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Star Wars vs. Alien VR Shootout

22 May

I’m back from two terrifying trips to the outer limits of civilization. But while I was in Orange County, I checked out two of the most cutting-edge location-based VR experiences on the planet: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire and ALIEN: DESCENT.

Some quick background. In the last few years, VR has generated a lot of buzz and comes in a lot of flavors. I’m specifically talking about the free-roaming, location-based flavor, which seemed too far-out to be feasible even just a few years ago.

– Free-roaming: you can walk around while in VR, thanks to some incredibly cool tracking technology. This is something of a minor miracle, considering that VR effectively makes you blind to your actual environment.

– Location-based: the experience incorporates features that are exclusively available in a specific, purpose-built venue.

Ie8ed661ff8c118bf8d4cb465400a9a59n other words, these experiences are likely to be more sophisticated and immersive than what is available with a typical home-based setup.

Both experiences were awesome, but I couldn’t help asking myself: which experience was more awesome? There isn’t an easy answer to this, so I did the obvious thing: generated a custom 6-point evaluation matrix to drive an obsessively thorough analysis.

Suited up? Blaster charged? Let’s have a VR shootout!

Spoilers ahead!

1. RR. Yup, Real Reality. You know, all that boring stuff that surrounds us when we’re not trying to escape it by pouring ourselves into yet another screen. From the moment I arrived, I was tuned into how effectively the non-virtual environment of these location-based experiences set me up for the main virtual attraction.

1_2018_DTD.0503.C-750x501.jpgSTAR WARS: At the Downtown Disney location, the exterior theming and signage is primarily oriented on letting you know that you’re at THE VOID — the company that produced the experience. A few Star Wars display window graphics hint at what’s inside, but the lobby is similarly VOID-oriented. Overall, I was picking up on a multiplex design sensibility that enforces a clear distinction between the framing experience of the hosting facility and the show itself. I didn’t really think too much about this until I saw . . . .

alien-interior-2ALIEN: The experience and storytelling begins with exterior theming that features large-scale graphics that make you feel like you’re entering a futuristic outpost. The story continues inside where dark, moody lighting and sound effects, impressive set-pieces and wall graphics, costumed attendants, and even a full-sized Alien sculpture set the stage for deep-space adventure. It was fantastic to feel like a part of the story from the second I walked in.

WINNER: ALIEN

GEparkerpen42. Q-Factor: As much as these experiences should be about immersive storytelling and transparent technology, there is an undeniable Bond-esque gadget fetish that temporarily takes over when you’re gearing up for your mission.

STAR WARS: The VOID uses a custom head-mounted display (HMD) that is reportedly higher resolution than what is generally available to consumers, and essentially unavailable anywhere other than in a true VOID experience. Sweet! Players also suit up with an “armored vest” that includes a special feature; more on that later. Since the experience transforms you into a stormtrooper, the vest and helmet feel very appropriate.

ALIEN: The HMD in this experience is actually a Gear VR. It’s a longer technical conversation to explain why this is so cool, but it’s basically the David to the VOID’s Goliath. Imagine heading onto the freeway on your bicycle only to discover that you’re effortlessly going 85. In addition, cyborgian devices are strapped to each forearm and shin and seem to provide a crucial tracking function, while making you feel like you’re gearing up for a dicey situation . . . which you are.

WINNER: TIE for innovation, novelty and theming

3. 4D: This is at the heart of why these experiences are different than what you can do at home. 4D generally refers to physical special effects that engage your other senses beyond what you’re seeing and hearing (in 3D) via the HMD and enhance that sense of disappearing into the experience.

STAR WARS: Based on my experience with The VOID’s excellent Ghostbusters show, 4D is something they do well, and Star Wars was no exception. Floor haptics, fans, and heaters are all used effectively to provide real tactile feedback that related to the virtual environment. There were also unexpected effects like scent enhancements, creative floor textures, fog blasts, and a couple props you could touch. A nice detail was that the armored vests also contained haptics that generated a stun effect when hit by enemy fire.

alien-exterior-detail-1.jpgALIEN: Fans and heaters were also in play, and floor haptics were used to drive epic “elevator” experiences that powerfully enhanced the visual design by creating the sense that you were moving through outrageously large volumes of space. There were also some rickety floor surfaces that added to the tactile sense of environment.

WINNER: STAR WARS: Slight edge with variety of 4D and creative uses.

4. Environment: VR is most exciting when it takes you somewhere that you otherwise couldn’t go. While this is primarily achieved by visual design, the underlying physical layout of the space can be designed to take advantage of some clever “sleight-of-foot” techniques. As you physically walk around, your sense of the actual physical space can be subtly manipulated to change your perception of the virtual space, which in turns adds to the sense of being transported into a new world.

Star-Wars-VR-Featured-10112017STAR WARS: This experience was full of surprises and moved you through lots of different environments from the inside of a transport ship to the surface of Mustafar to multiple levels of an Imperial base. There was an exciting sense of discovery and it was not easy to keep track of where you might actually be in real space, nor would you ever really want to, unless you’re a geek who can’t help trying to reverse engineer these experiences. The variety of locations is enriched by gorgeously rendered visual details that make you feel like you’re living the ultimate fan dream of walking through a Star Wars movie.

ALIEN: The impact of the sense of volume that I mentioned in the 4D section cannot be overemphasized. There are moments that are simply jaw-dropping as you feel dwarfed by the scale of the vast, dangerous caverns that you “move” down through before rising back up to the mysteries of the planetary surface. However, it’s hard not to notice that the layout of the experience essentially requires you to walk back and forth between a couple of discrete locations in the physical space, which are virtually reskinned as the story progresses. While this may seem like a killjoy technical observation, it’s not hard to figure it out, and it creates a subtle predictability that robs the experience of a certain element of surprise.

