Wednesday, February 7, 2018

4 Big Ideas from the 2018 Immersive Design Summit

Over the last 18 years, immersive theater has grown in popularity in London, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it hasn't evolved much beyond those city-centers. I found immersive theater in 2015. I began to see VR as an evolution of a how an audience visits a narrative, rather than an evolution of film. We started applying this learning to our work at Oculus Story Studio. We hired a well known immersive theater troupe to help us crack story on "Wolves in the Walls".

As those of us in VR discovered the immersive arts, the immersive arts have discovered us, seeing this new technology is a way to scale beyond their bubble.

On January 6th, I attended an intimate Immersive Design Summit. I met incredibly interesting people working in immersive theater, experience design, escape rooms, and virtual reality, including the creators of Sleep No More, Imagineers from Disneyland, the creative producer from ILMxLab, the CCO from The Void, and the CEO of Meow Wolf. We came together to discuss the problems and solutions shared across our immersive spaces.

During the full day event, we shared our favorite stories from when we fell in love with the immersive arts. Everyone's story shared a common theme: they loved improvised, serendipitous, impossible-to-repeat moments. Moments like when a bag of feathers were dropped on a scene and one of them fell perfectly into an actor's spotlit hand, or when an actor deftly snatched a spoon accidentally thrown by an over-excited audience member and then twirled it around in character. There's something magical about feeling a part of a fantastic memory and not simply watching a fantastic story.

We all got excited thinking of VR as a new venue but also as a new canvas. VR has a unique set of constraints for what's possible and what's costly. New constraints ignite new ideas.

The challenge for uniting VR and the immersive arts is that the experts at building real immersive environments don't have the technical expertise to create virtual environments. Considering I have the latter skillset and that I was surrounded by those who have done so well in the former, I was inspired to see the synapses starting to connect.

"the hierarchy of needs"

During the opening keynote, the creative director at Disney Imagineering, threw up a slide of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as if she was referring to common knowledge we all should have learned back in Immersion 101. I've seen the pyramid before in leadership books, but not in the context of how you think about your visiting audience. Although this principle wasn't immediately evident to me, still a freshman level student of immersion, it makes sense that immersive creators must think deeply about human motivation. The theory is that all popular narrative media, think film and television, can at best feed our desire for feelings of love and belonging, while the immersive arts have the potential to feed our needs all the way to to the top.

This led me to an interesting thought about VR. The successful immersive creators must design an experience that feels safe before they can start tackling of higher levels of satisfaction. Popular narrative media like TV and film worry less about this problem as our mind can easily keep feelings of fear or threat behind the screen. With immersive theater, every audience member enters the experience knowing how to interact in it. It's natural to walk around, pick up objects, talk to each other- feel present in a physical space. With VR, it's not immediately intuitive how to navigate or interact with the experience, and when done wrong, it can actually make our audience feel sick. We need to get the fundamentals of interaction in VR right before we can climb the hierarchy of needs. As with immersive theater, if we make smart design decisions, we have the potential to create an experience that not only inspires but empowers the audience - this makes it a challenge worth solving.

"the alibi for participation"

The keynote speaker ended with a phrase that stuck with me. She said that when they create a consistently excellent experience at Disneyland and build it with a delightful purpose, it gives the visitors an "alibi for participation." It's at that sweet spot of design where even the most cynical teenager will put away their fear of looking uncool and put on a pair of Mickey ears. Great immersive experiences give a clear sense of a master plan - a purpose for visiting- and a clear way of how to move towards a goal. The experience must then feel like every detail was designed to reinforce the boundary between the real and the immersed world. The audience can only then relax into that plan without the stress of feeling like they have to fill out a blank canvas.
"the Magic Circle"  
In games, there is a principle that has a similar meaning as the alibi for participation. It's called the Magic Circle. It symbolizes the threshold that a visitor crosses when they enter a new world of rules and expectations. The best game experiences design this cross-over with great care and a reverent consistency. At the start of the PS3 game Journey, you start in a stark desert with the only notable environmental feature being a mysterious glowing mountain top off in the distance. You quickly discover you can move around with a joystick, jump with the A button, and chirp with the B button. Those are the only tools you need to start your journey. Simple, intuitive, elegant.

In order to create great VR, we need to do the same and more- feeling present comes with higher expectations. We need to establish the difference between how you interact in the real world with how you interact in the virtual world. For as much as I love VR mapping intuitive head and hand movement to feedback, we are still limited by the inability to capture the body or the full dexterity of the hand. There are yet to be haptics, and you are tethered to, at best, a 7' by 7' space. I believe the first step is to define how the experience is designed within these limitations; establishing the rules of locomotion, grabbing, throwing, pushing, button pressing, and talking.

"lack of constraints feeds indecision"

After the keynote, I went to a series of inspiring sessions from escape room creators and immersive theater designers. Many of the creators worked within the confines of their limited budgets and made some really clever choices. One of my favorites stories was from the creators of "The Nest", an after-work immersive story project by Disney Imagineers. The experience is about exploring a deceased woman's estate to piece together the puzzle of her heart breaking life. It takes place in a small cramped space which amplifies the intimacy of the experience. The creators intentionally made that choice because it was cheaper to use a backyard shed the size of a storage unit.

Constraints help guide and sometimes force decision making, providing a unique framework for invention. One of the challenges with VR is that we are less constrained in what we can build, making it easier for over-inflated ambition, and that feeds indecision. We have discovered that certain digital assets are cheaper to build than others. The key is creating great immersive environments, which are cheaper and easier than great immersive character acting. This, coupled with the human need for quality time, is one of the many reasons I'm excited about creating immersive environments in which your real-life friends can get together virtually to explore new adventures in ever-evolving environments.

In one day, I took home 4 big ideas:
  1. VR needs to start at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs; 
  2. the audience needs an alibi for participation; 
  3. defining the Magic Circle starts with the rules of interaction; 
  4. real world constraints make the immersive arts better, VR's constraints should do the same. 
It made it even more clear for me that VRs future will not evolve from books, TV or film. It will come from theme park makers, immersive theater producers, and escape room designers.