At 9AM, I was invited to inhale a fragrant cocktail of earthworm, soil, sea and, ugh, sulphur. This first part of Dance With flARmingos sets the stage, coaxing participants to imagine themselves in the wetlands that the iconic flamingo calls home. Iconic yes, but as artist Kristin Lucas noted, plastic flamingos (and other representations) "far outnumber the actual bird."
The birds' habitats have struggled to survive against ecotourism, overpopulation and climate change, affecting the numbers of birds in the wild even further. Dance With flARmingos uses a barrage of techniques beyond olfactory assault to both endear you to these birds and make you think about the threats to their home.
Once the wetlands cologne had faded a little, I was guided to an iPad running an augmented-reality interface. Positioned on a window sill, I aimed the iPad through the window to reveal not only a handful of human-size CGI flamingos but also two human participants strapped into a Hololens headset and transformed into an oversized flamingo head. The effect is like peering into a zoo, with two fake "flamingos" getting in the way. The invisible zoo gets a little busier when more birds, with a tagged leg, join the fray.
Each of these tagged birds represents one of over 20 flamingos Lucas has actually adopted in the wild, and tapping on them throws up a mini-map on the iPad, showing its migration patterns across different parts of the world. It's a smart way of grounding these, c'mon, silly-looking birds back to the real world.
The birds are intentionally simplified and boxy: The animation is a little bit scrappy, making the rendered creatures look a lot like puppets. Occasionally, they interact as a flock. They walk around each other in similar patterns, and once the mating rituals begin, the excessive dance moves are almost in sync -- we've all seen wildlife documentaries where crowds of animals are doing pretty much the same thing at the same time.
The third and final part of the experience puts you into that invisible zoo, with a mixed reality experience that allows you to participate in the mating ritual dance -- if you're low on inhibitions, anyway. While Hololens' mixed reality experience might be the future beyond heavy VR headsets, the fact you can see other viewers and participants (instead of a virtual world that blocks out the real one) left me very aware of the iPad-equipped "zoo" visitors.
When you strip away the experiential and high-tech interactivity, Dance With flARmingos delivers a message of precarious wonder. Flamingos-made-of-boxes made me smile, but the animal itself is more than some kitsch symbol. The team behind flARmingos tells show attendees that it has sponsor forms for anyone interested in adopting (and helping to protect) this species -- technical showcases like this help connect animals in need of financial support with those who can help.
Typically, when you sponsor an animal, you might get a photo and an ID tag to monitor its movements, but you're unlikely to ever meet your feathered beneficiary. Dance With flARmingos, then offers a charming, symbolic space to connect.
Dance with flARmingos was made possible through funding from the Engadget Alternate Realities grant program, established in May 2017. It debuted, along with four other prize-winning immersive-media projects, at the Engadget Experience on November 14th, 2017.
- This article originally appeared on Engadget.