'Dance with flARmingos' in a mixed reality mating ritual

Engadget presents a multilayered installation from artist Kristin Lucas.

Flamingos rule everything around her. Her clothes are covered in them. Her workspace is littered with representations of their spindly legs and hot-pink plumes. She's spent hours studying their migratory patterns, mating rituals and native environments. She's traveled the world speaking to conservationists and ornithologists to better understand them. She even adopted 20 of the winged icons to aid in her research and their preservation.

Dance With flARmingos was made possible through funding from the Engadget Alternate Realities grant program, established in May 2017. It will debut, along with four other prize-winning immersive-media projects, at the Engadget Experience on November 14th, 2017. For more information about the Engadget Experience, the grant program and the grantees visit our events page, and click here to buy your ticket to the event before they run out.

For the past two years, artist Kristin Lucas' work has revolved around flamingos, and yet, it wasn't until this June, during her residency with Print Screen, an Israeli digital-art festival, that she saw one in the flesh.

"It's like buying a planet or something," she said. "So you have a leap of faith, and you're like, 'I have invested in these flamingos,' and you're investing in an organization anyway, but it's just hilarious to me that I would perhaps never, ever see these flamingos."

During her tireless research, Lucas located a flamingo habitat in Eilat, Israel, some 215 miles from Jaffa, where she was in residency. The director of the residency was skeptical that she'd find what she was after, but she was determined. She reached out to a conservationist at the International Birding and Research Center who agreed to take her to the site.

"We stayed at a distance inside the car, and I was able to look at the flamingos," she said. "It was incredibly emotional. I couldn't believe that I was seeing this bird, and why was this bird not pink?"

As it turns out, flamingos come in an array of colors, from muted gray to bright pink, but our understanding of them is often limited to "hyper-real" (to use Lucas' words) depictions, the stuff of plastic lawn ornaments and Lisa Frank sticker packs.

Her latest work, Dance With flARmingos, being developed in residency at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, brings dimension to these iconic birds through the use of mixed reality. It engages the audience in a sort of animated line dance, turning the usual human-flamingo dynamic on its head. Flamingos have been pushed out of their natural habitats due to ecotourism, overpopulation and sea-level changes, leading to declines in their population -- but they've found ways to adapt. In flARmingos, Lucas wants us to adapt to them and not the other way around.

"Representations of flamingos out there by far outnumber the actual bird," she said. "The flamingo is a bit of a cultural icon for us, and there's sort of a flatness to an icon. It's really hard to approach or to get much further with the images -- it's difficult to penetrate the image of the flamingo."

Lucas broke the project down into three distinct parts that she says represent distinct types of storytelling: traditional, interactive and immersive. When viewers approach the installation, they'll be greeted by a sort of olfactory bartender or tour guide who will introduce them to a custom-made scent that mimics the wetlands flamingos thrive in. This is the traditional storytelling stage. In the interactive stage, an attendant will hand them an iPad they can use to fill an AR habitat with representations of Lucas' adopted flamingos and learn more about the birds through informational overlays.

The final "immersive" stage puts the viewer inside the habitat that they've just seen on the iPad. They'll be placed inside a room with windows where observers in the prior interactive stage can view them among the flamingos, as if at a zoo. This is where the "dance" part of Dance With flARmingos comes in: Two viewers will slip on a HoloLens headsets at the same time.

Once inside the headset, they "become" the flamingo. The two HoloLens users will see each other as flamingos, as will the audience members holding iPads outside the room. They'll then be prompted to follow Lucas' digital flock through a choreographed mating ritual. This part is set to a custom soundtrack using archival recordings of flamingos composed by Adriano Clemente.

If it sounds like she's doing a lot, it's supposed to. Flamingos aren't one-dimensional animals, and Lucas wanted that to come through in the work.

"That's why I'm interested in AR," she said. "Because I want you to be able to interact with more than one world at the same time. I like the porousness between worlds; I like the porousness between devices. And I realize that there's just a complexity to all of the subjects that I'm studying. There are many different paths to take here to have this conversation about flamingos, and I don't want them to be held separately from one another -- I want to understand the whole ecology of thoughts, of conflicts, of concepts that are part of this piece."

The porousness that she was after created a unique challenge for Lucas' technical team. Ben Purdy, the project's lead software developer, and Thomas Wester, the technical director, were tasked with getting an iPad using ARKit and a HoloLens to "see" the same thing.

"From a technology perspective, we needed to create a common virtual space that all these devices look into. So, the iPad and the HoloLens are, in a sense, views on a virtual space that we're creating. I think that's a really interesting way to start thinking about augmented reality in a space. Every device in that space should be able to look at the augmented version of that space. Instead of we all just have our own augmented realities in our phones, or in our headsets, we're all looking at a shared augmented reality."

There is no seamless way to make that happen. HoloLens was announced in January 2015 but is still largely inaccessible to the public. Meanwhile, Apple's ARKit isn't even a year old. As Purdy puts it, "The whole AR/VR landscape is very new still, and these platforms, even on their own, are very green."

For Purdy, it's been hard to let go of the idea that the eventual synchronization might not be just right. For Lucas, it's an opportunity.

"I'm really interested in the intangibility of the flamingo and the uncertainty of their future, and I think that AR does a really interesting job of working with this kind of content because of its intangibility. Because every once in awhile it loses its tracking. I love errors, and that everything isn't perfect."

The imperfections in Dance With flARmingos don't stop at the shared view of two disparate operating systems. All of the choreography on display was created using motion-capture, and while Lucas is quick to drop everything and show off all that she's learned -- mimicking the bird's signature head flagging, preening, marching and wing salutes -- the flamingos in her piece are still oddly human. Their legs bend in the wrong direction, their necks aren't nearly as expressive, and there's a big old hole in their chests -- a trait Lucas attributes to human error.

"I'm the kind of artist who gets her feet wet in everything, and that was the best flamingo I could make," she said. "But I wanted the flamingo to also be very accessible and more like a sketch. I wanted it to be approachable. I wanted it to sort of carry some of the simplicity of the types of images that I see in fashion and tourism so it'll be easily recognizable as a flamingo, but you might also actually feel bad for it."

This is the beauty of Lucas' art. It is, like her, devoid of pretense. She lives in a world that is often obtuse, even off-limits. Her work has appeared at major art institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, Dia Center for the Arts and The Whitney. She teaches transmedia in the University of Texas at Austin's Department of Art and Art History, and speaks in metaphors. She is, on paper, an artist's artist. Step inside her world, however, and you'll find a woman who loves flamingos, unencumbered.

To say that she has a preoccupation is an understatement, but it only takes a moment to realize that her fascination is completely genuine.