Cheat Day #4 – Una Semana en Alemania

Germany

Black Ravens: Landau, Germany

When Ester and I first arrived to Germany, my German friend Stephen gave me a book. It was called “Germany: A History”, and had all sorts of rave reviews on the cover such as “A tour de force!” and “If you want to understand Germany, read this book!”

The author said something in the opening paragraph that has stuck with me to this day; Germany is the only country in the world that has built monuments to its own shame.

That’s a powerful statement, and says a lot about not just the country, but about the people. Germany’s past is loaded with shame, and it’s architecture, sculptures, even the language, all share the same stark upright posture. The people are quiet, they do not wear flamboyant outfits or bright colors, nor do they talk loud and fast like the Spanish.

Instead, the German people seem to all feel the shame of their not-so distant horrendous past. They have that air about them of a professional with something to hide; proper, good posture, polite. But as an outsider, you can’t help but think about what happened 70 years ago.

Germany_02
Baden Baden, Germany.

Germany is a beautiful place filled with sleepy little towns, beer, and sausage. The people are very friendly, and often will bend over backwards to make sure a clueless tourist like myself walks away pleased with the exchange.

I like to listen in on people’s conversations to get a feel for a language, but in Germany’s small towns and cities I couldn’t hear anyone. It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone, where if anyone had a bad thought they’d be zapped to death by some unknown force.

I have a lot of German friends, and they all speak impeccable English, and they’ve all insisted that everyone in Germany speaks English. This is not true. While we had a German native and a Spaniard who spoke the language with us at all times, we constantly found ourselves desperately searching for anyone that spoke English. If it wasn’t for them, Ester and I probably wouldn’t have drank a single beer.

Like Spain, there are castles built on mountain tops, something the medieval monarchs loved to do. The more dramatic the vista, the better. But even the old castles were dark and brooding, like something out of Dracula, and offered no helpful explanation to it’s history, because everything was in German.

All in all, our time in Germany was calm and tranquil. There’s not much to tell for we spent much of our time meandering through towns and castles, Ester speaking with her friend Ani in Spanish while I ran around like a dog taking pictures.

Things got more interesting once we arrived in Switzerland.


Switzerland

Defeat In the Alps!: Alt St. Johann, Switzerland

I refuse to say I’m a bad snowboarder.

Once, when I was fifteen years old, I fell so hard on a snowboard that I knocked myself out. When that happens, you want to stop. You feel like you were just beat up by someone bigger and stronger than you, and you want to admit defeat. On that day, I did admit defeat; I took off my snowboard and walked down the hill.  I couldn’t imagine trying to do that again.

We arrived at the Toggenburg Ski resort on the morning of Saturday the 11th, located in a small town called Alt St. Johann in the north of Switzerland. It’s the kind of place that someone like Tolkien would take one look at, run home and write The Lord Of The Rings. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen, people skied in shirts, it smelled of cow shit and old bearded men threw around big barrels of hay.

Toggenburg_swiss
It’s that kind of place.

My day at the ski resort did not start off well. After departing from the chair lift, there was a another “lift”, nothing more than a little seat that dangled from a rope. You’re supposed to put the seat between your legs and it would pull you up the mountain, like you are skiing uphill. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t too excited about it.

I watched the other experienced riders take this thing and slide up the hill, and they made it seem easy enough. My turn came. As the rope sped by me I snatched it and threw the little seat between my legs and braced for the pull. But the pull never came, so I fell. The rope began to pull, and I was dragged for what seemed like an eternity while the snowboard attached to my foot dug into the snow behind me. After some stumbling I got my feet underneath myself and straightened out the board and began to glide up the hill, proud and upright. No pasa nada. The next patient rider behind me took their turn.

I hadn’t gone snowboarding for about two years at that point, so I was nervous but excited. My heart beat a like a drum in my chest, and I was already sweating despite not having done anything. I angled my board down the hill and began.

I turned a corner and fell really, really hard on the right side of my ass. I groaned, got back up, slid down the mountain for a moment, and fell again on the right side of my ass. The second fall hurt so bad I let out a weak little whimper like a sickly child, and it took me a moment to get back on my board.

When you get hurt like that, your confidence goes out the window. If an MMA fighter gets hit hard in the leg, he doesn’t want to get hit in the same place twice, thus he becomes slightly more hesitant when fighting. In snowboarding, hesitance is a death sentence. It’s an activity where you have to attack the hill, and where playing too much defense causes you to go splat.

What followed was one of the worst snowboarding experiences of my life. There were a few golden moments when I regained my confidence, but a slip and fall on the right side of my ass quickly removed all of it. Less than halfway through the day my butt was black and blue and covered in bruises. I was not having fun.

After a quick break with my German friend Stephen, who was having no problem arriving at the bottom of the slope unscathed, I psyched myself up for another go at the slopes. We decided to go higher up the mountain, near the top, and the view was amazing—that’s when we took this picture:

StephanAndI
Stephen and I stoked to shred.

If circumstances were any different, the above photo would have been my last.

My heart was exploding and I banged my hands together, and we jumped on the hill.

I felt great, I felt confident, like a boss. I was an American exploring the Swiss Alps on a snowboard, scratch that shit off the bucket list! Fucking badass. Then I fell flat on my face.

