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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.

The Most Fun I Ever Had Being Murdered

22 Jul

I died in tmeme3he Purge last week. OK, that came out weird, let me explain.

The Purge is a film that came out last year that generally, and not incorrectly, gets lumped into the horror genre. However, it’s actually a political science thought experiment wrapped in a veneer of science fiction dystopia that dials up the suspense until it implodes into horror. The general conceit is that in the year 2022, a new political party has “fixed” America; there is 1% unemployment and almost no crime. The catch: all crime, including murder, is actually legal during a 12-hour period called the Purge that occurs once per year. Despite its macrocosmic context, the movie had a minimalistic feel that focused on the experiences of a single family in a discrete location and the ethical dilemmas posed by this practice. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but there was something oddly compelling and surprisingly thought-provoking about it. I knew there had to be more to the story.

When I heard that there would be a sequel being released this summer, I knew I would see it at some point. However, when I heard that they were promoting it through The Purge: Breakout, a pop-up haunted attraction that was touring the country, I dropped everything to get a ticket. A haunted attraction in July? Talk about Christmas coming early!

928930cc-09e0-41e7-8d3f-751858ff0972The typical haunted attraction tends to be a fairly linear affair. You start at the beginning and keep moving until you get to the end, trying to absorb or avoid (depending on your preference) as many scares as you can along the way. In contrast, Breakout is billed as “An Immersive Escape Experience.” Groups of up to six guests are locked into the attraction at one time and given thirty minutes to try to figure out how to get out by deciphering clues and solving puzzles that are embedded in the surroundings. The concept of an Escape Room attraction is not new, and did not originate as a horror-themed show, but as some designers have discovered, they really are two great tastes that taste great together.

Welcome to the Hotel California

I found a friend who agreed that this sounded like an excellent way to spend an evening, and we headed out to the location, a parking lot on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles where a few trailers decked out in full Purge regalia awaited us. As we watched the sun go down, I started to feel.

It wasn’t quite the stomach-churning dread of a haunted house. It was more of a light, but increasing anxiety that I would totally choke on the puzzles. I immediately reflected that I was grateful to be feeling anything! It occurred to me that going to the movies or even certain live events just wasn’t doing anything for me recently, and that one of the reasons why I keep coming back to haunted attractions is because they stir something that lies dormant for too long of a stretch.

Not for the claustrophobic

Before entering, we had about five minutes to get to know our three fellow participants with whom we would be trapped, and indulged in the futility of concocting a strategy for getting out. I was nominated as some kind of leader. Anxiety level rises. One of the hosts came out and gave us the setup: we’re locked in some weirdo’s basement on Purge Night, which begins in 30 minutes. We need to escape or he kills us. Not necessarily true to the sophisticated moral complexities of the movie, but I wasn’t complaining. We were characters in the story, and it was about to begin! We were provided with some straightforward rules: don’t break or take anything, don’t try to use a light, if you trigger one of the emergency buttons (you are locked in, after all) then it’s immediate game over, no refunds, no questions. Oh, and there was one more thing, only about 1% of everybody who’s played the game has escaped. And you thought Vegas was rough.

Once the door locked behind us, the panic began. . . immediately. Any remnant of any strategy that we thought would have been useful dissipated in the first 15 seconds. In true basement style, it’s not very well-lit, which is a problem when your success hinges on finding objects in your environment. In addition to miscellaneous klaxons, sound effects, and the sound of your blood pumping in your ears, every five minutes there were very loud, periodic reminders that the Purge would be starting in 25, 20, 15, etc., minutes. Needless to say, when all five of us were huddled in a very small room and stuck on a puzzle, these reminders were anything but calming.

We solved a bunch of puzzles. We tried our hardest. We celebrated our successes. But in the end, we died. Murdered to be exact. Time ran out, and for us, it just wasn’t enough. If we had five more minutes! If we had only done such-and-such! Did we remember to look behind that one thing? We wallowed in the coulda-woulda-shouldas for a minute or two, but the general consensus from all of us was, “That was SUPER FUN!”

Totally Occupied The Purge

It was an exceptionally produced show. I love puzzles, and I felt that they were well-tested to be achievable but challenging (obviously, since we died!) The makeshift trailer setup was not at all reflective of the excellent production design and technical sophistication that kept our attention for thirty action-packed minutes in such a small amount of space. It was 100% adrenaline from beginning to end and when it was all over, I wanted more. However, part of what makes this type of show special is that it’s really something you do once and only once.

The coolest part of the show turned out to be something I least expected — us! A common feature of many immersive experiences is to get you out of your chair and into the action. However, this often takes the form of occupying the same space as the actors while they go about their business. The better-written productions allow for some latitude and improvisation, but there is still a script, and you’re still essentially watching, or in some cases being guided/goaded through some simple participation. Breakout was different — we were the cast. The story consisted entirely of what we did. There was one non-player cast member, but I think she was there to make sure that we didn’t go completely off the rails. And man, did we kill it! Before we got killed, that is.

I was in awe at how naturally we worked together as a team, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. People’s strengths immediately surfaced — the codebreakers, the searchers, the observers, the scouts — without any explicit coordination. Almost all of the puzzles required some form of cooperation, but it somehow happened in a seamless way. When it was all over with, we felt like old friends, and made plans to get together for future events once October rolls around. It was magical.

We are a culture that is screamingly desperate for personal connection. We are undoubtedly the most well-connected, lonely people that the planet has ever hosted. Breakout showed that when you put people together and give them a story and some purpose, you just might end up with something unforgettable. We need to be creating more experiences like this.

