A Mushroom is a Door in the Floor

by Smallhold Friend

forager logo

Put on your VR goggles, you’re about to become a tiny spore. As your mycelium web begins to take root and decompose a nearby stump, your little fruiting body begins to quiver and form before you burst out into a full fledged mushroom. And then you die (but in a peaceful mushroom way). You can experience the wonders of the mushroom kingdom through Forager, a highly immersive experience and first-of-its-kind interactive volumetric time-lapse installation.

Forager was created by Winslow Porter and Elie Zananiri, two well-renowned storytellers and technologists who have been breaking boundaries in virtual reality and installation design throughout their practice. They have directed and produced a variety of award-winning experiences including Tree (New Reality Co, 2017).

Together they have been developing Forager over the past two years while working as artists-in-residence at Smallhold. The team’s goal is to use advanced story-telling tools to convey an urgent message: we are deeply connected to our planet in a way that has never been more important to understand than now.

volumetric timelapse configuration

How did you two get into VR? Have you always been focused on nature?

Winslow: Growing up in Maine, I have always had a deep fascination with nature. I first tried VR at a tech conference in Boston back in 1993. The experience looked like a cross between Tron and the Dire Straits music video for “Money for Nothing.” Safe to say it was clunky and super low res, not too mention a little smelly. I can’t imagine how many people went through that headset. Even at such an early stage, it showed massive potential for inhabiting new worlds. Fast forward 20 years, Elie and I start working on an interactive VR documentary about creative code called CLOUDS. Fast forward another 10 years, game engines like Unreal are free and online learning communities are orders of magnitude larger. But even still with all of these things accessible, the hardest part to tell is the story in VR, because the viewer can be both the protagonist and camera person at the same time.

Elie: I also first tried VR in the early 90s, but my experience was at an office party in the suburbs of Montreal. It was definitely rough around the edges, and I didn’t think much of it until working on CLOUDS. CLOUDS is a “choose-your-own-adventure” documentary with over 10 hours of interviews and generative artworks, and we were trying out different technologies and ideas to find the best way to put the viewer in the driver’s seat. The first time I put on a VR headset I knew we had found our solution, as it basically made the film happen all around you instead of just in front of you. VR could transport you inside the universe of CLOUDS where you could sit face-to-face with virtual avatars and have crazy visual systems fly behind your head. My practice has always been about making digital art that momentarily takes the audience out of their usual environment and VR is a great tool to achieve this.

My fascination with nature is focused on the things we cannot see with our naked eye, the detailed patterns when looking at a hair through a microscope, the overlaid patterns of waves and ripples in water, the intricate network of tunnels ants dig underground, etc. A lot of my work and sketches use these phenomena as reference material and sources of inspiration, the natural world has always been a part of my creative process.

mycelium amidst the roots of trees

How did you get interested in mushrooms? (What was your first mushroom “experience” that led you down the rabbit hole?)?

Winslow: I think that connections with mushrooms can happen in a wide variety of circumstances. When I moved back to Maine in March 2020, I would frequent a local food co-op. One day they had the most beautiful bouquet of Blue Oyster, Royal Trumpet and Lion’s Mane in the produce section. They really stuck with me, so much so that I immediately looked up how to grow them on my own. I built a mono-tub kit and was growing Blue Oysters in my basement two weeks later. Watching them grow so fast blew my mind even more. I wanted to share this phenomena with everyone so I set out to build a 3D capture rig that could capture this wondrous animation through time.

What does it take to create a VR experience (what are the steps/what is the process, as someone who as I know idea what VR involves)?

Elie: Building a VR experience can be compared to creating a combination of a short film, a video game and a magic trick. A team will usually consist of storytellers, designers, and programmers. First and foremost, you need a good idea that (you hope) many other people will be interested in! But unlike traditional 2D media where you know exactly where the audience is looking, VR gives the viewer much more agency as they can focus on anything around them at any given time. You’re not really framing a shot but creating an entire world, and thinking of ways to guide the viewer’s attention to specific details at specific times. We use lots of tricks to achieve this, like using spatial audio and musical cues, teleporting the viewer across the virtual world, and using realistic body movements and hand gestures to control digital objects. We might even have the viewer play a mini-game or a puzzle to move to the next chapter of the story. This can all feel very new to most people, so we spend a lot of time play-testing different versions of the VR experience to make it as engaging and intuitive and enjoyable as we can!

vr oyster mushroom growing out of a tree stump

What has surprised you the most about working with mushrooms?

Elie: I think my answer to this question changes every week. The first surprising moment was seeing how the mushrooms take different shapes as they grow and decay, it really feels like they are rapidly morphing between states. It is also astounding that the parts of the mushroom that we see and eat are just the tip of the iceberg, and that the mycelial network underground is where the majority of mushroom activity takes place. But I would have to say the most surprising thing is how vast the mushroom community is and how there are many different pockets of knowledge within this community. We have met so many amazing people since starting our journey, from foragers with a sixth sense on where to find the latest bounty, to scientists studying how closely mushroom and human DNA are related, and of course to chefs who come up with delicious ways to eat them.

What has been the most challenging?

Winslow: We see our mushrooms as our actors. We are merely acting as their agents. And with any talent like this you will surely get a few divas. Sometimes even in the most ideal growing conditions they just refuse to show up on set and other times they start growing even before we are prepared to capture them on the rig. With our volumetric capture setup, everything has to be perfect in order for us to capture their growth every 30 minutes, over a two week period. After over 2 years working with the amazing team at Smallhold, we have greatly improved our technique and are extremely curious about capturing other organisms on their own unique timescale.

winslow and elie

Where can folks experience Forager right now?

Winslow: We are premiering the first installment of Forager at SXSW 2023 down in Austin, from March 11-14 in the Immersive section of the festival. We have a few other festivals lined up afterwards as well. We also host visits to our studio where folks can pop by and check out Forager and our capture rig, funny enough in the old Smallhold farm near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future of Forager?

Elie: We would love to share the Forager experience with as many people as we can, touring at events and festivals around the world. The hope is that we can be a gateway into the fascinating world of mushrooms and fungi, and that we can help spread awareness on how important these organisms are to humans and all life on Earth. The better we understand the world we live in the more we will want to take care of it!