Carne Y Arena (Flesh and Sand) – A Marriage Between the Heart of Humanity and Technology

You feel the dirt on your feet, your ears are ringing from the sound of the sirens and helicopters- you didn’t expect the wind blast from the chopper. There is nothing but black in your field of vision, but you can’t shake the images of the young boy crying out in pain, his heart visible in the foreground of the flashing lights. As you become acutely aware of your racing heart, the wind and the chaos die down. At that moment someone removes your headset and you realize that in just six and a half minutes you were transported to an alternate dimension- a reality that thousands of Mexican immigrants live trying to seek refuge in the United States. You have literally walked a mile, or at least a few minutes, in someone else’s shoes.

Described by its Director as a marriage between the heart of humanity and technology, the experience you just walked through is titled Carne Y Arena (Flesh and Sand). Produced by Legendary Entertainment, this project is the creation of Academy Award winning Director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is best known for his works The Revenant, Birdman, and Babel. The project uses groundbreaking immersive audio, stellar visuals, and virtual reality technology that transports the audience to the Mexican American border in order to deliver a full sensory experience. Carne Y Arena was designed to create empathy by letting you walk barefoot with a group of Mexican immigrants attempting to cross the United States border.

Iñárritu and his team of writers created a compelling story and vision, designed to drum up feelings of empathy for the end user. They knew that the technology would have to be ahead of its time in order to pull this off. Creating a virtual reality experience that met the vision of the director was barely within the limits of VR at the time. The challenge was figuring out a way to marry the heart of humanity and technology. 209 group’s original involvement was simply to provide a quote for a passive optical motion capture system. After fully understanding the vision of the creators, we brought in our partner, OptiTrack, to assist in a solution. Founder and CSO of 209 group, Tom Armbruster, explains the OptiTrack solution:

“When we were using the passive optical markers, the tracking was solid, but it required that the HMD have an antenna/marker cluster on it to track. It was pretty fragile, and they were concerned that the users (public) would break them or put their hands over them. It also meant that the mocap cameras would have the large IR strobes on them around the tracking area, making them hard to conceal and those couldn’t be visible to the users either to deliver the end result.

By switching to active LEDs, we were able to embed them into the HMD, and because each LED is uniquely identified, they can be partially occluded, and the head will still track perfectly. AND, they weren’t exposed to be easily broken. That also allowed us to use the Slim cameras which don’t have IR strobes and are very small, making them easier to conceal on the stage, and, in turn, making the end user unaware of their presence.”

Carne Y Arena Virtual Production

With the motion capture problem solved, there was still one problem. The production team could not run the full experience through Epic Games’ Unreal Engine at the time, as it was originally designed. It was limited by the computing power that was running the experience. The project was so ambitious that normal methods of rendering a VR experience were simply not sufficient for the quality that was needed for the full breadth of the Director’s intended vision. The production team tried every option to combat this compute problem, including turning off lighting features, hair and clothing effects, and slowing the whole experience. While it would allow some version of the experience to run, none of these solutions created an immersive experience that would deliver the impact needed to truly marry the heart of humanity and technology, as the director intended.

He knew that for this experience to be as powerful as his vision, the virtual world needed to feel seamless- an extension of the actual world. 209 group was engaged again when the production team’s plans went up in flames… literally. The computing system that was being used caught fire while trying to run the full experience. Knowing that 209 group had a long-standing relationship with a supercomputing company, and after one of our other partners, OptiTrack, created such a flawless solution for motion capture, the production team asked us to help piece this puzzle together. In a matter of days, they developed and delivered a flawless compute solution. They were able to run the entire experience at full speed for the first time by leveraging their innovative liquid cooling solution. The supercomputers have powered every iteration of Carne Y Arena since that day, with no reported failures (or fires).

So, you may be asking if the experience actually delivers on creating that marriage between the heart of humanity and technology. This passage from Paisley Smith of Immerse News can answer that question for you with a brief walk-through of her experience.

“Suddenly an intense wind was blasting — sand started flying, as did everything in the physical world. I looked up and saw the lights of a helicopter illuminating me and the people I was now traveling with. What seemed like police cars pulled up in front of us. The people surrounding me began to kneel. I hesitated for a split second before joining them in the dirt. The rocks dug into my knees as the wind continued to blast. I touched the sandy dirt with my fingers. From that point I just kept as quiet as possible, hardly moving, as I watched the police interrogate the people. I felt frozen but reminded myself, this is just a virtual world, this is just a virtual world. You are not really here. You are not really here.” ( 8/8/2019)

Would she have had the same experience if fighting bulky, sensitive hardware while trying to navigate a stage full of large motion capture cameras? Would the immersive sound have been as believable without the matching visuals to go along with it? Would she have had to remind herself that this was not, in fact, the real world? Based on her recount of the experience, I think we can all agree that the answer is an undeniable “no”. That is the difference between doing the job and doing the job as the Director envisioned.

Since its first launch, Carne Y Arena has been awarded countless awards, including the Special Achievement Academy Award for exceptional contribution to motion picture. Academy President, John Bailey, says Carne Y Arena is “more than even a creative breakthrough in the still emerging form of virtual reality, it viscerally connects us to the political and social realities of the US-Mexico border.”

Carne Y Arena continues to inspire creatives and storytellers around the world, encouraging them to push the boundaries of what they think is possible. Its inspiring the tech community as well. As these technologies are being developed and put in the hands of those creatives, it will be exciting to see what kind of stories can be told.

For more information about our role in Carne Y Arena or to find out how 209 group can help with your next project, go to

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