Daniel Perlin believes in listening closely as a strategy for design. He is currently the founder of Make_Good_, an experience design studio dedicated to bettering lives and the planet. As a designer, he has produced a wide range of works, from screen-based experiences to objects to installations and spaces. Recent collaborations include work with Google, IBM, Under Armour, Vito Acconci, Maya Lin, Errol Morris, the Venice Biennial of Architecture, the Cooper Hewitt Museum and Domus magazine. He has created VR and MR experiences for The Seoul biennial of Architecture, The Storefront for Art and Architecture and Fake Love, a New York Times agency. After 3 years as Director of User Experience Design at Droga5, an agency in New York, Daniel left to found Make_Good and its first product, a platform to help slow human-made climate change.
Allan Chochinov: Hey Daniel, you’ll be teaching the new Virtual Realities course beginning next month, and we couldn’t be more excited. Can you tell us a little bit about your hopes and dreams for the course, and how you came to frame it. (Indeed, it’s got a mission!)
Daniel Perlin: Sure! So it is a bit of a mashup course, based on what I really am working on and what I wish I had as a class when I was studying. I am currently working on climate change, and I like to focus on site-specific design challenges. I have also been working on some Mixed Reality projects, as well as some VR and AR through my studio. So when I was approached about teaching AR, VR and MR, I naturally felt inclined to include my research and current focus of Make Good, climate change. And in this case, I used that as a launching pad to take on a specific site, in this case Red Hook, in Brooklyn, to keep the challenges grounded in the Real, in the now and for everyone to feel, and hopefully have, some real potential for impact.
My dreams for the course are fairly straightforward. First, I hope that everyone understands that there are Real problems, like global warming and human made climate change, and that these problems are true, facts, and can be taken as real problems for designers to address. I feel that this is important to establish early in the class, particularly in the current ‘post-truth’ socio-political conditions. Second, I hope that participants learn that creating virtual environments—making worlds— is a fun and powerful experience design challenge, and one that can help users have real feelings and potentially take tangible actions in the Real. Ultimately, my dream is that people look at the design challenges of climate change and VR/AR/MR as an opportunity to help inspire in others both empathy and a deeper understanding of lives of humans, particularly those in Red Hook, and more generally New York and the planet. So I guess in a way I’d like to make my dreams dreamier and therefore more real.
AC: Let’s dig in a little deeper into the notion of “the real” in the way you are using it. You give it a capital R—tell us more? [Daniel, is this a nomenclature convention in the VR world? If so, maybe talk about that...and pardon my ignorance!)
DP: Well, that’s a pretty big question and topic. We could certainly have a class, or a whole dissertation on the Real, so I am really looking at the notion of the Real to push and poke at VR specifically. The class will be getting a chance to look at some of the seminal works on simulation like Baudrillard and Zizek and of course South Park and The Matrix, but this is really to help do two pieces of work, I hope.
This class in particular will attempt an understanding that simulation of worlds means a deep understanding of those worlds—the terms, ethics and rules that govern them. And that to do this, we need to do the same in our Real physical world.
AC: Well, it is a graduate program, so we gotta have Baudrillard and South Park in the same sentence! :)
DP: Indeed! Well, the first piece of work is to really push the class to address that Climate Change—specifically Human Influenced Climate change, a key crisis of our time—is addressed as a real problem and issue facing our physical and mental worlds.
The second piece of work I hope this examination of the concept of the Real can perform is pull at the narrative threads that occur when we make virtual worlds. When we make worlds, and generate experiences, these happen over time in a constructed space; it’s a construction of a reality. And in this constructed reality, we manipulate a user’s sense of being, and as the user enters into this world grounded in the body—forever linked to our sense of the Real as we have been entrained to accept it—it’s also in tension with these newly-given norms demanded by the new simulation...the Virtual world. In VR speak, the feeling of being-in-the-world (the virtual ontic) is called “presence,” and the power of VR, AR and MR is the degree to which presence is altered, changed, enhanced, and felt. The reality of the Virtual world must be believed in, and to do so, we set up rules that govern this reality and allow bodies to experience it. In that sense, VR is quite real, but not to be conflated with what I like to call The Real.
To construct these worlds, my hope with this class is that we understand a bit about the given norms of the Real, our physical world we inhabit. While the Real is to an extent a construct (often called ‘society’ etc.), it is, I feel, grounded in very real effects both physically and psychically. There are of course physical realities which are often called worlds. The planet we inhabit is a construction (of atoms, molecules and physical forces etc.) and also very Real, and humans—the Anthropocene itself—is part of this reality. I feel it is our responsibility as makers and thinkers is to take on the very real challenges of creating a liveable condition for all in this complex construct using all tools and means available.
AC: And of course since those tools, and means, have expanded well beyond the physical and the digital, I think it’s now critical that students build their vocabulary and expertise around an imagined world—which I supposed design has always been, more or less—but now that imagined world can be, well, imagined in a way that’s closer to real, or the Real. Still, I love how you are layering in a larger mandate to the entire proposition.
DP: Sure, and while this is quite a lot to take on, and perhaps out of the scope of this course, my real hope is that those in the class begin the path that I feel I’m always embarking on: the design of worlds for humans. This class in particular will attempt an understanding that simulation of worlds means a deep understanding of those worlds—the terms, ethics and rules that govern them. And that to do this, we need to do the same in our Real physical world—the planet and neighborhoods we inhabit. So for this course in particular, we should examine these worlds, both physical and virtual, as they relate to the very powerful effects that climate change is having.
At its core, I guess, the question of the Real is taking a stake and saying that the Holocene and the Anthropocene are in fact Real. I hope that by addressing simulation, and all the power that comes with it, we can better understand humans’ lives and impacts on the planet. These impacts are in fact very material and real, and that this reality must be understood as at a very real crisis point, a point of real inflection, where we can decide the fate of our species by engaging directly with these material realities. And so perhaps the real claim is that climate change is real, and that we must really address it, using simulation, narratives and any and all means available to do so, to really make a real impact in the Real.
AC: Let’s jump into an overview of some of the technical tools and methodologies that the students will be learning and leveraging in the work.
DP: There is so much to be discovered in this nascent field, but certainly we’ll be employing 360° video cameras coupled with Gopro Fusion, several Adobe products, and some Mettl Plugins. We’ll use the Unity platform for VR, and the REaper Ambisonic Toolkit for 360 sound.
For methodology—and particularly the design process—the course is fairly straightforward. The beginning is a look from 30k feet at the Real, then to 10k feet to Climate change, then to the ground at Red Hook, the community where we’ll be focusing our work. (Redhook was one of the hardest hit in the NYC area during hurricane Sandy.). We have some nice data from a recent redesign competition there, as well as some help from the folks at Pioneer Works to help guide our local engagement.
From there, students working in groups will propose a project, and use the tools they would like to iterate and realize that project. Along the way, they will help teach each other about readings and learnings. I’m really excited about Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 and JG Ballard’s Drowned World being our speculative fiction texts, and hopefully these will help inspire students to imagine possible futures, as well as think about the present, as they use cameras and software to design the experiences. Each project will have a presentation, a working prototype in AR, MR and/or VR, and guests from NYT VR, Red Hook, NYC Climate Group and others will be invited to attend the final class to check everything out and provide feedback.