A screenshot from the Conductar app (Image: Odd Division)
When I demoed Odd Division's Conductar app last week, with its Open Street Maps data, NeuroSky biosensor, headphones, and iPhone, the experience was mind-bending enough. A cyberpunk take on psychogeography (the aimless drifting through cities), Conductar combines Open Street Maps and generative audio-video elements, to strip cities of their familiar shells and expose their imaginary neon innards.
At Moogfest today, Odd Division ran Conductar through an Oculus Rift, and let me move about a virtual, augmented Asheville, North Carolina. No hyperbole, it's the closest thing to the Metaverse of Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. The mind-altering qualities of Conductar—its generative electronic audio, and the glittering, wavy visual textures—take on a much more immediate spatial sensation. The user feels that they are at the threshhold of another world, and that reality has vanished outside Oculus's window.
Conductar's Bartek Drozdz and Aramique gave me a brief rundown on how the Oculus Rift version of Conductar worked, and in seconds I was off in their alternate reality. Up, down, left, and right, it was fully immersive, and incredibly psychedelic. More than that, it was exciting to behold.
"It's sort of black and empty in parts because we put limits to the city of Asheville, so you can get to the edge of the Metaverse or The Matrix and it's like an endless black hole."
To approach a structure, one need only look at it. The first thing I did was fix my virtual gaze on a building outfitted in rippling black and white waveforms. Upon nearly hitting it, the building shot up vertically into the air, and I was allowed to pass underneath it and gaze at its bottom before moving on to other digital vistas. Geometric, ferrofluid-like shapes hung in the sky, while brief bursts of light flickered here and there. In between two buildings, a giant appeared, seemingly on a casual stroll through virtual Asheville.
"We built the whole app with Unity3D, and once it was ready for the iPhone, I took the code, created a branch, and removed all of the cameras because like video games it's just one camera that looks through the world," said Drozdz. "For the Oculus Rift, it's a bit different because you have this split-screen system, and they provide you with a plug-in that's specific for Unity3D and makes things easier. I created a system where the Rift works on its own without a keyboard, which we felt wouldn't be immersive. So, it has auto-movement."
Odd Division only started on the Oculus Rift Conductar project a few days ago. "We planned on doing it in Unity3D from the beginning so we could turn it into Oculus Rift projection mapping," said Conductar creative director Aramique. "Since we were building this virtual world, we wanted to make sure that there were multiple ways of seeing it, and Unity3D works well with any platform, whether it's Android or Oculus Rift."
The author demoing Conductar on the Oculus Rift (Image: DJ Pangburn)
"One of the interesting things is that if you move really quickly you can see the buildings coming in because we're only populating the world right around you," added Aramique. "It's sort of black and empty in parts because we put limits to the city of Asheville, so you can get to the edge of the Metaverse or The Matrix and it's like an endless black hole."
Next, the Conductar developers hope to take this technology into a virtual narrative world, particularly with Oculus Rift. "This first attempt was to really work on building the world and the functionality—it's like a proof of concept in some ways," said Aramique. "I think the next step would be with Oculus, building out a more immersive world with a storyline and characters you can sort of interact with, but still in an abstract, weird art way."
Aramique said that Conductar developers are just starting to understand how to pull Open Street Map data into Oculus Rift to create a virtual reality world based on the real world. And if things go well at Moogfest, the team might just have another alternate reality for Conductar users by the end of the summer. If so, it's bound to be even more mind-bending than its current Moogfest iteration.