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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

 

Into the Further: Virtual + Reality

10 Jun

captain-picard-full-of-win-500x381“Dude, how did you score those tickets?!”

I held the phone in disbelief.

I had heard about Into the Further 4D, a traveling, pop-up, virtual reality experience promoting the upcoming horror flick, Insidious: Chapter 3. That’s just a bunch of adjectives that you don’t usually see in the same sentence describing the same event, so I wanted in.

It was going to be in LA for a brief three days in May, and here’s the thing, the tickets were free, if you could figure out how to get them. After trying some broken promo codes, I had basically given up, until my friend called to save the day. He never really answered my question. It didn’t matter. We were going.

We showed up at a parking lot on the edges of Downtown LA just before noon on a Sunday, pretty much the most unhaunted time and setting to experience anything.

insidious_trailers_resize

Conveniently located next to Urgent Care

There were a couple of connected trailers that looked similar to the ones at last year’s Purge: Breakout escape room event. Blumhouse Productions is behind both events as well as 2013’s Purge: Fear The Night immersive theater production. Based on their track record, they are establishing a reputation for producing events that mashup horror with experiences not typically associated with horror. When they roll into town, you can pretty much expect that it will not be your run-of-the-mill haunted house.

NOTE: This event is gone, and it’s probably never coming back, and you’ll probably never get to see it, so spoilers will follow. make the world_front

I’ve been lurking on the periphery of the virtual reality scene since the first time I tried Oculus Rift at the 2013 NeuroGaming Conference and Expo. As an interactive experience designer, the lure of the latest and greatest technologies is a perpetual temptation and the siren song of VR can seem irresistible.

The amazing part about VR is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. The challenging part about VR, especially in terms of location-based entertainment, is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. It’s an uphill battle to provide guests with a form of entertainment that can essentially be experienced in their living room. Unless you replace the living room.

insidious_trailers_entry_resizeBack to the parking lot. We had reservations for a specific time window, but VR is generally not a high-throughput venture, and to maximize the horror, we were told that we would walk through alone. So we waited. And anticipated. And postulated. What on earth was going on inside that trailer?

The facade of the trailer was designed to look like a front door, and walking through it brought me inside the house of Elise, the paranormal investigator/medium from the first two Insidious movies. I waited as another inner door swallowed guests one at a time, and eventually me.

I entered a short, dark, narrow hallway and was accosted by an assortment of pops, air blasts, loud noises, etc., designed to put you on edge. I turned the corner and a ghoulish figure burst out, screamed at me that I had to help her, and directed me down a longer hallway toward a numbered door.

ins2The tiny chamber was cramped, dimly lit, and filled with all kinds of bric-a-brac that evoked the home-gone-wrong feel of the films. A monitor turned on and played a short video introducing the upcoming VR experience. A previously unseen door opened and another ghoulish and relatively sedate character beckoned me forward and into a chair facing a familiar red door. Seconds later, I was in the Rift, heading into the Further. Or so I thought.

The first thing I saw in VR was the same door that existed in reality. It opened and I “moved” through it and into Elise’s sitting room. She was waiting and warned me of some of the bad things that were afoot. Then things started to get real spooky including a few good scares that took full advantage of the immersive quality of the experience. There were some 4D effects including seat rumblings, and at one point, (I’m guessing) the assistant lightly brushed my arm in time with something wispy floating by. When things were about to get crazy, it faded away, and I was back, looking at the real door and being guided toward the exit.

The whole experience only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like something significant had been achieved. Haunted houses, 4D, and VR are nothing new to me, but combining all of them felt like a breakthrough. Even if it was basically a highly sophisticated movie trailer, this modest whole was definitely larger than the sum of its parts. I was satisfied with what I had seen, and curious about where it could go.  But before I launched headlong into the future, I found myself momentarily thinking about the past.

train_1I recalled a story I heard in film school. About 120 years ago, a couple of brothers were trying to figure out something cool to do with their Cinématographe — one of the first devices to resemble a motion picture camera. One of the first pieces that they screened was a short clip of a train arriving at a station, evocatively titled, “Arrival of a Train.”

