Short and Sweet: "Once a Glacier"

A moving XR project that explores the fragility of ice

Welcome to Short and Sweet, our look at some of the short films and projects at South by Southwest 2023. Today we talk with UT Austin Assistant Professor Jiabao Li, creator of immersive XR project Once a Glacier, that places the viewer in a kayak with a young woman as she experiences the magic and fragility of a glacier.

Austin Chronicle: What was the inspiration behind the story of "Once a Glacier"?

Jiabao Li: It's inspired by the Inupiaq tradition that glaciers guide mariners through their sound, and as the glaciers are disappearing so their sound histories are disappearing. You can see a lot of the research - we worked with glaciologists and also the indigenous people in Alaska. All the sounds you hear were actually recorded on then glaciers in Alaska, and we learned a lot there. For example, there's a chirping sound you will hear, and that's from the breakup of the ice, and you can only hear that when the sun comes out, and you see the bubbles bursting.

AC: Did you go to Alaska yourself?

JL: Yes, I actually lived in Alaska for a year, and I would go to Glaciers every week. It's gorgeous and pretty. but it's also very sad. You hike for eight hours, and you look back, and your starting point is where the glacier was 10 years ago. I cried when I found that out.

AC: How did you decide to tell this story through VR?

JL: VR is really good at giving you the whole experience of being there. It's also good at showing the contrast; at the beginning, the glacier is vast and it's all around you, but at the end there's this tiny bit of glacier ice. so it's a contrast of scale. It's also good for a multisensory experience, so we have a scent dispenser, so you can smell the glacier, the swamp, the museum, the freezer. It's also very intimate: you can get into the life of this girl.

AC: So what does a glacier small like?

JL: Just smelling it, you feel cold. That's the feeling of the moisture. And then there's glacier moss, which is like tumbleweed on a glacier. They don't have roots, and they can grow piece by piece on the glacier, so there's a mossy smell when you get close. And different glaciers smell differently. They have different characteristics. They melt differently. So it's sound, smell, sight - multisensory.

Once a Glacier

XR Experience

Wed. 14, 11am-6pm, Congressional Ballroom at the Fairmont

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