This is how we did it.
Virtual Reality had a problem. One I felt. I had given dozens of talks advocating for the art form by telling the world it was transportive. Emotional. Empathic. And then I would release a game where you were a giant monkey that punched robots in the face. I wasn’t alone in this, and a lot of VR true-believers were in the same boat. Then iNK Stories approached me about building something emotional – an experience where you watched a girl experience a bombing in Syria. The concept was novel and interesting – but they were limited by the tech at the time. Daydream didn’t exactly transport people. And we couldn’t take such a serious topic lightly.
But we knew that Navid and Vassili were some of the best politically charged game developers around thanks to their hit 1979. So we proposed something new – what if we took their concept, and we went as big as we could go with it. What if we built a multiroom experience where instead of watching, you got blown up yourself, where you actually had to lift rubble of the girls body with your own hands. They leapt at the chance, and off we went to build it.
Headphones are limited. We built a first-of-its-kind 32 speaker sound system with Object Oriented Audio and state of the art systems to run the entire thing thanks to the brilliant minds at DTS Xperi. Participants actually talked back to who they thought were real people, and our explosion sent some running for the door.
Built on Unreal meant we could extend it as needed. A 5k StarVR headset and HP Backpack PC meant we didn’t have to have cables. Phasespace tracking meant we could customize our tracking so participants would suffer no occlusion – even through doorways. In all, we created a multiroom setup that enabled users to walk, unencumbered, without having to care they were in a virtual world.
Not empty walls, the physical world was haptically identical to the world assumed in the headset – cracks in walls, heat from a fire, wind from a broken wall, weight of a bar, the pressure of an explosion. All were brought fully to life to drive immersion fully. The floor moved, heat lamps made fire real. And at the end, an actress played the arm of the little girl trapped – shocking everyone into the moment of realizing the human cost of such events.
All our voice actors and motion capture actors were Syrian refugees, who helped us further drive authenticity. We also designed new methodologies for interactions, perception, and attraction to drive the story forward. We used no prompts. No guides. Everything was experienced as if it were the real world. We left nothing to chance.
The first people to try it out were the team from Sundance, and we were excited when our invite came. When the festival rolled around, we set up, tested 100 times, and waiting for the first person. She turned out to be a documentaries who had spent years in Syria. My anxiety went on overdrive – she must be desensitized. Got what if we missed something. What if it’s not immersive
Quickly we became the talk of Sundance, and this led us to an invite to take part in Tribeca’s Storyscapes competition, a very limited group of top-tier creators. If Sundance was a shock, Tribeca was terrifying. Here we were, literally competing against insane talent from across the board. We did our thing, someone went through every 10 minutes. And I got the flu. Home I went, beaten, tired, and sick. To wait.
It’s one thing to have people emotionally react to what you made. To combine that with the Tribeca Jury saying we were the future of VR was almost too much. In their words…
From there we went on to win more awards, most notably the Advanced Imaging Society award for Most Immersive Experience, thanks to our amazing work with DTS Xperi.