Sensors, Midi Sounds and Virtuality: A Field Trip to the Wilshire Korea Town Arcade
Ricardo Miranda Zuniga

When most friends would take one to Malibu Beach or the hip bars and clubs in West Hollywood or for a cruise down Crenshaw, my friends Sue and Greg took me to a Korean arcade this past Friday night during my visit to Los Angeles. Below the Gaylord building on Wilshire Boulevard within the boundaries of Korea Town, lies a two level mini mall -- a virtual entertainment center for Korean youth. The mini mall is fully outfitted with an on-line arcade, a karaoke bar, a Hello Kitty store, a Korean BBQ restaurant, an entire store dedicated to picture-taking-sticker-machines and a traditional arcade decked out with the latest Japanese and Korean video games. As I stepped into the arcade Sue grabbed my arm and launched me into a mesmerizing midi-filled landscape overwrought with blinking lights, electronic pop songs and swirling monitors. The underlying theme of the space is viruality.

On either side of the arcade entrance, sit varying versions of a life-size dancing machine equipped with a small dance stage before a large backlit screen flanked by speakers, motion sensors and neon lights. The player/dancer deposits her/his tokens into the machine, steps onto a foot-sensitive tiled floor and looks to the screen for step directions. Floating vertically across the screen are arrows each pointing to any of the four quadrants, as the arrows reach the top of the screen the dancer steps upon the corresponding floor tile. If the dancer successfully steps upon the correct tile s/he is rewarded by a flashing GREAT or PERFECT and cheers from the virtual audience. If the dancer misses a step one hears boos accompanied by a MISS, too many misses and the arrows stop floating, the lights stop blinking, the music turns off and you get a big fat FAILURE. Whereas if you are capable of keeping pace with the floating arrows, you may continue to dance from one pop hit to the next.

The latest version of the game, however, will not allow the dancer to simply move oneÕs feet, because it presents a pair of extra arrows at either end of the screen for your arms, which are tracked by motion sensors along side the screen. Hence, the life-size digital sensorium encompasses the playerÕs entire body, forcing the player to move with even greater style.

The best dancers gather a real audience to witness in awe not only the success of her/his steps but perhaps most importantly the style and exuberance of motion. Last Friday there was one particular group of boys, most likely under the age of eighteen, who dominated the dancing machine, each presenting his own style. They focused entirely upon the latest edition, the one that acknowledges the dancerÕs arms. Although the dancing machine is built for two dancers at a time, these guys would take it on one at a time, shifting from one set of tiles to a second adjacent set. But they wouldnÕt merely cross over, rather they would slide or do 180 degree turn from one side to the other, momentarily loosing sight of the screen, but keeping the image of the flow of arrows in their minds as they would fall upon the correct tile, swing to the next one and drop on his knees upon the next two. Meanwhile the arms are popping out to the left and right, striking the sensitivity of the sensor. The moves were a flurry of traditional popping mixed with more contemporary popular dance moves, straight out of a Christina Aguilar video.

Although the dancing machine draws the largest audience, one may just as well engage in any number of virtual musical activities all with similar interfaces -- an interface that is based on timing or musical beat and mental/physical coordination. Next to one dancing machine are a set of midi drums attached to a monitor and across from the drums one may act out dreams of being an Invisible Scratch Pickle on a virtual turntable and mixer. Or if keeping a beat isnÕt your strength you might just jump on a virtual dirt bike, or go for a motorcycle race, or pick up a rifle and join a swat team or hunt down some dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

However of all these highly interactive games, the dancing machine is the most striking. To some extent the individual must be outgoing, because the dancer will be performing for a potential audience and it encompasses the largest physical skill set for coordination. It can not simply be executed mechanically, but it must be treated with style as the group of young dancers proved. The dancing machine becomes a virtual training ground for aspiring pop stars.

In some ways it reminded me of my own youth, growing up in the San Francisco Mission district, I spent plenty of Saturdays, particularly when I was 12, on cardboard, breakdancing with friends. But these street corner performances involved an entirely different social interaction, as one breakdancer would call another out, challenging the other to exhibit more difficult moves. And the cleverest dancers would involve humor with their performances; the entire thing would become a street play of both jest and physical skill.

Now, I hate to come off as a Neo-Luddite, but dancing with or against or in accordance to a large screen, just ainÕt right. It steals away, perhaps, the most exciting part of dancing that is the human element -- dancing with or against someone else. On the dancing machine, the closest one comes to human interaction is in showing off to the spectators, otherwise one is dancing according to a machine, which is no longer truly dancing. At the heart of dancing is social engagement and interaction -- having someone to touch, hold or momentarily clasp hands with; rhythmically moving toward and away from another while exchanging sweat and breath. Dancing involves so much more than physical activity, it is physical activity embedded with desire, excitement and sensuality. If one is not dancing with a partner, it becomes a matter of challenging oneÕs movements against others while the dancers acknowledge one another directly, not mediated through a machine. However, somehow the dancing machine seems fitting in this Korean arcade of virtual activities. The machine is very much in the tradition of karaoke, but faster livelier and more challenging. The dancing machine is great for aerobic exercise, but it falls far short of dancing due to its virtual interfaceÉ and, IÕm not even going to touch the awful sound of the midi pop songs the neon machine expels. Midi sounds that one could not truly dance to even with a partner.