Experimenting with art and creativity in a collaborative piece is a fantastic way to explore augmented/mixed reality! My wife and I visited Onedome’s Unreal Garden in San Francisco and I think it’s a shining example of combining art and AR in a beautiful way.

A sneak peek at The Unreal Garden experience

A sneak peek at The Unreal Garden experience beside my favourite photo of a typical reaction

The Unreal Garden is a wonderful new art space on Market Street in San Francisco. It provides a beautiful, serene and magical space for a range of artists to showcase original work within augmented reality.

In order to experience the hidden world within the garden, you’re told you must put on a Microsoft HoloLens and share your energy with the environment around in order to bring it to life. Each art experience has an augmented frog waiting in front of it and the moment you hold your finger up to the frog (transferring your energy), the experience comes to life. The augmented energy ball illuminating from my finger was entertaining enough to have me staring at my finger longer than I think I ever have before!

Each of these experiences is put together by a different artist and has its own distinct style — yet they all fit together so well in a fantasy world where anything is possible.

Augmented jellyfish at the Unreal Garden

Some of the augmented jellyfish at the Unreal Garden

Even as someone who has had plenty of augmented reality experiences in the past, Onedome’s exhibit kept me curious from start to finish. They were able to work around some of the limitations of the HoloLens (such as the smaller field of view) by making it a part of the experience — you were peeking into another dimension, exploring it through a smaller, rather tech-savvy looking glass. There was still a few moments with the smaller field of view where I missed some of the action, such as when I was looking at the wrong spot as a flower bloomed just outside of my field of view. With the HoloLens and others like Meta and Magic Leap working away at improving augmented reality technology, this is only going to get better with time.

The space prior to entering The Unreal Garden area itself also had a Tiltbrush set up for people to draw in 3D (gotta love Tiltbrush!) and a few other cool exhibits such as a half dome that responded as you placed your hands on rocks. A neat concept!

A dome that responded to hand placement on rocks

The aforementioned dome that responded to hand placement on rocks

Leila Amirsadeghi, CMO/CXO of Onedome, was kind enough to answer some questions I had about the exhibit, here’s a bit more of a deep dive into their project.

Getting the artwork

One thing I was curious about was whether every artist had to learn to create their style of art within a digital, compatible format for the piece. For the current art pieces within The Unreal Garden, it turns out most artists involved did not have digital experience. In order to bring the unique perspectives of these artists into the space, each artist had an original piece of art which the team at Onedome then converted into an augmented reality/3D version. The aim was to find original artworks across all mediums that worked with the theme — “Life Unrestrained”. They also needed to work well in 3D! Each artwork is then placed throughout the exhibit ready to be brought to life by passersby.

Some of these artworks involved quite a bit of work to get into 3D, as Leila explains,

“It did take an enormous amount of work to convert some of the more complicated pieces, especially the physical artworks such as Shuster & Moseley’s ‘Future Bodies’ and Jasmine Pradissitto’s ‘Hands to Heaven’. The process to replicate such artworks in 3D involves ensuring that we are able to recreate all the little details and keep the file size small enough that it does not crash the system, while ensuring the resolution and experience are the highest of qualities. All this on a device that was never intended as a consumer entertainment product!”

The tracking magic

All the spatial tracking side of things is handled by the HoloLens as it provides the mechanism for scanning a space and anchoring the content in place. However, The Unreal Garden itself is powered by Enklu, an online platform for the collaboration and creation of location-based entertainment experiences in AR.

The concept

One of the things that is hardest to know about when visiting something like this is — how did it all come about? In the case of The Unreal Garden, Leila was the curator of the experience/exhibit. Overall, it was a collaborative idea that is part of a grander vision, as Leila explains,

“We had always envisioned building a mixed reality experience that blends multiple layers — the physical, sound, projections, and AR to create environments grounded in reality and immersive experiences that bring us closer to the magic of reality. The Unreal Garden was the first step towards that.”

Part of this vision was one of interaction — you explore the art in entirely new ways that wouldn’t be possible in more traditional mediums,

“We chose to combine an immersive, experiential play with a curated art exhibit, one of a very different kind where not only does the artwork come to life around you and by you, but your experience viewing the art is no longer two-dimensional.”

“You are now able to stick your head in a piece, walk through a piece, dance around the motion of a piece and feel its energy.” — Leila Amirsadeghi, CMO/CXO of Onedome

The Unreal Garden real world set up

The Unreal Garden real world set up is stunning even without AR!

“We have a vision to expand art to larger demographics, shift the definition of what an artist is, and to shift the art world’s perception of what art is, by uniting art and technology.”— Leila Amirsadeghi, CMO/CXO of Onedome

Onedome is an immersive media company — they use creativity “to inspire collaboration, connection and community with experiences that invite everyone to journey from the ‘me’ to the ‘we'”. They create and curate interactive arts and immersive entertainment in partnership with artists, technologists and visionaries around the world, just like The Unreal Garden! Their vision is a pretty exciting one, Leila explains it like so,

“Our vision is to become a platform for artists of all genres and modalities for greater reach and awareness, to work on art and technology in new ways, to monetise their work digitally and share in the profits from their co-creations.”

“Together, we immerse audiences into stories and worlds that ground us back to the magic of reality.” — Leila Amirsadeghi, CMO/CXO of Onedome

The challenge

When I asked Leila about the biggest challenge in getting The Unreal Garden to become a reality, it turns out the whole project was put together on a pretty tight deadline, with some crazy technical hurdles for the level of quality they were after, combined with doing something that hadn’t ever been done… that’s a whole lot of challenge in one project! She explained,

“[The biggest challenge was] overcoming technical limitations of AR and the HoloLens while building something that had never been done before, in a crazy tight timeline of just 6 months. The biggest challenge was putting such an enormous amount of content on a device that was not meant to handle this much entertainment content, while creating the resolution to be as good as VR.”

Getting involved

The Unreal Garden and Onedome are planning to have future exhibits from other artists over time, so if you are an artist and this concept has your creative mind aflutter, send an email over to artists@onedome.global!

Try it out!

If you’re based in or around San Francisco and have an interest in art or emerging technology, this is worth checking out. Head to The Unreal Garden’s website to book a ticket and explore the garden for yourself!

A very big thank you to Onedome and the team for organising for my wife and I to experience the exhibit and to Leila Amirsadeghi for taking the time to answer my curious questions!

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