The apocrypha would have us believe that some of those audience members from two centuries ago ran in terror from the theater because they thought the train would burst through the screen. I remember thinking, “That can’t possibly be true.” These were sophisticated Europeans with elevated tastes, and this was after all a shot of a train arriving at a station. Nevertheless, although it’s hard to imagine standing in their shoes in that darkened room, I wanted to believe that the truth of their reaction probably landed somewhere between the abject terror of the legend, but far from mute indifference.

kerzeA more fruitful daydream is that everybody in that room knew that they had just seen something that they’d never seen before, and that they felt like they could see that much further into what this new, crazy thing could be. And each of those early viewers might have got something out of it, talked about it with their friends who hadn’t seen it, forgotten it, or got hooked at the gills. Except they didn’t have blogs back then.

VR is out of the living room. Reality just got that much more virtual. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Story Room: Saving the World is Thirsty Work

26 May

“Are you ready to save the f–king world?” he asked. To be honest, it was a bit more than I had in mind after a day at work, but I exchanged looks with my companions and said, “Sure!” After all, what could possibly go wrong?

We were about to enter Story Room, a production of Two Bit Circus. I’m not actually quite sure what this group really is. I’ve seen them referred to as an entertainment company, a think tank, and in more pedestrian press, an agency. However, I had a great time at their STEAM Carnival last autumn, so for the purposes of this blog, I’m OK with thinking about them as a group that likes to make fun experiences. I think they’d be OK with that too.

hqdefaultSo, back to saving the world. In the real world, we were at the Brewery Arts Complex, an artist colony housed in a former brewery that is off the beaten path in an industrial part of Los Angeles. It’s an easy place to get lost in and quite mysterious in its own right. Certainly worth saving.

We were welcomed inside an anteroom and provided with a smattering of backstory. It involved aliens. It sounded important. And then a door opened, we entered, it closed behind us, and we were inside the story!

Half the fun of Story Room is not having a clear idea of what to expect, and I don’t intend to spoil that for you. The website describes it as a “unique multiplayer experience that combines problem solving with character twists to create a new form of live entertainment.” Clear as mud, but intriguing as hell.

journey-escape(4)However, if you’ve read their website, you’re probably wondering, is this an escape room attraction? If you haven’t experienced one, escape rooms are pretty much what they sound like: you’re placed in a locked room and have to figure out how to get out, usually within a fixed time limit. And there’s no guarantee that you will. Getting out usually requires solving a number of puzzles based on objects in your environment, while possibly fending off antagonistic or distracting elements. I had a tremendous time at last year’s Purge: Breakout, but I haven’t felt drawn to seek out similar experiences.

Although an escape room can be elegant and complex in the design of its puzzles, the underlying narrative can sometimes feel limited. The context for your situation ultimately boils down to being trapped and needing to escape. Although there is a binary, win/lose aspect to it that appeals to my competitive side, it tends to conflict with my desire to just be entertained.

Story Room shares many of the game mechanics and sensibilities of an escape room, but the narrative framework substitutes progress for escape. It’s a subtle nuance, and therein lies all the difference.

In Story Room, as we solved the puzzles, we learned more about our situation. Rooms started to feel more like scenes, and the puzzles themselves felt increasingly like a connected, rational part of the underlying story. On one hand, it’s a different means to a similar end, but it places the focus on the journey, not the destination.

As a practical illustration: we did OK with the puzzles, but we were occasionally assisted via a mechanism that was integrated with the story. Sure, my ego would have been more gratified if we had performed better, but I found myself less focused on winning or losing and far more interested in what would happen next.
In the final room, we had to choose between two objectives to pursue. Either one would have constituted “success,” but we decided based on what we had learned about the story in the previous rooms and how we personally felt it should resolve.