WINNER: STAR WARS

5. Story: Even the most breathtaking visuals will get old quickly if there isn’t an underlying story that gives a compelling reason to be walking through this world. This is a loaded topic given the huge popularity of all the IP involved, so I’ll try to keep it neutral.

an1-268229_r.jpegSTAR WARS: A video preshow provides a mission briefing about retrieving a powerful weapon that has fallen into the hands of the Empire. Your mission is to infiltrate the Imperial base while disguised as a stormtrooper. The story continues to be developed through non-player characters that provide additional information and react to your presence. As the experience unfolds, you acquire a blaster, so that you can . . . react back. Once shooting ensues, story goes somewhat by the wayside. In the climactic scene, we come face-to-face with Darth Vader who is throwing down some of that nasty lightsaber fu that was notably featured in Rogue One. There’s a surprising twist in this scene that ultimately provides a satisfactory resolution to the narrative.

alien-sculpture-4-effects.jpgALIEN: A video preshow prepares you for transport to an alien-infested mining station with the mission of rescuing survivors. This is probably incredibly subjective, but this felt like a cleaner, more direct in media res setup that fine-tuned my sense of agency in the experience from the get-go. The story is skillfully communicated in a visceral, mostly non-verbal way resulting in a more organic narrative of exploration as opposed to moving through a linear series of staged scenes. It was refreshing to live the story rather than be told the story.

However, there are a couple of big misses. First, you don’t really save anybody — in fact, in one place, one of the survivors begs you to end it for him. It wasn’t clear whether this was meant to be a narrative twist, or whether this confirms that the experience is mostly about shooting stuff. Second, there is no Queen Alien or other climactic showdown. In fact, when the experience ended, I was actually surprised and thought that maybe there had been a glitch that had ended it prematurely. The scariest, biggest Alien in the show is the life-size sculpture in the lobby, which was super cool, but set an unfulfilled expectation for me.

WINNER: STAR WARS

6. gary-larson-far-side-cartoon-what-we-say-to-dogs-blah-blah-gingerInteractivity: Arguably, the most compelling opportunity for this type of entertainment is providing guests with the ability to engage and affect both the environment and other players. In both experiences, a good portion of the interactivity involves shooting stuff. While attractions that feature shooting can be incredibly fun, even just holding a gun can be highly distracting and can make it hard to focus on other details. Both experiences seemed aware of this and handled it in different ways.

STAR WARS: One of the first things you do in the VR part of the experience is sit down on a bench. Now this may seem preposterously mundane, but sitting down in VR is actually quite amazing. When your brain and butt follow through in what amounts to an incredible leap of faith to make contact with something that you technically can’t see, it’s actually pretty cool. As mentioned above, you acquire your blaster a few scenes later in a similar fashion, by reaching out and grabbing a real item that you can’t actually see. Blaster in hand, you get plenty of chances to use it., including a pretty heavy firefight with some stormtroopers who have figured out that you shouldn’t be there. The performance and calibration of the gun is well-tuned and it was very satisfying to carefully aim a shot at a far-off target and hit it. A couple scenes feature puzzle-type interactions that require you to do something that isn’t shooting in order to advance. These interactions were few and far between though and didn’t require much group cooperation.

alien-descent-vr-arcade-experience-wireless-virtual-reality_vrroomALIEN: Let’s be honest. This one is mostly about the shooting, but oh what delicious shooting. Your gun fires laser bolts as well as grenades, each with its own trigger or button, with different reload periods and damage. The gun also has a laser sight that you can turn on or off (for extra challenge). Just sayin’, it was incredibly satisfying to fire this gun. The vast virtual spaces (see Environment above) for your projectiles to traverse was a major enhancement. Also, because of the way the story is setup and developed, I found myself communicating and interacting more with the other player as we worked together to shoot our way through.

A puzzling but intriguing twist is that the experience is launched with two teams of two players who are sent to different physical staging areas. After entering the virtual experience, you see what appears to be the other team, although I’m still not sure whether that was really them, or just an artificial construct to suggest a larger-scale experience. There simply wasn’t a payoff to this setup, and I didn’t find a scenario that required a collaborative effort, but it would have been really cool if there was.

WINNER: NEITHER. Yeah, I know the other word for that is TIE, but this is the area that needs to shine if this type of entertainment is going to be seen as anything other than a next-gen video game.

OVERALL WINNER: STAR WARS

On the basis of sheer points, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire blasts its way to victory by tallying a decisive win in two categories and a slight edge in a third. No slouch though, ALIEN: DESCENT posted a decisive win in one category and showed up strong in every other category.

CONCLUSION

I have been enthusiastically recommending both experiences, and feel that they represent solid strides forward for the VR industry as a whole, which seems to be floundering a bit in the Trough of Disillusionment.

Neither experience is perfect, and there’s still a huge opportunity to create something that pushes interactive capabilities to another level. For many people, one of these experiences may even be their first exposure to this type of sophisticated VR, if not VR period. The stakes are high to deliver on the hype, but the high quality and entertainment value of both shows is a good sign of things to come.

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I’m That Guy Who Had His Phone On At The Movies

1 Aug

Remember that annoying dude in the movie theater who seemed to be constantly tapping away at something on his phone during the movie? Yeah, that was me, but if you do remember me, then chances are you were doing the same thing while watching Late Shift at AT&T SHAPE.

20170714_201137 copy

AT&T SHAPE was a 2-day event held at the Warner Bros. Studios in LA that explores the convergence of technology and entertainment. Late Shift bills itself as “a cinematic interactive movie experience,” and promises to be the decades-delayed wish fulfillment of every kid who grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and wondered, “Wouldn’t it be cool if movies worked like that?” I wandered through the iconic streets of the studio’s back lot toward the stunning and luxurious Steven J. Ross Theater to find out.

Screenshot_20170714-201155.pngThe setup was surprisingly simple. Guests were asked to download the lightweight CtrlMovie app on their smartphone, connect to a specific WiFi network in the theater, launch the app, and be patient. Introducing a “bring-your-own” technology requirement into an entertainment venue is always a gamble, but the folks at CtrlMovie deserve a lot of credit for making the process irreducibly simple. Nevertheless, that didn’t keep me from feeling like a dirty philistine for brazenly having my phone on and in my lap as the lights went down.

