If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise – one that involves wood-covered helmets being strapped to people’s faces. But don’t worry, this isn’t the start of a terrifying horror movie. It’s something way crazier than that.
This spectacle is actually a mixture of an art installation, a technological experiment and a wander through a forest from a bizarre perspective. And it’s a world that, until now, humans haven’t been able to explore.
But that’s the beauty of virtual-reality technology. It opens up experiences that, for previous generations, simply weren’t possible. And that’s exactly what has been created here by U.K.-based Marshmallow Laser Feast, the brilliantly named design studio behind “In the Eyes of the Animal.”
Ersin Han Ersin, one of Marshmallow Laser Feast’s creative directors, told The FADER that the installation, which opened in England’s Grizedale Forest, was designed to exploit the fact that humans have “physiological limitations.” He explained, “In VR you can go up close, inside. It gives us an opportunity to see beyond our senses.”
This poses the question, what actually is “In the Eyes of the Animal”? Well, it’s a virtual-reality experience that puts you in the furry feet of creatures that live in the forest. Basically, then, you pull on a headset and become one of the critters scuttling among – or flying around – the trees.
But how does it work? Well, it’s a combination of impressive technology bundled into an intriguingly modified Oculus Rift headset. And it gives you the chance to find out how dragonflies, owls, frogs and other woodland creatures see and hear the world.
The installation utilizes various technologies to create its different worlds. First, Marshmallow Laser Feast used an architects’ specialist scanner to create a three-dimensional representation of a chunk of forest that had the habitats it was looking for.
Then the data from this scan was combined with CT scans and photogrammetry measurements. So when they were pushed together, the bizarre world of the forest – as seen from animal perspectives – manifested itself for human eyes.
There’s an artistic slant here as well, as Han Ersin explained to The FADER. “What you’ll see is very organic. We’re using a pointillist aesthetic because the data we get is points. We’re embracing that technology,” he said.
There are other aesthetic considerations involved in the project, including the design of the virtual-reality helmet itself. Han Ersin added that it “incorporates real pieces of the forest” – namely, sections of moss and pieces of bark.
There’s a narrative to “In the Eyes of the Animal,” too. In fact, it walks you through the food chain, giving you different perspectives on the forest as you switch between the various animals. You can start, for instance, as a mosquito, move on to being a dragonfly, then become a frog and, finally, an owl.
Naturally, each of these creatures has its own way of navigating the world. For example, mosquitos explore using CO2 as a guide, while dragonflies see everything at an astounding 300 frames per second. This latter consideration means that when humans look through their eyes things appear in slow motion.
Frogs, meanwhile, use their signature ribbiting to echolocate, which allows them to detect horizontal movements. The owl, finally, has eyeballs that are not only a different shape to humans’, but also ones that are fixed. This means that their peripheral vision is pretty awful.
A newer version of “In the Eyes of the Animal” has introduced bats to the forest-related fun. This addition involved the 3D printing of bat ears and attaching them to a listening device at the end of a pole. What’s more, it helped recreate the echolocation that bats rely on to navigate in the wild.
Central to this working is the playing of a clicking noise to participants. This noise gets louder the closer someone gets to a woodland object. Other sounds are heard, too, and these must be interpreted if participants are to successfully explore their immediate environment.
The experience has been a huge hit with what’s been a massively varied audience. “We’ve had 70-year-old ladies say, like, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen since I took an acid trip in the ’70s’ and little children jumping around with excitement,” Han Ersin said in his interview with The FADER.
“In the Eyes of the Animal” isn’t the only project that Marshmallow Laser Feast has worked on, though. One called “Forest” involved 150 “trees” made from lasers that visitors interacted with to produce sounds. Another called “MEMEX | Duologue” was a meditation on life and death that used photogrammetry and 94 digital SLR cameras.
In the future, moreover, Marshmallow Laser Feast intends to continue working on “In the Eyes of the Animal.” This will likely see it add new bat visuals that, it hopes, will give users a strange and completely new look at the world. The studio is also working on a new project called “Treehugger” that involves scanning giant redwood trees.
According to Han Ersin, “In the Eyes of the Animal” increases not just our understanding of nature, but our appreciation of it. “Of course the forest is beautiful when you look at it, but if you can see the neurons firing in the tree, or if you learn [that] dragonflies are the most accomplished flyers in the world, it does something else,” he told The FADER.
He also explained the importance of humans fostering connections with nature. He said, “The average human can name 300 logos or brands, but I realized I couldn’t name five species of trees. We are living in this weird detached [way] and if we can better that through VR then why not tell the story.”