SCA graduate students create immersive VR project

The virtual reality venture, titled “Heterotopias,” is School of Cinematic Arts graduate students Noa Kaplan and Szilvia Ruszev’s first project utilizing this type of technology. Photo from Noa Kaplan’s website.

With the growth of virtual reality technology, many students are exploring innovative ways to incorporate the technology into artistic and media-related projects. Two students from the School of Cinematic Arts’ media arts and practice program have integrated a virtual reality world in an immersive work, titled “Heterotopias.”

Created by graduate students Noa Kaplan and Szilvia Ruszev, Heterotopias is a virtual reality essay that allows viewers to interact with everyday spaces differently. Set in common areas such as a garden or a cemetery, the project looks to change the way people view their own behavior when responding to their surroundings.

According to Kaplan and Ruszev, the project was inspired by a 1967 lecture given by French philosopher Michel Foucault. The lecture, titled “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” focused on places that people inhabit both physically and mentally. One example he mentioned was mirrors. Foucault questioned the rules that govern people’s behavior in different spaces, the students said, and explored the connection between location and people’s actions.

Kaplan and Ruszev wanted to further delve into the ideas touched on in Foucault’s lecture, and received a grant from the Jaunt Cinematic VR Fellowship to fund their work.

“None of us had ever done anything like this,” Ruszev said. “On every level, we had to adjust ourselves.”

Ruszev’s background is in film editing, while Kaplan’s focus is on sculpture, humanities and media design. “Heterotopias” marks the pair’s first project utilizing virtual reality.

“We wanted to take a more critical approach and really look at why people are so excited about this technology,” Kaplan said. “That’s why we decided to go at it as a research process and a virtual reality essay, instead of talking about it as an immersive experience or something more glamorous.”

The project includes shots from many locations around Los Angeles, with some spots taking inspiration from those mentioned in Foucault’s lecture.

“We went all around L.A., to busy freeway intersections and mausoleums and gardens and other places, and captured the city with a virtual reality stereo 360 [degree] camera,” Kaplan said. “We were getting lessons in the very bureaucratic details of how space is divided and governed, which is very much in line with what the essay and the lecture talk about.”

Kaplan and Ruszev are working to complete the project, which will consist of a series of spaces that viewers can explore. Each space includes sub-spaces that are activated based on movements of the viewer’s eyes. To achieve this effort, viewers must wear an eye-tracking headset so that they are transported to a new place when they blink.

In addition to the headset, viewers will also sit in a suspension chair in order to give them the sensation of floating. A prototype of the chair has been finished, and a custom version is in the works.

Parts of “Heterotopia” have already been presented at various conferences such as the annual Media Arts and Practice Undergraduate Exhibition and the Contagion Graduate Conference, and from their presentations, the project has generated a positive reaction.

Kaplan and Ruszev say they hope that “Heterotopia” will make people question the way they conduct themselves in different spaces and locations.

“It’s … very nonlinear and non-narrative, so there’s no plot or goal in terms of a game,” Kaplan said. “It’s more about experiencing different spaces and being aware of how your body behaves and feels when you’re in a series of virtual spaces.”