Virtual and Augmented Reality in the Post-Coronavirus World

In the Tech Barometer podcast segment from March 2020, explore how Pierre Friquet’s VR experience Spaced Out makes virtual and augmented reality experiences more relevant as social distancing and lockdowns became a way of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jason Lopez

By Jason Lopez September 29, 2021

Pierre  “Pyaré” Friquet’s VR experience Spaced Out was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. The writer and director blends digital technologies, art and even physical settings to transport people into a realm of ultra sensation.

In this podcast recorded in March 2020, just as COVID-19 was devastating lives across Europe, Friquet talks about how VR experiences like Spaced Out might take on new meaning and relevance in people’s lives, especially considering that the next virus could rear its ugly head anytime.

To understand Spaced Out, one must imagine putting on an underwater VR headset and snorkel then taking a voyage from Earth to the moon, where graphical color scapes combine with historic footage of the Apollo 11 mission. The absence of gravity mixed with kaleidoscopic shapes and footage of real-life moonshot is mind and body-boggling.

The digital artist Friquet is based in France and India and has created more than a dozen VR fictions, documentaries, music videos and location-based experiences. His VR original fiction (co-created with Ando Shah) Jet Lag won the Best Live-Action Experience Award at the Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival.

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But as the world retreated and hunkered down in a fight against the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, Friquet’s work became intriguing to more people, especially has they had more time to reflect alone during social distancing.

Friquet shares why it’s easy to imagine how the public’s adoption or consumption of immersive experiences and technologies could rise during a time of lockdowns and solitude. Things like 360 video and AR had more time and space to fill in people’s lives.

Transcript (unedited)

Jason Lopez: It’s only been a few days since shelter in place orders have gone into effect all over the world as the coronavirus pandemic begins to escalate.  Dreamscape Immersive closed its locations in the U.S. and Dubai. That goes for The Void and LA’s Two Bit Circus. Many VR startups have also closed, but the sudden requirement for many populations to stay inside could present an opportunity for some VR platforms as people increase their usage of devices and for creators forced to stay in might dovetail with the need to write and produce. One of those creators. Just off a very successful exhibit at the Sundance film festival in January is Pierre Friquet. his immersive experience was immersive in every sense of the word spaced out is a VR film in which the user floats up to the moon and the user has floating sensations because they wear a waterproof headset, wear a swimsuit and have the experience floating in a swimming pool. Spaced out is an homage to the Apollo moon landing 2001 a space Odyssey and George Melies 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon, the first sci-fi movie ever made. We talked to Pierre Friquet from his flat in Paris. Hey there, Pierre.

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Pierre Friquet: How's it going? Really good. Um, all right. How are you 

Jason: Hanging in there? I'm wondering, you know, what the atmosphere has been like in Paris the past a day or so? 

Pierre: Just a, yeah, very difficult. I mean, uh, just in general, um, there's a lot of, um, well first of all panic but also some irresponsibility and still people are hanging out, but it seems today, um, the lockdown has been tougher and the military has calm and the police are patrolling on the streets, uh, to maintain really complete shut down. So, um, it's a very strange feeling. Um, my family is actually affected. Uh, um, my stepmother might have the virus and maybe my father too, so yeah, it's a, it's a bit strange. Um, yeah. 

Jason: Do you think the effects of the pandemic will shut down production over the next couple of months or can you still work on projects? 

Pierre: Yeah, the answer, the short answer is yes and no. At the same time, let's say that it's a particular type of content and workflow and way of producing and funding definitely affected, you know, and soon as Vi's, you know, steel accessible on youth by going to a certain place, you know, um, so on one hand, um, as a VR user, I mean the consuming content and watching stuff, uh, actually VR is a great liberation way to connect to people. You know, uh, especially with these, uh, chat rooms, social VR experiences where you impersonate an avatar and can talk to other people and being locked down in my flat and being Paris like in big cities, that's where it's great. I can do a, so exercises and I think VR that ways really use food and pertinent and as a medium, you know, and different compared to the other media, like watching TV and playing video games where you can really exercise and practice and, and maintain, you know, physical fitness, you know, uh, so the game, uh, creed, uh, it's a boxing game. 

