James Gwertzman has always been a “tinkerer”. He has memories of his early days soldering his AM radio his kit with his father. When he was a kid, he dreamed of joining Visual FX. In college, he was a set and lighting designer.
But the Seattle-area tech veteran has gone on to do something not necessarily physical, building a career in video games and his own game studio, and investing in the gaming space.
Gwertzman co-founded Sprout Games, which was acquired by PopCap Games in 2005, and founded and led PlayFab, a gaming infrastructure service acquired by Microsoft in 2018. He becomes a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm focused on games.
A new side project highlights Gwertzman’s longtime desire to build something other than software, literally.
“I have spent my entire career concentrating at the intersection of art and technology,” he said. “This project was the most fun I’ve had in a very long time getting my hands dirty and designing and building all the hardware.”
The project, “The Prairie of Possibilities,” is a light show and immersive storytelling experience featuring swaying fiber optic “grass” and more, dreamed up three years ago by Gwertzman and his team and recently completed. It was performed at the Burning Man Festival.
“I want to do it”
In the dusty desert of Black Rock City, Nevada, Gwertzman really got his hands dirty. But the inspiration for “Prairie” came many years ago.
Gwertzman first participated in Burning Man in 1997 and returned in 2015 after a long hiatus. In 2017, he was inspired by his light installation called “Tree of Tenere”, a climbable tree with 25,000 LED leaves.
“I remember thinking, ‘I want to do it,’ and I want to give it back,” Gwartzman said.
Another Field of Light project called “Sensorio” inspired Gwertzman in 2020, and he hoped to build something for Burning Man that year. He pitched his idea to his Microsoft Maker alias at his workplace and held meetings with interested people. However, COVID-19 took hold and the festival was eventually canceled, like many other events.
But the seed was planted, said Gwertzman, and a core team of art and technology enthusiasts was assembled, eventually named The Moonlight Collective. They include: Gwertzman as the main visionary; Experienced designer and fabricator Casey Martin as creative director. He is an engineer, software architect, program manager and his technical director is Paul McDaniel. Game designer and audio his engineer Ed Allard joined as the lead for the sound experience.
When Burning Man was canceled again for 2021, the group took the opportunity to escape prototyping over Zoom calls. Last fall, they set up a “prairie” on Mercer Island near Seattle as a way to test things out in public. They used a software program called LX Studio to build the lighting controls and manufactured his 250 units for fiber optic ‘grass’ in China.
During 3 November days at Mercerdale Park, Gwartzman’s vision became pulsating with Allard’s musical soundscapes and colorful synchronicities as a field of some 1,500 glowing grasses that made up the ‘prairie’ . (See video above.)
After testing the installation at scale and receiving positive feedback from visitors, the team is ready to start planning for Burning Man in 2022.
“Casey gets a lot of credit for making us think like Disney Imagineers and pushing viewers beyond flashing lights to really create multiple levels of interaction. ‘ said Gwartzmann.
These interactions include several “portals”, also with their own light and sound displays, through which visitors can pass as a sort of entrance and exit between the real world and another universe. I can do it. Phone booths were also used as a means of recording visitor talks. Fear, Sadness, Happiness and Anger, she can call a phone number (still valid at 844-428-0110) instructed to share personal stories related to four emotions.
“Hi, I’m a human from Starborn.” A voice is heard on the other end of the phone, identifying himself as the Entity. “You must have questions about who and what I am…I exist to collect and immortalize stories that embody the human condition.”
The scale of the experience doubled to 420 light bases, and planning to place them in the desert relied on precise mathematical algorithms. This time it’s inspired by patterns in nature and explained in a YouTube video about sunflower heads.
To design and choreograph the installation in advance, Gwertzman and team turned to Unity, a very popular software package for game design.
“Me, Ed, and everyone else who has worked with games know Unity well,” says Gwertzman. “We were able to use it to simulate the entire installation and see it in virtual reality to determine if this was what we wanted.”
“Our project was very meditative”
Gwertzman and a large team of key players, including Nathan Pegram and Leo Brown, who helped with the phone booth, and Anastasia Mackert, who was the project manager, arrived a week before Burning Man to successfully set up in the desert. . They literally started planting flags on the playa where the festival is held, or on the dried-up lakebed, deliberately choosing a spot away from other bright lights and the pounding sound of Burning Man music.
A trench was dug to fill in some of the miles of cable and wiring needed to connect everything across a 250-foot-wide area.
“What I learned about this project is the big art, 90% logistics and 10% art,” says Gwertzman. “Just getting everything out to the desert and assembling a team to build, 90% of which is just logistics and planning. The actual art is in the minority in some ways.”
From the first night they flipped the switch to the end of the event, the “Prairie of Possibility” roams the people who built it, and the containers adorned with glowing grass, portals, phone booths, and even decks. It has proven to be a success for those who look like a research facility for scientists studying otherworldly phenomena.
When returning in the morning to turn off the generator, Gwertzman’s team often found piles of people sleeping on pillows in the center of the installation, listening to music and the voices of hundreds of storytellers.
“One of the reasons the project was so well received is that Burning Man could be a very intense techno-like scene,” said Gwertzman. “And our project was very meditative ambient music. People said they would come back every night because it was so rejuvenating and so beautiful.”
After dismantling the installation and packing up the playa to restore it to its original state (a prerequisite for Burning Man), Gwertzman must consider what’s next for ‘Prairie’.
He’s considering taking it out on the road to power up in various locations. For example, he wants to see what everything looks like in the snow. But if a professional collector came along and wanted to get the piece for someone else’s possession, Gwertzman said he would definitely answer the call.
Calling his passionate project the perfect blend of art and technology, Gwertzman said he was grateful for the experience.
“Honestly, it’s one of the most creative things I’ve ever done.”