Treehugger : Wawona

At VR Arles festival, virtual reality on a scientific basis

SEQUOIA. You may be invited to hug a tree, to cuddle its bark or even to plunge its head inside its trunk, this has nothing to do with sylvotherapy(practice at risk, as we explain here). The trunk is dummy, the bark is moss and the tree is virtual, pieced together for an amazing immersive experience called Treehugger: Wawona.

Directed by London-based studio Marshmallow Laser Feast, it won best virtual reality film at the VR Arles festival, which runs until the end of August, after winning best screenplay at the Tribeca film festival in April 2018 and making a splash at London’s Southbank Center at the end of December 2017.

The principle ? Follow, slowly, the path of water drops from the roots of a giant redwood tree to its top and into the branches, going up all along the trunk. Equipped with an HTC Vive caque but also sensors on the hands and a haptic backpack that vibrates the torso as the progress progresses, the spectator rises little by little above the ground with this strange impression of floating little by little in the air. The top remains very unclear for a long time, the giant redwoods can largely exceed ninety meters, the branches seem little by little to emerge from the fog and one can find the head inside the trunk by the grace of a cavity formed in a large black pillar covered with a layer of synthetic foam simulating the tree (redwoods very often present nicks, holes and other “blows and injuries” usually related to fires).

Through large arm movements, identified by sensors, the viewer can reveal movements in the drops and internal networks of the tree, transforming into a visually magnificent work (sometimes looking like a psychedelic trip…) real scientific data.

Treehugger: Wawona is based on phenomena observed and validated by experts in natural sciences. Marshmallow Laser Feast has worked with the Natural History Museum in London and the University of Salford, Manchester, to faithfully reproduce what happens in the leaves, bark, root network but also the textures and sound atmosphere of the forest.

In the eyes of four animals

The tree itself actually exists, it grows in the Sequoia National Forest in California (the only region in the world where Sequoiadendron giganteum is found). It was reconstructed using Lidar (3D point cloud mapping) and scanography (X-ray imaging).

ITEOTA TEASER from Marshmallow Laser Feast on Vimeo.

In this regard, Marshmallow Laser Feast is not at its first attempt since the VR Arles Festival programs another of its works made according to the same approach. Dating back to 2015, In the eyes of the animal is a succession of four sequences in which a piece of forest (chosen from the Grizedale Forest in northwest England) is seen through the eyes of four animals : a dragonfly, a mosquito, a frog and an owl (see more examples here).

Here again, a haptic backpack makes you feel the vibrations of the forest and, above all, those of the wings that beat when the dragonfly or mosquito take off, fly between the trees or flush with the water. In both cases, the sequence was filmed by 3D cameras mounted on drones, providing unprecedented points of view for a human.

Then the image was reworked to respect the way these insects see, but with a touch of imagination to put on the account of artistic freedom : clouds of glowing dots for the dragonfly or purple on a black background for the mosquito, vibrant landscapes like sound waves to represent the echolocation of a frog, discs of colors in shades of green like spots revealing little by little shapes for the owl.

To set the mood for this experience, the studio has dressed the VR helmets with a round shell that looks like a motorcycle helmet encrusted with bark. A fun gadget, at most, but inside the viewer enjoys a binaural sound fully participating in the immersion. Without the need to touch wood.

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