Despite our fascination with technologically sophisticated entertainment experiences, we generally don’t want the entertainment to be upstaged by the technology, and often prefer the latter to be “invisible.” As a feature length proof of concept of the CtrlMovie technology, Late Shift was clearly designed to enhance, but not totally up-end the familiar moviegoing experience. Even with about 500 people in the audience, the sea of low-profile black screens was fairly unnoticeable. So far, so good, but I knew the real trick would be in how they would pull off the actual interactivity.

Screenshot_20170714-202332Late Shift tells the story of an innocent guy who gets caught up in a heist gone wrong. At various points during the movie, a small subtitle appears on the screen providing 2-3 choices for our hero. These same choices also appear in the mobile app, allowing viewers to vote for what they want the hero to do. After a few seconds, the subtitle is updated to indicate the option chosen by the majority of the audience while the movie continues along the chosen path. The process is completely intuitive and requires no training, and the entire decision sequence lasts 6-7 seconds.

Probably pretty much what you expected, but the magic part is that as this is happening, there is absolutely no awkward pause, technical glitch, or sloppy cut to indicate that anything out of the ordinary has just happened. After I was a few dozen choices in and had gotten the hang of it, I tried to pay closer attention to how they pulled it off, but it generally refused to give up its secrets. Through a combination of classic misdirection, clever shot planning and editing, and expert timing, I was happy to end up falling for the seamless effect each time.

For the first few choices, the audience was giddy and even giggled aloud at the novelty of our seemingly godlike powers. As the movie progressed, we directed our hero’s destiny with the second-nature reflexes of deity savants. I was surprised at how seamless it was to bounce back and forth between the two modes of experiencing the story. I’ve justly railed against terrible second-screen efforts, but this one was surprisingly effective.

As I tapped my way through the movie, I observed the interactivity starting to develop its own identity rather than just serving as a bridge between the technology and the story. I was getting involved in the story in ways that may not have been intended by the filmmakers, and was approaching each individual decision with a different motivation. These various motivations seemed to feed off each other in a bizarrely interconnected way, and developed a parallel significance with the on-screen narrative developments. I’m still on the fence about whether this meta-experience is fundamentally at odds with the filmmakers’ intentions, or an inadvertent side effect that might turn out to be a good thing. Here’s a quick stroll through the garden of forking paths.

Social
: A visit to the movies already has its own unique social dynamic, even if it’s essentially a murmuring undercurrent of common courtesy. Late Shift is unequivocally a group experience though.  When you make a choice, you’re well aware that you’re either in the majority or the minority of those around you. Whether I had a string of “wins” or “losses” or a mix of both, I found myself momentarily reflecting on the mysteries of groupthink. It was a realtime trip into the eye of the social hurricane of opinions and trends and likes that are usually just a dull and distant roar in the background.

Atlanta Falcons Fans Watch Super Bowl LI Against The New England PatriotsSport: The audience would often react to various outcomes with the types of “YEAHHs” or “AWWWs” that you would expect from a football game. Disappointment makes sense since you can easily convince yourself that a better version of this movie exists and unfortunately, you’re not watching it. Kind of like rooting for the Falcons during Super Bowl LI. It’s also ironic since being able to watch the movie your way is one of the selling points of this experience, but see Social above and welcome to the human experience.

Fantasy: The plot of this movie doesn’t pull any punches, and it doesn’t take long for our naive hero to get in deep doo-doo. As someone who’s calling the shots for him, it’s natural to strongly identify with him. At first, I really wanted to help him, because I was approaching each decision based on what I would do, which was generally along the lines of: these are the types of bad people that my parents warned me about, and I should get the hell away from them. Then, I remembered I was watching a movie, and went in the total opposite direction, basing my choices on what would be the most bad-ass thing this guy could be doing right now because I wanted to see it on screen and live vicariously through him.

Prince_of_Persia_1989_Traps
Sadism: It didn’t take long for the sense of fantasy to evolve into something darker. Once it sank in that me and the guy on the screen were in fact two different people, and that my vicarious enjoyment of his pleasure was tangential at best, I went in the other direction. Seeing him as a helpless pawn under my (partial) control, I wondered what kind of horrible situations I could maneuver him into. It became less like a story and more like one of those video games with irresistibly grisly scenarios that are perversely satisfying to watch play out.

Moral: After binging on competitive, delusional fantasies of grandeur and sadistic spectacle, it was time to consider the consequences, In other words, Vegas at about 4:12 AM. Our hero was in pretty deep, and what had started out to a coerced participation in a Robin Hood style heist had turned into a disaster, and it was basically our fault. The trope of an innocent person perched on a slippery slope of morally questionable decisions provides the engine for powerful narratives from Hamlet to The Godfather. For the last few thousand years, we have tried to understand how and why it is that stories like this can touch us at a deep level. Even though Late Shift drew on similar themes, I felt that some of the climactic impact may have been dissipated in our role in reaching it. I’m fascinated by these stories because I DON’T want the moral responsibility of figuring out what happens to the hero. Or rather, I want to experience an artist’s thoughtful perspective on it, and evaluate it against my own inclinations. It’s that interplay between a story and our reaction to it that allows it to speak to us even over the gulf of decades and centuries. In this instance, it felt like we had been tampering with the engine and that as a result, our mileage would vary.

ee5036d62d34ed78c8047dce5e8b666bI kept trying not to “go there” by overanalyzing  it, but I always enjoy experiencing something that makes me think about storytelling in a new way. In what I initially perceived as shortcomings, I saw opportunities and questions for further exploration. Would this be more/less fun to watch alone? How about a group of your closest friends? How about as a form of speed dating? Would it work better as a 10-minute short? Are some genres and stories more compatible? Does everything just work when you remove the moral weight from the narrative? Does this need to take place in a movie theater at all? I look forward to experiencing or helping to create some of the answers to these types of questions. In the meantime though, the phone’s going back into my pocket.

