Sono Fluo | Interactive, audiovisual, sensor-based installation for The Danish Music Museum
February 14, 2019

Amaryllis VR : Ocean

Pioneering the design and development of room-scale virtual reality art installation for public spaces.

Designed & developed by Mariam Zakarian.
An 88 page master thesis for her degree in Media Technology at Aalborg University Copenhagen formed the theoretical basis for this installation.
First demo revealed to the public in Autumn 2016 at CopenX VR/AR Conference.
Exhibited in galleries, museums, art fairs, conferences and other public and private events in Europe, East Asia and USA.

Amaryllis VR is an installation including virtual reality (VR) pieces for the HTC Vive, of which Ocean is the first. It is unique to VR that one can be transported to worlds which can never exist in real life. The surreal world of Ocean envelops the user in sound and visuals, and presents the possibility of using one's physical body to move in the virtual world.
2016 was called the “Year of VR” in popular media because of the launch of a number of consumer-grade virtual reality (VR) devices, among which was the HTC Vive, with its room-scale system.
Unlike in seated or standing VR experiences where the user remains stationary, room-scale allows for real-time 360˚ positional tracking of user movement and gestures for interacting with the virtual environment. The real world physical movement can in turn amplify the illusion of VR and contribute to a deeper sense of being present in the virtual environment. Amaryllis VR : Ocean became one of the first original artworks created in room-scale VR.
An artwork presented on a flat surface such as a screen or canvas is a window into the world of the artist. Seeing outside the edges or behind objects in the composition, however, is impossible. Ocean, offers a novel artistic experience by enveloping the user completely in the artwork.
The design of the virtual world deliberately plays with the sense of space and size in relation to one's body, and giant, red ocean waves literally submerge the user in the artwork. The anticipation of the waves and seeing them on all sides (rather than just contained on a 2D screen) triggers a specific sense of physicality, because it harnesses the user’s memories of previous experiences with standing in water in the real world. As a result, the illusion is sometimes so effective that some users report holding their breath while "underwater".
Because the head-tracking and stereoscopic view create the illusion of seeing the VR environment as one normally sees the real world, the relationship between the body and the digital world becomes physical. The abstract step of imagining what is seen on a 2D screen is removed. The user's perspective on objects changes as it would in the real world, the parallax becomes noticeable and looking at objects above requires physically tilting their head back instead of clicking on buttons on a controller.
In Ocean, users can walk physically while in VR in a predefined space of 3x3m, approach objects to look inside them and move their head and body while they interact with the virtual environment.
Creating an original artwork in room-scale VR had never been explored before, and this installation was born out of the desire to examine the powers of contemporary VR technology in offering an artistic experience which would be impossible to achieve in any other medium.
There are already many genres of VR art, the most popular of these being pieces created in VR-painting and -sculpting applications (Tilt Brush, Quill etc.). For Amaryllis VR : Ocean the ambition was to create a completely original artwork making full use of the room-scale system, as well as including interactive, animated elements and sound besides static pieces. For this reason, VR artmaking apps were avoided. The risk of imprecise controller tracking in the artmaking process, and the limited tools available in these apps often create a very specific look for the artwork, beyond the artist’s control. Every piece of visual and audio material in Ocean is designed, crafted and implemented by the artist, using a variety of techniques: 3D sculptures, texture layers, animations, lighting, recording and processing sound and music, as well as software optimization and user testing.
Amaryllis VR : Ocean was made specifically for public exhibitions in museums, galleries and at art events. Essential parts of the design of the functional VR installation was to prioritize ease of setup and use, affordability, accessibility, flexibility, mobility, robustness and to reduce staff costs during exhibitions.
Public spaces with a constant flow of people can result in queue formation. To create natural break points for users, preventing excessive use of the VR device, Ocean contains 5 minutes of content, which can either be set to turn off automatically or to loop infinitely, depending on the requirements of the exhibition. The artwork exists only in one copy and is exhibited in one place in the world at a time. It is not available via online digital services.
SOUND is one of the most important properties of Amaryllis VR : Ocean, enhancing the atmosphere and emotion of the visuals, as well as anchoring the aesthetic expression. The audio for the installation consists of nature sounds, acoustic instruments, synthesizers and vocal harmonies composed and recorded by the artist. To offer concentration and an optimal experience for users, closed headphones or earphones are highly recommended.
