Virtual reality can seem like another world—your body partially covered up by a machine, senses dominated by an invented 3D environment beamed into your head. The success of VR hinges on a feeling of total captivation. But in the process of achieving this, it is sometimes easy to forget that, while our nervous system is being taken somewhere else, our bodies get left behind—and, often, we wind up looking a little stupid when viewed from the outside.
“When we’d see people use the Oculus all we’d see were arms flailing around as people played VR games like virtual roller coasters, and explored virtual spaces like forests,” reflect artists Pablo Rochat and Fabio Benedetto. “We thought ‘How can we program the Oculus to generate meaningful and/or hilarious arm movements from the user?’” What they came up with (along with collaborator Cliff Warren) was Mime Academy, a program for Oculus Rift, which makes use a fundamental oddity of the VR experience—that people around you can’t see what you’re seeing—as the basis of a tool for teaching the long and proud art of classical mime.
In terms of practical applications for virtual reality, Mime Academy is, in its own way, pretty useful. As Rochat and Benedetto put it, “Miming is all about arm gestures. It’s about illustrating a perceived space out of thin air, a complementary act to the VR experience.” Mime is also about stimulating the imagination and being able to articulate the result of that creative experience. Mime Academy doubles down on this by occupying the brain and making the gestures of mime a natural reaction to a virtual stimulant.
Watching somebody engaged with Mime Academy ‘pull a rope’ is similar to watching any other mime do this—a significant difference being that, inside an Oculus headset, the mime is actually seeing themselves pull on a virtual rope. In a sense, this inverts the usual way mime is performed: instead of an artist projecting something outward, an experience is projected into them, which others can then observe. The result is that a by product of the virtual reality experience gets recycled into something with purpose—a deliberate piece of performance.
instead of asking “Why mime?”, the question becomes, “Why not?”
There is a clear prankish side to this, teasing the increasing ubiquity of VR applications and the rush to push all content into this field. For Rochat and Benedetto, this is an extension of both their background as “creatives” in the advertising world, as well as visual artists whose work is at least partially based in drawing attention to the absurdities of that same advertising. See: Rochat’s “Also Shot on iPhone 6” campaign, which uses the earnest trappings of the popular Apple ads to make light of what is, implicitly, not being advertised.
“We love making fun of technology and advertising because people often take it too seriously,” they explain. “Mime Academy is both a joke about how ridiculous VR is, and an exploration in how VR can be useful.” Indeed, the niche application of the program is both part of the joke and also what makes it practical—in its hyperspecificity to both purpose and audience, it winds up being either totally frivolous or reasonably helpful depending on who is using it. Additionally, in updating what could be viewed as an archaic art form to the Oculus age (particularly an art entirely based on moving through physical space), one also perceives a jab at the fixation with adapting traditionally physical behaviors (whether sex, theme park rides, or confronting a fear of heights) to VR. If any sensation can conceivably be experienced in a virtual reality adaptation, instead of asking “Why mime?”, the question becomes, “Why not?”
This would be nothing but a simple parody if the program didn’t actually work—but, apparently, it does. “We’ve gotten a few emails from people telling us they love Mime Academy or even suggesting new features,” writes Rochat. “People are extra appreciative of the fact that we actually went the trouble of developing such a niche product. It feels like we are building a tiny community around our virtual mime training tool.” Intentional or not, Mime Academy humbly points VR in an optimistic direction: apps designed not around replacing reality or overwhelming a person’s perception, but stimulating and encouraging people to learn a new art form. The fact that Mime Academy’s focus is so narrow—being for “mime enthusiasts who have VR headsets,” as Rochat and Benedetto describe it—makes its humble success “even more ridiculous.”
As this latest wave of virtual reality continues to mature into its own medium, perhaps it could benefit from more of this sort of ridiculousness. Mime Academy’s inventors view this perceptively: “Humor can be the most powerful means of communication,” say Rochat and Benedetto. “Often it’s the best way to shed light and spark conversations about the the tech world, and culture in general.” Mime Academy reminds us that we are often drawn into solo experiences when it comes to virtual reality. But it shows that it’s possible to translate that individual entertainment into a shared activity, breaking down the invisible wall that separates us.