In short, this show lived up to its name. We were in the story! In fact, we discovered afterward that had we done better in one of the previous rooms, we may have learned something that could have influenced our decision in the final room.

magnacovblankeThe website boldly namechecks the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 80s & 90s. This type of branching narrative is a holy grail of sorts for experience designers in location-based entertainment, but can be operationally difficult to execute. It seems that on some level, even if we didn’t experience all the possible outcomes, they pulled it off.

The puzzles were excellently designed and thoughtfully crafted to require multiple participants to solve them. In similar attractions, multiple players allow you to simply “throw more bodies at the problem” by being able to more rapidly find hidden objects. In Story Room, multiple players are critical because many of the puzzles consist of discrete tasks that need to be performed in parallel. In the final room, we each had distinct roles to play to reach our objective.

iwantmoreWe were in there slightly over an hour, but time flies, as the saying goes. Understanding that like any production, they are limited by real resources such as budget and space, my main feedback for future productions would be to create more “scenes” even if each is shorter. Reflecting on how this show redraws the line between storytelling and problem-solving, I would love to see them take it even further and incorporate more branching, more rooms, and maybe even some live performers. In other words, more of everything that worked so well.

As you could probably guess, saving the world is thirsty work, so we were delighted to discover that the Brewery just happened to have a gastropub on the premises. Tasty food. Cold beer. Good times. Highly recommended.

If you’re in LA, and this show is still happening, I would recommend checking it out. And if you’re not in LA, why not? It’s real nice here.

Never Be Bored Again

20 Feb

rarelyLook around you. Where are you reading this right now? Chances are, you’re minutes away from an immersive, interactive experience that is waiting for you to discover it. Curious?

First, some background. I’m one of those people who has a hard time doing nothing. That sense of peace that comes from “getting away from it all” wears off for me after about five minutes, and I find myself looking for something stimulating. Not surprisingly, my young children tend to feel the same way. It’s something of a curse, but on a recent trip to the Central Sierras, a wonderland of natural beauty, I was determined to turn it into an opportunity. There just had to be something to do up here that would be entertaining for all of us, right?

screen-shot-2014-02-02-at-15-02-05I asked the Internet, and found a tourist-oriented website for the tiny village we were in, and scanned through the usual list of activities. Fishing: please no. Snowmobiling: need snow for that. Hiking: with kids, it ends up being “carrying.” Prospects seemed dismal until I came across “Geocaching.” That rang a bell — something to do with GPS and hiding stuff, but I realized that I really had no idea how one actually did it.

cacheiskingSkeptically, I installed a free app, waited for it to locate me, and discovered that there were DOZENS of caches within a few miles of my current location (in the middle of nowhere) including one that was 163 FEET away (we were in a local playground at this point.) I tromped off alone in a trance into the adjacent woods like a very slow, poorly-trained bloodhound, climbing over rocks, crossing brooks, crashing through brambles, trying to close the distance between me and whatever lay at the marker on my map. Soon, the other grown-ups got involved, and the kids buzzed around us discovering the fantastic natural playground surrounding them. Looking back, I guess my biggest misconception about geocaching was that it was something that you had to “get into.” However, without really trying, we had effortlessly and unexpectedly landed in the middle of an adventure!

product1We didn’t find what we were looking for, but we were undeterred, so for our second try, we chose a cache that seemed a bit easier. Each cache is ranked for difficulty and terrain, and contains a description and optional hints that guide you to the hidden location. We made our way to an unnoteworthy cluster of trees on a street corner that we would have otherwise driven past without giving a second look, however now it was imbued with mystery and potential. We descended upon it like a shoal of piranhas, discovered a camouflage canister hanging from a branch, and eagerly grabbed it, unscrewed the lid. The kids thrilled at the mysterious trove of miscellaneous knick-knacks within while we examined with curiosity the little notepad filled with messages from those who came before us. As we left our own impromptu scrawl for those who would in turn follow in our footsteps, we unwittingly jumped into the slipstream of a previously unknown world that was hidden in plain sight.

