Enter a psychedelic virtual forest in Treehugger: Wawona

Open at the Southbank Centre today, Treehugger: Wawona combines VR and physical set design to create a virtual giant sequoia

Unless you happen to be 80 metres tall, have a circumference of 30 metres and have lived for 2,500 years, giant sequoias will make you feel small. These vast trees exist on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, looming over the canopy like the shins of giants.

Relatively few people will get to see a giant sequoia in person, however. Trees are not known for their transportability, and these particular trees are also at risk of being wiped out. They’re listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which, considering the fact that many of them predate the Roman Empire, is a pretty damning indictment of recent human influence on the forests.

Treehugger: Wawona – a new virtual-reality installation by creative studio Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) – aims to give more people a chance to experience these colossal trees. Wawona is made up of a VR scene designed for the HTC Vive, and a physical piece of set; a curved black pillar that has a nook carved into it, roughly level with the user’s head. You can try it for yourself in London from today (14 December), as part of the Southbank Centre Winter Festival.treehugger_wawona_12

Don the VR headset and you can look up at a virtual sequoia. As you touch the trunk of the enormous tree, you can feel the edges of a knot in the bark. If you lean your head into it, your vision passes through the surface of the virtual sequoia. Inside, you can see the tree’s xylem pump water from the ground up through its trunk. Then you begin to levitate, following the flow of water towards the canopy. Looking down is disorientating, so you cling to the physical surface of the tree. From there, things get strange.

One of Treehugger’s directors later tells me that what I experienced when I tried Treehugger: Wawona in MLF’s studio was an interpretation of transpiration; of water evaporating from the surface of leaves. The result looks like a kaleidoscopic particle disco, with a flow of bright dots surrounding the viewer’s body.treehugger_wawona_17

“Not many people will have the chance to go and see a giant sequoia, and to build a relationship with one,” says MLF’s Ersin Han Ersin. “It’s quite surreal being there and seeing one of those. It stays with you. At least this installation will bring you that thing and let you make that connection.”

To design the virtual experience, MLF collaborated with researchers at the Natural History Museum and the University of Salford. Together they gathered biological information about the sequoia, using Lidar, white light and CT scanning to create highly detailed textures. Sound also plays an important part in the installation. The team captured the sequoia’s biosignals, translating these into a soundscape. When trying Treehugger, the viewer wears a throbbing backpack, which beats the rhythm of those biosignals into your spine. It’s another tactile grounding for the installation.treehugger_wawona_05

Ersin tells me that, although Treehugger: Wawona’s visuals are psychedelic, they are underpinned by actual data about the trees. “We used cutting-edge technology to gather that information, and this is just one way of using it,” he says. “As practitioners, we are taking that data and making it a little more abstract and visually appealing, and telling a story with it. But in the meantime, we are also collecting that information, the volumetric biomass data of the trees, as well as biosignals. In some sense we’re cataloging these things.”

“They will become dinosaurs in the future”

I ask Ersin whether that aspect of cataloguing gives the project an archival quality. If these trees face extinction, will virtual-reality projects such as Treehugger: Wawona become museums of sorts, for information about these lifeforms? “I hope it won’t be the case that we need any of that data, but the truth is we’ll probably need that data to understand what they were,” he says. “They will become dinosaurs in the future.”

To this end, MLF intend Treehugger: Wawona to be the first chapter in a virtual archive of rare and endangered trees. Their endgame is to create what they call “digital fossils” of these species.

Fingers and noses

The hallucinatory visuals of Treehugger: Wawona may be a wink to the 1960s environmentalist counterculture, but there’s ultimately a tension here between the act of being physically close to nature, and hugging a virtual simulation of a tree. I did grip onto the sides of the foam sequoia, but it was only for stability as I made my virtual ascent. If the aim is to bring me close to a natural object, doing so with plastic covering your eyes and a simulation against your hands is potentially a very cold way to do it.treehugger_wawona_04

But Treehugger: Wawona, like MLF’s In the Eyes of the Animal before it, attempts to do more than simulate the experience of being close to nature. In many ways, MLF wants the viewer to see the world from the perspective of these non-human entities. From the biosignals tapping against my back to the water particles zipping around my head, I’m supposed to inhabit tree time and tree space. Virtual reality often gets talked about as an empathy machine – can it be used to create a sense of empathy for trees?  

It may be impossible to fully comprehend the world as a tree sees it, but Treehugger: Wawona gets somewhere close to creating an impression of empathy, humanising something as non-human as a 2,500-year-old, eight-metre-tall sequoia. By using a physical set, MLF shows that virtual reality is about more than extravagant visuals. If you want a person to feel like they are in a different body, you need to think about how you play with more than just their eyes and ears.

“Childhood memories link with multiple sensory experiences”

“The pure technology part [of VR] is not appealing for us,” says Ersin. “Obviously it’s powerful, and it’s probably the easiest way to immerse an audience. But you’re still missing smell, you’re still missing tactile elements. So we’re trying to boost those parts. Because childhood memories link with multiple sensory experiences – the more you can immerse those senses, the longer it stays with people. We want every little detail to stay with them after they’ve pulled off the headset.”

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In the Eyes of the Animal played up to the senses by filling a custom VR headset with woodland material, and having in-situ installations in actual forestsTreehugger: Wawona does it by having a physical simulation of a tree trunk to go alongside its virtual world. Ersin tells me there are plans to expand the project to encompass scent. 

“The next thing we want to bring in is smell,” he says, “There’s this lemony burnt smell in the sequoia’s park – we’re talking to another company about bringing in a little sensor that can release smells almost frame-accurately. So when you put your head inside [the set] you get the smell of the tree, and when you put your head outside you get the smell of the rain and the forest.”

You can touch, see, and perhaps smell, Treehugger: Wawona for yourself from 14 to 28 December in London, throughout the Southbank Centre Winter Festival. In the new year it will travel to the STRP Biennial in Eindhoven from the 20 to 27 March 2017, and then make its way to Migrations in Wales from April through to June 2017.

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