This bliss will last forever…

This bliss will last forever…

The Van Gogh immersive experience put movement, scale, and music to his art

Gopichand Katragadda

After what seems like eons, I finally traveled internationally. Part of the experience this time was a visit to the Van Gogh immersive exhibit in San Francisco. Beamed by 40 projectors and 11 servers, the 500,000 cubic feet of immersion into Van Gogh’s paintings can be considered a beginning to a new age of experiences.

The Van Gogh immersive experience put movement, scale, and music to his art. The art was displayed in a chronology mapped to Van Gogh’s tragic life. The details were captured in the pre-show audio, which we listened to, driving up to the show. The show itself had beautiful music synchronised to the visuals, but no voiceover – so that you could enter and leave anytime in the marvelous loop. Without the pre-show information a lot of the nuances in the spectacular display would have been lost on us.

There were a couple of original Van Goghs on display as we exited the show, bringing in a flavour of reality. Of course, in true American spirit, we could not exit the show without passing by the store which sold Van Gogh prints on everything from paper to fabric to coasters.

The 1957 movie Mayabazar showed Sasirekha, Balarama’s daughter, singing songs to her childhood sweetheart, Abhimanyu, through a magical jewellery box. When opened, the magic box immediately had an instant, remote two-way video chat enabled between Sasirekha and Abhimanyu! I cannot but marvel at the creativity of the artists who made this wonderful movie. The magic box idea has turned into reality with the social media era. Just imagine a 500,000 cubic feet version of the magic box. That was how I felt being in the Van Gogh immersive exhibition. Only, it was one-way, and limited to viewing his art and experiencing his pathos through his works. If only he would talk to us through time!

The Van Gogh experience was primarily digital reality – visual and aural. The future of such experiences will be mixed reality, including the digital but also combining real physical sensory experiences. Mixed reality will bring alive history, explain science, peek into the future, or immortalise mythology in an immersive experience. In mixed reality, some of the experiences are illusionary, some of the characters are physical, and some of the sensations are touch and feel.

As we chase bliss as the goal, rather than wealth, humans are looking to accumulate experiences. Experiences include travelling to distant lands, understanding remote cultures, climbing the tallest of mountains, and scuba diving in the deepest of oceans. All experiences cannot be accessed by everyone as readily as in an immersive re-creation. Also, time travel is still not possible, unless through an immersive experience.

From a technology standpoint, the advances will be at the intersection of digital, materials, and an understanding of the human sensory system. Artificial Intelligence will animate characters from single photographs or portraits, create super resolutions of art and film, and evolve a storyline dynamically as it interacts with its audience aurally and watches reactions visually. Fabric materials will provide movement to water, depth to the skies, and be dynamically shaped to enable a touch sensation to the world around. As we understand the human mind and its ability to sense the world better, we will trick it into smelling flowers and feeling the wind – all in a magic box. The possibilities are many and it is a new age for storytellers!

“The sadness will last forever,” is attributed to Van Gogh as his last words after he shot himself in the chest. Little would he have imagined the recognition he achieved after his death or that his paintings would find themselves launching a new age of experiences. He should have had the good fortune to live on, saying, “This bliss will last forever.” Alas, he did not!

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