My Year of Walking Through Darkness: Part 2

3 Nov

Birth: check. Death: check. And now onto the business of living. Confused? Read Part 1.

bruce-lee-quote-darkness

3. The Rope (October 2016)

hqdefault-2It’s increasingly common to see “horror” experiences on nearly a year-round basis, but the best work tends to be saved for October. Amidst these high expectations and as a follow-up to last year’s debut, this year’s “signature” show did not disappoint, despite having scant resemblance to anything that had come before it.

The Rope seemed intent on changing up many of the fixtures found at earlier experiences. First, they managed to deliver many of their personal, solitary experiences in the context of a larger group of six. I thought that the intimate nature of the experience would be compromised by the group dynamic, but it was mostly intact. Second, and more interestingly, this was the first production that truly led with story. Previous productions had narratives & themes, but felt more impressionistic, open-ended, and rawly experiential. By contrast, The Rope had characters, backstories, plot lines, settings, literal setpieces, and other trappings that one would typically expect from “theater.” Before you go off thinking that they were getting all Tennessee Williams on us though, where it got interesting is that the show was also a game.

After an introductory scene, we were each given a separate mission to locate somebody in the story world and perform some action. We would receive special items as a result of completing tasks, and were directed to periodically check in with a sage character for more guidance. The various character encounters had interactive components that sometimes required choices that seemed to alter the outcome of the overall story. In the final scene, all of the guests were reunited as a group and shared our tokens with a final character who provided closure and parting wisdom about both our individual and collective experiences.

The production design was more ambitious and varied than in prior productions and provided an appropriately surreal backdrop to this journey to a fantasy time & place. And as would be expected, everything was tinged with a dark intensity that never allowed you to completely feel at ease, in a good way. This was October after all.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and unexpected way to spend an evening. The various experiments: group experiences, game mechanics, stronger storylines all felt well-considered and were more successful than not. However, in embracing a more traditional framework, they took on some of the heavy lifting that goes with it. In an impressionistic, solitary experience, a good portion of the show ends up happening inside your own head. There isn’t really a good way to tell a story halfway, and it felt like there were some troubling loose ends. Afterward, I had a conversation with one of my fellow seekers that started with him saying aloud to no-one in particular, perhaps just the building in which we had just spent the last hour, “Does anybody else here feel just a little bit frustrated?”

There were spurts of story, teases of backstory, vapor trails of character arc, that just-woken-from dream sense that you kind of get what’s going on, and the dawning realization that you don’t. That hunger for a full meal not just a succession of artful plates. I wanted to know more about everything I had heard and everyone I had met, and I had the sinking feeling that I wouldn’t, or worse that there was nothing left to know.

2. Fear Is What We Learned Here (October 2015)

film-leader-21I can remember it so clearly. Parking my car on the unfamiliar suburban street near an address that I had only been provided in the past day. Walking alone up a dark path, carefully following the provided directions to choose the right path at appropriate landmarks, and finally approaching the figure wearing a black robe, standing silently. Waiting for me. And thinking to myself, “Now what?!”

Fear Is What We Learned Here was a fresh installment in the type of solitary, extreme horror experience pioneered by BLACKOUT. It mixed a dark minimalist sensibility with clever low-tech effects and artful touches in a way that was beautiful, disorienting, exhilarating, and unexpected. All of this was executed with a homegrown sensibility that felt raw and unpredictable, and even a bit dangerous in a way that most productions can never achieve. It was the show I felt luckiest to have experienced in 2015, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It exceeded many of my expectations of what I could want from this type of show, and helped set a new standard of what I would want to experience in the future.

So why wasn’t it #1?

1. Shoshin (May 2016)

hqdefaultAfter Parturition‘s relatively disappointing follow-up to Fear‘s dark splendor, I was wary of Shoshin. From what scant information that was shared beforehand, it seemed to be an immersive theater show about Zen Buddhism. Huh? Exactly. Should I sit this one out? Have these guys gone off the rails? Did I have them all wrong? Was Fear a lucky hit? But it was May; October was months away, and I could hear the darkness calling.

I found myself in the same neck of the woods that I had been to for Fear, and some of the setups were familiar. Show up to an address, don a robe hanging from a tree, and wait to see what happens. I flowed into a 90-minute mostly outdoor walking journey staged in plain sight in the green areas of a suburban community. I was fascinated to see the tropes of extreme horror seamlessly applied to an introspective odyssey of self-discovery and reflection that was challenging but gentle, strict but instructive. In the same way, that we have discovered that we must ultimately be alone in order to truly face that which we fear, Shoshin draws a similar parallel of intensity and gravity to the lifelong process of an individual’s search for meaning.

The format of the show was a procession through various stations and activities, some of which were entirely self-guided and without any performers. I did not feel rushed at any point and considering it was springtime in Southern California, it was mostly a pleasant, if not slightly peculiar way to spend some much-needed time outdoors. The final scene occurred indoors where I was an audience of one to an intense keyboard and vocal performance that was absolutely stunning. It was oddly cathartic — I occasionally return to that moment, and how unique it has been in my experiences.

On one hand, it would be easy to fault Shoshin for a reliance on other ideas — in this case, the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, from which it borrows liberally for much of its script. But the genius of Shoshin lies in how it brought those abstract theoretical ideas to life and made them interactive and compelling. I actually came away wanting to learn more about meditation, something that probably would have never happened if I had just tried reading the book.

Above all, this was my favorite show because of how absolutely different it was from Fear. It would have been easy for them to keep phoning it in and delivering dark, solitary, horrifying experiences, and I’d probably keep going to them. But Shoshin was a gutsy gamble that almost seemed designed to fail. Instead, the result was spectacularly transcendent. It not only broadens what can be achievable in a context of darkness and intensity, but elevates the potential of immersive theater across the board.

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Thank you to Screenshot Productions for your tireless ambition and fearless experimentation.

Ever seeking light, I look forward to whatever comes next.

My Year of Walking Through Darkness: Part 1

27 Oct

I was born, actualized, terrified, seeking, and died all in one year. Just not in that order.

