Sarah Rothberg is obsessed with the bright-red silicone sponge she bought at Sur La Table. As a sponge, it’s worthless — it’s too flimsy to be abrasive, and you can forget about it absorbing liquid — but when you rub its tiny bristles together the sound is strangely familiar. It’s the sound of shaving a giant’s leg.
That particular auditory cue isn’t exactly universal, but it is central to Your Hands Are Feet, a new interactive virtual-reality experience from Rothberg, a lecturer at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Amelia Winger-Bearskin, the director of IDEA New Rochelle, a nonprofit immersive-technology incubator in New York. The project, which engages users in a set of oddball scenarios, enlists psychedelic environments, generative music and interaction design to create new ways of talking about complex feelings. Those scenarios range from controlling your mind as if it were a Rube Goldberg machine, picking up your eyes when they’ve literally popped out of your head and, of course, shaving a giant’s leg.
When I first met the pair in their Bushwick, Brooklyn, apartment late last month, Rothberg struggled to find the words to describe a feeling that is now burned into my memory.
“So shaving a giant’s leg, it’s the same as sort of like a sisisiphy- sisy- sisiphy? Sisyphin? Sisyphean … ? Sisisyphean? That sounds crazy. That can’t be right,” she said.
“It’s a syphilis task,” she surrendered, laughing. “Shaving a giant’s leg sort of encapsulates this feeling of this thing that you just have to do all the time and it sucks but it’s a means to an end. You know, the feeling of like, ‘I want to get this thing done. I want to have this smooth, nice shaved leg. But you always have to constantly be doing it.”
In Your Hands Are Feet, users get stuck in a Sisyphean loop when they, perched on a giant’s foot, attempt to shave its leg with an outsize razor only for the hair to sprout up again (sound effects courtesy of Rothberg’s silicone sponge). Their work is so surreal and seemingly complex that I repeatedly found myself asking, “How the hell do they come up with this stuff?” But after two days immersed in their world, it all began to make sense. When you talk to them, the mundane is magical, language is fluid and Greek mythology is just one verbal stumble from an STD. Life with them is just one big trippy play on words.
When you slide on the Rift and slip your hands into a pair of Oculus controllers to experience Your Hands Are Feet, you’re immediately transported to a world that falls somewhere between the playfulness of Gumby and something far more sinister. The colors are bright and vibrant, the figures are at once familiar and entirely unknown. In the opening sequence, you’re presented with a half-carton of eggs, which, using your controllers, you’re encouraged to throw against a wall. The yolk of each egg acts as a portal, transporting you to a unique alternate universe where your actions control the narrative and the soundtrack. The vision is so unique, so singular, that it’s hard to believe it came from the minds of two people who barely knew each other until just a few months ago.
From their platform sneakers to the way they talk about virtual reality, Rothberg and Winger-Bearskin complement each other so thoroughly you’d think they’d been working together for years. They met as grad students in the equipment room at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) in 2015. They ran in the same circles and attended the same parties, but it was the actress Alysia Reiner (Orange Is the New Black) who ultimately brought them together.
Reiner’s latest film project, Egg, which costars Christina Hendricks and Anna Camp, tells the story of a conceptual artist looking to conceive a child through unconventional means. In a pivotal scene, Reiner attempts to walk Hendricks (also an artist) through a VR experience she’s been working on.
Instead of just alluding to her character’s work, Reiner wanted to create something that would complement the film that audiences could also experience. She reached out to Winger-Bearskin, who immediately thought of Rothberg. The collaboration, which began in earnest this summer, has been anything but conventional. With the kernel of the scene from Egg, the pair started brainstorming about “moments when you virtually give someone a piece of your life,” as Winger-Bearskin puts it.
“Very frequently we prototype those kinds of experiences with sayings or with metaphors,” she said. “So I can say, ‘I walked into that room and my stomach just dropped,’ or ‘It was so loud that I felt like my ears were bleeding’ or ‘I looked at him and my eyes almost popped outta my head I was so surprised.’ We have these things, like, she knows my eyes didn’t really pop outta my head, or my stomach wasn’t tied in actual knots, but she can get a sense of what that feels like in her body, and she can prototype that experience in her in an empathetic response.”
With the idea of recreating complex emotional experiences in place, they did what creative collaborators do in 2017: They started dumping links in a Google Doc. What they collected is an odd assortment of references that only make sense once you step inside their world. There are the works of conceptual artist Sol Lewitt, concept art from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, clips from the film The Holy Mountain, a fuzzy My Little Pony, pictures of marshmallows and paintings by Judy Chicago. There are slides dedicated to physics and movements, environments and metaphors. And then there are the dildos.
“I’m pretty sure Amelia was the person who started the vibrator folder, but it was not a taboo subject at all for us,” Sarah said. “We had come up with this scene, ‘Everything Has Vibes.’ And then we were like, ‘Oh, the controllers can vibrate like a vibrator! We have to use vibrator imagery.’ It was obvious. It was just obvious what we needed to do.”
Vibrators aside, the ease of their collaboration is clear in their work. The final product, illustrated by Sarah’s friend Niv Bavarsky, with sound design and music by their boyfriends, Eamon O’Connor and Yotam Mann, translates feelings of anxiety, confusion and frustration into playful, unestablished metaphors that just make sense.
Your Hands Are Feet was made possible through funding from the Engadget Alternate Realities grant program, established in May 2017. This article first appeared at Engadget.com 11/7/17.