I was on my stomach, sliding down the hill faster than skiers on their skies, like a boy on a slip’n slide during the summer. Stephen managed an “are you okay?” as I flew past him and I meekly muttered something like “I can’t stop, haha.”

For about ten seconds I slid like this.

I dug my hands into the snow in front of me and snow splashed up into my face, I slowly turned myself around and slammed my board into the snow, finally bringing myself to a grinding halt.

My confidence wavered, but I was a fucking badass American on the Swiss alps and I wasn’t going to let this embarrassment get the best of me. I waved Stephen on, letting him know I’d meet him further down, and I jumped upright and started back down the mountain.

I fell. Got back up, fell again, got back up. Fell again. Hard. Straight on right side of my ass.

I snapped. On hands and knees, I banged on the snow with my fists, head-butted the ground once, twice, thrice, my helmet buckling under the force of the blows, raised my hands in the air and screamed bloody hell to the clear blue sky.

A skier came around the corner and said “entschuldigung!” as she zipped by me. I hung my head, cold, wet, battered, and I had a headache.

I was utterly defeated.


I finished the hill, slow and clumsy, falling and growling like a rabid dog the whole way down. I found Stephen at the bottom, and he asked me the worst question you can ask a person going through this kind of turmoil: “Are you okay?”

I said I was done and needed to rest. The wonderful people of the Toggenburg Ski Resort provided beach chairs for individuals who want to rest and take in some sun. I found one of these chairs, but sitting was a challenge. I laid uncomfortably on my left side for about an hour, shuddering in cold, wet rage. I pulled down my ski goggles and slept in the blazing winter sun.

We always hear about being in flow, being in the zone, on fire. But what about the complete opposite? What about being in a state of complete self-denial that you’re literally paralyzed, where activities that you’re usually capable of suddenly become arduous and near impossible?

People say we learn more from our failures than our successes, and that day on the mountain is no exception. The first fall caused every fall thereafter, and I was not able to shake the fear of landing on my butt again. I was visited by the demon of self doubt and it was with me for the whole day.

What I did not learn, however, is how the hell do you get that guy off your back?


France_02

A clash of Three Languages: Strasbourg, France

I can speak a little french, but I can’t speak any German. Well, now I can speak a little, but when we first sat down for our first meal in Germany, I realized that I didn’t even know how to say “Thank you”. My Spanish would not help me, and I was two languages away from my mother tongue of English.

Being in the French city of Strasbourg where at least I’d know how to say “Please” and “Thanks” made me feel like less of a mute, but only halfway from it. The French are famous for not wanting “Stoopid Amearicones” to butcher their language, so the locals would switch to English whenever possible.

It feels like defeat when someone switches to your language, especially after giving you a chance in theirs. It’s something the polyglot Benny Lewis calls “The Language Power Struggle”. A person wants to speak your language, while you want to speak theirs, so you go back and forth in different languages, trying to out-tounge the other.

france-fasion
In France, it’s never not time for fashion.

I am proud to say that I purchased cheese in a store only speaking French. While I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, I still managed to communicate the desire for cheese in another language. In a foreign country, speaking even a little bit of a language can go a long way.

While I was able to buy cheese in French, I was able to only sputter a few words in German. Which is better than it was when I first arrived, when I had to substitute “Thank You” with convulsions and grinning like a fool.

When I did learn a little German and tried to use it, I might as well have put my tongue between my lips and blew a raspberry. German is a damn complex language, and even my German friend Stephen couldn’t explain the language’s reasonings.

When all else fails, at least I can always rely on the mighty English language, which many people in many countries speak at least a little. Also I have my hands, and you’d be surprised how far pointing and waving your hands wildly in the air can get you.

We wandered the streets of Strausburg for a good six hours, taking in the history, views, and people. The presence of tourists is strong there, and while I’m always trying to not stand out like just another tourist, my legs hurt from powersquating and snapping photos. We spent as little money as possible, for Switzerland drained our wallets, but we didn’t leave without sampling the coffee, cheese, and the buttery and flaky croissants.

Check out Strasbourg if the opportunity arrises, but study up on some German or French—English is scarce there.


backHome

Back Home: Spain

There are days in Spain when one could say I am in the zone with Spanish, speaking with a level of fluency I never dreamed I’d ever have. However there are other days when the funk takes over, and I can barely mutter a “Gracias” without feeling like I want to jump off a bridge.

We’ve been back in Spain for less than a week as of writing this, and already we’ve gone to barbecues and children’s birthday parties. I’ve spoken with old timers who speak slightly more coherently than a drone, with kids who’s level of Spanish blew me away until I remembered that they were Spanish. I’ve been on fire and have spoken about my life and have been in a funk where I’d not realize people were talking to me, and I do not feel like I have control over it.

But I do. We all do. It’s paramount to everything that we do, from drawing, martial arts, to “crushing” an interview. Speaking is an activity like any other. I’m not talking about speaking another language, but speaking in general. We all have bad days and good days, but why can’t everyday just be a good day?

I’m no self-development coach, but with all things, maybe we just need to roll with the punches, and not let our own internal bullshit get the better of us. It’s been proven that you can generate incredible amounts of adrenaline while laying down; the body effects the mind and the mind effects the body. Theoretically, if you control one of these systems, you can dictate the state of the other.