Exhibitions are expected to have a constant flow of visitors of varying ages, abilities and backgrounds. Casual use is to be expected, as users have limited time and attention.
The installation therefore does not require previous experience with VR technology or using one's body in a particular way, besides being able to view stereoscopic imagery and hearing sound in stereo. Having to learn to use hand-held controllers and gadgets in order to interact with a VR artwork can be too difficult, impractical and uninviting in a public setting, and these are deliberately excluded from the art piece.
The room-scale system does not have to be utilized, and it is possible to experience the piece from a comfortable, seated position as well.
The HTC Vive is commercially available and comes with customer support for easy installation and maintenance by museum staff members. In case of breakage or mishandling of the VR equipment due to repeated or incorrect use, it is relatively affordable to replace, compared to the VR technology of a decade ago.
Amaryllis VR : Ocean is lightweight and only requires being turned on and off daily. As such, it is not strictly necessary to employ staff to show the piece. However, at large events with a high volume of attendees and a fast pace, it is recommended that a dedicated staff member helps users to correctly use the HTC Vive in order to make the experience more comfortable. The installation is practical to set up and operate, as well as being mobile and adaptable to a large variety of spaces.
Qualitative and quantitative user tests were performend on several iterations of the Amaryllis VR project in order to achieve an optimal balance between technical optimization, user comfort and application robustness. The installation is shown in public spaces and during busy events with no room for any technical issues or logistical inefficiencies arising from the installation or display of the VR experience. These issues are therefore identified and resolved beforehand to create a robust piece which can withstand being viewed by several hundred users per day. As of Autumn 2019, over 500 unique users from a large variety of backgrounds, ages 4-70 and with varying knowledge of VR have participated in quantitative tests of Amaryllis VR : Ocean.
One of the most essential aspects of creating a VR experience is preventing unwanted symptoms related to prolonged use of VR technology. The term VR Sickness refers to a negative reaction to a virtual environment, often occuring when the user’s eyes register that their body is moving in the VR environment, while the vestibular system in the inner ear perceives that the body remains static. Much like motion sickness, VR Sickness includes symptoms such as general discomfort, headache, nausea or vomiting, fatigue, disorientation, drowsiness, pallor, sweating, postural instability and apathy.
Ocean was specifically designed with this in mind, supported by thorough academic research and testing. Only 0,9% of the over 500 people who have tested Amaryllis VR : Ocean have presented signs of VR sickness.
The interest in pushing the boundaries of art and technology and contributing to the union of these in a groundbreaking way became the starting point for Amaryllis VR : Ocean and the master thesis supporting and documenting its development.
SLOW VR: Despite its popularity in recent years, VR is still not a common medium shown at museums. For some users, the experience of trying new technology, and being cut from the environment around them due to wearing headphones and a head-mounted display in a public setting, can already be an intimidating experience. For this reason, the philosophy behind Ocean is to make VR art as an introspective experience open to interpretation and to be taken at the user's own pace. During the writing of the master thesis supporting the work on the VR installation, the term Slow VR was invented to describe this particular category of VR works.
The design of Ocean is specifically mindful of making the meeting with VR for first-time users a gentle experience without being technically overwhelming, physically challenging or visually hyperactive. As a result, the movements of the users are often calm and slow, and characterized by sensing and exploring. Particularly in noisy, crowded spaces full of distractions, the quiet, calm and slow atmosphere of Ocean can offer a pause for taking a breath.

Selected exhibitions 2016-19

Danube Dialogues: Perceptions of Contemporaneity – The Universal Sea (Central exhibition),
MSUV: Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, September, 2019, Novi Sad, RS
Creative Coast Festival, May 2019, Karlshamn, SE
Universe Science Park, May 2018, Nordborg, DK
Internet Week Denmark:The Danish VR Scene, May 2018, Aarhus, DK
A MAZE Festival, April 2018, Berlin, DE
Art Basel (Private VIP event in collaboration with MOR and HTC), March 2018, Hong Kong, CHN
Game Developers Conference (in collaboration with MOR and Valve), March 2018, San Francisco, USA
“Virtually Ourselves” at the University of Copenhagen, January 2018, Copenhagen, DK
Galleri Oxholm, August 2017, Copenhagen, DK
Culture Night at the Ministry of Science Innovation and Higher Education, October 2016, Copenhagen, DK
CopenX, September 2016, Copenhagen, DK