A new multimedia experience lets audience members help artificially intelligent creatures work together to survive.

What’s new: Agence, an interactive virtual reality (VR) project from Toronto-based Transitional Forms and the National Film Board of Canada, blends audience participation with reinforcement learning to create an experience that’s half film, half video game. The production, which runs on VR, mobile, and desktop platforms, debuted at the 2020 Venice Biennale exhibition of contemporary art. It’s available for download from Steam.

How it works: Five cute, three-legged creatures live atop a tiny, spherical world. They must learn to work together to grow giant flowers for food without throwing the planet off-balance. Players can simply watch them work or play an active role in the story by planting flowers or moving agents around.

  • Players can let the agents interact under control of a rules-based algorithm or turn on a reinforcement learning (RL) model that drives them to seek rewards, such as bites of fruit, and avoid repeating mistakes, such as falling off the edge of the world.
  • The agents were pre-trained in a stripped-down version of the game world using a method called proximal policy optimization, which makes RL less sensitive to step size without the tradeoffs incurred by other approaches. The game’s creators settled on PPO because it was quickest at training the agents to solve the game’s physical challenges, such as learning to balance their weight to keep the world from spinning, technical director Dante Camarena told The Batch.
  • The developers are collecting data on how users interact with the agents. They’ll use the information to update the training simulation monthly.

Behind the news: Agence director Pietro Gagliano received an Emmy in 2015 for a VR experience in which viewers encountered the Headless Horseman from the Sleepy Hollow TV series.

Why it matters: Agence represents a new type of medium in which the audience members collaborate with AI to create unique, immersive experiences. It offers new possibilities for user input and interactive storytelling that — whether or not Agence itself catches on — seem destined to transform electronic entertainment.

We’re thinking: Video game opponents driven by rules can be challenging, but imagine trying to outsmart the cops in Grand Theft Auto if they could learn from your past heists.


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