A face in the crowd: ‘Emergence,’ a new VR experience by Universal Everything, dives deep into the nature of group-think

Crowds are everywhere. Some people thrive in them, others are completely unnerved. Control is key — one individual’s sense of power is another’s feeling of weakness. That premise is at the core of a new virtual reality experience titled, “Emergence,” by the Sheffield, England-based digital art and design collective, Universal Everything.

“Emergence” is a companion piece to a work in an exhibition called “Fluid Bodies,” currently on view at the Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul. Within presented the World Premiere late last month at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

The project utilizes cutting-edge graphics in conjunction with powerful algorithms to create an open-world environment that responds in real-time to the actions of a first-person player who inhabits a glowing avatar at the center of a vast crowd of running strangers.

The result is part art project, part philosophical video game and it’s the kind of experimental VR that excites us. The action is driven by the viewer, who controls the pace and direction of the avatar with the goal of reaching various shafts of light that shoot up out of the ground in the distance.

Still image from the virtual reality experience “Emergence,” courtesy of Universal Everything.

The player’s movements ultimately choreograph the crowd’s behavior, resulting in breathtaking patterns as the many bodies swirl and circle, divide and rejoin one another.

Programmers succeeded in simulating more than 5,000 human behaviors for “Emergence,” with the goal of showcasing the seemingly endless ways that human animals act in group settings.

When the user’s avatar reaches a ray of light, the scenery and landscape is drastically altered and the experience moves on in new, unexpected ways.“Emergence” is especially unique because of its ability to make digital media appear organic.

Universal Everything founder Matt Pyke worked hard with his team of digital artists, animators, musicians and developers to achieve the realistic — yet still fantastical — look of the experience, where each crowd member was painstakingly programmed with intelligent behaviors, including avoidance, mimicry and following. Viewed from above, these behaviors meld to create impressive patterns of group behavior.

Dramatic lighting; vast, alien landscapes; and a haunting soundtrack created by Simon Pyke — using samples of field recording of native tribes — contribute to the satisfying moodiness of the experience.

Still image from the virtual reality experience “Emergence,” courtesy of Universal Everything.

The user may feel as if he or she is part of a giant moving canvas, one that is being painted in real time by an omniscient viewer somewhere high above the action. In reality, the omniscient viewer is the person in the VR headset: you.

The experience takes on postmodern overtones when it becomes apparent that there is no real goal for completion. It’s not that “Emergence” doesn’t end, because it does, it’s just that getting there is not the point.

There is a thrilling power in watching the faceless strangers around you scatter when you turn and run into their midst. Sometimes they surround you as if you are the messiah, at other times they run from you as if you are a monster.

Still image from the virtual reality experience “Emergence,” courtesy of Universal Everything.

The experience is hypnotic, unsettling at times, and all-consuming. It stands as a compelling example of the way virtual reality is upending the dominance of traditional narrative forms in favor of experiential art made with the game-changing tools of immersive media.

A version of this article originally ran on Flaunt.com on February 5th, 2019. Click HERE to read the full text and Q&A with Emergence director, Matt Pyke.