reviewing a production by the Immersive Media Design technician and instructor for my Capstone course, Ian McDermott. In March, Ian rounded up a group of IMD students to help set up for an event at Culture House, a "multisensory meltdown" of an indie rock show where he debuted the VR music video he created for The North Country's song "Inside Outside."

I'm writing this review from the perspective of a VR docent, which I've done for plenty an IMD showcase or XR Club event. I've taken for granted the importance of human docents for VR exhibitions given that most of the VR exhibitions I've seen were right here on the University of Maryland's campus, which is teeming with undergrads more than willing to spend a night on their feet to help people experience good art. As I touched on in a previous review, the most successful VR installations I've been to have a set of hands helping you get into and out of the headset, whether this is your first time in VR or your hundredth.


Quick skim-through of the technical stuff: Ian's music video was built for the VIVE VR headset, which were installed in six stations during the event. Four of the stations had the video as created; two had a stiller version for motion-sensitivity. Each station had the wired headset and the tracking cameras used to determine the headset's position in space. The headset itself was hooked up to a Raspberry Pi hosting the video, which in turn was hooked up to a small monitor displaying on a flat screen what it looked like inside the headset. That way, people waiting their turn could get a preview of what they'd see--and the volunteer docents could tell when it was time to help the viewer out of the headset when the video ended.

The music video itself was a montage of cinematic shots with the band, morphing and panning in 3D space as iridescent point clouds against a black backdrop. Watching it feels like a fantasy dream sequence wherein memories construct themselves around you out of flower petals or pixie dust. "Inside Outside" was a good song for VR--hazy, psychedelic, and as Ian mentioned, one that he could still enjoy listening to after having heard it more than anyone ever. It was a good song in general. Although VR as a medium is meant to remove you from reality, the music video felt very grounded--the visuals themselves floated at a slow-enough pace for you to process the experience. And they were captured using photogrammetry, reflecting ordinary scenes with photorealistic depth.

While the final result is far from realistic, you can still feel that it takes place in the real world, which I think is more memorable than creating a spacey foreign world. It defies what I see as a trope of virtual reality in both aesthetics and function: hypersaturated, overstimulating artificial virtual environments for intense, action-heavy video games. In contrast, the VR music video for "Inside Out" was meditative and soothing, transporting you smoothly from scene to scene all while standing in the same physical place. It didn't require any hand-controller interaction, allowing first-time VR users to ease right into it. (VR is overwhelming enough as it is for first-time users: although "Inside Outside" lasts about three and a half minutes, one viewer took off the headset about a minute in, remarking that they'd lost all sense of time while immersed in the space, feeling like they'd been submerged in a months-long coma.)

During breaks from my volunteer shifts--Ian insisted that we all enjoy the show--I watched parts of each band's set. ViRG was a delightful opener to this cyberpunk rock show, with their synthy grooves and space opera getup: sequined capes and shoes in the style of a DIY David Bowie. The North Country carried on the otherworldly atmosphere with a laser show by Zak Forrest, projected on the wall behind their drummer as they performed. The art-reviewer side of me wants to say something about mediation and liveness (before the live performance of "Inside Outside," the band's guitarist remarked, "You heard it in VR, now here it is in... regular R"), but I've had enough citing sources for the moment. I don't need Philip Auslander to tell me that I had a good time.


If you're interested in VR in the art space, I'd recommend volunteering at least once as a VR docent. It makes for a better exhibition experience, and whether or not you've ever used VR, I'd imagine that the event hosts would appreciate the help and be willing to onboard you to the equipment. One afternoon a week into my freshman year, I volunteered as a VR docent for a student club having only used a Google Cardboard once before in a science museum. I got more VR experience than I'd ever had in my lifetime at that point, just onboarding people onto the Oculus headsets--and my five-minute onboarding was more than most people had been in VR anyways. Nothing like learning by teaching, right? (And besides, it might just be a free ticket to a good show.)

Anyways, I'd imagine that my opportunities to volunteer at VR screenings will be sparse after I graduate. But the DMV is a good area for XR and museum work, so I'll keep an eye out.

The North Country's "Multisensory Meltdown" show took place on Friday, March 29, 2024 at Culture House DC, featuring the bands ViRG and The North Country and multimedia works by Ian McDermott and Zak Forrest. Tickets: $25.

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