How can we turn the biggest
weakness of VR into a strength?

Strapping a box to your face is an unnatural experience. While the promise is that this will enable an “immersive” experience, this is largely accomplished by dismissing the human body. Vision is obscured by headset, hearing is taken over by headphones . 3D graphics can be disorienting and even sickening as your body struggles to compensate for the disconnect between the sensations your body feels and the visual and audio cues being delivered by the equipment.

Further, almost all virtual reality is “single player,” meaning that the experience is essentially a lonely one. Entering “cyberspace” means exiting reality. How can we create legitimate immersive experiences given such constraints?

The theme of “ghosts” was chosen in part because of its resonance with this disconnect: what does it mean to haunt? Which reality do you occupy? Are the real people around you the audience or the environment? Can you be in two places at once? Can you move through walls?

A five day practice-based workshop was conducted to engage a group of master's students with these questions while creating a functional immersive environment. The first day was spent discussing a series of readings and setting up the technical environment on each computer. Subsequently, the class was divided into groups. Each student self-selected into a role for their group for the duration of the studio: “UX,” “Visual Design,” or “Technical.”


Group 1: Haunting as a Collective Experience
What does it feel like to be a ghost? How can VR engage additional senses beyond visual and auditory? How can VR be a collective experience?

Rather than create a haunted environment, one group took on the challenge of using VR to convey the experience of being a ghost. One audience member playing the ghost sat in a movable chair and put on VR goggles and headphones. For the duration of the experience this person received visual and audio cues from the game but physical cues from a team manipulating the environment around them. A few significant moments: in-game, you descend a staircase, while the chair you are sitting on is tilted slightly. The visual cues and the physical cues are out of synch, and the experience of is amplified. Passing through a wall, your body encounters a frame filled with artificial spiderweb. Even if you know ahead of time this experience is coming, it remains significantly dramatic because of the cognitive dissonance created between what you feel and what you know to be “virtual.” Finally, a key part of the short narrative is that you descend to a kitchen which is occupied by a smoke-ghost. By preceding this encounter with a scent of coffee (pleasant) and combining the encounter with heat (unpleasant), your mind synthesizes a rather creepy sensation of burning. By bracketing the virtual encounter with real-world sensory cues, the low-resolution visual becomes far more ominous than it ought to be. Lastly, the choreography of the haunting is itself an experience that can be enjoyed by an audience, making the experience into a group play.


Group 2 : How do you speak to the dead?
When does limiting physical movement make sense? How can a community participate in a VR experience?

Building on their own previous work, this group developed a virtual environment based on Aztec funeral rights. In the Aztec tradition, the dead are guided through nine levels of the underworld, propelled in part by the music created by their community. In the virtual version, the “dead” wear the VR headset and lie quietly on a platform. The audience produces music, lead by a “shaman” who plays a particular instrument. The dead person can steer their flight by moving their eyes around the virtual scene, but the clarity of their vision is controlled by how well the instrument is played. This is a two-player experience without communication between the players.

Visual distortion was created by modifying the FOV of the virtual cameras. This modification proved too effective and will likely be changed in the final version, but is itself an interesting experiment. Modifying the FOV live doesn’t “look unfocused” but is, actually unfocused. At best this creates a sensation that there is something physically wrong with your eyes and at worst can make you feel ill and/or mentally eject you from the immersion experience, as you start to “see” the apparatus rather than the world.


Group 3: Disorientation as a Feature
How do you limit physical movement as part of a narrative?

In this experience, the narrative calls for encountering a tent in a forest. The player receives instructions that they have returned to camp to find their friends have gone, only the VR headset and the tent remain. By placing the VR rig inside the tent, a constraint is created: it becomes natural to remain seated or lying down. This also emphasizes the notion of being “lost” while disconnected from the “real world.”

The Project

  • 5 day workshop for master's-level design students
  • Focus on creating of an immersive interactive 3D environment on the theme "Ghost Stories"
  • User-centered design approach focusing on design for the body, typically ignored in most VR scenarios
  • Google Cardboard and Samsung GearVR
  • Unity game engine, C# scripting
  • From concept to execution in 4 days.

Additional Information