Meow Wolf is an art collective. Meow Wolf builds worlds and tells stories on a scale that is both grand and intimate, real and virtual. Their landlord is George Martin (1). They opened up a gallery in Santa Fe. Now they are at SXSW bringing a bit of their strange magic to do their part in keeping Austin a little weird. I spoke with Bryan Solomon, Creative Director of Mixed Reality at Meow Wolf to learn how this group came to create such a unique combination of VR and art.
Meow Wolf has a variety of things going on at SXSW from their "immersive playground" at Empire Control Room, a music venue, to the Official Meow Wolf: Origin Story Documentary World Premiere, to a series of speaking engagements by Cofounder and CEO, Vince Kadlubek.
One of the big reveals of SXSW was Meow Wolf's "groundbreaking" immersive VR story installation “The Atrium.” This installation is part of the "VR/AR" (2) programming at SXSW and is located with other exhibits at the JW Marriot, one of the many venues for SXSW Conference content.
The Atrium is Meow Wolf's first VR experience (3). This is a "haptic interactive story experience," that engages the variety of creative talent in Meow Wolf. Artistically, it is a continuation of House of Eternal Return (4) their surreal experience in "non-linear storytelling." House of Eternal Return is an art installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that explores the mysterious disappearance of the Selig family and investigates a strange world of space and time.
Solomon explains that " our company became successful with the launch of our first major, permanent, exhibition," House of Eternal Return. After that success they made it a priority to keep the team together " because it's hard to teach a team of all these diverse artists that know how to work with each other." Having a consistent team allowed everyone to start "working on things that they were passionate about."
The "follow your passion" vision applied to Solomon as well. He started working " as a tech member, so I would help with all the crazy wiring, networking, all that kind of things." But his background in film drove him seek other venues of expression. He requested a Vive headset and said "ok, 'I'm gonna take this on and learn everything I can in the next year or two to make a piece, or give us our own unique way of approaching that medium." With "a lot of support" and " a great amount of time to incubate and hone in," he accomplished that.
Solomon is fascinated by the opportunity to " bring physical objects into virtual reality." He realized "that people really felt grounded when they had an object they could depend on in a virtual space." The method for achieving this is " taking objects and putting the digital directly over the top of the real thing and if you align them really well you can reach out and touch the virtual thing, which is just like a filter." The end result is a virtual object that is linked to a real object for a tactile experience in a virtual space.
The Atrium is designed to be different than the "giant worlds" already created in Meow Wolf's other installations. Solomon wanted to create a piece that allowed people to "explore a large space, but also have room scale." He also wanted to make sure that there were no "cuts" meaning he " didn't want a piece that teleported anywhere." He felt such interruptions would break the fourth wall.
For The Atrium, he "created a situation in which you're a six inch character in a very large world and you are flying around on this portal platform kind of thing." They character you are following is from "The House of Eternal Return narrative," and the room you're in is based on " one of the rooms that's inside of our house that we built in Santa Fe."
This familiarity builds on the science fiction inspiration of " starting people from complete mundane normalcy like a common situation" then sending them off "through portals and through these kind of fantastical passageways." For this particular piece "you can kind of traverse this bedroom but it feels like you're in the grand canyon, kind of, because of the scale." The virtual reality places you in a world of altered perspectives.
The technology of The Atrium includes a haptic sensory platform "that people stand on so there's 12 bass transducers that are kind of radially aligned." This can be used to " trigger all sorts of different events and sequence different kinds of vibrations" to " make you feel like you're going up and down." It also includes a second control surface so that users can interact or a player can select their own story.
Another unique element of The Atrium is the sense of perspective. Solomon explains that "most of the time you see a virtual piece and if they are showing you what they're seeing." The result is "a direct carbon copy of what's onscreen for them." He believes that it "kind of ruins everything for the next person going in."
The Meow Wolf solution is to hide " all the animation in the room that actually are present for the other person." So the next in line for the virtual immersion is only going to see "the character fly around." They have to wait their turn to see the full view of "what they're seeing once they are in the room."
Solomon has a bright vision for the future of storytelling with VR. He sees it as " a fresh way to engage with humanity again." He sees potential in this method of storytelling because "it makes you closer in that kind of way with the creator because they have so much control over what you're seeing."
He sees that the person who made the content has " so many points of leverage that you don't have with any other medium." The points of leverage can be used to take storytelling to new places. Solomon emphasizes that the mission of Meow Wolf is to "inspire other people to do the same thing." He hopes that people will see an experience like this and be inspired to new creative ambitions.