Niki Selken: Cave Painting Pictograms to Ideographic VR

Gray Area Foundation
7 min readFeb 22, 2017

Gray Area’s Cultural Incubator Program is a 6 month commitment to develop meaningful works at the intersection of art and technology. Membership includes peer to peer support, shared workspace at the historic Grand Theater, free/discounted admission to events and workshops, and opportunities for public presentations. Our current Fall/Winter cohort is preparing for their final showcase on February 23. We sat down with Niki Selken to talk about her project, “EmojiFlower VR”.

Niki Selken is an artist, technologist and educator whose multitude of works reflect her passion for theater, gaming and interactive design. Her current project is “EmojiFlower VR,” a virtual reality art-game experienced with Google Cardboard, where interactive emojis, 90s floral print interior and nostalgia reign supreme. She describes this piece — along with earlier projects which explore the place and power of the emoji — as both a labor of love and the product of extensive research on Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality at Gray Area.

Niki Selken

Describe your background and what led you to Gray Area’s Cultural Incubator Program.

I am a trained actor and playwright who was a self taught designer. After 10 years making experimental theater and running an IT company in SF I began to study design to try and connect my two lives. I was accepted into parsons MFA In design and technology in NYC and I began the next phase of my artistic career. I focused on wearable tech, interaction, and game design. After graduating and teaching at Creative Code Parsons and another college in Brooklyn, I had some teaching opportunities in SF and I headed home. I attended a Gray Area workshop and read about the incubator there so I applied to study VR and AR.

How did the idea for EmojiFlower VR come to fruition? Does it mirror a dream world or alternate reality of your own?

I started making this project as part of my research into VR. First I experimented with ThreeJS and Unity. I was working on a Unity project at that time so I decided to go with that technology. I was looking for inspiration to create the 3D environment and I remembered an interiors magazine I had loved from college, Nest. There was one specific layout that featured two naked people in a garden of eden made of fake sunflowers and plants goring inside a room. The 90s interior spread captures the zeitgeist of the 90s. I added in Emoji because they express for me the culmination of culture in the last decade. Emoji are something wonderful that we embraced in the 2000s.

EmojiFlower VR

What feelings do you anticipate EmojiFlower VR to evoke from your audience?

That feeling you get when you are about to enter an amusement park, like super happy, but also nervous. The game starts out slow and then the rapid entering of joyful Emoji in a lush room might make the player so excited they need to stop playing.

You have a range of experience across many creative disciplines — playwriting, theater, and gaming — to name just a few. How have some, if not all, practices shaped the development of your previous works?

The piece organically became a game after I play tested for the weekend of Emojicon with so many players of all ages. At first I was not sure what I had made, but after fielding questions and responses to the experience I knew that it was a game. Most of my theater pieces and artwork starts out as an inquiry. Like: I want to investigate the impact on water scarcity in California and somehow after user testing and making prototypes that inquiry became a narrative “Escape Room” style game. So I just sort of listen to to what the topic or inquiry is telling me and listen to feedback from players/users.

Your background in playwriting and knack for immersive storytelling allows you to weave strong narrative elements into various gaming experiences you’ve worked on in the past (e.g. Find Maria Rivera, Wayscape). Is there a narrative component to EmojiFlower?

Right now it is a non linear emoji experience. In future iterations I will build in levels and perhaps some sort of storyline. The music is probably shaping the story players take away more than anything else right now.

Find Maria Rivera is a narrative, puzzle-based installation which follows the story of the disappearance of a water witch from Visalia, CA. Participants are prompted to explore physical objects, text, mobile websites, and audio to unravel the mystery. Find Maria RIvera, was an award finalist for Indiecade 2015.

EmojiFlower is your first stab at producing a VR game. How did you decide on using VR as the primary vehicle for users to best experience your vision?

It was more that I wanted to explore VR and the Emoji found me.

The World Translation Foundation is a project of yours that explores the ubiquitous nature of the emoji on modern-day communication, challenging viewers to reflect on the impact of pictorial language on human closeness and connection. How has image-based communication evolved since its inception? Has it caused more rifts in human interaction or does it serve to bridge some gaps?

Image based communication was the first “written” form of communication ie pictograms or cave paintings. Our modern day interest in Emoji, which hails from Japan, makes sense for a couple reasons. One is that Japanese and Chinese are both ideographic languages which are formed by small images rather than script. Those images are processed in the right brain, rather than the left, where script based languages are processed. Another reason it became popular is that with TV and Internet our lives are becoming more image and less script based.

“[This is] a rumination and celebration of the possibility, joy, and strangeness of twenty first century American culture.”

Finally, I believe that Emoji are a communication tool that we adopted to fill in the emotional gap left by text messages and emails. Facial expression Emoji light up the same centers of our brains as facial expressions on people. They transmit emotion in a visceral way different from words. Emoji were released in 2010 by Apple and Google on their phones and that was the beginning of their rise to fame.

The Emoji Dictionary is Selken’s crowd-sourced online dictionary where users can add meanings to emoji.

There’s been notable progress in exposing and combating pervasive sexist and misogynistic practices in the gaming industry. Casting a wider net to reach broader audiences is one measure of achieving relative inclusivity, but what are some more effective long-term solutions the industry can adopt to create safer places for female gamers and developers to participate and create? (Niki was a mentor for our recent Creative Code Apprenticeship for Girls with Dolby)

Festivals like Indiecade and Games for change are the answer to the sexist industry that often praises games that victimize women and make people of color into enemies. They are supporting the unseen, left of center and experimental game makers like myself. Attend and support and create within those communities. Also classes and programs like Girls Make Games, and my own workshop last summer with BAVC and Zynga for young women game makers help create an entryway into that industry.

Where are your hopes for EmojiFlower VR in the upcoming year(s)?

My goal is to finish the game and release it on the Apple and Google Play stores.

What are some highlights from your involvement in the cultural incubator program? How has the incubator contributed to your success as an artist and educator?

I feel like the incubator acted as a community maker for myself and my cohort. We helped each other and became friends. I had one great interaction at a critique with a fellow member who told me that my Emoji Dictionary was extremely popular by analyzing my analytics and she has since helped me improve the site’s SEO and structure. Although it was completely unrelated to what she was working on, she took the time to help me work on something I knew literally nothing about. So that was pretty special.

Niki Selken’s EmojiFlower VR will be presented at Gray Area’s Cultural Incubator Showcase on Thursday on February 23.

Gray Area is now accepting applications the Spring/Summer Cultural Incubator cohort. Learn more and apply to be a Member here!

This interview was conducted by Gray Area’s Marketing Intern, Andrea Oh.



Gray Area Foundation

Gray Area is a 501(c)3 nonprofit in San Francisco, CA applying art & technology to create positive social impact. #grayareaorg #creativecode