Musician and comedian Reggie Watts is dancing in the basement of a movie theater in Park City, Utah. When I first spot him, Watts is mid-backbend, a dance move that looks like something in between the slow-motion bullet dodge from The Matrix and a future chiropractor bill.
"I think virtual reality is great," says Watts during a free moment between dance sessions. "When I was a kid I always liked the idea of the world of Narnia, the idea of moving through space in a different way. I think VR has always promised that. Now it's gotten to the point where it has fixed people feeling dizzy when they put it on, and we can experiment more freely."
He is presenting his latest virtual reality project Runnin at New Frontier 2019 - his second since 2013's surrealist romp Waves. Runnin is a VR experience that isn't quite a game, and is not exactly a music video. Runnin is something between a virtual space, an MC Escher dance party, a teleportational dance floor of the future, and a psychedelic record store afterparty of the past. Its developers at Double Eye Studios call the Unity-based project a dance experience that will take players on a "journey of musical expression."
But maybe it's better to describe it as a flashforward, a glimpse at how we could all be experiencing music in the next 15 years. Not simply as audio, but as physical (albeit virtual) spaces.
Runnin builds off of a song by the same name from Watts' band Wajatta with producer John Tejada. Released in 2018, the tune features Watts' improvised vocal percussion over the top a joyful rhythmic groove. In virtual reality, the song plays in the background - at first lightly, when you initially pull on the headset and find yourself in a small record store during an indeterminate time in history.
Users can interact with objects around them using two handheld devices. Pull the trigger button on one when you wave your hand over a stack of records and they strum like a guitar. Point the other device like a laser to a space in the room and teleport to it. The experience is triggered by movement, and soon the music begins to push to the foreground and the room starts to shift. The ground, walls, and ceiling transforms into a dance floor of pulsating tiles; the record shop fades away as neon begins to seep through.
"This is a different type of technology than I think most people will have ever experienced," says Double Eye Studios director Kiira Benzing.
Runnin is developed using Intel Studio Point Cloud data, new capture technology that makes it possible to record large groups of people, and to put it into a digital space. This process is known as Volumetric capture and photogrammetry, two complicated-sounding terms for taking images from cameras and sensors to create 3D meshes, which can be merged into game engines, VR headsets, AR environments, and mixed-reality worlds. The result is a three-dimensional space that seems to exist virtually around the user.
"Biometric technology is different from 2D cinema, it's different from 360 video, and it's also different from the kind of 3D animation pipeline where you do rigging and animation on a 3D model," Benzing explains. "You're capturing the human form three dimensionally, but you're capturing it from two dimensional cameras, and then that is pulling together this three-dimensional form."
Footage from the development of the project shows Reggie Watts strutting around a large room that's been covered completely in green so he can later be digitally transposed. The team hired professional dancers who gyrate around him, legs akimbo. By the time they're ingested through Intel's software, those same dancers are turned into hundreds of colourful, spinning, cycling voxels.
"Being able to see these volumetrically captured dancers transformed in front of you in these different ways, and then to have the added ability to actually bring that figure to life with your movement, that excites me a lot. And I hope that [users] will embody the music and feel like they've been surrounded by this really upbeat, inspirational dance party. That's the core that Reggie and I kept coming back to."
In Runnin I hold the controllers of the HTC Vive in each hand like maracas and transport myself across the podiums that are growing out of the ground. In reality, I'm standing within a circle on the carpet about five feet in diameter.
Watt's dulcet tones create a pulse of colours that ripples across the tiles and around the room. Against all of my instincts as a Canadian, I dance, which triggers a troupe of those digital dancers who filter in, populating the room with arabesques that put my Canuck shuffle to shame. Watts is there too: a dancing hologram. You can teleport to his tile to dance with him or, alternatively, enter into his body and watch thousand of digital fragments that make up his body spin around you like a storm. When the song reaches its climax, the room is wild with dancers, lights and colours. Then as the song ends minutes later, and the neon fades out, we return to the record store whose patrons murmur in quiet conversation.
For the majority of his fanbase Reggie Watts is associated with his work in stand-up, and a style of comedy that verges on Situationist. He has referred himself as a "disinformationist," someone whose aim is to disorient the audience. In his 2012 TED talk, he speaks in gibberish for almost a full 30 seconds. Then, as if turning a dial on a car radio, he switches, dropping his voice an octave lower to adopt a deep French accent, without ever breaking the rhythm of his nonsense language. Mid-sentence he switches again, this time to a nasally British lecturer, but what he's saying remains impenetrable. You can hear the audience both sigh and softly laugh in a kind of half-confusion.
But outside of his career in comedy, Watts is also a technophile and an early adopter of VR.
"For me I'm thinking about this sort of technology in an experimental theater framework in that we're just controlling a space, we're filling a space with things, we're putting a user in the space," Watts tells me. "I did a lot of experimental theater in the past. If you were to try and recreate that kind of concept for a bigger audience I think that could only really be possible in VR."
"What I'm trying to do is I'm trying to become improvisational inside of very complex mediums."
Now with two finished virtual reality projects under his belt, I ask Reggie Watts if he sees more VR in his future.
"Of course," says Watts. "Oh, definitely. But VR needs to be impactful."
"It needs to be something that was worth it. Otherwise it's just a parlour trick."