• Switzerland edition
Giant green worm stalks city park in augmented reality experiment
Jan Torpus & Robin Wenger 2011

Giant green worm stalks city park in augmented reality experiment

Published: 25 Nov 2011 15:00 GMT+01:00
Updated: 25 Nov 2011 15:00 GMT+01:00

Strange fantasy animals invade Basel’s Sankt Johanns Park while the sky above becomes a multi-coloured canvas. Reporter Meritxell Mir is neither dreaming nor on drugs; she's just participating in a pioneering new project.

Using the name lifeClipper3, researchers at the Institute for Research in Art and Design in Basel have created a film-like immersive experience that mixes the real world with virtual reality.

Led by Swiss design researcher Jan Torpus, this outdoor walking experiment brings virtual elements to the landscape of Sankt Johanns Park on the banks of the Rhine. With the help of special equipment, users undergo an experience that changes character depending on the direction they take, what they look at, or even how they breathe.

As the user walks through the park, the grass turns into a desert, fish-like animals fly through the air, and lying in the middle of the meadow is a huge green worm into whose mouth participants can enter.

“It always makes me happy when people don’t know if something is real or not,” says Torpus.

“I want to take people out of what they take for granted. It’s like the Matrix idea that behind all you see around you, there is something that is reality.”

The dual experience of being in the park but feeling you are part of a movie is possible thanks to a sophisticated equipment set-up. It involves a laptop, a GPS receiver to locate the user, a video camera, a head-mounted display with goggles, 3D surround-sound headphones, a vision sensor that determines where the user is looking, and a biofeedback sensor that measures the user’s breathing.

A total of five software programs run at the same time, continually communicating with each other and allowing the user to interact with the park by means of position, vision and breathing.

The creators of lifeClipper3 scanned the whole park with an infrared camera before making a 3D model on a 1:1 scale, but overlapping the two datasets was tricky.

“The most difficult part was that the real and the virtual spaces always had to coincide, which is almost impossible,” says Torpus, who led a multidisciplinary team of engineers, IT specialists, musicians and new media artists.

And what’s the aim of such a creative and seemingly bizarre project? Torpus says that lifeClipper3 exists somewhere between art and research. It enables experimentation with new media design, but it also facilitates the examination of human perception and emotions in situations where people are taken away from their everyday lives and thrust into an augmented reality.

Torpus also believes that, like all new art forms, it will take time for augmented reality to be accepted.

“It’s like cinema. At the beginning no one respected it as art; it was just a new technical discovery, but today it is [art],” says Torpus.

But there are stumbling blocks. Often users have struggled to understand what they are viewing through the goggles or just can’t immerse themselves fully in the adventure.

“lifeClipper3 goes too far sometimes,” agrees Torpus, who insists that this element is part of the research project, which is not open to the public.

He adds that the experience does not work for people when scenes, elements or tricks stray too far from cultural norms or the best-known natural laws, or are too far divorced from the type of media literacy garnered from films or video games.

“The continuum between real and virtual is very different [from other experiences people may have had] because you don’t have that in movies or video games,” he explains. The trick is to avoid virtual unreality by finding a balance that allows users to fully immerse themselves in the scene to such an extent that they no longer know if what they are seeing or experiencing is real or virtual.

The equipment also needs to become less invasive. Carrying around 10 kilos of gear on your back gets tiring, while the head-mounted display offers limited vision. In order to avoid tripping or running into people, benches or trees, Torpus acts as a sort of Sherpa, a reminder to users that they are, after all, still in the real world.

lifeClipper 3 is the last of a series of augmented reality projects Jan Torpus has worked with for the last eight years. The two previous experiments dealt with the past and the future of the city of Basel. The projects were not unlike the plot of the novel ‘Virtual Light’ by famed American author William Gibson, with Basel stepping in for San Francisco. Torpus says they were better understood by participants because they were closer to their everyday lives.

Although Torpus admits it could be years before the new technology enjoys widespread use, he is confident of an eventual breakthrough.

“lifeClipper is the first sketch for a new medium,” he says. 

“These could be the immersive movies of tomorrow”.