In the past 12 months, I’ve participated in five experiences produced by Screenshot Productions, a prolific newcomer to the immersive theater scene. I’m a terrible person for not having blogged about any of their shows until now, so I’m trying something different — a retrospective ranking of their shows to date and a crack at collectively evaluating them as an evolving body of work.

i-601-waiver-devil-in-detailsFirst, some overall context. Los Angeles continues to be one of the best places to experience what can be loosely described as extreme haunted attractions. Unlike traditional haunted houses which are designed to accommodate hundreds if not thousands of guests per hour, these experiences are designed for smaller groups, and sometimes just individuals. They frequently require you to sign a personal liability waiver that allows them to break down traditional barriers by permitting them to touch you and generally subject you to more bodily intense treatment than would ever be allowed at most theme park events or family-friendly/amateur offerings. I’ve written about some of them before, and when they’re executed well, they can be uniquely thrilling and impactful experiences. I’m not going to beat around the bush, Blackout: elements was life-changing.

Last Fall, as “the season” was approaching, I was fortunate to have been given a tip to follow the Instagram page @whatwelearnedhere. This began a series of email exchanges that culminated in my favorite haunt experience of 2015, amidst a crowded and talented field (Alone, Wicked Lit, LA Haunted Hayride, to name a few outstanding options.)

What happened next was delightfully unexpected. In the subsequent year, I experienced four more productions from this tireless and ambitious group and was charmed, mystified, thrilled, and provoked by their work. Moreover, it became increasingly difficult to generically classify their shows as “haunted” or “horror” or “scary” although aesthetically, they continued to be strongly informed by those sensibilities. Instead, through a medium of intense one-on-one interactions in a milieu of dreadful uncertainty, I found myself absorbing philosophical teachings and having mild therapeutic breakthroughs. Hardly your typical haunted house.

That said, I occasionally came away feeling that they hadn’t quite hit the mark, even as their efforts have greatly expanded the scope of what is achievable with immersive theater. In every show, I feel like I see something I’ve never seen before, even if the execution is not perfect. And that’s why I keep coming back.

So, from least favorite to most favorite in my extremely personal opinion, here is what we learned in the past year.

stock-footage-leader-countdown-recorded-on-get-old-film-projection-bad-projector5. Parturition (January 2016)
This was their second show. On one hand it was the much-anticipated follow-up to their Fall 2015 experience which took everybody by surprise. After the true horror of the Christmas season, and the subsequent nationwide cultural hangover that is January — the announcement of a new show was a beacon of hope, even if it seemed to have been pulled together in a shockingly short period of time.

Parturition, a fancy word for giving birth, promised to be a show about being born. And they had introduced a new twist, after purchasing the ticket, you had the option of electing whether you wanted to do the experience in the nude, as in “naked as the day you were born.” Guests would participate one at a time, and there was also a small questionnaire with somewhat personal questions that set an expectation that each experience might be personalized.

Although I have ranked this fifth, I don’t necessarily think it was a bad show, but it nevertheless fell short for me. It felt like a series of beats that were loosely strung together, and none of them felt fully realized. It did not seem that any of the information that I had provided had actually been used to personalize the experience, which felt like both a missed opportunity and a failed expectation. In the climactic scene, you meet “your mother” in what is a tender counterpoint to the chaos and sensory overload of the preceding scenes. This was an atypically soothing and intimate exchange with a performer, not some cheap, disingenuous bait-and-switch to a horrific last laugh. As special as this scene was though, I still felt that it didn’t achieve its full potential. The experience ended, in what would evolve as a signature closing beat to many of their shows, with a precious moment of silent reflection before re-entering the normal world where I was no longer a newborn.

I left the experience with mixed feelings. I felt like they had rushed to pull this together and it showed. However, it was the first time I’d seen the tropes of horror and extreme experiences applied to a non-horror narrative. For me, it blew open a door that we’ve been sitting outside for the last few years. And through it, I could see a vast space to explore.

hqdefault4. Bardo Thodol (September 2016)
This was their fourth show, and the pragmatist in me couldn’t help noticing how close it was to what should really be their signature show of the year in October. I was concerned that like Parturition, it might have been rushed.

Bardo Thodol is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist text. From the typically cursory information provided beforehand,  I understood that this show would concern my recent passage into the afterlife after dying. Whether intentional or not, it could be seen as a bookend of sorts to Parturition. Like Parturition, I received a questionnaire beforehand, but this one was much more incisive and personal, and the responses demanded thought and reflection. I was also directed to download some  audio files and have them ready for playback for the experience itself, without listening to them beforehand — a delicious exercise in self-restraint. I’m a huge fan of engaging the experience before it actually begins, so all was good so far.

The experience itself began on a crowded city street, outside a nondescript building where the email instructions directed me to close my eyes and begin listening to the provided audio files. Once I was directed inside, the show proper began, and the first 2/3 of it featured some of the most intense moments I’d experienced in any production to date. Loud, disorienting, intimate, chaotic. I was dead after all and in transition. For the final 1/3, the mood shifted and I had a very personal interview with a bodiless voice about the information I had provided in my questionnaire. The dialogue was conducted in a reflective context — a look back at key points in my life. Even though I had recently provided the information, the preceding scenes allowed me to re-engage it in an unexpected and powerful context.

That said, I have ranked it fourth for a reason. Generally speaking, production design is not the strongest feature of any of these shows. In some cases, they are able to successfully use a minimalist asethetic as a cleverly-integrated design constraint. In this show though, it was a bit too ragged and ultimately felt distracting and unfinished. Also, much of the script appeared to be pulled from Bardo Thodol itself or similarly-themed philosophical texts and thus lacked in story and felt a bit forced and ultimately difficult to engage. What should have been a powerfully resonant experience felt somewhat cluttered and diluted with filler. The highs were high and the lows were low, and overall there was more that worked here than at Parturition.

Read the rest of the countdown in Part 2.

1-3

This Is What The Future Feels Like

6 Jun

how-did-you-do-that“What the hell did you just do to me?!” If I hadn’t actually spoken the words aloud, they were certainly running through my head (among other things), but let me set this up for you.

