Earlier this month, images started appearing online of a macabre and quirky amusement center that may not be, well, fun for the whole family. It’s also not real. Chucky Cheese Pizza Arcade & Bowling is the work of Cabel Adams, a Eugene resident and self-taught virtual reality artist who took photos of a nearby mall and used 3D rendering, augmented reality and virtual reality software to create a realistic-looking arcade with Chucky, the slasher doll from the ‘80s horror movie franchise “Child’s Play,” as its mascot. Adams posted the images and video clips of the exterior and interior of the space on Facebook, blending elements of real structures and fake attractions, and even dressed up in a Chucky costume himself to create a tantalizing possibility of actually being there.
His concept quickly went viral, racking up 100,000 shares on Facebook within 24 hours, and it even caught the attention of Jennifer Tilly, an actress in the “Child’s Play” movie franchise and the “Chucky” TV spin-off. Cabel Adams joins us to talk about the reaction to his work, and using VR and augmented reality to blur the lines between reality and artifice.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, Images started appearing online of a macabre and quirky amusement center. It’s called Chucky Cheese Pizza Arcade & Bowling. That’s not Chuck E. Cheese, the jolly rat who is the mascot of the national pizza party venue. It’s Chucky the slasher doll from the eighties horror movie franchise “Child’s Play.” Pictures of Chucky Cheese Pizza Arcade and Bowling went viral, getting 100,000 shares on Facebook within 24 hours. But this center is not real. It is a virtual reality rendering of a made-up place, a work of 3D art by a playful provocateur in Eugene named Cabel Adams. He joins us now to talk about his work. Welcome to TOL.
Cabel Adams: Hi Dave, thank you.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. You call yourself a mixed reality artist. What does that phrase mean?
Adams: Well to me, what it means is I’m creating art where parts of my art are real. Take a picture and on top of that picture, I might overlay some 3D pictures, maybe a 3D model to try to fool people. So this piece of art is partly real, but it’s also partly fake. I call that mixed reality.
Miller: Can you describe what the Chucky Cheese virtual world that you created looks like, and we’ll have a link on our website so people can see it, but in case they haven’t seen it yet, can you describe what you created?
Adams: I went to a mall near my house, and there’s a big giant arcade there and it’s kind of a dark arcade and it’s probably the size of a big Walmart. It’s got lots of exciting games, it kind of looks like a casino. And I had kind of a concept and fantasized about the games that would be in a Chucky Cheese. So I put some real kind of dark games in there, I think there’s the Chuck E. Cheese rat on a spinning board that you can throw knives at. There’s a stabbing range, there’s a pizza parlor, there’s a prize booth, there’s a tunnel, there’s a severed bowel play tunnel that looks like a giant intestine that’s been severed by a knife. And then you have more conventional games that a regular arcade would have.
Miller: Where did you come up with the idea of combining Chuck E. Cheese, a family friendly pizza place, with Chucky, the knife wielding maniacal doll?
Adams: I think that I was kicking this concept around since I was in about third grade.
Miller: That makes such sense. It’s a genius idea, but it also seems like the kind of thing, a third grader . . . I mean, it’s amazing, it hasn’t come that someone hasn’t created this before.
Adams: I agree with you there.
Miller: Okay, so for 30-plus years, somewhere in your brain that has been kicking around. Why do this now?
Adams: Well, I think I went through some hardship during COVID. Give you the quick backstory: I kind of got lonely and I went through a mental breakdown, I think. My family had separated from me, I was just kind of lashing out at people and I just didn’t have any inhibitions left in the world. And I just started doing art, not caring. Typically I’m kind of reserved and I would care what people thought about me, but I just wanted to get these ideas out and I didn’t care anymore. I just had fun with it. I was at this mall and saw this arcade and that idea resurfaced and it all made sense. I knew what I had to do.
Miller: Have you been an artist your whole life?
Adams: No. I started doing art about three or four years ago.
Miller: Just a little bit before the pandemic? And then with all of the issues you’re dealing with in your life, it seems like art became even more important.
Adams: Yeah, it did. I was kind of isolated during COVID. Like a lot of people I’m single, I work nights by myself and so I have a VR headset and I met some other artists online. And hanging out with those people doing art was the only bit of social nutrition I got, so it became very important to me and I spent all my free time doing that.
Miller: When you say hanging out with them doing art, meaning that you and other folks, you were in your own homes, wherever you were. But you were also sort of together because of virtual reality headsets?
Adams: Yeah. I use a program called Adobe Medium, and when I put on my headset, I have the option to select a friend online. It runs through the Facebook network. I select a Facebook friend and he has the same program and a headset. We both appear in the same three-dimensional room and we can work together and see what each other is working on, hang out, watch each other work. And for the last three or four years, this is pretty much all I’ve done. One or two other artists that I’ve just worked with all day. And I work nights, so I’m not able to get out a lot. And so that was my social life.