Meritxell Mir (news@thelocal.ch)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Swiss baby dies after being left in parked car

Swiss baby dies after being left in parked car

A 16-month-old baby died after being forgotten by one of its parents who left the child behind in a company car park, a Swiss prosecutor said Friday. READ  

Petkovic selects squad ahead of England game
Switzerland's Bosnian coach Vladimir Petkovic reveals his squad during a press conference. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Petkovic selects squad ahead of England game

Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic on Friday brought Olympiakos midfielder Pajtim Kasami back into the football team and called up three new faces for their opening Euro 2016 qualifier against England. READ  

Fribourg Jazz Parade officially bankrupt
The Jazz festival had accumulated significant debts. Photo: Link-Art/Francois Gendre

Fribourg Jazz Parade officially bankrupt

The Jazz Parade in Marly, canton of Fribourg, whose 26th edition was cancelled in July due to heavy rains and “internal problems”, has been declared bankrupt. READ  

Expats boost high rise in Swiss population
Photo: Richard Allaway

Expats boost high rise in Swiss population

Over two-thirds of Switzerland’s population growth in 2013 can be attributed to foreign immigrants, according to figures published by the Swiss federal office of statistics (BFS). READ  

No repatriation plan for Swiss Ebola victims
Swiss air rescue service Rega is not equipped to deal with the challenges of Ebola. Photo: Rega

No repatriation plan for Swiss Ebola victims

Switzerland does not have the resources to repatriate Swiss victims of the Ebola virus from disease-hit countries and must rely on foreign help, according to a newspaper report published on Thursday. READ  

French base jumper dies after crashing into tree
More than 35 people have died base-jumping in Lauterbrunnen. Photo: Caroline Bishop

French base jumper dies after crashing into tree

A French base-jumper died near Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland on Wednesday afternoon after crash-landing into a tree, Bern cantonal police confirmed on Thursday. READ  

Geneva group seeks ways to govern internet
WEF's Klaus Schwab: avoiding "fragmenting" the internet. Photo: AFP/File

Geneva group seeks ways to govern internet

The Geneva-based World Economic Forum unveiled a project on Thursday aimed at connecting governments, businesses, academia, technicians and civil society worldwide to brainstorm the best ways to govern the internet. READ  

Media executive jailed in latest 'sexting' case
Photo: Junpal Abe

Media executive jailed in latest 'sexting' case

A 57-year-old man who passed himself off as a 12-year-old girl in online chatrooms in order to obtain naked photos of children was sentenced to four and a half years in prison by a Zurich district court on Wednesday. READ  

Swiss bank Lombard Odier reveals profits
Lombard Odier is the second Swiss private bank in a week to publish its profits. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Swiss bank Lombard Odier reveals profits

Swiss private bank Lombard Odier has published its first results since its foundation over two centuries ago, as the ultra-discreet sector puts its books in the spotlight. READ  

Police car kills man lying on Fribourg motorway
The police car was travelling to an altercation in Payerne. Photo: Alain Rouiller

Police car kills man lying on Fribourg motorway

A police car hit and killed a 22-year-old man who was lying in the middle of the A1 motorway near Bussy in the canton of Fribourg in the early hours of Thursday morning. READ  

Zurich officials call project to move prostitutes to 'sex boxes' a success
Swiss gays recognized as parents of child born to surrogate mother
Increase in mountain bike accidents keeps Swiss hospitals busy
Swiss policeman belatedly honoured for saving Jews from Holocaust
'Suicide tourists' to Switzerland double in three years: study
Swiss Post SMS scheme gets stamp of approval after pilot project
Business & Money
American tax evasion crackdown hits Swiss private banks' bottom line
Woman accuses Swiss politician in nude selfies scandal of lying
Villagers in Graubünden valley reject hydro plant to protect vultures
Business & Money
Court rules against appellation for absinthe from Neuchâtel valley
Two hundred passengers rescued after landslide derails Swiss train
Switzerland remains world champion for per capita train travel
Social media backlash forces Polanski to bow out of Locarno film festival
Two policemen identified among three Israelis killed in train crash
Untouched Alps: The Local explores Switzerland's only national park
Swiss government secretary tweets nude ‘selfies’ taken at work
Swiss couples fined in Ibiza for making love in van without seatbelts
Schumacher medical record theft suspect hangs himself in Zurich cell
Thousands of motorists drive without permits in Switzerland: report
Switzerland celebrates the centennial of national park in Graubünden
Animal rights group protests over dead fish throwing at festival
Federer forced to tear down kids' play area at Graubünden holiday home
Zurich taxis charge world’s most expensive fares: new survey
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

jobs available