I’m an experience junkie. I’m especially interested in borderline crazy stuff that tests my limits: everything from extreme immersive horror experiences to Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation to raising kids. Even when I try something new though, the experience usually begins with the anticipation of what it might be and ends with a reconciliation of what it actually was. So it’s very rare for me to be totally and utterly blindsided. Hold onto that thought for a sec.

place_finger_hereI also produce interactive experiences. “Interactive” means something different to each person you ask, but I loosely define it as the integration of technology in an environment to extend, enhance, or personalize narrative possibilities. That “anything goes” vibe you’re picking up on is intentional.

ObamaWeCanOne of the most exciting and challenging phases of the production process is brainstorming with a group of creative people in a relatively untethered fashion. In some of these sessions, where anything is valid and the ideas are crackling with vision and potential, someone may ask me, “Is that doable?” Thankfully, I usually don’t need to have a ready answer in that type of session. At some point the execution of realistic solutions within the pesky limits of time, money, technology, etc., can be a creative art in itself.

When I noodle on some of the more challenging scenarios though, it often seems that the same technology limits keep popping up. I’ll sometimes daydream into a thought experiment of what would need to happen in order for those limits to begin to dissolve, and a couple high-level conclusions tend to recur:

1. We’re going to have to come up with some pretty creepy technology.
2. Our bodies will merge somewhat with technology.

gif-glitter-how-about-no-overlay-Favim.com-2079240This type of thinking quickly ventures away from the domain of viable experiences and into the realm of science fiction. In other words, it seems unlikely that we’ll get a practical glimpse of this kind of stuff anytime soon.

Or so I thought.

I get a lot of inspiration at events where I can connect with driven people who are doing interesting work and plummeting through their own personal rabbit holes of passion, often with fascinating results.

Cdhw9NmUsAAGVAi.jpg-large

Yup, a wig made of earbuds

When I attended SXSW Interactive this year, I was naturally drawn to the Interactive Expo. It was a refreshingly eclectic mashup of startups, universities, larger organizations, and individuals with only the coquettishly vague notion of “interactive” (there’s that word again) to connect them. I was most intrigued by a section that was dedicated to booths representing entire countries with exhibits that ranged from “we like tech and no, we’re not hungover” to specific demos.

In the Korea section, C-Lab, Samsung’s in-house incubator, was demo’ing a number of prototypes, and I saw a couple Gear VR kits being passed around so I dove in for a closer look. The guy at the booth had a headset in his hand that looked like a flimsy plastic rig for headphones, but without the headphones. It had a couple of small, approximately 1″ square foam blocks attached to either side and he placed it around the back of my head so that the blocks rested just under my ears. In other words, I was expecting Virtual Reality, but with nothing over my eyes or ears, I was pretty much just getting Reality. I didn’t come to SXSW for Reality.

b2Bf3KFjBq-10He stood in front of me holding a mobile phone, and to the best of my recollection he waved his hand over and across the screen and back, like a fumbling magician doing a trick that everybody knows isn’t going to work. And then he asked,”Did you feel that?”

And some part of me responded:

“What the hell did you just do to me?”

Because when he waved his hand across the phone, I MOVED! Or at least I felt like I did. It’s really hard to explain. My feet never left the ground, my body did not physically move in space, but I MOVED. I may have swayed, my line of sight may have shifted from side to side. The whole thing lasted about three seconds and was indescribably uncanny.

Once I had gotten over my shock of what happened, I asked him to do it again. And it happened again.

769f60059c56a56ad81e239b0668cae85b9.jpgThe device is called Entrim 4D, and it generates a small current that stimulates the vestibular system in a way that mimics the body’s response to actual motion. The purpose of this is to mitigate potential motion sickness caused by VR. Next, I did an actual VR demo of a racing experience, this time with a Gear VR rigged up with Entrim. With each turn of the virtual car, Entrim simulated the corresponding motion in my body, which was somewhat less off-putting since it was supported by the VR visuals.

I don’t really have a big problem with motion sickness in VR, so it’s hard for me to say whether it’s an effective solution. In fact, experiencing Entrim without VR, even for a few seconds, made me feel more icky than anything I’ve experienced in VR.

Remember that bit about seeking out experiences that test my limits? I appreciate the role that technology can play in blurring those lines, and while I might aspire to be Oz in my day job, I’m always first in line to be Dorothy. Fool me once, shame on. . . oh nevermind, just keep fooling me.

emotional-glassesA good show takes you on a journey down a path. Technology may play a part in paving the path or shining a light to guide the way. Regardless of the machinery behind the scenes though, creators ultimately provide an imperfect space that can only be completed by the imagination of their guests. There is an unspoken agreement that asserts the integrity of each party and the mutual trust between them.

My experience with Entrim made me feel that the agreement itself had been disrespected. Instead of being fooled, I felt like I had been hacked. That’s not to say that I felt violated, but it nevertheless felt like a line had been crossed with potentially unsettling implications. I recognize that it may seem like a disconnect to think that being hurtled through space at unnatural speeds on a roller coaster or having screens plastered to my face to force me into seeing an alternate reality somehow seems legit, whereas Entrim does not.

The distinction lies in how much agency the guest retains in owning their version of the experience. Consider: every experience ultimately asks you a question about how it makes you feel. A rollercoaster asks you how it physically feels to pull multiple Gs through an inversion. A movie, play, or dark ride asks you how it feels to experience that version of that story. A simulator or virtual reality experience asks you how it feels to replace your expectations of the real world. In each of these experiences, guests agree to be taken to the precipice of a creator’s vision and to choose to gaze or soar or remain indifferent as they see fit. In the best of those moments, we will each translate the art of the experience into something that is felt in a fundamentally personal way.

04-black-mirror.w750.h560.2xBy contrast, a technology like Entrim is an override that forces you to feel in a specific way. It removes the question of how it makes you feel, because it no longer needs to ask. While Entrim itself seems relatively harmless, it feels like an early waypoint on a slippery slope that may lead to some version of my sci-fi daydreams of creepy, cyborg technology.