This is an attractive idea, but life just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes fate has it out for you and deals a crappy deck of cards, and you start your day by spilling your freshly brewed pot of coffee all over the kitchen floor and your favorite white pants. The question is: What do you do in between those moments that insure you won’t lose it and slam your head through a table?

The trip to Germany was great, but the moment that stands out to me is in the mountains of Alt St. Johann, Switzerland, when after so many falls I lost my mind. Failure teaches us a lot, but only when you look at why you failed. Simply falling on the right side of your ass over and over without asking why only throws gas on the fire, and after so many falls, you explode.

I wasn’t attacking the hill. I wasn’t putting enough weight on my front foot, and I was leaning too far back in my front-side carves.

I wasn’t engaging myself in the conversation. I didn’t visualize the piece of music before playing it. I didn’t stretch.

I was thinking too much.

I refuse to say I’m a bad snowboarder.

meOnBoard

 

Advertisements

Cheat Day #3 – Empieza Fuerte

I’ve realized something profound a while ago, something I’ve been procrastinating to admit to myself.  This particular “something” is preached by self-development experts, artists, writers, and all people who strive on getting a lot done in any given day.  I guess I’ve been procrastinating on writing about it, or admitting how important it actually is, because I figured it was set in stone – something we should all be doing, like not eating too much sugar.  What’s the point of delving on it when it’s so obvious, right?
That piece of advice is this:  If you want to have a good day, start in a good way.
Essentially the opposite is true as well.  If you want to be distracted, unfocused and all-around shitty for the duration of the day, wake up with social media, porn, and bad news.
We artists live off of our daily practice, and the act of sitting down to work is the practice.  Doing the work is the whole thing.  It’s not your ideas or your insight, it’s what you do everyday.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:
    “Sow a thought and you reap and action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”    
The daily act gets to the heart of what masters of productivity preach: Do the work, become the person.  Fake it till you make it.  Keep it Simple Stupid.
We have a tendency to overcomplicate things.  But when we’re in the trenches of our work and bombs are blowing up all around us, of course it’s complicated.  At the ground level, life is chaos.  Zooming out and looking at the big picture is useful, because the big picture is where you’ll start to see patterns.
Looking at Emerson’s quote again, if you do something every morning—like scrolling through the endless magic that is Imgur—this will turn into a habit.  You’ll be distracted for the whole day, and Imgur and Reddit will call out to you for the rest of the day.
I’ve grown to dislike the word “successful”—I’m not even sure what it means anymore.  The word itself has been so much it has lost all meaning.  For example, the word “Awesome” used to describe 50 foot tall snarling winged horses that breathed fire and pissed lightning—things of that nature.  “Awesome”, after many years of dilution, is now used to describe the moment you get the last everything bagel at Dunkin Donuts.  The word “successful”, to me at least, now refers to Youtube videos of a young smiling dude-bro standing (or sitting) in front of a camera plagiarizing the words from self-development coaches like Jim Rohn or Tony Robbins.
One of the most important tips I’ve ever gotten as an artist or musician, is to not study your favorite composers or artists, but study who they studied.  Bach simply had it going on, and all of the great composers from the classical and romantics eras of music all studied his work.  Dig deep into the sources of inspiration from successful folks, because the great thinkers of hundreds or thousands of years ago may have had a better understanding of the human condition that we do.
I’m more writing to myself here than to you, dear reader, for as Flannery O’Conner once wrote:
“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Words and ideas are yours for the taking.  Our lives are a collage of our experiences, and we are what we eat, do, think, and say.  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all.

Cheat Day #2 – El Campo Detrás la Alhambra

alhambraclose_01

There’s a word in Spain, “Guiri” (pronounced Gee-ree) which I believe only exists here.  It describes a red faced pale skinned German tourist with short shorts, typically drunk and causing a ruckus. The word also describes someone like myself — I’m pale nor am I from here. Granadinos are a proud folk, and if you step on their traditions you’re stepping on their way of life. While they may humor you when you ask for a beer in awful Spanish, they may have the thought “Just another guiri”. At least, I imagine it that way.

paseo-01

El Albayzín, a small town that surrounds the Alhambra, is so beautiful that guiris flock to it like hipsters to a polka concert. In my opinion, it’s preferable to saunter through El Albayzín rather than shepherded through the Alhambra. In this small town you’re left to your own wits. You can explore the endlessly winding and narrow streets, drink and eat all the beer and tapas you want, and meet authentic Granadinos.

ester

Ester and myself had the day off, so we decided to go behind the Alhambra and away from the swarms of Chinese tourists. The way was surprisingly difficult to find, even for Ester: Up through the garden, past the parking lot which under the sun is about a thousand miles in length, jaywalked through a brush next to some modern day aqueducts, and we finally found ourselves on a paved street that led up into the mountains.

puerta_01

The paved road was too paved, and the few people I saw were a few too many, but at least there were no guiris. A few hundred yards up the road we found a ancient run-down staircase that led directly into the mountain to the right of us. It looked treacherous and perfect. We took it.