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Pierre: A beat saver can really be a valuable experience, you know, and that's why VR can be fantastic. Uh, I can see the difficult part right now. It's like only to another VR person. I can clearly chat and have virtual rooms and, and re interact. So for example, I'm writing a script with someone. We actually designed a VR social experience for cultural, uh, artistic content. So we're working on a new project and we're going to walk together, you know, in this space. And the last thing also in my practice, I think mobile AI can be great technology actually for people to, so as a creator and I can walk on AR and through the mobile device and since he one has it, you know, I think people are grooming to be quite, um, interested in [inaudible] small carriers to explore the possibility of a mobile AR. And since you know, you're just stuck at home

Jason: Let's talk about where VR AR all the terms and all the meanings of these terms, where they are right now. Uh, I wonder if you could just give us sort of a breadth of what the various media under this umbrella of XR or mixed reality or whatever you want to immersive media, whatever you want to call it. Um, what are the various terms and what are the various things they do? 

Pierre: So the only AR, I mean on one size, these the industry, they're actually companies and people are pushing it. And the other side is, you know, the art form. And to answer your question, uh, pre coronavirus, let's say VR was actually doing well, was regaining a lot of strength. The sales, the really good sales of the awkwardest quest have been really AgriNews for everyone, for VR creators, producers, investors. And even though they focus on gaming, they show that different uses and of like fitness and sport. So VR is going slowly basically, and it's going towards, it's not dead. It's going to, are something slower than we expected. And was last week I sign up for the alpha test, I think of, um, of the new Facebook social VR experience. That's going to be the next big thing, uh, that already exists. And platforms, um, they have their own legitimacy and different users, but I think, uh, vis tending to become, uh, more practical, more useful, it's already quite, uh, out there and, and adopted, you know, by the industry, by the indication, you know, by just the B2B kind of market, the B to C will take more time and we'll need to have maybe theme parks, you know, and it's, it's a natural evolution. 

So that's if that's what led to VR, AR, uh, people, uh, interested because of, well one on one side is a mobile AR and then there's the headse AR mobility I'd actually kind of doing well but not in an expected way. Like few taking accounts, the interactive filters for platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, you know, actually we see a boom of that. I mean the young people actually are more interested in AR. They've adopted this technology and, and on the other hand and B to B market AI is quite useful in many aspects. Uh, so two are out there but they are six months late because of, what you call the tax was between us and China and this much stuff being produced. They are in China and also many, they using our rare minerals in the headset, so from China. So become pragmatic but we hope, I mean Microsoft I think is doing a good job or I had, I had done a really good job with HoloLens, one for industries and magic leap is not in good shape, but we also hope that Apple will in three years from now come with a really a clear product. 

And again, it's slower than we expected. People are more cautious than, you know, a couple of years ago. It's a slow form and our research even with a post-Coronavirus and then it is, VR has a lot of potential because you know, people will be stuck at home. There are many teleconferences. I'm mean to use our VR can use, you know, fitness and social aspect of can do. We do the form. We just need, you know, more influencers. We need more films. We need more media. Taking care of it. 

Jason: Well that makes me think of this uh, point and that is the rules are, are different for different media. It almost seems like the rules are different. Even between three 60 VR AR maybe even comes down to individual projects that can have their own rules in terms of storytelling, what are the rules that work? What are some of the rules that don't work that need to be rewritten? 

Yeah, it's a great question. Actually, this was a fascinating, fascinating part of this creative process where everything I knew, though I knew about VR doesn't work and then applies the same way. And um, well if you're talking about rules and then you imply, I mean language and then you know, you know, the content itself needs to be crafted in a certain way, but they’re also would like to bring the importance of the user's experience, you know, and the relation of the buddy with the technology and Oh, when you're underwater, you, the water itself has this quality of being relaxing and, and everyone has his own individual religion water. So just definitely camera movement helps. Let's say three 60 degree underwater shots. You know, we thought too, we assume that that'll be a great experience to watch. You know, dolphins are swimming around you, you know, so that's kind of content you see normal VR three CS degree. 