Now we were hooked and consulted the app for our next find. It was another easy one, embedded in a jumble of rocks that anchored the sign for a wilderness trail. Except now, the world was transformed; a rusted chain buried in the rocks became a  guardian rattlesnake and the unassuming container was a treasure chest of mystery and possibility. We were so engrossed in our adventure that we almost didn’t notice the car pull up behind us.

Hunger-games-gamemakersThe gentleman who stepped out introduced himself as papahog46, and told us that this was his cache. He just happened to be driving by, and he knew exactly what we were up to. I chatted with him a bit, and he said that he had recently come back from the Caribbean where he had left a few caches, and that he has also left a few in various places in Europe. The app allows you to log your finds, and leave a brief message, and he commented that many of the thank you notes he received were in other languages. After he left us to our meanderings, it occurred to me we had been having fun that he had made; transient explorers of a new world he created. We had been hanging out with the Game Maker!

mugglesI finally started to realize that this thing was big. I used the app to see what was around my house: dozens, including one a block away. The neighborhood around my work: lousy with caches, including four in the park where I often eat lunch. A random place where I stopped for lunch on the way to San Diego: loads. I realized that geocaching is nothing short of a global phenomenon that has created a parallel universe bound together by a community that borders on a secret society. It has its own lingo, which I picked up on from reading the entries in the logbooks — kind of like a written secret handshake. In fact, geocachers have appropriated the word Muggle from the Harry Potter universe to designate a person who is not playing, a shorthand that happens to be pretty much spot-on.

POD_dandelionBecause there are no formal rules except a common-sense code of conduct that requires you to be a good citizen, it didn’t take long to figure out that caches needn’t be limited to dime-store trinkets and logbooks. Caches could be designed like any other experience and could include a history lesson, or a series of related puzzles, or an elaborate story, or all of them at the same time. I realized that when I entered this world, I felt the same thrill of discovery and ignition of imagination that I get from the best immersive experiences. Except instead of traveling for hours and waiting in line and most likely seeing something that I’ve probably seen before, I could do this anytime, anywhere. Best of all, with an inkling of inclination and a jab of imagination, I could create my own world within the world. Perhaps even one that you’ll stumble into someday.

Reality is Overrated

15 May

Awesome PicHave you ever had that feeling where you come across something that stops you dead in your tracks, and then you take a step back, and you think,”Yeah, maybe that wasn’t such a big deal,” and then you let go of it for a few days, and then you come roaring back, and say, “No, that’s pretty messed up, the world needs to know about this.” I did recently, and you’re about to hear about it.

I just got a brand new Android phone, and as is recommended when you join forces with the Droid, I recognized that things are easier when you sign your life over to Google. Setting aside my knowledge that Google’s promotional offer of 50GB of free Google Drive space for two years is the cloud storage equivalent of giving away dime bags at a junior high, I agreed to have all the pictures on my phone automatically uploaded to “Drive” for “safekeeping.” I have kids, so the odds of my phone and all of its pictures ending up in any number of compromising situations involving bathtubs or impromptu aerodynamic trials are relatively high compared to Google accidentally losing my data.

Kung_Fu_Panda_Fan_art_by_Slacker_RBSo I’m merrily going about my life, taking too many pictures and videos of my kids instead of enjoying the reality of their company, and generally doing a serviceable job of being a decent dad. Flash forward a few hours and I get a notification that not only have my photos been uploaded to Google Drive, but that there is a new “Auto Awesome” picture waiting for me. If you’re not familiar with this feature, it basically adds special effects to pictures that you’ve taken that meet certain criteria. The effects can range from the mildly amusing and patently fake effect of adding a snow animation to a picture taken when it’s snowing to the moderately impressive compositing of several related pictures into a short, stuttery animation. There are other effects like photobooth-style compositing and an impressive feature that combines photos and videos into a slideshow/video presentation. Basically, if you’re the kind of person who likes to spend hours trying to turn your personal photos and videos into amateur-looking mini-masterpieces, then this is bad news for you, because the Auto-Awesome algorithm does it automatically and it’s actually pretty decent. As a technology enthusiast, I applaud the questionable diversion of shareholder value into the development of what is actually a very sophisticated application of powerful computer vision algorithms.  So far, so good.