onthehill

alhambra-albicin-01

It was only us on that hill, and the view of the Alhambra and Granada got better and better. As the trees cleared and we could see more of the city, I fired off my camera like a wartime journalist, standing on the mountain like Spiderman fighting for angles. However as we climbed the city continued to reveal more of itself, so I slowed my roll, slung my camera and waited until we reached the summit.

mirador

The path we were on took us to a turret that overlooked the mountain face that we were ascending. From there we could see everything west of the Alhambra and Granada, and south the to Sierra Nevada. On top of the mountain there were ancient ruins  built within land that rolled like a turbulent ocean. We moved farther south and were presented with an unfettered view of the Sierra Nevada mountains and everything beyond.

ester-vista-02

mountainruins

We looped around to the other side of the mountain and continued north, towards El Albayzín and Granada. There were hundreds of pathways that led off into the mountains farther to the south, where countless bicyclists took advantage of the open roads. There was more to see towards the east – a lot more. Paths that led over, around and under mountains, hills and valleys, small towns and intimidating buildings built into steep lands. We took our last look, snapped our last photos, swore that we’d return and reluctantly made our way back.

monastay

ester-vista-01

Ancient ruins make you feel like a kid again. You’re in the company of hundreds, if not thousands of years of history. The Alhambra is known for it’s colorful history, and the formation of the castle mirrors the inconsistency of its occupants.  Those same walls and streets were there all those years ago, used by peasants and kings, and then by you. The immensity of it all is humbling; it pours gasoline on your imagination and sets it on fire, and you can’t help but wonder what it must have looked like all those years ago.alhambra_02

We returned to El Albayzín, east of the Alhambra, and settled into one of the many cafes and ended the day with a well deserved cup of coffee. We sat in silence, watching the waves of people move by us on the street, the ramparts of the Alhambra looming over it all. The setting sun bathed all it could reach in gold, flags waved on the north facing turret, guiris filled the street unable to turn away from sight as the locals flowed past them.  Huddled over our coffee the wind blew and we shivered, our stomachs rumbled, and we called it quits.

endingpic

alhambra_03

If you’re ever on a tour, look to where everyone is not going, and go there. The oblique angles of historical sites can offer unpredictable events, and are often less roped-off.  That freedom, that feeling of absolute agency, does not hit you as dramatically when you’re standing next to Mr. Woo and his buzzing audio guide. It hits you when you take a left instead of a right, and move against the current of the crowds. You pay nothing, and there’s a chance that you will be presented with a view that no one else can see.

ester-vista-03

Cheat Day #1 – Soy Un Mono

18

I’m sure I am breaking a cardinal rule of language immersion by writing this.  That is – never break from your target language and use your own.  But does writing count?  In any case, I’ll call this a Cheat Day, solely because speaking / writing in English after being attacked by Spanish all day feels like eating a plate of brownies.

I’ve been in Spain for a week, I’d like to take a moment in my own language to reflect on my experience so far.  I’ve been journaling every morning for the past three years, but since I got here I’ve switched it up and am now logging my mornings in Español.  It’s awful.  I have no clue if what I’m writing is grammatically sound, and I fear the day for when I’ll have to go back over everything I’ve written at the end of the month – incoherent dribble from some Americano painfully rendering his days in a language he can’t properly speak nor write.

When I speak, I’m a monkey.  But not your typical run of the mill eat-your-face kind of monkey.  I’m a shy, bashful, nervous little simian who speaks about 12 semi-tones higher while trying to communicate.  The people talk so much here, the whole culture seems to revolve around getting together to talk and gossip.  You know that wonderful moment when dinner has finished but conversation is still flowing, and people aren’t in any rush to leave the table because they’re having too much fun talking and gossiping?  The Spanish have a word for that – Sobremesa – which is a testament to how much weight they put on hanging out and talking.  They talk so much, that everyone is typically talking at the same time because they never stop talking.

As an American, I have to say that I’m not quite used to this.  I’m trying, but god dammit if there’s never a day where I’d rather stick my head in a boiling vat of olive oil then to mutter a few weak phrases I’ve memorized.  Like a bad martial art, I have a handful of practiced phrases that only work at the right time.  Like a bad martial art, I’ll need someone to set me up just right so that I can execute my practiced maneuver.

When you first jump into the learning another language, you’re mind isn’t as blank as you’d think it is.  You can already speak a language, and you can do it very well.  I don’t think we realize how good we all are at speaking our native tongues, until we really give a go at speaking another.  There’s all sorts of techniques out there on quick ways to learn, on achieving fluency with minimal effort, but what does it mean to speak?

When you’re learning guitar, when do you say that you can play?  To say you “Can Do” something carries a lot of weight.  You are able to—what, exactly?  Play a song?  Mutter a phrase?  If I can cook an egg, does that make me Gordon Ramsey?  The sliding scale of ability does not link up to the words “Can” and “Can Not”; it’s like comparing black and white to a rainbow.

Bear with me for a moment, and try to imagine it how I see it:  When you learn anything, think of it like an incomplete web starting a stopping in random places.  This is how learning looks in the beginning.  Your knowledge is sporadic, you may know a thing or two but the dots have not been connected.  Sometimes, one piece of the web will link up to another, and the strength of that connection is dependent on the amount you’ve practiced it.  These come in the form of epiphanies.  As you learn more, this process continues, and the web grows larger and more connections are made.  The web you’re left with is the accumulated, executable knowledge you’ve collected and rehearsed over a period of time.

