Virtual art heist, vivid impressions

Digital platform called Olive is just part of a fictional caper played out in the reality of a Florida city. Images: Mixed-reality art theft

For Margot Knight, the cops chasing her last Friday night were no laughing matter, even though she knew they weren't real.

For three days beginning Thursday, Knight was the central figure in a fictional art heist scenario that played out partly in the real world, and partly in a virtual world.

The project was part alternate-reality game (ARG), because it played out both in the real world and in the digital world, and part The Game, the 1997 Michael Douglas film, because it was a fluid, developing fictional experience with one person at its center.

Much of the game played out on the streets, restaurants, buildings and parking garages of Orlando, Fla. But significant scenes also played out in Olive, a customizable, standalone virtual-world platform from San Mateo, Calif.-based Forterra Systems that can be used for simulating medical, military, corporate and educational situations.

Undertaking the role of heroine in a good-guys versus bad-guys art theft scenario while keying off unexpected developments fueled by a team of actors took Knight's emotions on a roller coaster ride.

"It is a little reminiscent of The Game," Knight said, "because there's a sense of real jeopardy about it. It puts you on high alert. There's no question that all my synapses were firing in the virtual world and in real reality."

The one-person ARG was designed by Jeff Wirth, director of the interactive performance lab at the University of Central Florida's school of film and digital media. According to Wirth, it was built around the fiction of a retired art thief who has made her fortune stealing from illicit collections--like those of Nazis--and selling the paintings to museums. She (Knight's character) is a sort of Robin Hood of the art thieves' world, Wirth said, who has worked with a crew she has mentored and to whom she plans on handing over her so-called business.

But she is pulled back into her previous life when her nemesis frames her in the theft of a valuable painting and she realizes the only way to clear her name is to find the work and return it before she is caught. And she must rely on the help of her crew in order to succeed.

Knight was chosen for the central role from the local community based on her interest and suitability to the experience. But unlike those playing the crew members, Knight is not an actress.

Wirth designed the game to be played out in several Orlando locations, but also in a faux Orlando fashioned in Forterra's Olive.

"We'd done a couple of these (games entirely in the real world) and they've been very successful, and each time we look for a new challenge," Wirth said. "Now we wanted to do it so the story took place in the real world and the virtual world. So sometimes she's experiencing locations they go to in the physical world, and then later (they're) going to the same places in the virtual world, or vice versa."

Essentially, Wirth explained, the idea behind the project is to explore the potential applications of interactive performance in digital media settings.

To proceed with the project, Knight received a series of text messages directing her to various locations. But if the message was preceded by "VW," it meant that she was to go to the virtual-world version of the intended spot.

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