Psychedelic Scavenger Hunt: Using Virtual Reality To Create Invisible Public Art

Jun 20, 2016

A new public art project in downtown Miami is piping music into the Metromover. It’s not coming over the loud speaker, but through a new app that’s designed to let people uncover hidden art in the world.

Artist Ivan Depeña looks at a virtual sculpture using the Lapse app.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Get on the Metromover at Government Center Station, open an app called “Lapse,” put on some headphones and as you slowly make your way around the circuit, a symphony slowly builds to a rich and textured audio composition. “The Sounds” is one part of Ivan Depeña’s goal to mix art, virtual reality and a twinge of  science fiction.

The virtual sculpture that is revealed.
Credit Ivan Depeña

The app uses your GPS location and certain trigger images in the real world to reveal virtual sculptures, drawings and words; your phone or iPad acts as a sort of decoder.  

In addition to the Metromover project, there are murals around Miami that—interesting as they are on their own--act as a barcode for the app to reveal these virtual elements.

In Museum Park, "The Writing" part of the app has you chasing red dots that hover around the park. When you get close, they open and reveal animated sayings that hang in trees; you can walk around these floating literary sculptures just like you would real ones. It’s easy to forget that as soon as you look away from the screen they’re not actually there.

“I wanted to experience that sort of uncovering and that discovery moment. I think that’s something that’s really integral to the project is this idea of a psychedelic scavenger hunt or walking tour that people take,” says Depeña.

Words hang in the trees at Miami Park. You can walk through and around them, but they don't actually exist in the real world.
Credit Ivan Depeña

A New World School of the Arts graduate, Depeña got his start in the less-regulated public art world of street art. From that, he developed an appreciation of places that are often driven over or walked past without second thought.

“I want people to focus on the nuances of the urban environment, you know, the nooks and the crannies and start to really observe and take note of your surroundings,” says Depeña.

In some ways his work is similar to Geocaching, where people try to find hidden “caches” using GPS coordinates. Rarely is there any sort of prize, just a list of names to add yours to. The idea, though, is that the search takes you to a place you wouldn’t otherwise go. You are rewarded with an amazing view or a nice walk. But Depeña takes it to another level making those prizes these incredible virtual experiences.

A new mural goes up in the courtyard in front of History Miami. It acts as a trigger image for another virtual sculpture.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

“A lot of people walk around just going from point A to point B. And if you really take a second to let [details of the urban world] in. Even if it’s just for five minutes,” says Depeña, “you can get quite a different experience of the urban landscape.”

One of Depeña’s first attempts at this idea can be found of the ground floor of the Clark Government Center, near the escalators to the County Commission Chambers. In that project, cameras capture the movement of people walking through the lobby. A processor changes the colors and pixelates the image then projects it on the columns that dot the lobby. It’s a way to capture people’s attention, make them realize that there is a space between that point A and point B.

Eventually Depeña says he’d like to expand the Lapse project to incorporate other artists’ work and perhaps place it in in interesting spots Depeña discovered growing up here.

“I wanted to see, basically how this science fiction… can actually be done,” said Depeña, “and how art can be experience through that mechanism.”

The piece is part of Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs' Art in Public Places program. That program takes a percentage of all construction funds for a county construction project and puts it towards public art. The project also won a grant from the Knight Foundation. Locust Projects also helped support Depeña's project.