Breaking Bad: Need a Third Eye For My Second Screen

20 Sep
I Heart Breaking Bad

I Heart Breaking Bad

I finally got a chance to experience Story Sync for AMC’s Breaking Bad.

DISCLAIMER: I’m a big fan of Breaking Bad; it’s one of the few shows I can remember watching from inception instead of telebinging my way into a state of catatonia.

RANT ALERT: I have almost nothing good to say about this, so if you’re generally having a nice day, and would rather not read about someone complaining about television, then feel free to check in later when I’m in a better mood.

Quick! Breaking Bad is about to start!

Quick! Breaking Bad is about to start!

Story Sync is a “second screen” experience, which refers to the use of an additional device (e.g., smartphone, tablet) while consuming a primary source of content (e.g., TV). Despite the high-tech sound of it, Story Sync actually requires you to recalibrate your habits by a few decades. That’s right, prepare to depart the world of DVR, Hulu, VOD, Netflix, iTunes, and any other means that you regularly use to consume content at pretty much ANY OTHER TIME than the exact moment in time when it originally aired, because Story Sync only really works as designed during the show’s original broadcast. Aside from the Super Bowl, I can’t remember the last time I watched a TV show during its scheduled airtime. At least the Super Bowl is a live event, broadcast once annually, with an unknowable outcome that will be spoiled within about five minutes of your engaging the outside world. On the other hand, it makes no sense for me to drop everything I’m doing in my life to watch a pre-recorded, serialized, dramatic show, but that is what AMC requires if you want to experience Story Sync.

AMC Executive Headquarters

AMC HQ

To get started, you must download the AMC Mobile app to your supported device of choice and keep it handy as you enjoy one of the best shows on television. As the show progresses, your device will play an alert sound whenever it has new synchronized content for you to consume, and the interface also provides a running countdown to when the next tantalizing update will be served. The second screen content is in the form of “cards” which contain a unit of content which is typically one of the following:

– relevant still photo from the current or a past episode

– relevant video clip from a past episode

– interactive multiple choice trivia question

– interactive poll

– advertisement; yes, advertisements.

imagesLet me just cut to the chase. Breaking Bad is an intense show. It has successfully navigated the murky waters of long-format television to create an epic story that has momentum and feels real without getting mired in its own intricacies. On the whole, the aggregate experience can be as visceral and emotionally satisfying as watching a great movie. The level of technical artistry from the writing to the cinematography to the editing, sound, music, etc. is exemplary and all of it is brought home by incredible performances by a very talented and well-cast collection of performers. [PING] Hold on, it’s Story Sync, be right back, I need to answer a trivia question. Dammit! Oh, that’s the right answer? Right, now I remember. OK, where was I? Without giving anything away, characters do unexpected things and the plot never fails to enthrall over literally dozens of hours. Particularly in these final episodes, there are moments of great pathos and emotional catharsis as [PING] Let’s see here, a poll: how would I rate Walt’s ethical decision here on a scale of 1-5. Hmmm. Well, could be a three, but I’m leaning toward two. Two? Three? Umm. OK, two. Cool, 31% of Story Sync’d America agrees with me; I feel so . . . connected.  Even the arguably relevant content which is designed to refresh your memory about a pertinent detail from a past episode is usually an inappropriately timed distraction.

You’re probably wondering why I don’t just pause the show so I can focus my attention on the poll and not miss what’s happening on the “first screen.” Well, this is a “live TV” experience, and pausing would cause me to lose my sync, not to mention run the risk that my second screen updates might actually end up SPOILING something I haven’t seen on the first screen yet. Also, while you can technically experience Story Sync on a non-live version of the show, it is provided as an unsynchronized “archive” version of all of the second screen content. This means that spoiler information for the entire show that you are about to watch is just a swipe away.

ya-voteBefore you write me off as a Luddite, (actually a pretty audacious proposition if you’ve read any of my other posts) I admit that the concept of second screen might have its place. I’m an unabashedly huge fan of Project Runway, which has a second screen feature that allows you to vote about whether you agree with the judges or whether you think a particular contestant is headed for disaster. Chances are, you’re probably already thinking or talking about the exact question and it takes about a second to form a quick opinion and cast a vote. The results are shown on the air in a corner of the screen in real-time and then they disappear. This works because Project Runway is a reality show and a competition. There is no disbelief to suspend and the second screen experience provides a brief, intermittent outlet to your inner judge with instant gratification. This type of entertainment has a familiar and expected structure (setup, competition, drama, judging, victory/loss, reflection) that is simply more compatible with a second screen experience that can enhance those inherent emotional beats.

The opposite is true with a dramatic show. The level of impact of your emotional experience with the created world of the show is directly correlated to your engagement and attention. Every detail that is seen and heard on-screen is deliberately designed to deepen and retain your immersion in the story as it unfolds. But it’s a two-way street. While I can see that the idea behind Story Sync was to encourage a deeper level of engagement, unfortunately, it seems to have the opposite effect. Moreover, even the smallest amount of analysis or audience-testing would have yielded the same conclusion before it saw the light of day, or at least the dim lighting of your living room.

Walter White disapproves of Story Sync

Heisenberg votes “No” on Story Sync

Plain and simple, Story Sync represents an extraordinary lapse of judgment on the part of the decision-makers who thought this would be a good idea for Breaking Bad. When this show premiered more than five years ago, I’m pretty sure that the creators did not intend for the attention of their audience to be dissipated into a Chinese water torture of inconsequential irritations and distractions. I’m sure that there must be a creative and compelling way to keep fans immersed and engaged with this world, but I’m also sure that this isn’t it.

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