I’m standing in the middle of a frozen lake when an animated white rabbit approaches me. She looks me in the eye and crouches, ready to play. I crouch too.
The scene takes place inside Invasion, an interactive virtual reality film developed by California-based Baobab Studios. It’s not the climax of the film (that comes later, when a pair of aliens arrive), but it’s one of the most illustrative.
Virtual reality, it turns out, is excellent at playing into our emotions. We watch movies when we want to laugh or cry and play video games when we want to feel excited. But virtual reality has an extra ingredient: the feeling that the viewer is really there participating in the scene. I crouched because it’s what I felt the rabbit expected of me. There was an overwhelming urge to mirror her — to participate.
Virtual reality is still a new medium, but VR artists and developers are gradually learning how to design experiences around what extracts the largest response from a viewer. Stepping into a virtual world can be intimate, and combining that with design choices that heighten emotions makes for a memorable experience. Creators are turning to mediums like film and gaming for inspiration, but they’re also inventing entirely new ways of storytelling.
“VR allows you to have the empathy of films, the agency of games, and the motivation of real life,” says Maureen Fan, co-founder and CEO of Baobab. “Instead of acting because you want to win, you’re doing it because you genuinely care about this other character. That’s what we think VR allows you to do that no other medium could do on their own.”
The Camera Perspective
Across the continent, in Montreal, Felix & Paul Studios specializes in making experiential films for VR. Earlier this year, the studio released an intimate look inside the White House, guided by Barack and Michelle Obama. While it feels like the Obamas are speaking directly to you, in reality they are speaking to a 360-degree camera.
That seamless switch from camera to viewer is by design. Studio director and co-founder Félix Lajeunesse says the team at Felix & Paul Studios thinks very carefully about composition before shooting any scene. They take what he calls an anthropomorphic approach to the camera and treat it as if it really is the viewer.
If President Barack Obama is sitting and talking in a chair, then a confidant, and thus the camera, should be too. In Nomads, which follows nomadic cultures such as yak herders in the Mongolian steppes and the Maasai in Kenya, the studio constantly positioned the camera at eye level to create a stronger sense that the viewer is just another member of the family.
“You feel like there’s room for you inside this experience,” Lajeunesse says in regard to Strangers, another film by Felix & Paul Studios. “You’re not an intruder. You’re not a voyeur. It feels friendly. It feels emotionally warm, because those choices have been made in synergy with the artist and the talent.”
It’s also important to keep the camera rolling. In Nomads, the camera eventually melted into the background for the film’s subjects. They loosened up and allowed the camera to capture a peek into their real lives. The camera really did become a member of the family.
Back in Invasion, while I’m crouching down to play with the rabbit, I notice that I, too, am a rabbit. It’s not a surprising revelation in VR to have shifted forms, but it places me within the scene. The white rabbit is my peer.
That sense of identity within the film comes into play later on, when a duo of aliens arrive. They’re aggressive, and I watch with concern as my fellow rabbit taunts them. They’re tall and menacing compared to my diminutive body.
Felix & Paul Studios’ most recent film, Miyubi, takes the sense of identity one step further. The viewer becomes a robot gifted to a young boy. Look down, and you see your robot body. Strive to reach out to the family — which is falling apart — and feel the limitations of being only a toy.
At one point, a hidden feature allows you to travel out of physical space to meet your maker (who is, of course, actor Jeff Goldblum). The plot lays clear an explanation for the differing levels of interactivity and emotional roles expected of the viewer.
Setting and meeting a viewer’s expectations means everything in VR. Immersion only works if the virtual world somewhat matches what we would expect in the real world. People want to touch things and interact.
“If you’re in a new world, and you can’t participate and you can’t interact, it feels like everybody is ignoring you,” says Tom Sanocki, founder and CEO of Limitless. “It feels like a bad day at high school. You wave your hand, and people ignore you. That breaks the illusion. It removes any emotion you’re feeling.”
Limitless created a virtual gull named Gary, who is especially good at prying interaction out of VR users. He makes eye contact, asks questions, and waits for certain movements before moving the plot along.
Sophisticated interaction isn’t necessary to deepen the connection between a virtual character and the viewer. The rabbit in Invasion isn’t actually that intelligent—or at least the software behind her is not. She can look me in the eyes, but the software behind her isn’t tracking if I get down on the ground and play with her. My brain just assumes it is.
Baobab decided to test what would happened if it created a more intelligent character. In a follow-up experience called Asteroids, a robotic dog follows you around on an alien spaceship.
Look at the dog and tilt your head, and he will too. The studio was inspired by a Stanford study that found audiences were more likely to buy a product from — and like — a virtual salesman that mirrored their body language.
“If you see two people having a great date together in a restaurant, you can tell if they’re getting along because they start mirroring each other. One person leans in, and the other person leans in. This is something our bodies just normally do,” says Fan.
The sense of connection gets even more real when you add multiple live participants. Most of my recent VR time has focused on playing Echo Arena — a fast-paced arena sport that pits two teams against each other in zero gravity.
As a beginner, I’m quite bad at it. That wouldn’t feel like such a big deal except that my real-life teammates are relying on me. I have to face them after each round and acknowledge just how poorly I played.
It’s less like being terrible at Halo and more like a bad day in high school where I’m letting my friends down during a soccer match at recess. The other people feel more real. The shame feels more real.
Fan says VR creators are not pretending they know everything just yet.
Baobab tests everything — in part due to Fan’s background as a UI designer. This is a new medium, and creators are still feeling out what works. But put on a headset once, and you’ll feel just how effectively they are already reaching into viewers’ brains to tug at their emotions.