As the summer sun is currently treating us with a toasty finale to the academic year, the winter term is slowly approaching. – A good moment to reminisce about this summer´s artistic-academic highlight in Cologne, CGL´s all-new annual artistic XR research event SomaFest.

Over the course of seven days, SomaFest unfurled its magic, encompassing a public exhibition, specialized workshops, and industry gatherings, all aimed at unraveling the boundless potential of full-body engagement in the realm of XR. This festival brought together a diverse community, including professionals, artists, researchers, and those simply captivated by the future of virtual worlds. Together, we embarked on an immersive journey into the exhilarating world of spatially immersive media.

Looking back on the festival week, festival director and CGL´s principal investigator in the research field of body-centric design, Katharina Tillmanns is happy with the the festival’s first edition:  “The feedback we received from festival attendees fills us with joy and pride. SomaFest 2023 was an oasis of creativity and discovery where attendees could dwell in the spirit of playfulness and curiosity.” 

Indeed, in between the chill and vibrant pavilions in shades of red, orange, and purple, participants of the festival and visitors of the exhibition wandered between the wide range of body-centered XR exhibits, tested, discussed and created new visions for the future of XR as a transformation medium.

High up in the Sky and Deeply Grounded – Notes on the SomaFest Exhibition
The heart of SomaFest was the open-to-the-public interactive exhibition, a kaleidoscope of XR experiences that transcended the conventions of common Mixed or Extended Reality arrangements. Whether through smartphones, classic VR equipment, or futuristic light glasses, visitors were transported to new dimensions both with their mind and body:

One standout was the Airborne XR paragliding simulator by CGL master student Chen Xie, making the age-old dream of flying come true for virtual pilots. With a complete harness and feet suspended off the ground, this extended virtual experience provided a realistic sensation of soaring through the skies.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sound Self by the US-based digital health company Entheos emerged as a meditative mixed-reality application that grounded participants in a unique way. Instead of conventional VR devices, it employed light goggles emitting pulses of colors, inducing a serene „sleep mode“ in which various brain regions were engaged. Being seated comfortably, with their eyes closed, the whole setup allowed for 20 minutes of downtime from the festival’s hustle and bustle.

Another highlight was the XR performance I SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE by our artists in residence, Anna-Carolin Weber and company, who transformed CGL´s large lecture hall into a futuristic liminal space. The Tron-like scenery of the room which was paired with a floating life-soundscape formed the dreamy backdrop for the unfolding intimate dialogue between one performer, a player, and the audience.

Hackathon & Masterclass
Being a research-creation event, SomaFest activities included a Masterclass and a Hackathon where participants were introduced to a new body-centric perspective on XR. By putting the body first in the keynotes and practical exercises, insights gained from this workshop extended beyond discussing design, offering profound revelations about our modern culture and how it shapes our perception, sensations, and expression as humans.

One exercise led by Anna-Carolin Weber was all about kinaesthetic perception: Is it possible to remember the names of a very large group of people with the help of your body – by moving it? (Spoiler: astonishingly, yes!) Each name was assigned a unique movement sequence, a mini-choreography which indeed helped remember the respective name. The exercise turned out to be a powerful example of how we can support integrating cognitive knowledge through kinaesthetic learning strategies.

All insights gained at the Masterclass converged in the Hackathon, where media artists, XR creators, and game developers spent five days fusing technology, art, and the limitless potential of the human body into playful body-centric experiences.

Inspiration Day for the XR Industry
Our Industry Day, a collaboration with EDFVR e.V. and the Metaverse Meetup, welcomed XR businesses, academics, and decision-makers. The central purpose of the day was to foster the dialogue between business, education, and research institutions to establish a joint community as a driving force for innovation and a pivotal opportunity to develop strategies that strengthen the German XR community. Joint by politicians Maik Außendorf and Axel Voss, EDFVR-chair Stephan Sorkin discussed the demands and regulations of digital infrastructure in Germany and Europe as a basis for sustainable growth of the industry.     

Taking center stage with his #7 Metaverse Meetup later that day, Thomas Riedl focused on hand-tracking in XR. Providing deep insights on hand-tracking technology’s past, present, and future, Thomas fired up his panel guests, academic and scientific researchers, industry practitioners, and the enthusiastic audience to dive headfirst into heated discussions.

SomaFest 2023 is over but you can already save the date for next year´s event: 

We will be back September 16-22, 2024.

For more pictures and videos go here!

Photo Credits: Guido Löhrer