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StreamMeUp

The SXSW Interactive installation that allows users to explore alien worlds through Kinect

by Graham Hiemstra in Tech on 12 March 2014

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While a good majority of panels and projects at this year's SXSW Interactive centered around the NSA and government surveillance, interactive installation StreamMeUp offered a lighthearted alternative to the discussion on where advancements in technology can lead us as a society. Created in collaboration between Microsoft Studio and an impressive team lead by artist and acting Technical Director James George—with art direction and design by Something Savage studio—the unbranded science fiction–inspired installation was a response to what was essentially an emerging technology-based art commission. With the help of four Kinects and a virtual reality headset, conference goers were given the opportunity to see a digital transmission of themselves on a series of far off planets. "It's like a Vine, for aliens," joked George.

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Four calibrated Canon 5D Mark III cameras paired with Kinect sensors would capture six seconds of action by the individual or group of participants. You then watch as your virtual self is teleported off the capture space ship screen. Next, you're physically led to a seated area where an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset allows you to visually explore three alien environments and interact with local lifeforms. The use of team members as guides helps lessen any intimidation created by the technology while also strengthening the narrative and storytelling. Monitors display a single view of what is displayed in the two-eyed Oculus, giving spectators a direct view at what each participant sees.

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"The way we interact with images is changing. And I want that change to really ignite the imagination and enable people to be more creative." -James George

"This type of emerging technology—advanced virtual reality, 3D scanners—are inevitably becoming an everyday part of our experience in the same way that cellphone cameras have become part of our experience. There's a whole dialogue around surveillance and future camera technology that's very dystopian. And I think that's a really important conversation, but the way I like to contribute to that is through making things that are playful and fun and taking the conversation in a different direction," explains George of his inspiration and intention. "I know it as a fact that the way we interact with images is changing. And I want that change to really ignite the imagination and enable people to be more creative. So something like this is an opportunity to do that. If we focus on the negativity that will manifest itself—it's about imagining the future we want to be in.

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"I want to be like a figure painter with code." -James George

"I'm all about mixing generative art and code with figurative work," says George. "I want to be like a figure painter with code. That's why a 3D scanner to me is really powerful, because it turns people into data that I can manipulate." By tweaking the code, George is able to create an abstract yet highly expressive representation of the human form. George achieved the effect by writing all the camera calibration and code in openFrameworks, which allowed him to take advantage of the new open source KinectCommonBridge library he helped develop while serving as the first artist-in-residence at Microsoft Research.

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Something Savage studio used skyboxes to turn digitally painted panoramic landscapes into 3D worlds. On each world, a 3D character was created to add to the experience. These were animated by Patrick Clarke in Maya to compliment the low-res body scans and limited resolution of the Oculus Rift, helping to create a cohesive aesthetic throughout each world.

Though the StreamMeUp experience was temporary—running 7-9 March 2014 at SXSW Interactive—the GIFs produced can be seen online through Twitter and Microsoft Research.

Images courtesy of Something Savage

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