• 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)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
National tax planned to cut water micropollutants
The Terre Sainte sewage treatment plant in the canton of Vaud. Photo: Canton of Vaud

National tax planned to cut water micropollutants

Starting in 2016, an annual tax of up to nine francs ($9.43) per resident will help finance equipment in around 100 sewage treatment plants across Switzerland to prevent microscopic pollutants from flowing into lakes and rivers. READ  

UBS pays €1.1-billion bail in French 'tax fraud' case
Photo: UBS

UBS pays €1.1-billion bail in French 'tax fraud' case

Swiss banking giant UBS has made a €1.1-billion ($1.4-billion) bail payment for allegedly helping rich French clients to hide money in Switzerland, a lawyer for the bank said on Tuesday. READ  

Senior dupes European court in suicide snafu
Photo: AFP

Senior dupes European court in suicide snafu

The European rights court on Tuesday withdrew its criticism of Switzerland's assisted suicide laws after it emerged an octogenarian who filed the initial complaint had duped both the court and her lawyer in the case. READ  

Wawrinka knocked out early at Japan Open
The top seeded Swiss struggled to make his mark. Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP

Wawrinka knocked out early at Japan Open

Tatsuma Ito followed the winning example of Japanese compatriot Kei Nishikori as the number 103-ranked local dumped top seed Stan Wawrinka out 7-5, 6-2 in the first round of the Japan Open tennis tournament on Tuesday. READ  

Swiss group's bid for cat quotas creates buzz
Photo: Joel Dietle

Swiss group's bid for cat quotas creates buzz

A proposal by a Swiss animal protection group to set a limit of one cat per household in Switzerland is attracting international attention. READ  

Basel tackle Liverpool in Champions League duel
FC Basel coach Paulo Sousa: "We'll be stronger." Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

Basel tackle Liverpool in Champions League duel

Liverpool are confident that they can put a frustrating run of domestic form behind them when they face FC Basel in Switzerland in Champions League Group B football action on Wednesday. READ  

Bern police seek help after boy dies in woods
Köniz church, near where the body was found. Photo: Ikiwaner/Wikimedia Commons

Bern police seek help after boy dies in woods

Police in the canton of Bern on Monday launched a bid for help from the public after the body of a 15-year-old boy was found in the woods near Köniz. READ  

Immigration continues to boost Swiss population
Foreign immigration continues to zoom: crowd watches Swiss air force jet in Bernese Oberland. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/File

Immigration continues to boost Swiss population

Immigration is largely responsible for an increase in Switzerland’s population to 8.14 million at the end of 2013, up just over 100,000 from the previous year, according to latest government figures. READ  

Mediterranean migrant death toll hits new high

More than 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, more than double the previous peak in 2011, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration said on Monday. READ  

UBS offers share swap for new holding company
Photo: Martin Abegglen

UBS offers share swap for new holding company

Switzerland’s largest bank UBS is setting up a holding company to allow its operations to be broken up more easily in the event of a financial crisis. READ  

Scientific study rings alarm over wellbeing of Swiss cows with bells
Business & Money
Switzerland's residents top world financial wealth list: Allianz report
Saint Maurice abbey in Valais celebrates 1,500 years of history
Streaming movie video service Netflix arrives in Switzerland
Professional Chilean base jumper dives to death in Swiss Alps
ETH Zurich remains top university in Europe: QS world rankings
Switzerland's housing vacancy rate jumps: new federal figures
Swiss football club fires team masseuse over explicit sex video
Geneva police arrest easyJet passenger over hand luggage row
Business & Money
Latest forecasts for Swiss economic growth turn less bullish
Formula One legend Schumacher to continue treatment at Swiss home
Former federal planning official calls for nine Swiss cantons
The Local gets the lowdown on mushroom picking in Switzerland
Virgin boss Richard Branson's son rescued from peak of Matterhorn
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter's commute turns Twitter sensation
High-tech cameras give dizzy view of Eiger's north face (VIDEO)
Baden municipal council strips 'nude selfies mayor' of duties
Business & Money
Switzerland stays atop competitiveness table for sixth year
Federal parliament secretary agrees to step down over nude selfies
Sponsored Article
Car insurance made easy online with St Bernard
Swiss residents pick Swedes as ideal European soul mates: survey
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
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