“Girl” director Lauren Ludwig in the news!

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Lauren Ludwig, the director of our upcoming 360° narrative short, Girl, got a nice shout-out in LA Weekly’s year-end roundup. The immersive dance theatre dinner-party piece she directed, And The Drum, created with her company Capital W, was listed as one of the best and most innovative live performances of the year. See the list here.


Audience and cast enact a meal in And the Drum.














Theatre & VR & also “Westworld”

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Our creative director Dylan wrote this for the theatre site Better Lemons last week. As a former dramaturg (fancy, weird word for someone who helps develop new plays), he has a pretty unique view on the connections between theatre and VR. And he also watches a ton of television so of course the connection runs right through “Westworld”. Read it here.

Bringing Virtual Reality to Cuba

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Fstatic1-squarespace-2ilmmaker Fifer Garbesi wrote a wonderful blog post on her efforts to bring VR to the artists and thinkers of Cuba; efforts that our very own co-founder, Ian Forester, had the opportunity to help with. They were recently in Havana shooting 360 footage for an upcoming documentary and hosting the island’s first VR Festival. It was, by all accounts, pretty amazing, opening the door for some great creations and collaborations to come!

Read all about it here

What It’s Like to Work in Virtual Reality

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maxresdefaultLet’s be real. Virtual reality is having a moment. Headsets are shipping, people are talking and VR is popping up all over pop culture in weird, interesting ways. It feels sweepingly omnipresent all of a sudden, like there was this plan in place to make VR a part of all of our lives and now that plan is in motion. And so people ask me what it’s like to work in the virtual reality industry. This is a hard question to answer in an interesting way. It’s difficult? It’s exciting? It’s crazysexycool? Yes. But also:

Working in virtual reality is like being a first year resident on a primetime medical drama

Not that I ever watched “Grey’s Anatomy” because for sure I never did but somehow I know that the pilot episode covered the first 48 hours in the residency of Meredith Grey and friends, just like the pilot episode of “Scrubs” covered J.D. and co.’s first day. There’s a reason for this. It’s the ultimate example of being thrust into the fire. You’ve just spent the last few years huddled quietly over cadavers in university operating theatres and now suddenly there’s gunshot wounds and pregnant ladies and stroke victims coming at you! That’s virtual reality right, spring 2016. We’ve all spent the last few years huddled over our computers and now a bus has overturned on the interstate and they’re all about to stream right through the front door.

Working in virtual reality is like being in a college jazz band

If you’re playing in a college jazz band, then clearly you really like jazz and playing music in general. You’re probably naturally talented and have devoted enough of your life to it that you’re going to be pretty good. It’s likely that some of you will even go on to be professional musicians, enough at least that the band is a very serious endeavor. But at the same time, you’re also kinda there to experiment, which means it’s kinda great and a little bit encouraged that you never really know which note you’re going to play next until you actually play it.

Working in virtual reality is like that part in the heist movie where one guy has to shut off the bank’s alarm system right before the rest of the crew breaks through the door and it looks like he’s not going to make it but then, right before they hit the door, he cuts the right wire and the alarm goes down!

That’s about as good as an analogy for the current VR post-production process as any. There’s this incredibly complicated series of events that all have to happen in a very specific order at a very specific time and it all seems super shaky, technologically-speaking, and inevitably there’s this moment when the whole thing looks like it’s about to go to shit. Sometimes it does and the coppers nab you. Sometimes it doesn’t and you get away with the score of a lifetime. And by the way, if we’re riding with this analogy, than VR Playhouse is the crew in Oceans 11! Slick, sexy, never get caught.

Working in virtual reality is like being on the Steve Nash-era Phoenix Suns

Those of us diehard basketball fans know that the Phoenix Suns of the mid-’00s, when Nash was their point guard and Mike D’Antoni was their coach, were a historically fun team. Their slogan was “Seven Seconds or Less” to describe how quickly they moved the ball upcourt and their fluid, improvisational style thrilled fans and revolutionized the game. They set the stage for a new kind of play, one that the current Golden State Warriors, among others, are turning into the future of basketball.

Working in virtual reality is like that part in “Hook” when The Lost Boys sit down to eat dinner and at first Peter doesn’t get it but then he realizes that he can just imagine whatever food he wants to eat.

You’re doing it, Peter! You’re doing it!