But under what, with our aquatic care headsets, you know, the VR headset, um, it's not that it's as impressive, you know, and yes, he does something, uh, there's some correlation which in the color of the water in the swimming pool and then the sea where it was shot, but it's not as exciting. And the best rule is to recreate everything in 3d and have a lot of camera movements, which usually you dance in nominal through the degree of VR content. Another part is to be really long and to take time to have quite a few shots, uh, to be more environmental-based. Um, in the sense that, you know, there are spaces, you're a producer, have something to explore to see not only underwater shots, even if don't in 3d will work, but stuff like, uh, related to with listeners or flying or, so there's not only many contents, we're exploring switches in aquatic VR experience. 

The rules that I came up with that, that different sensation when the camera kind of tracking compared to the camera, which tracks out so that when you look at a camera track arch, your feet electrically are pulled up. You know, like you must feel as is a rope putting you as a, like you feel your body is actually being pulled. And when you go out, when the camera goes down, you feel like you're, uh, you know, like, um, funding and that's actually great effect. But you should not use it all the time. And like a Mozart, you know, he in his symphony, he always tries to compose weak moments, you know, to have low beats, you know, um, to have, uh, poses and breaks so that, you know, you can have climatic moments. And, um, so there are tweaks are that, uh, sound, uh, the voices, uh, are very important, uh, based, doesn't rework piano works, but so the, you know, certain instruments like drums or beats, so the music would be done really walk on the water. 

So there are fewer keys elements. Um, yeah, I can go on and on. But yeah, the ballast goggles that you use, what is that platform based on? So it's a proprietary, um, technology, um, the own, um, operating system. They’re just used, um, just a Samsung, the latest and uh, because it's just the best, um, screen and pixel ratio there. And prison power is really good. And uh, but they also design, you know, the software and the abrasive system as well as software. And you know, the importance is actually in the details. They created the on optics. If you look at the headset to these, a space between the screen and the face mask, I mean in the, and so what I guess what goes inside and that's actually, uh, the water acts like Glen's so, but asked, um, looks simple, but actually, that's the power of it will actually, it's very complexity in details. 

Jason: So tell us what is spaced out all about. 

Pierre: So space art is really, um, exploring the joy, you know, of discovering something for the first time, the pleasure of exploration and very much like when you're a child and, and going to a new place or the Montaigne's for the first time or the beach for the first time. And, and in that spirit, you know, the red thread is the moon landing. So we actually hear the real voices of the Apollo 11 mission and we have the astronauts, you know, archive the audio document, you know, telling us, you know, different stages where they are. So it's a particular trip. So space art is a tree from earth to the moon. And then he actually beyond and within 

Jason: it was inspired by that, um, that French film, uh, in the early 20th century. The trip to the moon, is that right? 

Pierre: Yeah, actually through, um, so the seed of the project really started like a really long time ago when I discovered VR for the first time. And, and, and I try to wear a VR headset in 93 when I was seven years old. And in the same week, I discover the fear, my trip to the moon, 1902, the first sci-fi film ever made. And uh, created by, um, George manias with the father of the effects come from magic and, and space art is a nomad. A is actually a mashup as well, is not only taking inspiration but just try to emulate that period of what a judgment ESD with the medium of cinema and basically follow. Um, actually, yeah, narrativity is also following different, are way different in the same way, but just to create the same sense of magic. And, and um, so that was the main inspiration for space outs. 

He started becoming big, being very faithful for our adaptation, and then, uh, took my own artistic Liberty and I explore the different aspects of the moon and the position of the moon. The actual experience of space at ease and experience in, I mean, it's very hard actually to, to just narrate it and, and, and, and talk about it, uh, without emphasizing on the user's experience, you know, so before going to the water, the expectation, the, or maybe sometimes the doubts, you know, how is it going to be like, and then, uh, the excitement, of course, to put the headset on and then the cut-off. Sometimes it's a trigger to be comfortable and to find a spot when you're floating and being completely still when you try the experiments, you really get a sense of weightlessness. That's the prior feeling that I want you, to explore. 