More-Awesome-Than-A-Double-Rainbow_4663-lBut not really. Because Google didn’t make it snow in my picture, nor auto-create a panorama, but instead applied the “Smile” effect. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a child under the age of five, then you already know that your ok-fine-that’s-good-enough shooting ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150:1. If you’re trying to take a picture of two or more children under five, then chances are one of you will burst into tears before an acceptable image is captured. And yet there we were, my two-year-old son, without any coercion or threats on my part was hugging my four-year-old daughter, who was patiently and willingly tolerating and even reciprocating it. I immediately took about ten pictures and felt that I had achieved moderate success. I immediately checked them out and found the usual assortment of unprovoked distraction, unilateral nose-picking, and asynchronous emotional expression that characterizes EVERY picture  I’ve ever taken of them.

dont-think-just-be-awesomeBut there was one gem in the bunch. He is hugging her with an angelic expression of contentment and security on his face, and she is smiling and touching his head in a loving way, accepting his embrace. However, her smile is tempered by a subtle reflective aspect as if in that moment she understands that she will always be older, and he will always be younger, and she will always be his big sister and while they will learn from each other and grow together, she will always be there for him in the special and unique way that only a big sister can be. Then I checked out the Auto-Awesome picture.

The Smile effect had identified a different picture in which my daughter has a totally fake senior portrait smile whereas my son looks like he just bonged a 6-pack of Coors Light and is about to yak. It then combined my daughter’s “classic” smile from this picture with the content smile of my son from the first picture to create the “perfect” photo. Except, it’s not perfect, it’s unsettling, because the moment captured by this Auto-Awesome picture NEVER HAPPENED in reality. The algorithm cleverly merged the two pictures with the “best” smiles, and it’s basically impossible to detect the modification. Now before I launch into total rant mode, please note that I understand:

  • Auto Awesome did not delete my original photos
  • Auto Awesome can be turned off
  • Auto Awesome photos can be deleted
  • You can replicate and exceed the results of Auto-Awesome on your own
  • I have free will
  • Google does not force you to use this feature
  • It’s a free world (online . . . mostly)
  • Don’t be evil

080312-total-recallI am fascinated with the concept of the plasticity of memory. Beyond that, I am obsessed with the pursuit of capturing and articulating my truest sense of an experience, and in denial of its ultimate futility. The idea that repeated viewings of an Auto-Awesome picture have the potential to alter  your memory of what actually happened is personally horrifying to me.

It also concerns me that as a culture, we not only have the capability to recreate our past, but that it can be automatically done for us, and have it be considered “awesome.” I know it’s all in fun, and it’s probably just another R&D project run amok, but I still think that the implications of playing fast and loose with “what really happened” are worthy of reflection. Social media already provides us with a powerful platform to reinvent ourselves and to present a crafted fantasy identity to the world for passive consumption. I understand that these types of services do not force you to make misrepresentations, but they provide the always-available and tempting option to tease the truth into something more, and to craft our online identity into the ideal that we have failed to achieve in meatspace. There is nothing inherently wrong with putting on a good show — we generally don’t show up to a social event in reality without having made some attempt to look our best. However, we still retain the intent and the creativity to design and execute those decisions in front of real people. “Auto” removes the intent, “Awesome” removes the creativity, and the internet removes the meaningful context. Combined with the force multiplier of social networking, it’s the death of reality by a billion tiny cuts.

Finally, aside from the statement that it makes about what is “worth remembering,” or that an algorithm can be trusted to make that decision for you, this type of technology has the potential to rob us of the nuance and beauty that we were trying to capture in the first place. Because if you think about it, once you turn your back on reality, what else is there?

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