Journeys Into And Out Of The Remarkable VR POV

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I saw “Death Of A Salesman” for the first time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1997. I was 16 years old and just starting to stumble into what it meant to be an adult and as I watched Willy Loman, crumbling under the weight of so many different familial and societal pressures, miraculously, I started to recognize myself. I saw myself in that 63 year old salesman and in that 50 year old play. And so even though the play is a tragedy, I didn’t walk away sad. I was instead reassured because I knew that the same fears I was just then facing lived in everyone else too. I knew I wasn’t alone.static1.squarespace

One of the great joys of interacting with art of any kind is the journey you take to find yourself in it, to uncover your own reflection there, as hidden as it may be, and so to see yourself as part of a new and greater whole. It occurs to me then that as we continue to wrestle with the notion of VR content, one thing to consider is that VR in large part eliminates this journey. We don’t have to conceptually find ourselves in a VR experience. We’re already inside.

By design, games address this by giving their participants specific intentions that then define a new kind of journey. And so it’s no surprise that games so far dominate virtual reality entertainment content. The other kind of popular content is experiential, or what a friend calls “You wouldn’t believe where I was” content. There are no intentions here other than to feel what it is to exist in a specific space―a mountaintop, a refugee camp, an alien spaceship, 10,000 leagues under the sea―and so no real journey. The question then is whether there is room for a third kind of content, one whose roots are in classic storytelling and one in which users can still be, first and foremost, an audience to a story.

Lots of content creators are taking their shot, that’s for sure, with much of the content structured around a conflict of what you’re seeing vs. what you’re not seeing and the related game of knowing where to look at any one time. But this approach misses a fundamental understanding that point of view isn’t just what a person sees but also what they dream and remember and imagine and believe. It is always extrasensory and as a storytelling medium, VR’s greatest potential strength is its ability to capture the totality of that interior life.

At the same time, immersion of this kind creates an intense sense of immediacy and a need to reckon with the environment in front of you and so we’re starting to see the way VR stories can instead structure themselves around the conflict between that environment and that interior life, between what we’re seeing and what we’re thinking. This then has ripple effects. For example, it eliminates the need for backstory, which exists to provide answers to questions that we’re now meant to answer ourselves. Dropping the viewer right into the middle of the action and allowing for a full exploration of their unique perspective and point of view to make their own sense of it instead becomes the new game.

Maybe VR is a little scary artistically then because it asks its audience to do the opposite of what they’re used to. They don’t have to find themselves in the story. They have to find their way out.

Cereal in the Age of Virtual Reality

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So Kellog’s announced that they’re going to be rolling out limited-edition cereal boxes that will include build-your-own VR viewers, akin to Google’s DIY device, Cardboard. They’ll have their own app too, with 360° videos that will reportedly include first-person rides on a mountain bike and a wingsuit. All of which is pretty cool. Nevertheless, we can’t help but wish that instead of generic action sports footage, Kellog’s had looked inward, to their own cereal brands and, more importantly, the worlds that were created to sell these cereals. Speaking as someone who grew up watching a lot of kids TV programming and, therefore, a lot of ads for cereal, some of those worlds are bonkers-level crazy. The cartoon psychedelia these commercials often traffic in, combined with crystal-clear intentions for their characters (usually, “get the cereal!”), makes them perfect for VR. Here are the five most perfect:

Fruit Loops

The tagline for “Fruit Loops” commercials used to be “follow your nose,” as delivered by the adventuresome and gentlemanly mascot, Toucan Sam. So you do just that, racing through jungle environments in search of Fruit Loops. I’d do this one just to have Sam’s POV and to see that giant, toucan beak out in front of you. Oh, oh, and, the VR viewer you get includes on its front a little fold-out toucan nose!

Lucky Charms

If “Fruit Loops” is your basic, mobile game than “Lucky Charms” could be like some next level “Myst” shit. You’re the leprechaun (obviously) on an epic quest through some kind of barren, dystopian Irish landscape to retrieve the magical charms that will ultimately get you to the rainbow and salvation.

VR Playhouse-cereal-001

Cookie Crisp

Look at the awesome, vintage mix of animation and live-action in this commercial. I can see a future where the kids in this commercial are wearing a HoloLens, watching Cookie Crook and Cookie Cop play their little drama out on the kitchen table each morning over breakfast. Which would probably make for a trippier bowl of cereal than either of them are used to. Then again, they are eating a breakfast composed of tiny chocolate-chip cookies so it could all just be a sugar high.

Frosted Flakes

You gotta go full AR with Tony the Tiger. That’s basically what a recent round of Frosted Flakes commercials suggested, integrating an animated Tony into touching, parent-child, sports-related scenarios. It’s usually a little awkward―what with the giant, animated tiger playing third wheel―but, on the plus side, Tony is always very supportive and helpful in whatever endeavor parent and child have set out on. I could get excited for a virtual Tony the Tiger, always by my side, cheering me on as I went through my day.