Miller: The Facebook responses to all of your work – and we can talk about some of your other projects – they’re really fascinating. Can you give us a sense for what folks started saying when the Chucky Cheese photos started appearing online?
Adams: Honestly, I don’t read a ton of the comments. But I have, and I feel like what I saw mostly kind of was the same thing I get with a lot of my art was, ‘is this real?’, ‘what the heck? I just found out this isn’t real. I’m so bummed, I’m so sad. This isn’t real.’ Those are general comments I get on my work.
Miller: Are people ever more than sad? Are they ever mad that what they really want to be real and thought was real isn’t real?
Adams: I’ve got a few nasty emails. I don’t know if there were people trolling me or but yeah, I’ve seen a few things that people were upset. I’ve seen people, they actually went to visit the place and they’re upset. I can understand that.
Miller: It’s a weird paradox there, because I imagine that you spent a lot of time crafting these images to look real and the better you do at that job, the higher chance it is that someone is going to be disappointed to find out that it’s not real.
Adams: Yeah, you’re right. It is a weird paradox. And I’m trying to sell it. I want people to think it’s real, and maybe that’s cruel of me. But I spend sometimes 100, 150 hours on an art piece, and I’ll spend weeks making sure every shadow is just perfect. I want to plant that seed in their brain and make them think it’s real. So they share that photo. That’s just what I do. I think it’s fun. And I think once people look at my profile, they get curious, look, they realize real quickly that it’s all fun. They see lots of goofy art on my page. So I feel like it’s innocent in that way.
Miller: I’m glad you mentioned shadows there, because that was actually one of the things that got me – and it’s not the kind of thing I think about in daily life is the shadows that actual objects make – but my eyes looked at the shadows and there was one of the things that I that made me think that this is real. It’s something that must be really important in terms of tricking us.
Adams: Yeah, that’s true. I think that your eye, your brain knows more than you think consciously you’re looking at. Your brain is looking for the shadows. It’s looking for subsurface scattering. There’s a few little detailed things that I spend lots of time on. I spend more time on that than the actual art piece. But that’s what sells it. Like you said, that’s what fools people.
Miller: What’s the appeal for you of making art through these various technologies?
Adams: It’s very hard for me. I honestly don’t like to be in my head for the last few years. I’ve had problems like a lot of people, and it’s very hard when I’m in there doing VR. I am not able to think about my life. I’m just concentrating on the tools, and I guess it’s an escape from my life to be honest. I think maybe how people might drink alcohol when they’re sad, to escape their life. I just use it to escape.
Miller: What are the tools that you use to make your art?
Adams: Well I use a virtual reality headset. I use a virtual reality sculpting application made by Adobe called Medium. And that’s pretty much like you’re sculpting clay. It’s the same kind of workflow: you squirt out a blob of clay in 3D. And use your hands to mold that to the shapes. So that’s the primary tool I use to make my 3D objects and it looks real. I’m walking around, and that’s Adobe Arrow. That’s an augmented reality program.
Miller: So you take video of a real place and then you add created objects that are made to look like they exist in what actually is a real place?
Adams: I do that to confuse people. Yeah, so I go in there with a lidar. My phone has a lidar scanner on it. So I’ll go into this arcade, 3D scan it. I’ll put my model in there and then I’ll turn on my video camera and walk around and videotape it just like it’s real.
Miller: Wait, your phone has lidar? When I’ve heard about lidar in the past, it’s what I imagine to be incredibly expensive, scanning things that are on airplanes when they’re looking for seismic things, but your phone has it?
Adams: It was $80,000 about 10 years ago to get one of those. I looked into it. Yeah, I think that the Pro versions do it, the iPhone 12, 13, 14 Pro versions come with it. I know it’s kind of cheap technology now, and lots of people are using those. You can take your iPhone into a museum and scan their statues and go home and 3D print ‘em. A lot of people don’t know you have them. But yeah, that technology is everywhere now.
Miller: Let’s talk about some of the other projects you’ve worked on. This summer, you made images of what appeared to be a hot air balloon festival taking place in the skies over Eugene, featuring the faces of Freddy Krueger and Darth Vader and other folks. What sparked this idea?
Adams: My town, through something called the World Track Championships this summer, which would be kind of the equivalent of like the Olympics, was a huge deal. We had a lot of elite athletes from all over the world here competing. I believe it brought about 100,000 people, they said. Anyways, I hang out in these parks all day. I’m a photographer. I like to shoot flowers. Our town got overrun with outsiders, and the city started throwing these fancy events. They cleared out the homeless camps. They just did a lot of things that I wasn’t real happy about, to appeal to these outsiders. And I just thought it would be funny to throw something ugly and horrible online. In the middle of all these pictures going on of this Olympic-type event. I thought it would be funny to use some hashtags and try to embed my pictures in there to get into everybody’s head. So I came up with this concept. They sculpted these characters for weeks. And that was it. I decided that I would post one at 10 in the morning. I wanted to make it look like a real balloon festival. If I was to post all these photos at once in different places, it wouldn’t seem real. So I posted the first photo at 10 a.m. And an hour later I posted more and kind of had pictures, small different areas of town where I thought a balloon should go and I posted them.
