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November 08, 2006

Visiting the ARS Electronica Centre in Linz

Linzars1 After our uninspiring visit to Linz's Grottenbahn we got the Pöstlingbergbahn back down to the city, and then made our way to the ARS Electronica Centre. Billed as a "Museum of the Future", the exhibits consisted of prototypes of various different computer based technologies.

The museum was very interactive, and one of the first things you could do was talk into a microphone, and watch an avatar on a giant screen mimic your words and facial expressions in real time.

The first floor we really explored had a really attentive museum guide called Krystina who explained and heped us with all the attractions.

Linzars2Claire tells me she was more than a little attractive herself, but surrounded by so much hi-tech computer gear I didn't notice. They had robot arms operating on a pneumatic principle, an Eye-Toy style video game involving strawberries and spiders that Claire played, and a fantastic drum rig where the rhythms you played were represented on screen by crazy robots hitting futuristic percussion instruments in real-time.

They also had a cube of silicon gel with air vents, where you could use a computer to schedule the release of the bubbles in order to make 3D shapes.


On other floors the guides were not so attentive, so there were a lot of things we didn't quite get the point of or understand. There was a glass table which had projections of snow and ice onto it, and when you touched the table it made the image crack, and you could also feel different temperatures generated on the glass where you touched it. But we didn't know why.

There was also an interactive game where you ran around shapes projected onto the floor, but frankly we didn't really get it, and were shamed when a 10 year old jumped onto the play area after us and showed us how it should be done.


When we entered the ARS Electronica Centre our tickets were stamped with a time to experience something in The Cave. We got there for our appointed time, and found a whole floor devoted to virtual reality.

It was very clever, and all of the exhibits worked together. There was a big screen, and that displayed what was going on in the virtual world. The position of the objects and the camera were represented with cubes with barcodes on a table, and each of those was defined by another exhibit on the floor, where people could construct virtual shapes, or record video of themselves to be placed into the scene.

The main attraction though was the Cave itself. At the appointed time around 14 of us went into the room, put on our polarised glasses, and entered a 3m x 3m virtual reality cube.

The demonstrator then took us through a couple of worlds.

One consisted of a 3D environment constructed out of children's drawings - and it could be interacted with so that disturbing a yellow crayoned beehive caused a swarm of badly drawn bees to chase us around for the rest of the demonstration.

On a technical aside when the ARS Electronica Centre first built the unit it had to run off an expensive dedicated graphics rendering mainframe, but now they can run it off of 4 PCs in parallel runing Linux.

On a practical aside, they have called the system ARSBOX, and they really should have asked a native English speaker about that name before designing a logo and implementing it.

For the next part of the demo we visited a virtual perfect renaissance city, which started with the baptistry and cathedral in Flornece, and went on to Da Vinci's Last Supper in Milan. Here we were able to walk into the painting, and move around the table whilst the characters in the scene were rendered as 3D wireframes.

It was just about this point that I felt really travel sick, had to take the glasses off and have a sit down. Whislt I was impressed with the speed of the rendering of the images, the effect was like being trapped in a 3D version of an early PS1 game. When things got close they were heavily pixellated, and the movement really lurched from side to side. Because you yourself weren't moving but everything in your field of vision was, it was really, really disorientating.

Claire wasn't also feeling great, so for the last part of the demo some people spent their time whizzing through 3D tunnels as part of a virtual ant colony, and we both looked at the floor and hoped it would finish soon.

When it did we were both feeling a bit shaken up, and so I suggested we go and get a drink and have a sit down in the cafe. Feeling a bit unsteady we decided to get the lift up to the 3rd floor cafe rather than walk up.

Imagine then our horror as we got in the lift, already feeling travel sick and wobbly after the virtual reality experience, when the Star Trek door closing noise happened, the floor lit up as a video screen, and our ascent through the building was accompanied by the ground beneath our feet turning into a video of an aerial view Linz rushing away from us as if we were in a rocket speeding away from earth...

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