And that's why I use VR in the water and space art takes place on the moon for the most part. And it's really about, you know, taking the body some ways, you know, somehow reconnecting the mind with the body in a sense that when you come out of the, of the, of the water, when you're after removing the headset, uh, when people come back, uh, and walk again, they actually, I want it to feel gravity again and for them to, to feel connected and to that, you know, energy and the law of nature. I mean to this aspect of, of being a human that we take for granted and that all any astronauts actually will tell you after coming back on earth, you know, like the joy of walking again and feeling the gravity. 

Jason: Right. How did this come together for you though creatively? Because, okay, you've got the basic action here is that people, well they came to the Mary out there in park city right in the pool and then auditorium area, whatever. So they get a pool too to simulate weightlessness very much the way NASA trains astronauts. And so now they have the sense of weightlessness. They've got waterproof goggles on and now they're floating from the earth up to the moon and they have all these visions and that sort of thing. How did you technically put all this together? And when did you think about actually using the pool? Was that an early idea with this as well?

Pierre: So first I mean is also started with a counter with and, or shower with a cofounder of ballast, the starter behind this technology. And for him, it was a long dream and I mean, he wanted to use VR and underwater and explore that aspect. Um, because he was afraid of water for a long time and any, you became a designer and, and join, uh, uh, different companies at Silicon Valley and we made a long time ago and we collaborate on many VR projects together to about two and a half years ago. And he styles it, creating a [inaudible] and he told me about it. And then all this idea of being attributed to a trip to the moon and yeah.

Jason: You know, amid the pandemic now though, it probably seems a long time ago that you were at Sundance with things suddenly changing. I'm wondering what was the reception like to your VR film spaced out because it got a lot of buzz.

Pierre: Yeah. He's actually a that's the right word and actually phenomenal. Uh, it's very rare or maybe for a male artistic carrier that, you know, you get such overwhelming and in response and, and I'm not even exaggerating there, you're just a very generating, uh, discovery or the medium first. So people have, you know, interested to try VR in a different way, but just also the experience itself and just diff the faces, the look and [inaudible] Institute. Interesting. Also to, to have them because it's a very intimate experience. You know, like you're, you know, you meet these people, you meet, you meet the people who are going to watch your experience before and after and then swimsuits and so are you. So there's always a very personal connection and a, and, and I'm so pleased and so ecstatic. I try to remember that day and that feeling, you know, like, eh, for hundreds of people saying how great your work is. 

And so, I mean, that's special for me. And after such a long, I mean it was really great because, after such a, I've said two years actually of hassling, struggling to push this project, which, you know, I once thought she was crazy and so unusual and so it's been very hard and challenging to get finance and I actually hardly got, and, and until the moment I say, okay, let me do, uh, um, this project on my own. And it was a social, yeah, felt very proud and, and the reception has been amazing and this, um, quite a lot of opportunities, uh, that some might come up. Uh, but I don't know to be honest right now at this point, things have changed.

Jason: Well, hang in there. Again, thank you so much, Pierre. I appreciate your time.

Pierre: Yeah, really lovely to chat with you. Thank you so much.

Jason: Pierre Friquet's VR experience, Spaced Out was one of the hits of the Sundance film festival earlier this year. He's planning on making spaced out a permanent installation for museums, planetariums resorts, places like that. This is the Tech Barometer podcast, I'm Jason Lopez. You can find more podcasts and print stories about technology at the forecast. Just go to theforecastbynutanix.com.

Jason Lopez is executive producer of Tech Barometer, the podcast outlet for The Forecast. He’s the founder of Connected Social Media. Previously, he was executive producer at PodTech and a reporter at NPR.

© 2021 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved.  For additional legal information, please go here.

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