I like the web idea, because it’s closer to nature’s process of building by accumulation.  But we humans are not used to creating webs, we like to create square buildings.  When drawing analogies to learning we’ll say things related to building a house, like “Work on your foundations first”, and “Only once the walls are up can you work on the plumbing” *wink*.  But when executing, like speaking, playing music, or drawing, we’re not traversing through our building looking for a misplaced word, we’re scanning our tangled web of knowledge on a specific subject.  After a while everything has an equal amount of importance, and the advanced topics are no more advanced than the fundamentals.  Eventually, everything connects.

Anyways, enough rambling.  I needed to expunge some English out of my system like a bad case of diarrhea, and damn does it feel good.  Not deviating away from a target language is like waving a glass of wine in front of an alcoholic – it’s right there, it’s so easy, all you need to do is take it.  But the times when you spend the most effort, when you’re so fed up you want to punch yourself in the balls, is when real learning is taking place.

 

Buenos Dias.

Tribeca – 2016

IMG_3005

 

With the launch of the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign in 2012, virtual reality (VR) has been quickly gaining popularity. Content creators from movies, documentaries and video-games are all clamoring on board a crowded band-wagon. On the week of April 15th, the Tribeca International Film Festival hosted its first ever space dedicated to virtual reality. The TIFF titled the space ‘Virtual Arcade’, and it included 13 VR experiences from independent game designers from various parts the globe. Some pieces were fully interactive while others offered a more passive experience, but all were fully immersive virtual reality experiences. A floor above the Virtual Arcade housed the Games For Change – Games and Media Summit. These interactive experiences were more experimental and focused on how VR can change the future of education. The booth I was a part of, BrainVR, was an educational interactive that taught users how the eye picks up patterns of light, and how the corresponding synapses in the brain fire as a result. BrainVR was created by the people behind Eyewire (known for the gamification of the otherwise impossible task of reconstructing neural structures of the brain based on 2-dimensional scans into 3D models), some folks from MIT, and myself. I was asked to assist in presenting BrainVR to the general public along with the rest of the group – here’s what happened.

On Sunday, April 17th I left for New York. I drank too much the night before – gravity was oppressive that day so I took escalators instead of stairs. By the time I was on the Chinatown bus my head was pounding and my pants were sprinkled with urine (the urinal’s splash guard acted opposite to its intended purpose). After spending five hours in fear that I’d have to puke in the Lucky Star bus toilet, I made it to NYC with my breakfast still in my stomach. I hopped on the subway and met up with my old college buddy Tim, who agreed to house me for the night. We played Dungeon and Dragons until about 1:00am, and then I restlessly slept with Tim’s cat Garfield on the couch. In the morning Tim and I made coffee, bid our farewells, and I made my way to Tribeca.

IMG_3004
Good ol’ trashy NYC

A thousand years ago I worked in the Tribeca area for a mural painting company, so I knew my way around. I arrived at the Tribeca building an hour and thirty minutes late. The place was buzzing with people. I saw maybe a hundred college students employed as orderlies in red shirts. I saw smart guys with square glasses and crisp jackets, and women who must have been from another planet. I told them who I’m with but not who I was, and before I knew it I had a badge and a wristband, ‘6th floor, please’. I took the elevator and bounced around until I saw Scott, my main connection to the MIT Media Lab. He was next to a handsome fellow I did not know – I later learned his name was Matt. Nice guy. Indeed I was late but managed to arrive before the rest of the BrainVR group.

The exhibition space was vast, much bigger than I had anticipated. The room had a high ceiling adorned with crisscrossing track lighting, bathing everything in a deep futuristic blue. Once in a while you heard the hiss of a machine that spewed smoke smelling of cotton candy. Everyone was setting up, all were hurried but relaxed.

The red shirt orderlies proved to be incredibly helpful. They acted on our demands without question, eagerly awaiting orders like a dog who loves to show off his tricks. One of them, named Matt, had bright youthful eyes and a big mess of light-brown hair. He asked me if he could take my bag for safe keeping. I said yes, but I wasn’t very comfortable telling a guy not much younger than me what to do. By the end of the show I was sending Matt for coffee and sandwiches like I was King Louis XVI.

About an hour later, the team arrived and we finished setting up our space. We were covered in sweat after correcting a couple snafus with the electricity, but we had everything up and running. At noon, people begin to trickle into the space, their heads on a swivel looking for what to view first. A few approached our booth and we smiled and we said things like:

“Have you ever tried VR before?”

“We’re part of the MIT Media Lab!”

“We’re using VR to explore ways to educate through communicative storytelling!”

We gave this speech about seven hundred times throughout the day.

IMG_3013
Daniel, our programmer, in way over his head

We were elated. Pure euphoria. We were experts of our own product. We made something, and we’re showing it to strange people whom we’ve never met. TIFF visitors tried it and loved it, we asked them how they felt and whether or not they learned anything. Some nodded, some looked perplexed and some said no. Over time we honed the process of pressing palms, asking questions, managing the line and dunking the Vive onto people’s heads.

