When I think about what makes a fun VR experience, I constantly come back to the work of Tyler Hurd: lead artist on a batch of experiences that can best be described as smile machines.
His beat-heavy bits basically force participants to dance like they just don't care (a trick aided by the fact that eye-covering VR headsets allow you to pretend that you're dancing like nobody is watching). When I first came across his work at the Tribeca Film Festival, where his VR video the Future Islands song Old Friend made a well-received appearance, I spent a fair chunk of time simply watching people glow with joy as they danced with abandon.
This January at the Sundance Film Festival, I witnessed a similar stream of smiles with his newest experience, Chocolate, which he produced with Viacom Next.
Towards the end of Sundance, I caught up with Tyler to talk about his new experience, and what the secret is to making VR that people seem to really, really like.
Tell me about Chocolate, in your own words?
Your robot hands transform into cannons and cute little kitties come out. The world goes to slow motion, and they meow at you to the music. But there's also a whole story in there. You're a robot god, and there's a tribe of people that are doing a ritual dance for you to provide them with the precious resource needed for their fragile ecosystem: cute lil kitties. There are gods that assist in the ritual, giant herding cat heads and two 20-foot-tall cats that pop Champagne and spray it everywhere. This obviously helps things. Everything just happens to the music. It's not a game, it's a music video to the song Chocolate by Giraffage.
Chocolate seems to feature many of the same ideas as your previous VR project, Old Friend. Can you talk about how you may have improved upon these ideas from the earlier experience, or any lessons you pulled from working on it?
With Old Friend, a lot of folks I watched experience it were new to VR and didn't know they had a VR body or that they could engage with the world using their hands or by dancing—two extremely important elements to feeling the feelings I'm trying to make you feel. So in Chocolate, you have to use your hands to start the experience and then you get a few moments to acclimate yourself to your new robot body by looking at yourself in a mirror. You can also see your robot-self in the ground at any point because you're in a chrome world. These things help remind folks that they are indeed part of this world. The thing that worked in Old Friend and I continued with Chocolate, was designing the composition spherically and spatially. In photography/cinematography, you have the areas of composition in your frame and your foreground, mid-ground, and background. I try to think about those things in VR, but spherically. Everywhere you look there should be something interesting and filling those positions and creating that depth. This gets people to continuously look around and get lost in the space.
Tell me about how people act when they're in the experience? Do they dance? Scream? Go crazy?
With both Chocolate and Old Friend, people react in all the ways. It's really fun to watch. Some stand still the whole time and some go completely nuts dancing their heads off, but everyone comes out saying it was really fun in there. At Sundance, someone yanked the HMD cable out of the wall going crazy trying to get the cats. And at Tribeca, with Old Friend, someone broke a controller because it slipped out of their hands while they were dancing so hard. My favorite part is just the smile on people's faces while they're in there. I know they're getting it. I know they're feeling the way I want them to, which is just kind of this ridiculous nonsensical joy. Just fun.
What is it about VR that you feel makes people more willing to let go like that?
My girlfriend is a super talented occupational therapist and has taught me so much about what VR is doing to the brain and how the brain reacts. Because you're integrating so many sensory systems into the experience; vision, hearing, spatial awareness, balance, etc...; your brain is becomes very sensitive in responding to it. Most applicable for what I'm doing, the brain's emotional response is heightened like crazy. I think that's what people are talking about with the whole "empathy machine" thing. I want people to feel a specific type of joy in there. It appears to be working, and that's a big reason I love doing this stuff.
What sorts of things do you think VR is very good at?
VR is amazing at convincing you you're somewhere or someone or something else, and in the process, making you feel a lot in response. This can be used for so many wonderful things like therapeutic treatments and perspective taking. Or in my case, ridiculous joyful entertainment).
What's the key to making an effective VR experience?
Include cute cats? I guess just try to meet expectations as much as you can. People want to be wow'd when they put on that headset. They're giving their time outside of their reality so it better be worth it. Right now, the answer to that question is changing as rapidly as the technology and people's expectations.
If you're interested in VR and work in the non-interactive world. you should take the time to learn from people that work on video games, and vice-versa. The two disciplines are merging a bit and you can learn a lot from both sides.
What mistakes do you see other VR producers make that you feel really kills the experience?
For me it's when things are too complicated and require too much instruction, take too long, have bad pacing, or just don't incorporate your hands in the space in an exciting way. Good hand presence in VR is very important to me. If the hands aren't working, there's no shame in removing them completely.
Are there any Easter eggs you've hidden in Chocolate that people should be on the lookout for?
Shooting the cats straight up in the air and catching them in your arms on the way down. They meow right in your face and it's adorable. I giggled like a three-year-old when I first discovered this. With practice you can hold like three at a time, all meowing at you. It's the best.