One of the cooler things I was involved in during my studies at Tokyo University of the Arts was the two-week virtual reality workshop in Seoul I was invited in, last February—the “VR Cubic Workshop.” Students from three universities corresponding to three countries (Korea National University of Arts, Communication University of China, and ours) studied the technology and created content for the HTC Vive using Unity. Teams were split according to university, and given the task of creating a VR space inspired by a historical figure representative of their country. In our case, we chose Sen no Rikyu, a master of the tea ceremony that cemented most of its traditions during the 16th century. We based our space on one of his designs, the Taian, a two-tatami-small tea room that embodies the rustic simplicity of wabi-cha. While the video above shows a demonstration of our project, The tea room, I also edited a video (below) with the closing presentation for the workshop, which was held in Seoul with all of the students and professors. In it you can see demonstrations of the whole three projects.

This was my first time doing anything in Unity beyond just exploring the user interface, and doing any VR work. I had tried the HTC Vive for the first time last year when a classmate used it for her university project. Before trying it I was skeptical, I considered it impractical and little more than technology for the sake of it. But after giving it a try I realized just how powerful of an experience it can be. The sense of presence, of just being in some virtual space is outstanding. From my experience developing for it I also understood the need for new interaction paradigms that fit the constraints. It’s easy to think of it as a sort of lo-fi alternative world, but given the limitations of the system, it requires a lot more thought to the design not to break the immersion—and even not to make the player sick. For instance, that you should be forbidden from going through walls was the generalized opinion in our team when we were discussing the interactions. And while it’s not part of the desired user experience to be able to wander beyond the walls like a ghost, apart from building physical walls that would match the location of the virtual ones in space, we lacked a means to stop the physical body of the player from going through. This means that the virtual location of the player would go out of sync from the physical one if, as if the avatar in a video game, it was suddenly stopped upon collision. The uncanny, disgusting feeling of bodily disconnection that is experienced when what you are seeing does not match your movement in actual space is a price too high to pay.

South Korea is the second Asian country I visit, and this occasion was my very first time somewhere I don’t speak the native tongue at all. When going out by myself I savored the freshness of the experience of not being able to verbally communicate with, say, the lady at the restaurant when ordering my food. While Korean is not a language I currently have any plans to learn, I’ve admired the hangul script since I learned about its conception a good few years ago, so I took this chance to study it. I am now able to (slowly) read it, which not only helped me when ordering food, but it has resulted in my gaining a new appreciation for scripts as phonemic code. Particularly in the case of the Korean language, which is all over the place when it comes to transliterations to Latin script, understanding the script that was custom made to fit the language gave me great insight into the very concept of a phoneme. A phoneme is that which is considered the same ‘sound’ to the ear of a speaker of any one language. Some sounds that are distinct to an English speaker sound or are thought of as ‘the same’ to a Korean, and thus comprise the same phoneme to them—but even then, which sound is used when depends on context. This becomes very clear when you examine the hangul characters, which are groupings of graphemes forming a syllable—the character 역 is composed of ㅇㅕㄱ. The graphemes are much like Latin script letters in that they each represent a vowel or consonant; however, the place in the character that these occupy describes how it should be pronounced. I guess that what I want to say is that I instinctively understood that phonemic accuracy is not the same as phonetic accuracy. In all, a valuable bonus lesson for my trip!