This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Virtual reality psychodrama plays with viewers’ minds

Published: July 6, 2006

Contributing Editor

"Human Trials" is a unique virtual-reality psychodrama in which duplicitous characters try to disempower a human participant on a journey to the "liminal portal of the unconscious" in a quest for her "Heart's Desire."

The project is the work of an interdisciplinary team of media artists, computer scientists and dramatists at UB.

It will be presented in its entirety for the first time as part of the city's largest culture jam, the 2006 Buffalo Infringement Festival: "Ten Days of Art Under the Radar."

It will be presented in July 27-28 and August 3-5, at a time to be announced, in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, located in The Church, 341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.

One of the developers of "Human Trials" is Josephine Anstey, assistant professor in the Department of Media Study, College of Arts and Sciences.

She says the game is "simultaneously a public/private and embodied/disembodied performance in which players immerse themselves in multidimensional virtual space and undertake an 'absurd quest.'"

Parts of the performance were presented at UB's E-Poetry Symposium in April and in January at Hallwalls 2006 Resolutions Festival, a two-day presentation of original media and performance, much of which was experimental and singular.

"What is unique about this experience," Anstey says, "is that the participant (called "Seeker") interacts not only with a virtual reality (VR) environment, but with two human actors who appear in the virtual world as avatars wearing masks and cloth-like wings. These two characters, called Patofil and Filopat, will improvise responses to the spontaneous actions of the participant. Other characters in the drama are played by computer-controlled intelligent agents.

"The game involves a series of challenges," Anstey says, "and for the player, it appears to be about control and the choices one makes with power. But the games are rigged, the characters are duplicitous, the quest is a decoy and the underlying test is how to cope with disempowerment."

She explains that the player/participant or Seeker, whose real body is shielded from the audience's gaze, enters the virtual world from a projection-based VR system and is met by Filopat and Patofil. They engage the Seeker in a set of overt, if absurd, challenges. Beyond these obvious tasks, the characters create a relational subtext that the participant also must negotiate.

Anstey says the audience members will be able to move around and watch the two live actors (Filopat and Patofil) while wearing head-mounted VR systems. Three large projections of the virtual action will show the points of view of each of the three main protagonists in the drama.

"The live performers—Filopat and Patofil—are the fulcrum between the embodied—the Seeker—and the virtual," Anstey says.

"Their presence as both physical bodies and avatars allows them—in a move that Brecht probably never quite imagined—to gesturally comment on their own performances, responding to the audience while perpetuating the authenticity of the experience for the participant."

More information on "Human Trials" can be found at

"Human Trials" continues the work on VR drama and intelligent agents that Anstey and Dave Pape, also an assistant professors of media study, have been doing with Stuart C. Shapiro, professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

It also represents a new collaboration with Sarah Bay-Cheng, a scholar of dramatic literature and performance theory and assistant professor in the departments of Theatre and Dance and English, College of Arts and Sciences.

"Human Trials" builds on Anstey's and Pape's previous experience building dramatic VR, "The Thing Growing" and networked VR projects, and Bay-Cheng's experience with drama and puppetry. It is a sister project to "The Trail, The Trial," an experimental project conducted by the team that focuses on building intelligent agents to take the place of the human actors.

"Human Trials" is designed for CAVE or CAVE-like, tracked, immersive VR systems, 3-D stereo displays with one large screen or multiple screens and/or head mounted displays (HMDs). The software programs used in its production are Ygdrasil, Performer, CAVElib, Maya and Sneps.

The project entailed considerable work by UB students in the arts and engineering as well.

They included, from the College of Arts and Sciences, Adam Bochenek, Paul Visco and Orkan Telhan, all M.F.A. students in the Department of Media Study; Chris Galbraith, an M.F.A. graduate of the Department of Media Study; and Anton Hand and Sara Nohejl, undergraduate art students in the Department of Visual Studies.

Students from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering who were involved included Amit Makwana, a graduate student; Mike Kandefer and Albert Goldfain, doctoral candidates; and Trupti Devdas Nayak, a graduate who holds a master's degree.

The Buffalo Infringement Festival, most of which will take place on the streets of the city's Allentown district, is part of an international circuit of non-commercial, non-authoritarian, multidisciplinary critical arts festivals open to all artists, activists and innovative thinkers.

The Infringement movement is a response to the corporatization in Canada of the international grassroots Fringe movement, which itself was a response by artists of all genres to the strict entry criterion of the Edinburgh International Festival, a corporate theatre showcase.

Like the Fringe Festival, Infringement Festivals involve creative resistance and expression. Often presented at unique venues, the work is risky, experimental, low-budget and wacky.

The Infringement Festival circuit now includes similar events in cities across North America, including Montreal; Ottawa; New York; Philadelphia; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Regina, Saskatchewan; and Buffalo, among others.

For more information on the Infringement movement, see For more information on the Buffalo Festival, now in the planning stage, see