Figuring: Exploring Bodies, Materiality, and touch in multi-person VR

Project started in 2017

In Sculpting the Invisible, we developed technology that let us play with new materials whose physics is entirely different from the sorts of physics to which we are accustomed in our day-to-day experience. For me this is extremely exciting: real-time supercomputing combined with VR makes it possible for us to literally reach out and ‘touch’ molecular objects as they move, folding them, knotting them, plucking them, changing their shapes, and testing how they respond to interactions – a whole new sense of ‘touch’ which appears to primarily rely on our proprioceptive senses. Having shown this stuff to probably a thousand people, it’s been amazing for me to witness how often people comment to me on what the various molecular materials ‘feel’ like. You wouldn’t believe how many people have commented out loud on how differently an biological protein ‘feels’ compared to a synthetic nanotube. Biological proteins are essentially molecular pieces of string – and we have become somewhat obsessed with using our molecular VR setup to tie all sorts of different kinds of molecular knots. Knots are interesting because tying them requires complex 3d manipulations that are only possible in a fundamentally 3d framework like VR. In the “Figuring” project, the plan is to really push on this idea of proteins as virtual molecular strings, and use them to construct virtual string figures, which have served an important symbolic role across a range of cultures in storytellling and mythology. Along the way, we will also be investigating how people experience virtual materialities (like string and balls!) to physical materialities (like string & balls!). A big reason I find this work so fascinating is because it requires unifying the state-of-the-art in technology with aesthetics, design, and psychology.