Inner Activity: An Exploration in VR

Inner Activity is an interactive virtual reality experience that doubles as a physical art installation, delivered through the Oculus Rift and Subpac M2.

With Inner Activity, we wanted to explore the concept of physical and virtual immersion on a deeper level. How can we shape the physical world in a way that complements the virtual experience? How can we craft a virtual experience that encourages active participation, and has a memorable effect on the user? As I dive into the details of the piece, I’d like to touch on a key issue we faced while building the experience: organically guiding the user’s attention in a virtual world.

Imagine walking into a medium-sized tent — comfortably lit and filled with small, intricately patterned pillows — and being surrounded by the aroma of tea leaves and herbal incense. You take off your shoes (as you would in any sacred space), slip into your VR gear, and prepare yourself for the experience.

Screenshots of Inner Activity from Unity 3D

Instantly, you find yourself in a densely vegetated jungle under a starry night sky. You’re surrounded by trees, larger-than-life plants (think James Cameron’s Avatar), and a soft, relaxing hum that keeps your mind at peace. As you look around, you begin to see patterns that closely resemble those that surround you in the tent; the contours of the trees seem to mirror the ornate designs on the pillows. The more you examine your surroundings, the more you begin to discover.

The experience evolves as users direct their attention to certain areas in the environment. For example, when the user concentrates on the sun through a clearing in the forest, she begins to gradually move towards the sun, activating stronger haptic feedback (delivered through the Subpac) and a carefully amplified set of sounds. In order for this to happen, however, the user must focus on the sun for at least five seconds.

How do you keep the user focused on one area of the experience when so much is happening around them?

If we simply shortened the amount of time (to say, three seconds), then we risk taking the user by surprise; a user might move her eyes to examine the scene without physically moving her head, but because the experience only detects the headset’s movements, it would proceed with an action associated with remaining still. Instead, we decided to add a few special elements to the experience that guide the user’s attention organically.

Some of my early mandala experiments with different shapes, patterns, and colors.
Inspirational excerpts from Drunvalo Melchizedek’s “The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life, Vol. 2”

Because Inner Activity is a spiritual experience in which users immerse themselves in nature, we chose to integrate a series of mandalas (symbols found in several spiritual and religious contexts) that enhance the environment and lead the viewer to the focal point of the piece. By arranging the mandalas according to other elements in the virtual space (under the arch of a large tree branch, for instance), not only do they physically “fit” into the environment when they appear, but they also add a unique value to the piece.

Because the majority of Inner Activity is populated by low-poly models, the geometrically-driven mandalas work stylistically as well. The sharp patterns apparent in different parts of the mandalas pair well with the rounder shapes seen on the edges, presenting mesmerizing designs that add to the experience.

Each layer of the mandala is arranged on a different plane in 3D space, so each piece can materialize, rotate, and transform independently.

Like many of the other elements in the piece, the mandalas only appear when the user directs her attention to a certain area in the space. For example, if the user glances in the direction of the sun for one second, the first layer of the mandala begins to materialize and rotate on an axis. With each second that follows, a new layer of the mandala reveals itself, keeping the user’s attention and seamlessly leading to the ultimate action that takes place after five seconds. Though the purpose of introducing these elements is to keep the user’s attention, they are designed in a way that doesn’t compromise the project’s creative direction.

Directing the user’s attention is a significant issue that stands in front of anyone who creates content for VR. Because the projects developed for VR today will set the tone for the future of the medium, it is up to designers, animators, and developers to build creative solutions for VR now. Though Inner Activity is still under production, the future of the project involves exploring the use of real time biometric sensing to generate imagery based on breathing patterns, pulse, and more; the ultimate goal is to build an experience that brings an overall awareness to the user’s internal bodily processes. For this reason, the piece will soon serve as a foundation for research collaboration between the Experimental Audio Design Lab, Creative Media and Behavioral Health Center, and the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

What makes virtual reality such a beautiful medium is the fact that viewers can actively participate in the content they watch. Inner Activity takes immersion a step further by engaging multiple senses and presenting an experience that is completely activated by the viewer’s movements. Of course, “talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture,” so in order to truly understand Inner Activity, you have to try it for yourself. Check out the experience at VR Village at SIGGRAPH 2016!