Adam Savage is swinging a sword at my face. We’re standing on opposite sides of a bench in the television host’s workshop in San Francisco’s Mission district. A giant model of a hammerhead shark dangles from the ceiling above us, strung up next to a replica of the creepy severed-head-spider monster from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Every inch of the surrounding workshop (or, as Savage calls it, his cave) is a veritable I Spy of cool stuff: spacesuits, giant posters, dozens of faithfully recreated movie props, racks and racks of tools, and, of course, swords.
The blade Savage currently wields is a scale replica of Boromir’s sword from The Fellowship of the Ring. He’s brought it to the bench today to build a scabbard for it using wood, sheepskin, and leather. The whole process will take about eight hours. As he talks, Savage’s benevolent mad scientist persona is on full display. He gesticulates with his hands, one of which is still gripping the sharp, pointy sword. Suddenly, he whips the weapon straight at me. I flinch, but it’s too late. The sword plunges directly into my forehead. Or at least it would have, if I was physically inside the workshop.
Thanks to the futuristic magic of virtual reality, I am happily un-decapitated. In real life, I’m in the comfort of my office, wearing an Oculus Quest headset and trying out a demo of a new app, called Adam Savage’s Tested VR, which launches tonight. It’s a partnership between Oculus and Adam Savage’s Tested, an online platform for showcasing the work of Savage and other creative makers and their workshops. The app is an extension of that, meant to give the viewer the feeling of being right there at the bench while an artist builds their creation.
“The videos we produce are very different than those for television broadcasts,” Savage says. “When we put it in VR, we found such an intimacy to watching someone work.”
The modules in the app aren’t typical gamey-VR environments. The starting room is the only part that has full interactivity. It’s modeled as a cardboard facsimile of Savage’s full workshop, with an array of items on a table that the user can interact with. (I spent a lot of time there, flailing around with my digital robot hands, trying to knock as much stuff to the ground as possible.) But the bulk of the experience is made up of separate episodes. An episode displays as a live-action video, albeit one that immerses you. I can look around, and up and down.The depth gives the impression that I am right there, standing next to someone as they work. Aside from twisting my head, I don’t move around. The camera does that on its own, smoothly changing positions to give the viewer different angles or closer looks at the intricacies of the construction process. When I turn, the headset tracks the sound, so I still hear it coming from where its source should be.
Each episode is around 15 minutes long and features the work of a different creator. There’s one with Griffon Ramsey, an Austin, Texas-based artist who uses chainsaws to shear elaborate sculptures out of wood and ice. (She carves a wooden dodo in her video.) Another features puppeteer Rick Lyon, who previously worked on Sesame Street and designed all the puppets for the Broadway musical Avenue Q. In each video, the maker guides the viewer through their creative process.
Lyon sees the app as exemplary of the “golden age of the maker” we’re experiencing right now. “It’s lovely to have these videos to get a little peek into the variety of stuff that people are creating and the artwork these people are generating,” he says.