New Virtual Reality Psychodrama Is a Rigged Game

Artists, dramatists, computer engineers will play with your mind in "Human Trials"

Release Date: June 28, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "Human Trials" is a unique virtual reality psychodrama in which duplicitous characters try to disempower a human participant on a journey to the "liminal portal of the unconscious" in a quest for her "Heart's Desire."

The project is the work of an interdisciplinary team of media artists, computer scientists and dramatists at the University at Buffalo.

It will be presented in its entirety for the first time as part of the city's largest culture jam, the 2006 Buffalo Infringement Festival: "Ten Days of Art Under the Radar."

It will be presented in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, located in The Church, 341 Delaware Ave., July 27-28 and August 3-5 at a time to be announced.

One of the developers of "Human Trials" is Josephine Anstey, assistant professor, Department of Media Study in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

She says the game is "simultaneously a public/private and embodied/disembodied performance in which players immerse themselves in multi-dimensional virtual space and undertake an 'absurd quest.'"

Parts of the performance were presented at UB's E-Poetry Symposium in April and in January at Hallwalls 2006 Resolutions Festival, a two-day presentation of original media and performance, much of which was experimental and singular.

"What is unique about this experience," Anstey says, "is that the participant (called "Seeker") interacts not only with a virtual reality (VR) environment, but with two human actors who appear in the virtual world as avatars wearing masks and cloth-like wings. These two characters, called Patofil and Filopat, will improvise responses to the spontaneous actions of the participant. Other characters in the drama are played by computer-controlled intelligent agents.

"The game involves a series of challenges," Ansey says, "and for the player, it appears to be about control and the choices one makes with power. But the games are rigged, the characters are duplicitous, the quest is a decoy and the underlying test is how to cope with disempowerment."

She explains that the player/participant or Seeker, whose real body is shielded from the audience's gaze, enters the virtual world from a projection-based VR system and is met by Filopat and Patofil. They engage the Seeker in a set of overt, if absurd, challenges. Beyond these obvious tasks, the characters create a relational subtext that the participant also must negotiate.

Anstey says the audience members will be able to move around and watch the two live actors (Filopat and Patofil) while wearing head-mounted VR systems. Three large projections of the virtual action will show the points of view of each of the three main protagonists in the drama.

"The live performers -- Filopat and Patofil -- are the fulcrum between the embodied -- the Seeker -- and the virtual," Anstey says.

"Their presence as both physical bodies and avatars allows them -- in a move that Brecht probably never quite imagined -- to gesturally comment on their own performances, responding to the audience while perpetuating the authenticity of the experience for the participant."

More information on "Human Trials" can be found at http://www.ccr.buffalo.edu/anstey/VDRAMA/HUMAN/.

"Human Trials" continues the work on VR drama and intelligent agents that Anstey and Dave Pape, both assistant professors in the UB Department of Media Study, have been doing with Stuart C. Shapiro, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

It also represents a new collaboration with Sarah Bay-Cheng, Ph.D., a scholar of dramatic literature and performance theory and assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance and Department of English, UB College of Arts and Sciences.

"Human Trials" builds on Anstey's and Pape's previous experience building dramatic VR, "The Thing Growing," and Networked VR projects, and Bay-Cheng's experience with drama and puppetry. It is a sister project to "The Trail, The Trial," an experimental project conducted by the team that focuses on building intelligent agents to take the place of the human actors.

"Human Trials" is designed for CAVE or CAVE-like, tracked, immersive VR systems, 3-D stereo displays with one large screen or multiple screens and/or head mounted displays (HMDs). The software programs used in its production are Ygdrasil, Performer, CAVElib, Maya and Sneps.

The project entailed considerable work by UB students in the arts and engineering as well.

They included, from the UB College of Arts and Sciences, Adam Bochenek, Paul Visco and Orkan Telhan, all MFA students in the Department of Media Study; Chris Galbraith, an MFA graduate of the Department of Media Study; and Anton Hand and Sara Nohejl, undergraduate art students in the Department of Visual Studies.

Students from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering who were involved included Amit Makwana, a graduate student; Mike Kandefer and Albert Goldfain, doctoral candidates; and Trupti Devdas Nayak, a graduate who holds a master's degree.

The Buffalo Infringement Festival, most of which will take place on the streets of the city's Allentown district, is part of an international circuit of non-commercial, non-authoritarian multidisciplinary critical arts festivals open to all artists, activists and innovative thinkers. 

The Infringement movement is a response to the corporatization in Canada of the international grassroots Fringe movement, which was itself a response by artists of all genres to the strict entry criterion of the Edinburgh International Festival, a corporate theatre showcase.

Like the Fringe Festival, the Infringement Festivals involve creative resistance and expression. Often presented at unique venues, the work is risky, experimental, low budget and wacky.

The Infringement Festival circuit now includes similar events in cities across North America: Montreal (Quebec), Ottawa (Ontario), New York, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Halifax (Nova Scotia) and Regina (Saskatchewan), among other cities.

For more information on the Infringement movement, see . For more information on the Buffalo Festival, now in the planning stage, see http://infringebuffalo.org/wiki/pmwiki.php/IF06/IF06.

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