Review: Life in VR
A Mixture of Story and Game
People will judge someone by the first impression and this also applied to VR installations. This piece was quite inconspicuous among all those big installations with only two white pedestals. The first time I tried it was only because nobody was watching it and I had a 10 minutes gap before I ran to watch a documentary film. I simply asked the permission from the volunteer and put it on.
The first scene I saw was a beautiful bay view on Monterey where I did visit later in this August. The shiny black sea otter greeted me by taking me down to the surrounding water to see deeply and closely of the California ecosystem. All the animation subjects were well portrayed and established. The behaviors of animals looked nature and vivid. The voiceover was clear and strong which you would usually encounter in the BBC documentary films. The headset was quite light so that you could easily turned around your head to look around. The only thing you need to explore the world was a one-bottom remote control. By simply pointing it to the white dots around you and clicking on the bottom, you would gain the access to some hidden beauty in the Pacific Ocean.
In the VR world, a lot of projects used the gaze control to move the audience around which would usually cause a lot of problems and make the audience feel uncomfortable. First, according to the cognition research, we human are extremely sensitive to the changes of environments. For example, in a film, if the first shot is the main character walked in the street and the second shot is the main character opened the door, it is quite nature for the audience to portray a complete process of spatial transformation in their mind. Audiences can easily tell a fault if the footage violated the natural rules of spatial transformation like cross the axis. All the logical reasoning and spatial recognition are done by the brains without conscious. It is common that audiences feel lost and confused when they see themselves jumping through different surroundings or scenes since all the spatial information are highly fragmented and inconsistent. Second, if VR works are built on first perspective for the representation of self, it is so important that audiences can identify their behaviors as real human beings rather than ghosts or super heroes. In other words, audiences shall be able to extend their knowledge about reality to new virtual environments and get back their bodies or at least a small power of control. Instead of gaze control, Life in VR chose this relatively simple solution which actually made the viewers’ experiences super friendly. The white dots floating in the sea around you were well designed attractions, just like bottoms, because they were calling you to click on them. After clicking on them, the work automatically generated white dotted lines connected you and the white dots, you would be dragged by the white lines, so you had a certain feeling about diving or at least knew where to go. Thanks to the spectacular panoramic 3D world, the audiences can experience the SeaWorld by bathing in the sea. The spatial information was consistent, and your movements were also fluid. The whole experience was effective, engaging and easy to learn. I had to stop before I finished the second story of sea wildlife, but I found it had nice features of both educational experience that allowed audiences to absorb new biological knowledge, and game experience that required the participants to explore the unknown ocean territory. Thus, I made up my mind, I would come back and tried it again later.
A few days later, I continued my journey in the ocean and found more interesting things about its narrative structures. Talking about narrative structures, it is hard to avoid discussing the core concept about story first. From my point of view, story is a linear sequence of multiple events which requires a main story line to create a basic framework. Events can refer to plots in a film or chapters in a novel. Audiences need to walk through all the events to at least understand a story. This fact won’t change even though nonlinear narrative has been comprehensively applied in Hollywood’s famous films. For instance, in the famous film Inception, if the audiences missed the Cobb’s memories about Mal, there was no way that audiences can understand why Mal would keep interfering Cobb’s mission and appeared in his dream world. In the traditional mediums, including books, films and theaters, no matter what kind of complex techniques of scattered narrative are used, audiences always can capture all the events. But in the VR world, it is most important that viewers can gain immersive experiences through their interactions with the work. The viewers should always have choices and reserve the rights to explore their surroundings. In this case, it is very likely that viewers will miss the key moments or core events and get lost in the story. This is the reason why I felt impressive about Life in VR. On the one hand, the designer made sure every viewer would be able to make their own directions in their adventure. Following the sea animals would only provide you the main story but clicking on different white icons would offer you different possibilities to unlock different ocean attraction spots. On the other hand, even you decided to leave the main track to explore the ocean by yourself, the story teller still had the power to drag you back to the main story. In some certain points, those swimming animals would catch your eyes and lured you to follow them. The travel through the story was entirely controlled because that was the only way led you to Rome and ended your experience in the work.
Passing through different levels, the story line began from the shallow sea, kept diving to the abysmal sea and eventually brought audience back to the sea level. The whole narrative formed with the ends joined, like a ring but also included the hierarchical structure and the vein structure. From the sea otters to squids, krill, and a sperm whale, all these animals lived in a food chain and played the key roles of unlocking next dimensions. In the meanwhile, white dots triggered different paths to go through one layer. It was a sophisticated system but a delicate design.
Although the content itself seemed simple, participants’ performances varied and thus the whole reading process shrank or extended. Based on how further you went in one layer, how much you saw in one spot and how long you spent in the investigation before you went with animals to go deeper, the whole experience became pretty unique. Another genius setting was presenting a percentage of your accomplishment in the closing interface. For the most first-time player, nobody would feel gain nothing but usually would feel missing something. This small feedback from the work would acted as a certificate for creating a feeling of achievement and a potential reward for playing again. One year ago, I wrote a paper about exploring new language of virtual reality and this work proved a lot of my guesses. I believe this new model of VR film – a mixture of story and game will set off a revolution of new watching habit in the young generation. In the future, people will not only read a story but also go into a story world. There is nothing more excited than seeing my hypothesis about VR becoming a certainty.