Miller: How did people respond?
Adams: I was a little scared and shocked. Everybody thought this was the first time I’ve done a mixed reality project like this, and tagged the place and tried to kind of prank people. Everybody thought it was real, right out of the gates. I think within the first hour I had like 100 shares, which is 100 times more than normal. I think in a few hours it was in the thousands. People were driving where – you can look at my comments – people were outside trying to see these driving around, people from other towns were asking me how long this festival’s going on. They wanted to come over, and I tried to get on there and tell everybody it was a spoof. But by that time people had hijacked it and just stolen the post, the pictures, and it was all over the country, and they put their own narrative on it, and it kind of got out of hand.
Miller: Am I right that some people argued with you? You would say this is not real. And then people said, ‘yeah, no, it is. I saw them’?
Adams: [Laughing] You can see that on my feed.
Miller: I don’t know what to make of that. How do you explain it?
Adams: I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like that happen. But I realized the power of images and social media and kind of like a mass hallucination maybe? I don’t know, it was weird, and I understood the power of it when that happened, and I realized I had to be a little bit careful how I did things, you know.
Miller: Well, it’s interesting you say that because, I mean, obviously you’re doing this for fun. The work itself, as you noted, it’s also a kind of therapy, but in terms of the work you’re putting out into the world, there’s whimsy to it and you’re trying to make people happy in some way. But there is a societal dark side to this whole world as well: deep fakes, and fake news and people being manipulated, not for fun purposes, but to overthrow elections, or whatever. How do you think about the power that you have?
Adams: I think it makes me feel good as an artist. Here’s the scoop: I choose the stupidest concepts because I know I’m going to make them hyper-realistic. So I choose real stupid concepts. I feel like I’m powerful and I can sell these concepts. It does make me feel kind of powerful, and like I’m fooling people, and that’s just the truth of it.
Miller: But you’re not intentionally taking actual figures in the world like politicians and making it seem like they’re saying things.
Adams: No, no, no, no. I’m not into politics at all. That’s something I’ll never do. I’ll never mess with a person or politician. Yeah, I’m just doing all fun, whimsical, playful, imaginary kind of concepts, and that’s what I want to do, and I believe that’s what I’ll always do.
Miller: Are you interested in making money from this?
Adams: I’m not really. I’ve never had money. I don’t want it. I know the stigma attached to it. If that was a byproduct someday, but for right now, I don’t know anything about how to make money from art. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in an art gallery. I just like doing this for fun.
Miller: What are you working on right now?
Adams: Well, I’ve got a few big projects . . .
Miller: Are you walking away from the mic to do your work right now?
Adams: No, no, I’m just walking around my house, I’m kind of A.D.D. Yeah, I went to Lebanon, Oregon the other day to visit my son, and we were driving around town. And I saw a dinner train in the middle of town, a steam train from the 1800s, beautiful train. And I about jumped out of my car while I was driving to take pictures, and I realized right there, that was my next project. So I’m having some fun with that. I’m turning that into typical, serious cable nightmare-style art piece. I’ll be posting it soon. You guys will probably see that here within the week.
Miller: So it’ll be some kind of train but turned into a monster.
Adams: Yeah, something like that. I don’t want to give too much away. But that’s typically what I have planned with that.
Miller: Fair enough. What do you see as the broader future of virtual reality art, and just the way virtual reality could play in our lives?
Adams: The big trend I’m seeing right now is the artificial intelligence with art. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. There’s a lot of programs like Dali by Google, there’s Stable Diffusion. These programs are real smart and you can prompt them with just words and they’ll come up with 3D models, images that you can’t – even a guy like me that’s an expert at faking stuff – I can’t tell the difference. Where I see this going in the future, I believe here soon, within a few years, you’ll be able to put on your headset and prompt scenarios say, ‘hey, put me in a field being chased by zombies’ and this is gonna look so real, you won’t know the difference. That’s where I see things heading with this. With artificial intelligence takes over. It’s already taken over a lot of art jobs. So I see it. I see it going to artificial intelligence.
Miller: And that scenario of, we put on our glasses, goggles, whatever, and say put me in a field with zombies chasing me. Is that something you look forward to?
Adams: No, not me personally. I don’t play games, really, in VR. I’m just there to sculpt the new art. If I was 14, yes, that would be all I would look forward to. And I’m glad that I’m not a young kid with this kind of technology, because I probably wouldn’t have made it out of grade school. This stuff’s real fun, real exciting. I think it’s powerful, and I’m a little bit worried for our culture. I think artificial intelligence, it’s a very scary thing. It’s very convincing. It’s already online. I honestly have a hard time knowing what’s real and what’s not with anything now.
Miller: Cabel Adams, thanks very much for joining us.
Adams: Thank you.
Miller: That’s Cabel Adams. He is a self-described mixed reality artist.
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