Corn Flakes

Kellog’s began its corporate life with its Toasted Corn Flakes, a byproduct of the research the Kellog brothers were doing into health and therapy. But let’s face it, Corn Flakes is a very simple cereal and one that, unto itself, does not scream for a VR experience. Corn Flakes could however serve as the gateway to visit the Battle Creek Sanitarium where corn flakes were invented and where―as “The Road To Wellville” taught us―a lot of kooky contraptions were built and experimented with in the name of health; things like the electrotherapy exercise bed and the oscillomanipulator; things that are perfect for some virtual interactivity and exploration.

Cereal: the breakfast of the virtual reality revolution.

The Value of Virtual Tragedy

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VR Playhouse-WTC-001

The concept of presence, of being virtually and magically transported to a place, real or imagined, and having the feeling of truly being there, has always been and will continue to be, one of the chief selling points of virtual reality. But that concept of presence, and the value that VR gives to it, becomes much more complex when we’re talking about a place and an experience that no one would want to be present for. Such is the case when it comes to “[08:46]”, a new VR piece that recreates the events of September 11, 2001 from the point of view of an office worker in the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

I can only guess as to the motives behind the creation of “[08:46]”. Whatever they may be, it is ultimately the prerogative of its makers. It’s a free country and, as with so many controversial works of art, if you object to an experience that recreates 9/11 then you don’t have to watch it. But this does lead to the question of why I or anyone would want to experience such a terrible event and what we would hope to get out of it.

9/11 was more than fourteen years ago. At this point, you can vote and have little to no memory of 9/11. This distance means that 9/11 has become a piece of history and is treated as such. We care about history because we can learn from the events of the past; the successes that were achieved and how, the mistakes that were made and why. Historical narratives, for their part, seek to do all this while also humanizing and grounding these events; giving us the chance to really get to know the people involved so that we may personally identify and engage with those events and so come to understand them from an emotional level.

Emotional connection is maybe what the makers of “[08:46]” were after, a way to bring the event back out of the history books and to make it a part of our reality once again. This is understandable, precisely because VR’s brand of presence can get you closer than ever before to the human beings and the human interactions that help to define a historical event and our perception of it. But it’s when we arrive at this intention that we begin to discover obstacles and we realize there is a very big difference between experiencing an event in VR and hoping to understand it.

What “[08:46]” reveals is a brutal kind of simplicity in the way that we experience and perceive events as they happen around us, particularly the high-stakes events that usually form the basis for stories. The arc of the characters in “[08:46]” reflect this as they jolt from confusion to fear to panic to either acceptance or denial (or, I guess, neither). Charting that kind of journey is easy for VR, since so much of the experience revolves around real-time reactions to the things that you’re seeing around you. Visceral emotions like surprise and fear are right in VR’s wheelhouse. What is not, however, are the kinds of emotional states that follow: contemplation and analysis; a sense of the event placed in a grander context, removed from the experience of actually living in it.

That sort of emotional state is far less dependent on the events happening around you in the moment. It has a more internal kind of life and so if we’re hoping to investigate and explore a piece of history in virtual reality and not just relive it, the focus must be on that internal life. The thing we’re learning is that the concept of presence in VR is as much about an internal presence as an external one, as much about being in someone’s head as it is about being in some body or some place. And the point where this kind of intimacy meets with the crushing, objective reality of history is the place where VR will really excel.

Repetition, Revision and Gaming the Storytelling System

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Recently, I was up late at night watching Jackass 2. You should know that I consider this to be an important part of my job at VR Playhouse. In one of the film’s stunts, the team had built a full pipe that they were trying to ride using what looked like a tiny, two-stroke pocket bike. The sequence mainly consisted of riders falling, over and over, taking their trademarked joy in their own pain. And then one of them pulled off the trick, riding this toy motorcycle all the way around the loop-dee-loop and, presumably, on to glory.static1.squarespace-2

It made me think about one of the more famous moments in skateboarding history. It happened at the 1999 X Games, when legendary skater Tony Hawk landed the first ever 900 in competition. It was a cool moment made exceedingly more dramatic by the way in which it was done. Hawk would fail ten times before landing it. He would exceed the time allotted to each skater in competition, basically forcing the contest to suspend its own rules by allowing him to continue trying. He persisted through brutal fall after brutal fall, drenched in sweat, determined to keep doing this thing until he figured it the fuck out. And then he did.

