Shifting Memory

Published March 08, 2018

For this midterm project, I wanted to capture how memory can shift over time. As specific details fade, essential emotional and sensory elements are heightened and reinforced through our repeated experience of that memory. In short, we are not objective observers to our own life, but distort the past through the lenses of our present understanding and all of our past understandings. Can we remember something without distorting it? Can we trust that any of the memories we hold closest (that we remember often) will remain the same over time? These are the questions I was interested in exploring for this midterm project, and I chose to focus on one of my memories from Summer, 2012.

I took the train from Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit Sarajevo during their film festival. The specifics of that ride are quite clear – my confusion buying tickets in Mostar, the open windows from the aisle running down one side of the train car, and the series of incredible valleys we passed, punctuated by tunnels directly through mountains – but as I remember it, I often picture the trip from a bird’s eye view. I can recall the interior of the train, but my memory as a whole has shifted to this imagined 3rd person overview of the experience.

My idea for converting this process of shifting memory into a three-part virtual reality experience was to present the literal experience first, and shift it in two steps toward my altered, disembodied memory. Below are some screenshots from my Unity project.

Act I included train and wind noise to ground this part in reality.

Act II added a guitar at a distance and changed the camera 'bloom' script to add an etherial, otherworldly feel.

Act III placed the user up on a hilltop to approach a bird's eye view.

Act III at night.

Notes from user testing in class:

  • could further consider how camera placement affects feelings of embodiment within the experience.
  • users appreciated seeing the train in all three parts of the experience.
  • users had little sense of being the same person in each part.

Next steps:

I would like to go further with both the realism in the first act, and the abstraction in the latter ones. All three acts currently feel very much a part of the same world, albeit from slightly altered perspectives. Having already set up a specific, grounded reality in the first act, I believe the second and third acts could progressively strip away many of those aspects of reality that aren’t considered in memory. In both dreams and memory, our expectations and wealth of experience allow us to fill in missing details. In remembering a Summer day, for instance, we may fill in the details of the blue sky and white clouds from our previous experience, without regard for the lost details of the sky on that particular day.

In creating an intentional analog of this process in virtual reality, I believe removing details entirely would allow the user to fill in gaps from the previous acts. I could imagine a version of this experience which, over the course of several acts, removes almost all detail from the scene until only a train remains, or the sound of a river at a distance, or the feeling of wind on your face (though not within the affordances of the VR headset…) In such a version, those elements which remain the same would take on a greater importance, as touchstones of familiarity to the user. Perhaps the one element to survive the progressive culling of details would be the rhythm of the train, with each act starting and ending with a train leaving and entering tunnels.