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Art Basel: Soaring with a virtual Light Spirit

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Miami Art Week brings thousands of artists, artworks, and their alternate visions to Miami. But none like the one in a small room in a shared work space on Lincoln Road, where for several days this week you could visit an alternate universe, where you can float in a starry ether and summon a giggling, zooming creature with a magic wand.

Called Light Spirit, it’s a new virtual reality program using groundbreaking new technology that’s set to explode the genre in the next year. Created by L.A. virtual reality company New Tropics and former Miami creative duo Friends With You, known for their surreal, bright, amorphous figures, designs, and installations, Light Spirit got its first experimental outing during Miami Art Week. Instead of dueling with soldiers or surveying a landscape, Light Spirit, using a new headset and laser technology called HTC Vive, allows you to physically interact with an animated environment and creature. It’s like being part of a psychedelic cartoon.


Huge media and entertainment companies have been working for several years to move into this new virtual space; last year Facebook bought Occulus VR, another immersive reality company, for $2 billion, and Sony is developing a new virtual reality headset, Project Morpheus, for Playstation. But New Tropics has a more creative goal – to expand your mind. The three technical creators of Light Spirit say they’re the first to work with artists in using this cutting edge new technology. This week, some 100 artists, gallerists, curators, and other creative types tried it out.

"This is how to immerse people in their brain,” says New Tropics’ Josh Randall, formerly director of the studio which created the hit video game series Guitar Hero and Rock Band. “We’re interested in creating our own new worlds that you’d never get to experience in real life.”

On Friday (which between the rain, the traffic, and the depressing news, was a very good day to escape from reality), I stepped into a small 12 by 12 foot room, strapped on a sense-muffling headset, put on a pair of enormous headphones, and took a black joystick-like object in my hands – and was sucked into empty deep blue space filled with floating white sparkles. The joystick became a kind of sceptre tipped with a rainbow-colored globe; as I waved it, more sparks exploded, and a fluid, bulbous little smiling creature, like an animated, oblong balloon, appeared. It giggled and squirmed as I waved the wand – I could stroke it, lead it in waves and circles, and as I expanded my movements, faster and larger, the creature bloomed to almost my size, then soared overhead, streaking across the virtual sky like a bright tubular comet, squealing with delight while music boomed and echoed – I could even send it whirling under my feet. As I settled down, it edged closer, and as I touched its undulating surface, the wand disappeared inside it and the space around me bloomed into psychedelic color, blobs and shapes swelling and swirling, as if I’d disappeared inside a lava lamp. 

Afterwards I felt dizzy, disoriented, and slightly queasy at being back in the solid, sharply defined world of right angles and hard, unmoving objects. Randall and co-creator Adam Robezzoli say the creature responds to the person, adapting to what you do – playful and engaging if you engage it, shrieking and disappearing if you poke or hit it. (Marketing managers were the only ones who’d gotten aggressive, they said.) The music also changes with the player’s movements. There's no skill required, no competition, no fear - just play and surreal sensation.

Part of the challenge in creating Light Spirit, Randall said, was figuring out how to get the program to respond to each person individually. “We taught the system to respond to my way of moving, and then when it had other people it didn’t know what to do,” he said. The creature had to be completely unreal, and yet have a personality – it’s like a cross between a baby, a fish, a bubble, and a friendly ghost, with a little purring kitten thrown in. “We really wanted to make an otherworldly creature that’s fun to touch,” Randall says.

Randall and his New Tropics collaborators hope the next step for this new virtual universe will be for people to play together in virtual reality space. (With lots of Light Spirits, perhaps?) "It's so compelling," he says. "But it would be way more fun to do it with friends."

- Jordan Levin / Arts & entertainment writer
jlevin@miamiherald.com / @jordanglevin