The concept of “repetition with revision” is sort of a basic one. Life, in many cases, is about doing the same thing over and over, making subtle revisions along the way that hopefully accumulate over time and equal growth, learning, evolution. It’s not only a part of our stories—heroic protagonists like Hawk persevering and enduring—it’s part of the way storytellers build these stories. The playwright Suzan Lori-Parks, for example, is a noted practitioner of “rep and rev,” turning bits of writing into a kind of repeating and constantly shifting, choral refrain. Interestingly, more and more these days, repetition with revision is also a part of how audiences engage with stories. A huge portion of our storytelling servings now comes in game form and gameplay is built on repetition and revision, on the idea of repeatedly moving through a story so as to master those moves. Sometimes that repeatable move is simple—the timing of one push of one button. Sometimes, it’s a dizzying combination, requiring a lot of repetition and a lot of revision to get you to tVR Playhouse-super mario-001he end of the story.

This ability to enter into a narrative world over and over again and to explore it to the point that you comprehensively understand it—you master it—is now a very real desire and one that virtual reality inherently fulfills in nifty ways. As a storytelling platform, 360 VR is unique in that its design ensures you will miss things. You can’t be looking everywhere at all times. And so any story in VR presents itself as a kind of puzzle. It demands repetition and revision; a gradual understanding of where to look and when, creating a combination of moves that unlocks the puzzle and wins you the game.

It’s sometimes easy to know when you’ve unlocked that puzzle and won. You spin around two and a half times in mid-air and land back on your board. You beat the boss. You save Princess Toadstool. Sometimes, though, it’s harder. It’s not clear yet what it means to master a story, to win at a story. It’s not even clear if “winning a story” is even something we should be striving for or if it instead debases the whole meaning of story by suggesting an objective right and wrong. But it is becoming clear that virtual reality will provide some answers. And that’s exciting.

Adventures in VR Storytelling, Part III

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VR Playhouse-headset-diagram-001There’s always been a kind of implied power dynamic that exists in visual storytelling, a power that the storyteller is meant to have over his or her audience. And it’s more or less defined by the frame in which the story plays out. Because there’s always a frame. And the existence of that frame means that the storyteller has the ability to locate the components of his or her story in the space that the frame prescribes. He can compose a shot or a moment on stage and he can then juxtapose that with other shots, other moments. However you may or may not interpret the things you see, what, in fact, you are seeing is always up to the storyteller. Except not in VR. With immersive, 360 content, the frame is the entirety of the user’s field of vision which means, at any given moment, they’re creating their own frame and dictating what’s in it. Which, as a storyteller, is really a pain in the ass.

This new kind of storytelling medium, this new medium of communication and interaction, this whole thing that we’re doing with VR and AR and all the other, new kinds of Rs, it is tremendously exciting. But from the perspective of the storyteller, it presents first and foremost a set of challenges. Some of us here at VR Playhouse come from the theater world, which has been facing these challenges for a few years now with the emergent popularity of immersive theater. Immersive theater is extremely good at creating visceral, emotionally resonant experiences for an audience to enter into and interact with while also struggling mightily to deliver anything resembling a well­constructed and sophisticated plot. Which is totally understandable. Like VR, immersive theater allows the audience to dictate the particulars of their own experience, in this case by allowing them to wander freely through a fictionalized, physical space; through the play’s world.

Meanwhile, plot is just the sequence of events that make up a story. It’s just hard data: who, what, when, where; raw information that needs to be delivered to the audience (preferably by showing it to them rather than telling it to them). But if we can’t ever be sure where an audience member is or even what they’re looking at, how can we deliver that information to them with any sense of coherence?

An audience member/user’s relationship to a story’s protagonist is similarly, seemingly challenged. As we’ve already discovered, the medium’s immersive quality means the user always has a sense of presence inside the story. There’s a line of thinking that says that since every story told in VR is going to feel like it’s told from the first­person, you might as well just go ahead and tell it from the first­person. You’re harder­pressed to write from the third person, frankly, and have to explain how it is that no one seems to see or acknowledge you when it feels so much like you’re there. And storytelling from the first-person perspective can create incredibly cathartic moments for an audience, made ever more so here in VR by the totality of the immersion. But collapsing the space between user and protagonist means that the audience rarely if ever gets to observe the protagonist. They don’t get to see the world from any other perspective other than the protagonist’s. They don’t have to do that valuable work of closing the space for themselves. And now you’ve gone ahead and reduced the amount of content you have to fill up a frame that you’ve already ceded control of.