Like it or not, we’re on this train and it’s not slowing down. As experience designers, it will be increasingly important to make and protect a space for our guests to bring their own feelings to the worlds we create for them. Otherwise, we may find that we create for nobody.

 

The Theatrical Ecstasy of Fuerza Bruta

2 Feb

girl_above_cropI knew I’d be on my feet and craning my neck, but the reviews failed to mention jaw fatigue from constant droppage.

I had a free night in New York and was determined to get myself into something kooky. Where to begin? I came across Fuerza Bruta and must confess that I had my doubts about whether it was my type of show. The scant reviews I skimmed referred to a nightclub vibe, and well, to be honest . . . I can’t stand nightclubs. Or at least that’s what I thought. But as she’s known to do, Manhattan whispered in my ear. I listened.

Day of the show was a piece of work. My colleagues and I had been in a windowless room for eight straight hours with a client and without a break. It had been the sequel of a two-day creative binge where you try and give everything you’ve got and hope it was enough. It was exhausting, gratifying, emptying, fulfilling all at the same time. In the interim before the show, I unwound with my colleagues in a spent inertia. I had no idea I was heading into a crucible.

drummer_cropThe show is general admission, standing room only in a generally featureless space that could be the Nirvana video without the bleachers. The lights went down and some drummers took the stage and set a tone for the event. The lighting was great, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.

Everything after that was pretty much unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

Fuerza Bruta is a succulent flavor of performance art that doesn’t want a label, and I’m totally OK with that.

Our tendency to find the connection between an external narrative and one’s internal experience is the essence of the magic of story. In some cases, a good story can be like a wine with a long finish or a complex, aged scotch that causes one to quietly reflect on its rippled resonances. Fuerza Bruta is different. More like a mainline shot in the arm of something that would certainly get you arrested.

Fuerza Bruta. Brute Force. That’s all you get coming into this thing. I could find no story in the traditional sense, but the energy of the show allowed me to quickly tune into a loosely cohesive framework wherein I began to discover new layers of personal meaning.

treadmill.gifOne of the opening vignettes involves a man running on a treadmill wearing nice clothes. He’s running against the wind. This is happening about six feet away from me. Props, chairs, tables, the familiar trappings of life, are placed onto the treadmill and he must avoid them. Other people join him on the treadmill and pass him by. The same people pass him again. The same props. The same situations. Sameness. Struggle. Submission. Time is passing. This is life! This was my life. This is what life was for me before I made some rather large changes. I recognized this and identified with it in a visceral way that cut me to the bone.

It’s also very important to understand that this is one of the few scenes that occur at ground level. Almost every other scene takes place above the audience. When you forsake the treadmill, there is only up, but it may require you to exchange one type of struggle for another.

sidewaysIn another scene, performers are running and flipping sideways back and forth along the inside of a cylinder that has been temporarily constructed around the audience. Later, nubile performers slipped and slid through a pool of water hanging above the audience, sometimes suspended low enough so that you could connect, exchange a look, touch a hand through the surface. There are no words, but there is a powerful language of movement, a vocabulary of speed, friction, collision, balance, and it all made perfect sense to me.

And there are no breaks. The show is a continuous overdose of visuals, sound, personal movement, and audience engagement. Far from feeling overwhelmed though, I found myself in an ecstasy of euphoria that lasted the entire show.

Now, if you’ve read any of my other entries, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I am no stranger to the dark side. I enjoy haunted attractions, and I specifically seek out shows where I can find myself in an intensity of that dark unknown from which true knowledge of self often bubbles up.

flying_improvedThis just shouldn’t be my type of show, but it is. For me, Fuerza Bruta is a powerful expression of what happens when you stare into the blinding sun of possibility. It’s the courage of throwing yourself onto a path of uncertainty. The childlike joy of relearning everything you thought you knew. The ecstasy of soaring. It is a celebration of the choice to embrace the Brute Force of life and all its power and mystery rather than spending a lifetime trying to deny it.

I know I’ll be back. The show happened for me and made a difference. When I need a reminder of what it all might mean, I’ll know where to go.

 

Orlando’s Brave New Republic

23 Jun

Minutes earlier, I had been ballroom dancing. But now I was lying down on a grimy floor, evading surveillance and trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. In more ways than one.

For a moment, I thought, “Did I really travel 3,000 miles for this?”

defaultLet me rewind a bit. A few months ago, I caught wind of a project called The Republic. I read an article that described it as an immersive experience inspired by elements from Greek mythology, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Plato’s Republic. It was described as neither being a haunted house, escape room, nor traditional stage show, with the implied suggestion that it might contain whiffs of each. It even claimed to not be immersive theatre, at least in any sort of comparative sense to anything that’s been done before. The Republic was claiming to be something completely new. I’m so there!

September 1987 --- A fan of the band Grateful Dead holds a handmade sign reading I need a miracle, hoping to get tickets to a Grateful Dead show. --- Image by © Lynn Goldsmith/CorbisThere was just one problem. There was in Florida. It debuted at the Orlando Fringe Theatre Festival, which is nowhere near me. I needed a miracle. I asked the universe, and in reply got an email a few weeks later from a colleague telling me that I needed to go to Orlando for a tradeshow, on my birthday, while The Republic was running. Boom!

republic_front-doorNOTE: the rest of this post does not contain any explicit spoilers, but I do flirt dangerously with disclosing the nature of what happens. If you’re planning on seeing this show, and want a completely pure experience, then you’ve been warned.

On the day of the show, I received an email directing me to a nondescript warehouse near downtown Orlando. My drive was accented by a torrential downpour complete with Zeus-worthy lightning bolts that seemed somehow appropriate. I’m from California. Weather’s a novelty.

By the time I arrived, a queue of guests had already formed outside the entrance, and we went through the increasingly common waiver signing formality before being allowed to enter. Once inside, we surrendered our cell phones and entered an anteroom where we were provided with a new identity and reminded about the rules of engagement. In short, explore, ask questions, and get involved in the action.

