Sunday, August 7, 2016

On Science and Myth, Physical and Virtual Realities: thoughts on The Hubble Cantata

Stars, like people, are born, live, and die.

Last night I trekked to a distant and wondrous land called Brooklyn for the debut performance of The Hubble Cantata, a live multi-media event featuring operatic music, visual imagery, a three-dimensional sound system and a three-dimensional virtual reality visit to the Orion Nebula.It was a  fascinating event, for what it said as well as how it chose to say it.

The Hubble Cantata - introduced by a real life astronaut
After a welcome from BRIC, a Brooklyn-based presenter of of arts and cultural events,  the piece was introduced by two people: first was Mike Massimino, known to the Twitterverse as @Astro_Mike. Massimino owns a footnote in history as the first person to have sent a Tweet from space. Second was astrophysicist and popular science writer Mario Livio, whose words we would later hear as part of the performance.

The piece, when it began just past sunset, involved a choir, a twenty-piece ensemble, two opera singers, and a multimedia presentation. The story, introduced before the show began, was a human one of loss and grief, involving the suicide of a mother after a child's death and a grieving husband. Interwoven with this human tale were snippets from Livio's lectures. Lectures about the origins of stars. About dark matter and dark energy. About the question of whether we're alone in the universe.

Placement of the physics lectures so close to the human tale gives the science an almost spiritual weight: the oft-repeated scientific/poetic thought that, as the elements necessary for life are created in the fusion of old stars, that we all are star-stuff is familiar to many of us. Taken in this context, it gains the weight of a creation-myth.  Human were formed of clay, in the image of the gods. Humans stole fire from the gods.  Humans are born of star-stuff. A meditation on intelligence in the universe becomes a portent of doom. The question of simulation, of taking the leap towards artificial intelligence took the place of an afterlife. It's a form of mythmaking for the modern age, another chapter in our continuous search for meaning.

For most of the show, the music was accompanied by a series of images projected onto a semi-transparent screen between the audience and performers; we'd see an image form of a woman, a star-field, a face. Then the images would vanish and we'd see the performers again.

The beginning of the performance. 
Then came the final act, in which the audience was invited to don VR headsets handed out at the start of the evening for a trip through the Orion Nebula.  It was a transcendent moment involving the birth of stars, Livio's voice, and the musical experience took advantage of the multiple loudspeaker locations to give us a three-dimensional experience. Although everyone was viewing through their own headset, it still felt like as communal experience as any night at the theater.

Trying on the VR viewer
I'm not qualified to discuss the music, but I can say a few words about the technology. One important element was the ability to use multi-challen audio to enhance the three-dimensional aspect of the experience. This is especially interesting to me personally as one of my former colleagues was part of the team at Arup, the engineering firm that designed the sound system for this event. In addition to column-arrays in the front of the space, concentric rings of pole-mounted loudspeakers created rear channels to give a three-dimensional effect. It really worked for me and even made the "cheap seats" on the lawn feel central (cheap seats is a metaphor in this case. The event was free).

On the VR side, the use of Google Cardboard headsets is an interesting one; cardboard is low enough cost that six thousand can be purchased to hand out to the audience as a loan for the performance, and any damaged or not returned can be easily enough replaced. The biggest technical risk would be creating an infrastructure to support the literally six-thousand  simultaneous video streams in an application for which an interruption in playback would effectively ruin the experience. The simple and obvious solution was to not stream the movie at all: audience members were instructed to download it ahead of time, and given a signal to begin playback via the cardboard viewers. The obvious drawback is that it's impossible to synchronize audio with video; for this performance, that didn't much matter. Livio's voice, discussing the lifecycle of stars, is a companion to the piece visual but didn't need to perfectly match up with the visuals to be effective. There's an important lesson here for the technologists in the world: the limits of technology creates constraints. If the technological side and the artistic side work together, they can find ways in which an impactful experience can be created despite the limitations.This should be a lesson to anyone who's said "it can't be done".

Yes, some things can't be done. Sometimes, one can find a way to make the artistic vision work within the confines of what things can be done. If entertainments such as this one become more common we may eventually need to find a way to send the VR video in real-time.  The key is understanding what is required, how to create an experience in which the technology serves the vision and the vision can be interpreted in light of the available technology.

In this case, all parties involved found a way to make it work. It's exciting to see artists taking advantage of current technology, and technologists working with the arts to create new experiences.  Last night was a wonderful adventure; it's the kind of thing I hope we can all see more of as the technology matures and artists work to take advantage of it.