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Augmented Animatronic Americana

Can mixed reality immersive environments create the transformative experience of the bonfire storytelling tradition? This piece is inspired by this narrative slice of Americana, and we will approach this research as an examination of Augmented Americana. The intended result is digital folk art created by combining the  regional traditions of storytelling with XR, sculpture, media production and robotics. The experience will manifest as an animatronic opossum storyteller that tells adapted folks tales of dubious origins, as many fireside tales have. A browser-based XR app will provide a storyworld surrounding the mechanical storyteller who will be fabricated around a simple plastic skeleton with servo motors and adorned with a foam and paper mache exterior. The storyworld will be triggered by markers placed in a fabricated environment around the animatronic character. The character will replace the campfire that normally sits at the center of the analog space of the story. Here the audience will find associated 3D elements and a volumetric soundscape that can be explored by moving their device around in physical space or navigating a browser-based version that will also be available. 

This project provides a different lens for the NRV and Blue Ridge regions to view its proud tradition of storytelling and make the connection between the imagination of storytelling in this region with the cutting edge research and innovation at ICAT. The sense of wonder and curiosity triggered by XR environments and animatronics are paralleled by the experience of a good tale told around the fire. This project will suggest that technology and innovation are not antithetical to the traditional aesthetic of Appalachian folklore.

On our team we have the graduate coordinator of fabrication shops in Burchard and the RDF, so built into this project are access to and mastery of the tools required for production of the material elements. The team also includes an experienced director and producer for the voice over and an experienced developer to create the XR app and the Web-only version of the project. Although the bulk of the planning of the project will happen remotely, there are some very tactile elements to the work. These elements will be planned collaboratively then fabricated and produced in the various facilities that make the most sense. It’s possible that sound and recording resources would be needed from ICAT, particularly volumetric testing and voiceover capture, but we can produce this media with the tools we have already. The development of the Web App that drives the XR would be, of course, not dependent on specific space or resources for development and will be happening anywhere with a seat and WiFi. We may also have a need to access the 3D printer in ICAT for extra or back-up components for the animatronic character.