At around 2:00pm we began to loose steam – I could see it on our faces and feel it in my knees. The sweat had dried and I was cold (air conditioning had been blasting all day). We grabbed one of our assigned orderlies and taught her how to set people up in the Vive, and like an orderly cast down from red-shirt Heaven she picked it up immediately, no problem. We left her and the exhibit hall and made our way downstairs to the Virtual Arcade (Presented by AT&T!).

IMG_3017
The Virtual Arcade

The elevator doors opened onto a wide room with a similar vibe as our own exhibit hall, but more pronounced. The blue lighting seemed to press down on us, as if gravity were stronger in this room. The smoke was so thick that they might as well have crammed cotton candy in your mouth upon entering. The room’s length began at our left extending 80 yards to our right and was filled with monitors, fashionistas, and snazzy white swivel chairs running single file down the length of the room, occupied by people wearing Gear VRs. Dance music was blaring. Put it all together and it was VR Studio 54. Instead of people snorting coke off bare asses and/or providing sexual favors, people were sitting around with big boxes on their face. This was New York, so they managed to hold dignified postures while in complete oblivion to the real world.

IMG_3022
Well, kind of dignified

To our right, a row of white booths ran from the entrance to the end of the room – these were the advertised VR experiences. There were 13 different experiences to try, and I’ve been overhearing people raving about a game where you fly on the back of a dragon, so I had no trouble choosing what I wanted to try first. I made way to the booth owned by Blackthorn Media, the creators of said dragon flying game. I talked to the founders, Michael and Lyndon, both warm and smiling guys who could not have been more giddy of their enterprise. They were once involved in the Visual Effects industry for movies and TV shows, but recently took their skills of creating virtual worlds and brought it into the dynamic realms of gaming. When you play their games, it shows.

Blackthorn’s assigned orderlies who were running an app that allowed people to queue up without having to stand in line. Michael told me that the queue was running a bit long, and that the wait could be as long as an hour and a half. Apparently everyone wanted to ride on the back of a dragon as well. However, to my luck, their line queue app failed and they had to renew the waiting process. As to who was next, it came down to whomever happened to be nearest the booth. That person happened to be yours truly. Michael whispered behind his hand if I wanted try something they were working on but were not expecting to show that day. I spat an emphatic ‘yes’ and made my way into the booth, where I met Keith who introduced me to Blackthorn’s games.

IMG_3023
This is what being oblivious looks like

There’s nothing quite like being in a virtual world and reaching out and grabbing something, to physically interact with a digital environment. It’s as if the brain wants to be fooled, and feels no need to try and rationalize that everything you’re looking at is not ‘real’. In fact the brain splits the difference, and makes you feel the weight of an object, heat from fire, a knife to the stomach. However the dragon game lacked this type of immersion. You got onto the back of the dragon (you actually had to walk over and physically sit on a chair, which in the virtual world was the dragon’s back) and flew around and blasted fire out of the dragon’s mouth, aiming the flames with your controller. I flew past castles shooting flaming arrows, trees and valleys, and other dragons, but the immersion fell flat. My brain was not convinced. I wondered why everyone was foaming at the mouth about this game, and figured it was due to the recent onset of dragon fever. I flew past a another castle which shot more flaming arrows that didn’t seem to have any effect, and a rival dragon came into view and crashed into me, thus ending the demo.

I hid my disappointment behind some ‘ooo’s and ‘ahh’s, but I was miffed. This is exactly what people should not do in virtual reality. Another incomplete demo with boring mechanics built for hardware that has infinite potential. All of their effort, it seemed, was put into the dragon itself. I’ve been seeing a pattern of developers creating ‘demos’ with no perceived end in sight. These demos are either too big or not big enough. The latter always makes me ask myself ‘who cares?’, and the former makes me question their sanity. It frustrates me to think of all the hours developers put into projects lacking any foundation or long term planning. But of course, and I must remind myself of this constantly, not everyone can be a Steve Jobs – type visionary of video game development. With the sheer number of individuals creating video games you’re bound to get the bad with the good, most of it bad. One must be patient with such things.

Next up was the project they were not ‘meant to show’ – The Abbot’s Book. I was still wearing the headset and blind to the outside world, to which Keith asked me to stand so I did. I heard him sliding the chair away from the center of the booth to provide me space. Keith then gave me some context for the following experience: The Abbot’s Book takes place in 16th century Vicenza Italy, and centers around a family tormented by a diabolical book. He told me there’s a a lot of backstory that accompanies the game (a whole book, in fact), and this is only one chapter of what will eventually be a flowing episodic adventure. Intrigued, I gave him the go ahead and he threw me into the world.

It was dark. The moon was shining bright in the night sky, partly obscured by passing clouds. I noticed that I had a torch in my right hand and used it to light the area around me. I was standing in the middle of a ruined castle, the ground was overgrown with weeds that reached up to my knees, swaying with the wind. Old and worn gravestones stood tall around me, like a line of menacing soldiers alerted by my sudden presence. Owls hooted and frogs chirped, the weeds hissed as the wind blew. Off in the distance I could sense the immensity of the castle, and saw tree covered mountains disappearing into the horizon. All of Blackthorn Media’s hard work payed off. I was utterly immersed.

