As far as tattoos go, the code artist Isaac Cohen has a fairly high-concept piece of ink. Though it can be mistaken for crosshairs, the tattoo is in fact a Cabibbo angle—a sort of physicist’s diagram for predicting the whims of subatomic particles. Located on his inner wrist, the symbol serves as both his artistic guidepost and calling card.
“For so long, I was interested in making purely symmetrical objects. But with the symbol being slightly rotated—that made me want to center it again and again and again and again,” said Cohen. “I sort of liked that. When I build something that feels like I want to do something to it, in my OCD mind, it has more life than something that is exactly how it should be.”
“what are those things actually made of?”
To his point, the look and a feel of his latest project, Lune, released last Monday for HTC Vive, is hard to pin down. Like many of Cohen’s digital carousels—including the website for Warp Records mainstay Plaid’s new record—the game joyously turns around. He describes Lune as place where “you just sit and be with it,” a place where you can poke and prod at algorithms, and a place where you can build yourself a pillow fort, because he “loved the fuck out of” building pillow forts as a kid. It should also be mentioned that Lune is one of the few VR experiences that actively invites the player to lie down.
If the voyage sounds a bit nonobjective and aloof, it is only because Lune is preoccupied with bigger existential questions. Questions such as: how should the spaces inside of a computer simulation be and exist? The coherent answer is just like any other virtual world—with stable architecture constructed from big, sturdy polygons. But Cohen’s answers are rarely coherent. In his artistic statements, VR worlds are transcendent, throbbing with visual energy, writhing and twisting around you.
“With a lot of VR, the space you’re in is totally baked in,” said Cohen, referring to how most VR experiences tend to stick players inside static, stationary walls of polygons. Cohen, on the other hand, is a proponent of procedural, “computationally insane,” real-time VR. “The most exciting thing,” he says, “is the fact that we can have dynamic spaces. VR isn’t just a specific space that exists, but a space that can change.”
In this regard, Lune is something of a polymorph. Its colors change with the moon cycle. The mood shifts from claustrophobic, to a feeling of happiness, to heartbreak. The physical dimensions become less stable when the user plays around with them, too. “I’m not just describing ‘sphere,’ and not just describing ‘cube,’ but describing ‘sphere’ changing into ‘cube’ as ‘human being interacts with it,’” Cohen said.
It felt like metal water. It felt like touching the sunset
At the center of Lune’s mutation from a larva into a butterfly is a technicolor piece of virtual fabric, which gradually descends on the player and covers up the world, accounting for much of the game’s lush visual style. Instead of spending his creative energies making recognizable scenes, Cohen is more concerned with defining the texture of virtual reality. He spent several months coding the cloth simulation alone.
Typically, in VR, “a lot of the concentration is on physical objects. ‘Oh my god, there’s a big. . . whale in front of me! There’s a big x-y-z in front of me.’ But I’m interested in: what are those things actually made of?” Cohen said.
The answer is kind of technical. Actually, those things are made of computer graphics and physics. And Cohen seems to think that VR worlds only become concrete, or real enough to fool the senses into believing them, at least, when computer graphics and physics are passed over with an ultra-fine comb. Beyond a certain level of fidelity, people are able to “feel” the simulation.
“I’m really excited to create objects that have a high enough resolution that, when people interact with them, it feels familiar,” he said.
So far, he has had interesting, if mixed, results. In Rainbow Membrane, a project about touching semi-gelatinous heads, which he did for Leap Motion controllers on a DK2, people came up with really strange descriptors for the game-feel. It felt like metal water. It felt like touching the sunset. It felt like burnt milk on top of hot chocolate. When, in fact, it felt like nothing at all, because they were waving motion-controllers through the air.
As for Lune, Cohen likens its world to the feeling of exhaling (and also to gems, the poetry of Rumi, and the divine). Apparently, this sensation is most pronounced in the final moments, when the game is over, and the cloth is falling away. Not everybody gets it, he admits, but both he and other playtesters will often find themselves kneeling in a child’s pose on the ground in a state of meditative awe. “It’s like, ‘Oh no! I didn’t understand how beautiful and dynamic and textured that thing was,’” he said.
Having come so close to the virtual world, it’s a downer to see it floating away.