57205429I am totally fascinated by the idea of immersive theatre. It blends storytelling, technical enhancement, and interactivity in a way that generally doesn’t exist outside the theatrical world except to a limited extent in some theme park and haunted attraction experiences. Ordinarily, attaching a genre to experiences that are attempting something groundbreaking is a restrictive and empty exercise, but it can still provide some useful context. As a baseline most productions tend to interpret it as a theatrical experience without chairs. The idea is that the elimination of the construct between the audience and the players allows for a deeper level of involvement with the drama. When it works, it can be tremendously effective. When it doesn’t, it might make you wish you had your chair back.

… if you want to

… if you want to

More ambitious productions add a layer of multiple rooms and encourage guests to do a certain amount of free roaming. In theory, the drama can potentially branch in multiple directions causing you to choose a single narrative thread at a time to follow. Some productions go even further by requiring guests to participate in the action by carrying props and executing other simple, scripted interactions.

In these types of shows, guests may have dramatically different experiences depending on the decisions they make, and may feel like they’re attending a totally different show upon repeat viewings. However, the net effect is really a partial glimpse of what is essentially a larger static narrative. The Republic does all of these things, but they’re just getting started.

Game Over Man

Game Over Man

What makes The Republic different is that each guest is required to play an active role that has the potential to redirect the outcome of the narrative. This is a pretty giant step forward from simply being up close and personal to the action. The creators compare their show to a video game, and this shared sense of agency is at the heart of it.

When the show began, we were told that we were recruits, and in the first “scene,” each guest was assigned to one of the cast members who would be training and evaluating us for inclusion within the Republic. I had been concerned about the emphasis on role playing, but the role of a trainee was easily accessible even if the context was essentially bizarre and cryptic.

do-you-like-me-yes-noEarly on, I was given a task to surreptitiously hide a folded-up note in a separate room. The room itself was a dead end, so I couldn’t go off on a tangent of wild exploration, but it did allow me to be alone for a brief moment. It may seem obvious, but I realized that I had been presented with an unspoken choice on whether to read the note before hiding it.

I decided to read it, and I was conscious of the time it was taking me to read it, since I was only supposed to be hiding it. Once I returned, it did not feel like an appropriately confidential time to discuss what I had read. The fact that I had read the note at all may have suggested that I had betrayed a certain confidence. The character who handed me the note did not ask me whether I had read it. I was completely in my own head over this one simple task, but I was digging it. This was immersive and exciting!

jawsIn a subsequent scene, when I was able to get some time alone with my assigned character, I asked him about the note and our conversation yielded a treasure trove of information including many tantalizing new clues and facts to piece together. It made me wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t read the note. What would our conversation have been like? I caught a glimpse of the myriad possibilities and twists and turns, and my experience was just one perspective out of 20+ guests in the context of something that might or might not have happened in the first 5-10 minutes of a 90 minute experience. You’re probably starting to get the idea of how big this thing could be.

clip_image001_0001In order to pull something like this off, the creators would have had to essentially create an all-encompassing universe that could account for dozens of permutations that could be communicated, interpreted, and executed on the fly on a minute-by-minute basis by actors who are basically improvising almost 100% of the time. It’s like a single game of Dungeons & Dragons with 20 Dungeon Masters and 20 players, played in 20 different rooms all at the same time with frequent reshuffling of all components. That’s huge. Like head-spinningly crazy. Which is probably why it ultimately didn’t totally work. For me at least.

russian-block-button-shows.siIf I had to theoretically reverse-engineer this beast, the principal challenge becomes how to reconcile what could easily become a freeform exploration of chaos theory. Periodically, there seemed to be narrative inflection points, roughly occurring at the end of an “act” in theatrical parlance, although that ship sailed long ago. These moments temporarily aggregated all the players in a single room and forced various narrative threads into some form of interim resolution. Think of it as a metaphorical reset button that attempted to contain the rapidly spiraling madness.

In theory, this is a clever mechanism. In practice, I personally felt somewhat more unmoored each time until I felt utterly disconnected from the show. The story might have been reconciled, but my role in it usually became less clear. Unfortunately, that tended to create something of a vicious cycle for me: the further I felt from the momentum of the story, the harder it was for me to jump back on the merry-go-round. I’m willing to share some of the blame for this for not trying hard enough to engage or re-engage, and at some point, I must have hit a personal limit. Or maybe the heat inside that warehouse had finally scrambled my brains out of my ears. There were no mirrors so I couldn’t be sure.

So did I like it? Well, it’s complicated. It’s important to remember that this debuted at a Fringe Theatre festival that provides a “safe” place to try out all kinds of crazy stuff that would be skewered in the context of the traditional stage scene. Not all of it is going to work. And when it does work, as it did for me in the initial scenes, it was stunning.

HYDRA_alt_1I give this team a ton of credit for creating this thing in the first place. I can imagine the B.S. sessions where people were saying, “What if we riffed on Plato’s Republic and inserted a bunch of characters from Greek mythology and rendered them against a German Expressionist backdrop and involved the audience, but totally let them feel like they were directing the action so that we’d basically be improvising 100% of the time so that each night we’d basically be putting on a new show.” Believe it or not, people have these kinds of crazy ideas fairly often. However, it’s a small handful who have the balls to actually follow through and try to raise the money, develop the concept, find the space, build the team, train the actors, build the set, and the hundred other things needed to bring this fully-grown Hydra to life.

To Team Republic: Thank you for having the courage to try something so audacious.

I find myself continuing to think about it. I honestly think that the creators should launch an online message board that could be like a support group for guests to share their experiences and riff on theories. There’s a lot going on here.

metropolis_masters_of_cinema_series_2010_atf_2_bigBut the final test of whether this thing worked — I would probably see it again. Now that I have a handle on what’s going on and how it works, I’d do some things differently. I’d be curious to further test my own boundaries as a guest. I’d want to see the rooms I probably never got to see, and interact with characters that I only saw in passing. It felt like a world worth returning to, although I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live there.

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