A big issue with VR is movement. When you’re moving through the virtual space, there’s a disconnect between what you’re seeing and the actual feeling of movement. The brain looks for the sensation of forward momentum and doesn’t find it, but sees it, so things get all queasy. This is known as simulation sickness. One trick that developers have discovered to avoid simulation sickness is by ‘Blinking’, or teleporting from place to place. With this method you don’t slide through the virtual space, but you teleport from your current position to an area you point at. This allows players to move through the virtual space without wanting to puke 10 minutes in. Blackthorn Media applied this method of movement in The Abbot’s Book and it worked like a charm.

As I moved down a hill, I bent down and inspected the land around me. I saw well rendered weeds and rocks but nothing else of interest. I looked up and saw a heavy iron gate down the slope, I made my way to it. With both hands I pushed the iron doors open and found a monk standing on the other side, waiting for me with an air of importance and regality. I used the light from the torch to get a better look. The monk was aged fifty years or so, his robes were simple and humble and swayed with his movements. Despite his grave face, he did not appear to hold any ill will towards me. He informed me that we were to head down to the catacombs, just below the castle, and find a lost colleague named Calidan.

I continued on the path and down a narrow staircase, and stopped at the entrance of the catacombs. The old abbot warned me of dangers and terrors awaiting behind the door, and advised me to ‘proceed with caution’. I moved through the door and into the cave. It was pitch black, the only source of light was my torch which illuminated the walls of the cave. Ornate stonework and busts of snarling beasts stood sentry at the cavern’s opening. I proceeded with caution, probably more than the abbot intended – I was pretty damn scared. I turned around and saw that he was accompanying me, which lent me some comfort. There were unlit lanterns handing from the walls, and I lit these with my torch as I moved down the hall. Light spread down the cavern, which opened onto a four-way intersection of hallways, all surrounding a tomb at the center. I made my way into this space, and I saw a hint of blue light at the end of the hall to my left. I made for it and moved down the hall until I reached the precipice of a cliff. I looked up and gasped.

The hallway opened into an enormous cave, filled with structures and churches, buildings, lit by small openings to the outside world that brought in blades of blue moonlight. The space of the cavern seemed to stretch on forever. The path ended on a sheer cliff, and as I went to peak over the edge a large chunk of rock fell off the narrow path and I jumped back, as to not go tumbling over the edge. I then entered a room to my right in which I found a Gollum-like creature feasting on a corpse. It looked up and saw me and I dug my feet into the ground, preparing to defend myself. It screamed, stood and charged me. I coward in fear. The demo ended.

My eyes watering with excitement, I took off the Vive headset and returned to reality. I tried to use my words and tell Michael, Lyndon and Keith how awesome that was, but my brain was on fire with so much inspiration and so many ideas that no doubt what I threw at them was unintelligible. Regardless, they seemed to appreciate the fandom; they busted their asses on this project after all.

Up until that point I had not been in a virtual experience as immersive or as polished as The Abbot’s Book. Within five minutes of being in the game, the real world fell away; I forgot I was at Tribeca, and I forgot Keith was standing there watching me fumble around the booth, blind deaf and dumb. For something barely in its infancy, when it works, the HTC Vive works pretty goddamn well. The Vive was created by HTC, a multinational manufacturer of smart phones and tablets, and Valve, the video game company who built Steam, a digital distribution platform for managing the purchase and downloads of thousands of video game titles. Together they hedged their bets on a concept called ‘room-scale VR’. The concept is simple and brilliant:

roomScaleVR
Room-Scale VR looks like this

Imagine, if you will, that you wanted to set up your living room for room-scale VR. First and foremost, you’ll want to clear a space. Move the coffee table, reorient the couch, do whatever you need to do to make a large open space, free of any obstacles (especially those below the knee). The Vive kit comes with two motion sensors, which you can mount on a wall or a mic stand. Think of the perimeter of virtual space as a rectangle. The sensors make up two opposite corners of the rectangle, and track the movements of the VR helmet and the pair of controllers. Once everything is all set up and calibrated, you can celebrate by doing cartwheels, cranking out jumping jacks or running in circles, the way room-scale VR was intended to be used.

I’ve been on this Earth for 29 years, and have been cognizant for about 26 of them, so I have some experience with hyped products that end up falling flat (the infamous 3-D-O comes to mind). Oculus Rift opened its Kickstarter in 2012, just four years ago, and here we are just four years later, giddy and teary eyed imagining the possibilities of future virtual entertainment. The hype has now reached dangerous levels, and fanboys are waiting for the dam to break. As for Oculus, they brought virtual reality back into the minds of the general public at the perfect time. It was as if they said ‘Hey guys, remember this thing from the mid 90’s that completely flopped? Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all’, and when game developers realized the potential of combining modern day graphics with virtual reality, the entire video game industry must have muttered ‘holy shit’. Now, the term ‘video game’ is giving way to the to the high falutin term ‘interactive experience’. Almost everyone I talked to at TIFF is approaching VR as an interactive experience, and not from the established paradigms from the past 30 years of game dev. They also seemed to have the idea that they were the first to think about it. I wanted to inform them that ‘this guy over there told me the same thing’, but I bit my tongue because we’re all in the same boat; humans tend to come up with the same idea at the same time.

