The Odd Place

This September, Barkley’s Director of Empathy and Intelligence, Karen Faith, sat down to talk about virtual reality with David Mellor, award-winning Creative Director at Framestore, the undisputed giants of VR at present. They sat in the kitchen of Framestore’s new Chicago office and ranged over a dizzying array of topics, from storytelling to simulation theory. And it’s no surprise, because, as they soon discovered, virtual reality isn’t simply a new tech toy; it’s quite literally a portal to a new world.

David Mellor, Creative Director at Framestore

“Let the record reflect that Mellor has raised his hand.”

Interview transcripts make awkward reading, because they don’t reflect tone or cadence. Humor gets lost. Sarcasm, warmth, conflict — all of it is flattened into words like a multi-dimensional experience rendered as a storyboard. Thankfully, David Mellor is a pro at exactly that thing. So when we sat down over coffee with a voice recorder between us, he knew just when to offer pertinent narration, a small act of awareness I’d not yet seen from an interviewee.

When David raised his hand, then stated he’d done so, we were discussing VR and empathy. I had just referred to gamer kids I knew in college as “basement-dwellers” — when he identified himself as one of their tribe. I was embarrassed, but he simply noted the unique perspective that spending one’s formative years with computers can create.

“I suppose we gamers had a more romantic view of what it was to interact with humans, because we wanted it but struggled with it. So maybe that’s a nice thing.”

A big step for story

“We’ve got to discover how to tell stories in VR,” he urged. “It’s another way altogether. For documentary, for empathy, it’s brilliant. But the movie style of story doesn’t work here. VR storytelling is more what computer games have been doing, where there’s interaction and choice.” The rampant assumption that VR is the next big thing in storytelling, he explained, is wrongheaded. It isn’t the same type of step forward as radio to TV or silent film to “talkies.” The experiential capacity of virtual reality challenges the very idea of what a story might be.

I realized, “agency messes up storytelling, because I’m not passive.”

“Exactly.”

“And if I choose-my-own-adventure, it becomes a game.”

“Right.”

Exploring the implications of agency, we agreed that it might deepen empathy to amplify a user’s investment in experience through action. Empathy may be a buzzword now, but it’s no less relevant to our work as creatives, or to the national and global conversations we still stutter to have. If VR can help us “try on” other points of view, David suggested, we may in fact do the world some good.

Ice cream and empathy in Rwanda

Talking about the perspective granted to him by travel, David added how lucky he feels to have been “dragged around the planet a bit. When you travel, your default becomes, ‘that’s different, that’s interesting,’ rather than, ‘that’s different, that’s wrong.’”

The initial strangeness of VR is not unlike being dropped in a foreign land, and in a recent project for Marriott (“VR Postcards”), David had the opportunity to combine the two experiences uniquely. He lit up as he shared the story of shooting an ice cream shop in Rwanda, speaking with a spark and color that rendered his telling a virtual world of its own.

The shop was opened with the help of a charity, in partnership with a New York ice cream company. The idea was to provide a place for people to come together, while supporting the local economy by using milk and coffee from surrounding farms and plantations. While it sounds hipster farm-to-table, the experience drew power from what these people had endured. After a conflict that all but wiped out Rwanda’s adult men, the workforce is 85% female. A staggering fact to consider, let alone observe. When Marriott and Framestore enabled others around the world to experience it — to see people, who had been on opposite sides of bloody combat, now sharing ice cream and coffee — empathy happened.

“Marriott was selling the idea of travel without making it about hotels. And it was brilliant. It left something with you. With me, even.”

Lies of the mind

As he paused, I remembered that I needed to talk to David about the plank. Nutshell: I tried to walk a plank off a skyscraper in VR, lost my balance, and collapsed.

“There’s a video of me falling. You can see I could have caught myself, but I didn’t believe there was a floor beneath me, so I fell. This was my VR moment, because I realized — ”

“It can fool you.”

He finished my sentence more succinctly than I would have. I had in mind that my fall might illuminate the distance between faith and reason, stringing a power cord from the limbic brain to the prefrontal cortex, but I didn’t need to say any of that, because David was already there.

He explained that the mind mechanisms driven by instinct are buggy, constantly inventing falsehoods and filling in gaps unprompted. (Fake news.) He described a project filmed from inside a car where they shot stereo for the front of the view only, not on the sides. Viewers’ minds got enough input to perceive depth in the side windows even when there wasn’t any.

He wondered, “Maybe it’s an optical memory? Maybe a person who’d never been in a car wouldn’t see it. I don’t know. When they look at brain signals to and from the eye, they find at least twice as many going to the eye as there are coming from the eye. That points to an error-checking system.”

We spoke about simulation hypothesis — the idea that everything we know as real life is perhaps a designed experience itself — an impossible topic to resist while examining VR.

There is no god

A colleague poked her head in and gave David a ten-minute warning. I scanned my notes to be sure I’d checked off the standard bits: his favorite tech gear, best brand activations, where he sees VR taking the industry. David adjusted his glasses, smiling, as he said, “those are very boring questions.” I agreed, and u-turned into simulation.

“If you turn it around, when you’re creating these virtualities, do you not feel a little like the god of a phony world?”

“No.”

“No?”

No. David said he regards his work as a fulfilling challenge with a specific purpose that doesn’t allow him to feel like any kind of god. I nudged him to admit that designing another person’s world is at least partly superhuman, but he didn’t bite.

“To feel like that, I’d have to feel outside of it, and I rather enjoy being inside of it. It’s just part of who I am. Reality feels the odd place, in a way.”

It’s a two-way portal

Odd indeed. If the premise of empathy is that we’re each having unique experiences that require effort to share and understand, the opportunity for brands to connect moves both ways. Offering brand audiences a point of view through VR is only the beginning. As consumers get savvier, and they are doing so quickly, they’ll share their own points of view at a depth that market research can’t currently touch.

David emphasized VR’s empathic power, and lauded Marriott for the insight and boldness to prioritize emotional connection over a direct sell. By beautifully documenting eye-opening perspectives all over the globe, they’d let go of the reflex to sell hotel stays with a heavily branded experience, and instead ignited the spirit of travel in a visceral way. It got a bit meta, I noticed.

“An empathy-generating experience about an empathy-generating experience.”

“Exactly that.”

We walked our coffee cups to the dishwasher and said goodbye on schedule. Minutes later, on Jackson Blvd, I climbed into a stranger’s Honda and imagined us each in a designed universe of our own, sharing momentary intersections without knowing how much we perceive in common. As difficult as it is to truly walk in another’s shoes, we now find ourselves doing so in the the place that isn’t so true at all, feeling empathy in a virtual world, so that we might better connect in what David called “the odd place.”