Special Treatment

January 7th, 2005

Categories: MFA Thesis, VR Art


Baum, G.


Excerpt of MFA Thesis documentation

The primary goals of “Special Treatment” were 1) the construction of an immersive nonlinear narrative using cinematic devices to move the participant into and out of full immersion, 2) the incorporation of control interface training into the narrative, 3) the creation of a visual environment consistent in physicality, visually cohesion (though not photo-realistic), and 4) the implementation of elements of persistence which allowed the piece to exhibit our concepts of the changing continuity of memory.

We attempted to construct an experientially immersive experience by creating related story areas with similar behavior and functionality that required considerable scripting of different fictionalized voices and multiple recordings by a handful of voice actors. The bulk of each narrative subject was delivered by disembodied voices when in the memory spaces of “Special Treatment.” While the memory environments become more substantial when in the act of “replaying” memories, the narrative voices become less clear, layered and fragmented with English overlaying German overlaying ambient sounds comprised of indistinct voices and other sounds. Without an appropriately detailed sound design this approach failed to create an understandable narrative environment composed out of fragments. Without distinct figures or icons to link with these voices, the scripted voices meant for narrative construction either overrode the visual environment or clashed with each other, causing an unbalanced focus on the audio as the user would tried to make sense of what they heard but could not see. The compromise solution of evenly mixing all sounds into a less comprehensible babble allowed the participants to pull out what they could in reference to the visual environment. This caused less of a clash between the media, but failed to provide a narrative.

More successful was the creation of an automated narrative arc which provided a gradual entrance into the virtual environment of the camp, a rich experience during the participant’s selfdirected exploration of the camp, and an exit from the piece consistent with the previous narrative elements but leading to a more cinematic ending. The beginning of the narrative arc was an “idle” state, where the environment depicted a claustrophobic ride in a noisy train car to an unknown destination. The lack of clear instruction about how to initiate the narrative sequence left many users perplexed. Some method of addressing this instruction, whether through the voice of another character on the train explaining how to trigger the start, or a more intelligent monitoring of the state of the tracking equipment will be needed for future presentations.

The integration of instructions about how to function in the virtual environment, or the training section of the narrative experience, was more successful. At the end of the train ride the user is thrust into the camp with the opening of the car door. This similarity to the physical entrance into a virtual world (the user equipping with new controls, learning and following new rules), is turned into a method for explaining and providing practice with the standard controls and rules of a virtual environment for those users who are not familiar with them. After being confined to the train car, with no ability to control unfolding events, the train car door opens in a flash of white light and the user is asked to step out of the car. An experienced user will know what to do and will probably comply. However, if the user is a novice and fails to move, the demands to leave the train car increase in intensity, instructing them in the voice of camp guard that to move they need to point their controller-hand forward, while simultaneously pushing forward on the controller. The following sections direct the user to steer and navigate through the environment and eventually use one of the buttons on the controller to let go of their suitcase.

While maintaining the contextual requirements of this part of the story by using the commanding voices of camp guards, the user is trained in how to use the controller by the same voices of the guards establishing the narrative setting. After the processing / training takes place, the user is instructed to pass through a gap in the fence and begin their exploration of the memory areas of the camp. Despite having dialogue, models, and ambient sounds for 9 different memories, only 5 were implemented by the time of the show. A greater breadth of experience will be possible when these remaining memory areas are placed in the environment. The remaining element of the arc was conceptualized as a total of four distinct exits from the camp; an escape, a rescue, and two mortal endings set in the burial pits and the crematorium. The only exit implemented at the time of the exhibition was the escape exit. While a single exit, in this case a selection of monologues about escaping from the camp, served passably during a two-day showing, repeated showings would require the implementation of at least one more exit. Transitions between the scripted narrative sequences of the train car ride and exits were accomplished through the use of cinematic fade to black and white to provide well understood bridges between the different environments and settings.

Visual style was agreed upon in the earliest visual development of the piece and was maintained through the separation of tasks to keep the style consistent. Keith Miller oversaw modeling and texturing of architectural elements, and I developed a look and feel for the flora and terrain along with environmental textures (sky and lighting) for the general environment as well as specific memory transitions. One difficulty in the development of the entirety of the environment was the creation of a space, that while smaller than the actual camp, represented a very large space for a human sized participant to traverse or see across. While successful in creating a “world” sized space without definite boundaries, the resulting spread of memories and architecture in the camp made exploration difficult over the short tme (approximately 10 minutes) accorded a participant in a single experience of the camp.

The final goal of “Special Treatment” was to provide an environment populated by memories, represented by the solidity of their respective elements and the frequency of active visitors, as well as the impact of populating the landscape with the contributed memories of previous visitors left in the form of stones. The primary characteristic of the fictionalized memories, their visual strength as represented by their degree of tansparency, was implemented technically but not to its best effect due to the two-day showing of the piece. This element of the piece was meant to have an effect while it was exhibited over the course of of a greater number of contiguous days to actively represent the weight of other’s visits to the environment. While development of technologies to provide the needed persistence of memories, both as iconic stones and recordings was close to completion, the lack of a full implementation of the instructional audio and visual controls needed to implement this part of the concept were kept out of the show to present a clean experience. To realize “Special Treatment” completely the development of persistence memories and stones as described in the artist’s statement must occur.




Baum, G., Special Treatment, MFA Thesis Documentation, January 7th, 2005.