We spent the rest of the day showing our VR piece and encroaching upon important people. The NY times, CNN, and a couple of big-shot indy film makers made their way by and we flocked to them like beggars to an aristocrat. The show ended at six, and the crowd thinned, and I finally got to try our BrainVR demo ( I had not experienced the final version until TIFF). It was a cute demo, the robot avatar I made did its thing and was perfectly implemented by the team’s programmer. There was voice over and music, a beginning, middle and end. It was quiet participation, not much to it. The neurons looked great, my 3D eyeball looked okay. What astonished me was the speed at which we put it together. The tools to create this stuff couldn’t be more accessible and easier to use, and they are going to become more accessible in the coming years.

IMG_3027
A Tribecian trying our interactive

What will the world look like when everyone is doing this? When we make assumptions, we tend to say things like ‘everybody’, or ‘everywhere’, which of course, 7 billion people aren’t going to be programming VR games. But of a lot of them will be, and what will the market for this look like?

Software tools are built layer upon layer. Common repeated patterns will eventually be streamlined, and the hard work of a single individual will pay off for someone else down the line. Programmers pass the baton to strangers to take up the task of simplifying the process of creation. Things that are complex and cumbersome to accomplish today will be a button press down the road. It will become easier and easier for the individual artist to act as programmer, director, sound designer and writer for any given project. And with distribution from creator to consumer being as straight forward as it is, publishing a video game could be like publishing a blog post, a digital painting, or an e-book. The most popular of these tools, Unity, is free until the creator(s) obtain revenue or funding up to $100,000 – at that point you’ll need to pay $1,500 for a full license. Other than that, it’s free to download and use. The Unreal Engine, which has a similar pricing model, not too long ago used to be priced somewhere around $50,000. In under a decade, these tools have become (mostly) free to use, and dreamers with big ideas now have the tools and means to turn those ideas into reality.

TIFF hosting an entire swath of its exhibition hall to virtual reality is a testament to popular culture viewing VR as a potential storytelling medium. My compatriots and I are delving down the educational route, but dollar signs are nowhere in sight on the horizon. This stuff is a barrel of fun to create, but one needs to consider funding at some point. We all want to make games with flying dragons and beautiful 16th century settings like Blackthorn Media, but they’ll tell you the same thing they told me: People are not willing to fund this stuff. Fortunately there are options like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but I can’t help but see these crowdfunding sites as the Craig’s List for would-be entrepreneurs. It’s difficult to find a reason to trust the creators, even harder to gain the confidence of potential backers, as every campaign acts like they’re just a dollar away from curing cancer. Right now the VR space is dominated by small-time developers. Eventually video game giants such as EA and Ubisoft will come stomping through the VR space like robotic Godzillas, spewing money and drowning out all competition in their path. Big companies are just lying in wait, ready to pounce on the winning formulas the little guys create. It’s up to the public to decide who wins the battle.

At last, the show ended and we sent the orderlies for our personal items while we packed up. We had a drink (on the house) and some laughs, pleased by how the day went. I bid farewell to the BrainVR group, got some chinese food and hopped on the 2nd-to-last Chinatown bus to Boston.

IMG_3032
The BrainVR team

After another arduous trip aboard the Lucky Star bus, I was covered in piss again (note: do not use a bus toilet while the bus is leaving the city) and I suspected I got food poisoning from the General Tso’s Chicken I nabbed before leaving NYC. At 12:30am, while walking back to my apartment, I thought about how much I hate the term ‘VR’. It’s now on the lips of everywhere I go. At work, at home, amongst my family and friends, I can’t escape it. Like when your mom joined Facebook, ‘VR’ no longer seems new and exciting. Every time I hear it in popular culture or some actor spouting about how excited he is, its sharp sleek edges rust and become a little bit more dull. Maybe it’s just the company I keep, but everywhere I look I see people digging their feet into the ground preparing themselves to swallow up the electric tidal wave of oncoming virtual reality based entertainment. No-one knows where this ride is going to take us. We can prophesize the end of face to face human interaction all we want, yet not a one of us can accurately predict the future of anything. All I know is this: Virtual Reality is not just hype, it works too well. It grabs our two most important senses – sight and sound – by the balls and we become slaves to the experience. And if the creators of these experiences keep moving at their current velocity, what we’ve seen thus far is child’s play compared to what we’ll witness a few years down the road. This is bandwagon I’d like to be on.

A Common Theme in Creativity

I’m beginning the study of writing as a practice, mostly that of the fiction variety – how does one go about creating a story out of thin air?  After consuming and digesting several books and lectures until my eyes bled, the same principle of creativity has been presented yet again:  You are not the creative thinker, you are only the vessel.  Your best ideas are not your own ideas, they all come from somewhere else entirely.  Ideas that you have are just a starting point, but the finished product created itself.  You are just the gardener pruning the hedges, guiding the story along a path – otherwise it’d grow into a chaotic mess – and it’s your job to walk away from it ( call it finished ).

Take comfort in this when you begin your next project – just start from a seed of an idea and let the story present itself.  Let the little creative thinkers in the deep recesses of your subconscious do all of the creative thinking for you.  All you have to do is to put down what they tell you.

 

 

5362037921_f02b7082b4_o