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PULSE: Apalachicola Night Anomaly
5 Questions with Digital Guru Keith Roberson
Roberson in his studio with son Clay using Oculus Rift virtual reality technology (custom computer on wall behind)

Apalachicola Night Anomaly

Available to play throughout PULSE Festival

Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Free and open to the public

Screenshot from         ‘Apalachicola Night Anomaly.’
Screenshot from ‘Apalachicola Night Anomaly.’

FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY Professor of Digital Arts Keith Roberson —k-roberson is his digital handle—uses all kinds of technology in his work, from 3D rendering to drones equipped with high-def cameras.

He brings a unique interactive installation to this year’s PULSE Festival, relying on the Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming headset technology.

The immersive experience, titled “Apalachicola Night Anomaly,” will be available for public enjoyment throughout the PULSE Festival, in the Jepson Center atrium.

To find out more, we spoke to Keith while he was in Tallahassee preparing for his trip up to Savannah.

1. So what are PULSE festival-goers in store for with your video installation?

Keith Roberson: Well, we do a lot of night mountain biking out in the Apalachicola Forest. Riding in the moonlight in the forest is magical and creepy and weird and translucent. I wanted to capture a little of that if I could. I wanted to capture the aliveness of being out in the forest at night.

This is taken from a Google map of a section of our trail in the Apalachicola Forest. It’s based on a real scene, but I’ve included all these kinds of strange things to discover out in the forest, from a cave with a campfire to bizarre fractal sculptures.

It’s all 3D. I modeled all the trees and grass and bushes. I like to call it “plein air digital sculpture. “

There’s a fractal monster you can seek out. The monster is puppeteered through a Kinect by someone in the audience. It’s a two-user interaction, with one person in the Oculus Rift exploring immersively, and random people in the gallery can full-body puppet the monster.

2. It’s interesting to see your emphasis on really high quality, high resolution imagery. Does it seem like a lot of installation art up until now has been much more abstract in nature and presentation?

Keith Roberson: To me it's all coming back around. I'm actually just now getting back into interactive art works for galleries. I did a lot of stuff back in 2000-2002, a lot of similar stuff. Virtual reality, real time interaction, immersiveness. You had some of the first heads-up displays back then, but most of that stuff was on the research end. It wasn't so readily available as now. Often you actually needed professional programmers. The cost was huge.

But last year I got a grant through FSU to start a new series of art works dealing with interactivity. That enabled me to buy Oculus Rifts and computers, and sort of catapulted me back into scene.

3. So how did all this end up at PULSE?

Keith Roberson: One of the first prototypes from that grant actually showed at Non-Fiction Gallery in Savannah. That was the first venue it showed. I was really blown away by how nice and technically proficient the staff there was. And actually, how technologically proficient galleries are now.

That was one of the things that drove me out of working with galleries years ago. Galleries back then just couldn’t handle the technology. You couldn’t get a docent to turn a computer on.

Harry DeLorme saw the work at Non-Fiction. I didn’t even know what the Pulse Festival was! He personally invited me to show the work. I’m also helping curate an offsite PULSE show with them.

4. There is a lot of sort of ironic posturing with video games out there, but would you agree this seems more closely related to the actual modern gaming experience?

Keith Roberson: Well, with a lot of these installations, there's a real mismatch. The rendering often doesn't look anything like the games people are actually playing. It's nowhere near the realism.

The old school idea of immersiveness had a certain elitism to it, a highminded aesthetic. I’m appreciating somewhat the grassroots gaming works that seem more about good interaction and good experience. Experience is a key word that’s probably the impetus of this piece I’m showing.

These days I’m getting into nice high end video cards and pushing the latest gaming techniques into art. I’m trying to migrate the latest advances in gaming tech into the gallery environment. My kids actually helped me conceive of this particular piece. I definitely use them as primary critics.

5. That said, isn’t it cool to see some genuine appreciation for classic arcade games like Galaga and Pac Man?

Keith Roberson: I think there are two reasons for that. One, those tools are really easy to build now. Low-res bitmap artwork is open source and easily in the hands of artists. The other thing is just the aesthetics of old video games have come back up.

Not long ago artists really dissed the whole computer graphic look of oversaturated color, bit mapping, and cute squares. But now we’ve seen an acceptance of the aesthetic of old school video games. Probably because most of the artists grew up on those games.