Struggling to Connect With My Downtown Life Through Virtual Reality

Immersing my avatar in SXSW XR

Kevin Curtin hanging out on the Mohawk balcony in virtual reality

British people are talking loudly in the balcony of the historic Paramount Theatre while I’m trying to watch three panelists discuss something or another on stage.

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that there were other people in this South by Southwest-created virtual reality universe, which kicked off five hours prior. I jumped into this simulated city with zero VR experience because I wanted to check out its representations of Congress Avenue and the Red River district. You see, I used to walk these streets every night, but my feet haven’t hit that pavement in a year because of the pandemic. I thought maybe it’d do my restless spirit good to reconnect.

“Whoa. You scared me,” hollered one of the two avatars, standing amongst the fixed seats in the historic theatre’s upper level.

I could see why. Their characters looked like delightful digital cartoon versions of real people. The avatar that just walked up on them was a guy with a metal trashcan for a head – which I’d rashly chosen minutes earlier as I set up my account on host platform VRChat.

“This is my first time in VR,” I told them.

“Yeah – we can tell,” they laughed.

I was running back-and-forth wildly, alternating between jumping in the air and sitting down at random, and cranking my head at an awkward angle. My tech-forward musical life partner, the illustrious Chris Hall, had graciously set me up with his HTC Vive VR system and I hadn’t payed much attention when he explained the controls because it looked so easy as he was doing it. To others, it probably looked like I was on angel dust.

Our new friends, beaming in to virtual Austin from the UK, explained that they're frequent VR users and that they’d never been to SXSW in the flesh. Completely opposite, I go to SXSW every year and was donning a headset for the first time. Nonetheless, they were a riot and we had a thoroughly entertaining conversation that included me regaling them with the mildly interesting factoid that this very theatre – well, the real-life version – was so old that Harry Houdini had performed there. Then, like Houdini, I disappeared before their very eyes … my controls had become frozen and I had to exit out.

As foreign as VR felt thus far, making friends with funny British people is, in fact, a staple SXSW occurrence for me.

After resetting, this anthropomorphic garbage receptacle respawned on Congress Avenue. Apart from three well-depicted landmarks, the Contemporary Austin art museum, the Paramount/Stateside, and the Capitol building, the SXSW “XR” world looked quite different from my recollection of the main strip: the streets were blue, the sidewalks yellow, and giant moving eyeballs peered over a skyline of stars, geometric shapes, and floating windows. Weirdest thing though, instead of Bird Scooters littered all over, there were glowing balloons you could grab and soar up over buildings directly to your destination.

Or beyond your destination. Unable to figure out how to release said balloon, my avatar flew up into the starry abyss. From up there you could see that this cyber facsimile of ATX isn’t meant to appear terrestrial – it’s built upon a tiny island floating through space. This is alien Austin.

Congress Ave. in SXSW XR's virtual world.

Once again regenerated, a gentleman who looked like a gingerbread man covered in Christmas lights showed us the way into the Contemporary Austin where you could choose amongst dozens of different immersive VR experiences to partake in. I wanted to enter Poison, a short from Korea’s Cooper Sanghyun Yoo that offers a cellular level vantage point of coronavirus molecules taking hold inside the human body, and I’d prepared by getting pretty stoned. Alas, the digital door was digitally taped shut. My gingerbread friend explained that specific title had to be downloaded from another platform (VRRoom) and suggested that I check out A Promise Kept.

What he didn’t explain was that A Promise Kept was an immersive documentary, retracing holocaust survivor Fritzie Fritzshall’s time at Auschwitz. The harrowing story was almost instantly too heavy for me to handle, but the thought of turning around my avatar and walking out of the theatre made me feel like a rotten, avoidant, privileged piece-of-shit, so I stood amongst the death camp bunks and inside the hellish crematorium on the verge of a panic attack. Hard to watch, but powerful, it served as a reality check that techno simulations can have significant social applications like ensuring that the heroes of harsh histories aren’t forgotten.

Even though I missed the COVID-19 blob experience of Poison, I knew an equally surreal time awaited me in going to 3D renderings of bars that I’ve frequented “IRL” for years. I walked into a portal and came out on Red River. The terrain didn’t look much like the strip of music venues where I’ve spent hundreds of nights – specifically, I don’t recall there being colorful pyramids there – but, sure enough, there was Empire Control Room & Garage.

Inside, the specificity of the venue’s dimensions and features astonished, as if they’d scanned the actual building to create virtual version. There was the bar, the inside stage I’ve often performed on, the garage area, and the patio with its Astroturf landscaping - only the bathrooms were nonexistent. If there were 100 avatars in there (and perhaps there will be later in the week) it would’ve felt like a party, but the only soul I could find was a sentient banana sitting on the stage, watching a panel that was being broadcast on a 2D screen.

“Hey, do you know where the Mohawk is?” I asked.

“Is that some kind of SXSW joke?” the banana, who I soon learned was from Ohio, shot back.

I explained that it was a popular music venue that’s being digitized as part of the SXSW XR world. After some friendly conversation, he asked me who I was and I told him I’m “Dirt Curtin,” which is the name I used as my VRChat handle, and that I was an Austin musician looking for where I’m supposed to be playing. Rightfully dubious, but wrong in recognition, he accused me of being a celebrity, one with a “famous voice.” I assured him he was mistaken. Indeed, it wouldn’t be out-of-the-ordinary to meet a celebrity at a bar at SXSW, but this year? In a virtual reality bar? Come on, banana.

Still, being mistaken for someone much more famous than you: another hallmark of the normal SXSW experience manifesting virtually.

Around the corner I see the slanted awning and red lettered logo of Mohawk, a venue where I’ve jammed my human body into dense crowds to witness so many legendary performances. Virtually, I’m the only one here. There’s a screen on stage showing 2021 music showcasers so I take it in from my favorite spots: front and center, on the upper right next to the sound board, and dead middle second balcony. I’m blown away by how legit it looks, except for the surrounding appearing preposterously clean and there being an interactive axe throwing event on the top level.

In regards to my stated mission, I feel less like having reconnected with familiar locales and more like I’m in one of those dreams where the surroundings are slightly askew: the taxidermied bear is there, but it’s in slightly the wrong spot, the corridor between the inside bar and the outside stage is closed off, and I can walk right up the stairs from the interior stage to the green room without a bouncer telling me to turn around.

As I exited virtual Austin, removing my headset and unstrapping the controllers form my hands, the corporeal world now felt fresh and I had new appreciation for my physical competence – at least in this body I know the controls. I drove my real life van home, through real life traffic, to my real life house where my real-life girlfriend asked me “how were the clubs?”

“Totally dead,” I replied. “Typical Tuesday night.”

SXSW Online registrants can enter the XR worlds, via the VRChat platform, throughout the week. Details here.

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Virtual reality, SXSW 2021, VR, SXSW XR, Paramount Theatre, Mohawk, The Contemporary Austin, Empire Control Room & Garage, Poison, Cooper Sanghyun Yoo, A Promise Kept

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