This Virtual Reality Trip Inside an Artist's Body Is Like the Magic School Bus on Mushrooms
Go deep—real deep—with 'Self Portrait (Interior)' by Theo Triantafyllidis.
With few exceptions, every artwork provides a trip into its artist's psyche. With Self Portrait (Interior), Los Angeles-based artist Theo Triantafyllidis takes this quite literally, presenting a gamified first-person virtual reality tour through his body's inner organs, thoughts, fears and desires. Originally commissioned by virtual reality platform DiMoDA for the Morphé Presence VR group show, Triantafyllidis remastered Self Portrait (Interior) to work on both Oculus Rift and Vive, as well as for regular screens running either OSX or Windows. He also added a few new details, as well as a deleted scene.
Self Portrait (Interior) opens on what looks like a desolate icy beach, in which Triantafyllidis' gigantic head lies embedded at a pitched angle. Seemingly frozen, his mouth is open, and players climb his tongue as a ramp to enter his body. From there, players explore the virtual interior of the artist's body and psyche.
Triantafyllidis tells The Creators Project that Self Portrait (Interior) grew in part out of several years' work with game engines, as well as thinking about interactivity and simulations. He was also inspired by the current Greek crisis, exploring the themes of exile, oppression, sexuality, and police violence.
"I didn't want the piece to be explicitly about that, though, so I tried to make it more open ended," the artist explains. "I wanted to expose the audience to visceral feelings, to a raw and powerful experience but also inject some humor and a twist to it. I found that the art historical format of the 'Self Portrait' in combination with the Fantastic Voyage interior would be a good setting to explore these themes in virtual reality."
Another idea at the heart of Self Portrait (Interior) is the illusion of free will. Triantafyllidis says free will is up front in most video games, but is also showcased in a great way in Davey Wreden's The Stanley Parable game, which explores choice, reality, and free will in its storytelling.
Riffing on these ideas, Self Portrait (Interior) includes a choose-your-own adventure audio narrative whispered into the player's ear as they explore the scene. This audio emphasizes the importance or meaninglessness of a player's choices. Sometimes it empowers the player, other times it removes any sense of agency, leaving them hopeless.
For the game, Triantafyllidis wanted a relatively realistic feel, since it would include a VR version. He wanted it to feel organic and welcoming to touch, so all of the assets were made from scratch. For his exterior portrait, he used 3D scanning, but dipped himself in white clay "to mess it up a bit," then did some improvising during the shoot. For the interior, he mostly used traditional 3D modeling, but worked to make it look "squishy and alive."
"Everything was put together in a game engine, paying attention to scale and space to make the experience work well in VR," says Triantafyllidis. "I also recorded most of the audio myself, both the voiceover narrative and the sound effects, sticking a microphone on my belly or keeping it in my mouth."
To that end, the artist is focusing his research and work on VR. He is currently teaching VR at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, and preparing for a VR group show at NRW Forum in Dusseldorf.
"I am particularly interested in the anatomy of the VR scene and how we are attempting to reconstruct space," he says. "For example, how a typical scene is made out of 3D meshes, 2D billboards, materials, textures, a skybox, etc., and how these elements can be manipulated and rearrange to expose some aspects of our reality."
Click here to download Self Portrait (Interior), which is available in multiple formats. And click here to download the entire DiMoDa group show, which is best experienced in VR with an Oculus Rift and Xbox controller.