So then, how do you face these challenges and overcome the obstacles? I think it’s safe to say no one has solutions yet. We have some ideas here, areas to explore, fodder for experimentation. If, for instance, there is no difference between the protagonist and the user, if we agree that the user is always the protagonist, we have to find the storytelling techniques that bring the user into this virtual, fictionalized world, just as technology already does. We have to look to extend that fictionalized world into this real world, maybe through the use of AR or ARGs, while continuing to place a priority on interactivity, on the technological advances that will bring on that interactivity, and on the continued evolutionary merging of classical storytelling with gameplay. If we concede that the communication of hard data in this medium is very difficult, then we must translate that information into more communicable forms. We may not be able to tell the user what is happening, but we can show them how it feels, for instance, and we can trust our users to get to the hard date from there.

It’s all pretty speculative but this is uncharted territory so it’s going to have to be. The thing to remember too is that we’re after emotions here and true emotions are rarely easy to find. The path to any is speculative, wild and chaotic and dangerous, just like all initial advances in a new medium are going to feel wild and chaotic and dangerous. And actually, danger is cool. And dramatic. So really, we’re right on track.

Adventures in VR Storytelling, Part II

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Part II: There Is No Third Person

We’ve already discussed the distinct, dreamlike presence one feels inside a VR narrative; that feeling of being intimately present up until a point and then definitively detached. It’s a very special kind of presence and it can potentially lead to some very special kinds of stories. But frankly, the quality of the presence one feels in VR is secondary to the simple fact that you clearly have presence and that this presence is unavoidable.

“Clouds Over Sidra” is a virtual reality short film that takes us to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. We meet a young girl who describes for us both the harsh difficulties and small joys inside Sidra as we immerse ourselves in scenes of daily life there; school, soccer games, family dinners. It’s one of the more emotionally arresting VR films to have come out, mainly because of the subject matter (a homesick little girl quietly crying in front of your eyes is going to be arresting in any medium).

Nevertheless, our own virtual presence there serves to deepen those emotions. There’s a small moment midway through “Clouds Over Sidra” that occurs while the camera is in a kind of makeshift internet cafe where the camp’s teenage boys can come to play video games. At one point, a boy turns from his game and speaks directly to the camera in Arabic. He grins and raises up his index finger and I assume he’s boasting about his gameplay or his clique of friends. Or his country. It’s a throwaway moment except that he’s looking right at you. And remember: in this virtual world, where the view is yours and yours alone, when someone looks you in the eye, they’re looking you in the eye.

When a teenage Syrian refugee does it and does it in a way that reminds you of a million teenage boys, that reminds you of you, it leaves a mark. That mark is called empathy.

To empathize with another person is to internalize that person’s own experience. Storytelling basically exists to create empathy through the language of emotion. I may not have any idea what it’s like to live in a third-world refugee camp but I do know what it feels like to be homesick (and also what it feels like to be a cocky teenage boy) and I can recognize those emotions in another. Doing so gets me as close as I can to experiencing life in Sidra. Except now, we can get even closer. We can immerse ourselves in the virtual reality of that experience. Now, I don’t have to translate my own homesickness into hers. Now, her experience is my experience. I’m not sure if there’s a more conducive narrative environment to empathy than the one VR has created for us.

That degree of empathy creates a connection that in turn creates a sense of responsibility. This is a characteristic inherent to gaming, which gives you an avatar and allows you to control him or her, putting their fate, their hopes for happiness or success or whatever, directly in your hands. If I could have played “Clouds Over Sidra” as a game, then you better believe I would have worked very hard to get those people out of that terribly sad place. But I cannot. Realizing this gives way to another surge of emotion, a sense of helplessness followed by a real impulse to return to the real world and enact the change there that I could not do virtually. I kept thinking of those late-night infomercials where the big, burly guy with the white beard and the wobbly voice implores you, the viewer, to adopt a third world child by giving $5 a month, and how impactful his message would be in VR. Those kids would be raking it in.

We at VR Playhouse have begun to explore that unique kind of empathy with our forthcoming, original narrative series, First Person. In First Person, your avatar is a man trying to get back into the dating scene following a divorce. You don’t have any control over this avatar, apart from where he’s looking at any given moment. You are simply an observer as he goes on his journey. What he says, where he goes, the choices he makes are outside of your power. But you are watching through his eyes. You are there and so you are responsible. The need for control, coupled with the utter inability to have any, is a pretty good definition of a new kind of conflict, not one for our characters but one for our audience.