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Holographic hallucinations, reality hacking, and Jedi battles in London

In 1977, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope captivated audiences with stunning multisensory special effects and science-fiction storytelling. The original Star Wars trilogy sent shockwaves of excitement through popular culture that would resonate for years to come. Beyond the films themselves, the Star Wars universe extended into a wider sphere of cultural artefacts such as toys, books and comics, which allowed audiences to recreate and extend the stories. This imaginative play also spilled out into other areas of culture. For instance, ‘dark side’ rave music tracks sampled James Earl Jones’s iconic Darth Vader speech (e.g. New Atlantic – ‘Yes to Satan‘, 1991), while James Lavelle’s UNKLE project used dialogue snippets on tracks like ‘Unreal‘ (on Psyence Fiction, 1998) and the sounds of TIE fighters on the ‘Rock On‘ (1997) collaboration with Rammellzee. Inspired partly by his collection of Star Wars toys, James Lavelle‘s Mo’Wax label would even release a series of action figures based on the designs of graffiti artist Futura.

Today Star Wars and other works of science-fiction continue to inspire artists and technologists. In May 2018, James Edward Marks’s Psych-Fi collective presented the fourth edition of #Hackstock: May the Fourth as part of the Sci-Fi London film festival. Designed to coincide with the day of 4 May, or what fans call ‘Star Wars day’ (“May the 4th be with you”), #Hackstock is an event that draws the connections between sci-fi, psychedelia, counter-culture and immersive technologies. This year’s event featured a dazzling array of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and immersive experiences. Among these, Psych-Fi’s own award-winning #HackThePlanet VR app is stylised as a digital psychedelic (or ‘cyberdelic‘) experience, plunging the viewer through a maze of circuit boards and electronic beats enhanced with a wearable vest that shakes your chest with the bass. Created in collaboration with composer Simon Boswell, the immersive film pays tribute to the movie Hackers (1995) and psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, who championed “the PC [as] the LSD of the ’90s”.

Elsewhere at #Hackstock there were PlayStation VR titles, retro games, brainwave-controlled sonic artworks, Metal Mickey (the robot from an 80s TV show), a Jedi Talkaoke pop-up chat show, and of course, the Star Wars-themed Jedi Challenges (2018), an augmented reality game in which you wield a light-sabre and battle against storm troopers. Jedi Challenges uses new augmented reality technology (the Lenovo Mirage AR headset) to provide a holographic experience. As with VR, you wear a headset, yet here the display blends the real world around you with the synthetic virtual world of the game; thus storm troopers appear as if they are in the actual location where you are playing it. This taps into the holographic special effects of the original Star Wars films, which saw R2D2 project a spectral Princess Leia and battle Chewbacca at holo-chess. With the latest AR headsets, ideas that were once the domain of science-fiction fantasy are fast becoming a reality.

The #Hackstock event also included a demonstration by DoubleMe, who are exploring the use of these AR technologies for communications. Using the Microsoft Hololens, DoubleMe are working on a holographic system which allows a person to be 3D-scanned and reproduced in a remote location, effectively allowing a hologram of that person to appear anywhere in the world. DoubleMe envision this as a new form of communication, where people will project synthetic 3D digital versions of themselves, and collaborate in virtual environments that are superimposed on real-world spaces. This opens up staggering possibilities for remote communications, which could be used for keeping in touch with loved-ones over long distances, carrying out medical consultancies, and much more besides. At the moment these technologies are at the prototype stage, but as the AR headsets come down in price, systems like this could soon enter into widespread use and transform the way we interact online.

The possibilities of these new augmented reality technologies are incredibly exciting, though as in the science fiction movies, there may also be cause for concern. For instance, Keiichi Matsuda’s short film Hyper Reality (2016) depicts a kaleidoscopic dystopia of the near future, where a dazzling mesh of synthetic computer graphics advertisements has completely enclosed over the real physical world. Certainly in the cities, this may be a world we are rapidly heading towards. Increasingly our lives are mediated through digital experiences, yet how much of our humanity is lost in the process of representing our digital selves? There may not be any easy answers, but of course, science-fiction is precisely the domain in which these questions can be explored, so it is fitting to include an event like #Hackstock as part of the Sci-Fi London Film Festival. By presenting sci-fi and counter-culture ideas alongside these emerging new technologies, #Hackstock is encouraging questioning, repurposing and dreaming — and as we enter a brave new world of pervasive augmented and mixed realities, that could be a very important thing.

Featured image: Section of ‘Holo_Point_Break’ by Jon Weinel, 2018. Image used with permission.

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