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Hugging A Cartoon: The Bizarre Future Of Virtual Design

When designers try to make VR physical, things get weird.

The living room was black and white, like a roughly sketched cartoon, and I was waiting for my “mother” to come home. Soon enough, the sketch of a woman walked in the front door. The black- and-white line drawing came over to hug me, and simultaneously, a real person hugged me, too.

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I’d been told I would be touched, but nothing prepared me for the jarring experience. It was like my mind was torn between two worlds: The one that my eyes could see, and the one my body inhabited. And it only got worse. I sat on the floor with the woman, played by an actress, and we colored using real-life pens that triggered real colors in the virtual world. Then it was bedtime. The cartoon guided me to a bed–a real life bed!–and tucked me in. All I could think about were the germs of countless people who’d been in this bed before me.

I was at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, inside a virtual reality experience called Draw Me Close by the playwright and filmmaker Jordan Tannahill. The piece is meant to let you experience a moment in Tannahill’s life as a five-year-old. It’s billed as part theater, part VR experience, a piece of art that pushes the boundaries of storytelling. And it was definitely boundary pushing–if you’re talking about my personal boundaries.

Draw Me Close. [Photo: Ron Antonelli for NFB and National Theatre]
While you might be able to do quite a lot inside a VR headset, from flying to living as a giant redwood, there’s still a dissonance between what your brain experiences virtually and what your body experiences physically. How do you make a virtual world feel truly immersive, when it only deals with two of your senses?

But an emerging field of VR set design is trying to bridge that gap. Designers are making “sets” that you experience before and after you don your headset–and in some cases, they’re trying to create physical spaces and sensations that correspond to the virtual experience simultaneously. As new haptic technology like electric muscle stimulation brings the virtual closer to the physical, VR companies are looking to the world of immersive theater to create more realistic experiences.

The Last Goodbye [Photo: David Korins Design]
At Tribeca Film Festival’s VR showcase, this merging of theater and technology was on full display in multiple projects. But as Draw Me Close demonstrated, it wasn’t always a seamless transition.

There’s a significant design challenge in creating a physical space in which to situate a virtual story, especially when that story is particularly harrowing. Take the design of the space meant to hold the VR film The Last Goodbye, which follows a Holocaust survivor as he returns to the concentration camp where he lost his family. It’s a devastating and tragic story–something that David Korins, who has designed sets for the musicals Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Fox’s Grease Live, took into account when he was creating the “set” for The Last Goodbye.

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“I wanted to give the sense that the viewer wasn’t exposed or out in the open. I really wanted to create a safe emotional landscape to have any kind of an experience,” he says. “I’m not going to presume what people’s response would be to that incredible testimony. If you wanted to laugh or cry or have a moment of catharsis or contemplation, we could create a space you could do that it in.”

The Last Goodbye [Photo: David Korins Design]
Korins ultimately designed a large, mirrored cube that’s large enough for you to stand and walk around in. You enter the space from the back of the cube, where a serene-faced attendant asks you to remove your shoes and walks you through what you’re about to experience. Surrounding the pod is a ring of dirt–which Korins says is meant to look like it’s been taken from the concentration camp–that makes the cube appear to float. It wasn’t what I expected from the set for a Holocaust VR experience; the interior is lit with blue light that wouldn’t be out of place in a futuristic science lab or a clubby bar. The interior has a shallow bench with simple square divots in the walls.

Korins has some very compelling, philosophical reasons for the futuristic design. The mirrors let it fit into any place the experience may travel, whether it’s the Holocaust Museum, the UN, or Tribeca, while helping people “come face-to-face with yourself and face-to-face with humanity.” The blue light, which changes to pink after the experience is over, is meant to give a sense of openness, while the pink is supposed to indicate emotional catharsis.

“It’s not like you’re walking into something that’s recreating a Nazi concentration camp of 1942,” he says. “I wanted it to be more abstract so that the real profundity of the world and piece inside could be very specific.”

After hearing his explanation, the design made slightly more sense. But when I first entered the experience, I would not have made any of those connections, nor did the futuristic lights and mirrors help me grapple with the material being presented. The physical constraints of the space, however, pointedly underscored the film itself. During one of the most gripping scenes in the VR film, the survivor Pinchas Gutter stands in front of a row of ovens that had been used to cremate the bodies of Jews. It was horrifying to be standing so close to them, and I kept trying to move as far away as I could, only to have the physical limitations of the space force me to stand and stare into the black instruments of death.

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From a filmmaking perspective, it was deeply effective, since it unsettled me so thoroughly–though the physical space around me didn’t provide the safe space that Korins spoke about. Instead of feeling like I had room to breathe and react, the enclosed area felt suffocating. Nevertheless, after the experience was over, it was nice to have a more private space to respond–even though the attendant was there watching. She offered me a tissue as I was putting my shoes back on.

Not all of the booths at Tribeca Film Festival’s VR arcade had such futuristic sets. Some, like the Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s first VR piece, The Protectors, took a much more literal approach.

The Protectors: A Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes. [Photo: Anthony Behar/National Geographic/PictureGroup]
The booth for The Protectors, which follows a group of rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who are fighting to protect elephants from poachers, was transformed into what was meant to be the African bush. Before starting the film, I was asked if I wanted to put on a faux bulletproof vest–a somewhat cheesy touch. Once the headset was on, I was afraid to move, unsure if I’d accidentally wander into the grass or bump into another person, as multiple people were viewing the film at once in a relatively small space.

Neuro Speculative Afro Feminism [Photo: Hyphen Labs]
Another booth for an experience called NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism–which is a trippy film of a futuristic salon where transcranial stimulation sends you to a mythical landscape–was set up like a physical hair salon. You put the headset on while sitting in a swiveling salon chair in front of a mirror–which is where the VR film begins. As the film unfolds, your swiveling is mimicked by the character you’re looking at in the mirror–one of the more seamless and clever ways of using the physical world to make the virtual one feel more real, without overstepping any boundaries.

But the most effective use of a physical set at Tribeca’s VR arcade came from a VR film called Blackout, in which you interact with strangers on a New York subway car and learn their stories. The set is a bare-bones replica of a subway car, built to scale, that corresponds to the poles and seats of the virtual subway car, making it easier to navigate the car to interact with the story’s virtual characters–real New Yorkers who will tell you their stories as they sit on the train. The pole served as an anchor in this immersive virtual narrative–it left me less anxious about where my body was in real life, and allowed me to dive deeper into the stories around me.

Each of these pieces–from being tucked into bed by an actress as part of Draw Me Close, to the startlingly futuristic cube of The Last Goodbye, to the smart, anchoring physical design of Blackout–revealed how designers are thinking about bridging the gap between mind and body through installations. More than anything, Tribeca’s VR arcade was a reminder of how this art form is incredibly nascent. The problem of how to truly blur those boundaries has yet to be solved.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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