Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

Steven Poole pon­ders VR fo­cus­ing on en­vi­ron­ment over move­ment

Look, I’m in a tank! Well, I’m not re­ally in a tank, but Bat­tle­zone on PSVR makes the il­lu­sion ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­pelling. At least at the be­gin­ning, be­fore you have to start driv­ing the damn thing. We seem to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing akin to rapid he­do­nic adap­ta­tion in these new VR worlds — the ini­tial im­mer­sion, a kind of mag­i­cal tele­por­ta­tion to a new world, is a re­peat­able thrill, but then we just dis­ap­pear into the vir­tual uni­verse.

In the cur­rent line-up of PSVR games (a lot of which, it must be said, are lit­tle more than tech demos), one can al­ready spot a cou­ple of fu­ture generic di­rec­tions for the medium. This is ob­vi­ously the per­fect next step, for ex­am­ple, for the walk­ing sim­u­la­tor, and I for one also wel­come the resur­gence of cock­pit-based air- and space-com­bat games. But an­other ev­i­dent fu­ture di­rec­tion of VR, which will (thank­fully) cater par­tic­u­larly for those prone to mo­tion sick­ness, is for videogames to be­come less de­pen­dent on the rush and twitch of fast move­ment, and more de­pen­dent on at­mos­phere and en­vi­ron­ment.

It was fas­ci­nat­ing to learn, then, dur­ing a re­cent visit to the Na­tional Theatre’s R&D head­quar­ters, that the­atri­cal ex­pe­ri­ences them­selves are about to be­come more vir­tual. In a car park be­hind the NT Stu­dio, four ship­ping con­tain­ers have been welded to­gether to make an Im­mer­sive Sto­ry­telling re­search de­part­ment, a kind of in­ter­nal garage startup lit­tered with Ocu­lus, HTC, Sam­sung, and Sony head­gear. There is a por­ta­ble wood-hewn mini-set in which you can ex­pe­ri­ence an im­mer­sive doc­u­men­tary film about life in the Calais jun­gle. Or you can watch a VR piece called Easter Ris­ing, which casts you as a par­tic­i­pant in the Dublin street bat­tles of a cen­tury ago.

In Easter Ris­ing, as in the Calais doc­u­men­tary, the ac­tion is on rails, but here the vi­su­als are en­tirely com­puter-gen­er­ated, and you are en­cour­aged to peek around cor­ners and so forth. The Na­tional Theatre ac­tu­ally used this VR piece to help the ac­tors pre­pare for a pro­duc­tion of Seán O’Casey’s play about the Easter Ris­ing, The Plough And The Stars, last year. The stylised vi­su­als are aes­thet­i­cally very ar­rest­ing: fig­ures and ob­jects are made up from poly­gons that don’t quite fit to­gether, like shards of mem­ory. In­ter­est­ingly, how­ever, one of the Na­tional Theatre’s dra­maturgs, Tom Lyons, tells me that some peo­ple don’t like the VR piece – be­cause it looks like a videogame.

“When you start look­ing at de­vel­op­ing ideas for this tech­nol­ogy,” Lyons says, “you do think, ‘Hang on, is this a com­puter game? Is this ex­pe­ri­ence that you’re go­ing on a com­puter game? And where is that bound­ary?’ Of course, com­puter games as a form of sto­ry­telling and en­ter­tain­ment are huge to­day. I think the bound­aries are re­ally in­ter­est­ing and there to be in­ter­ro­gated.” And, we might add, the blur­ring of bound­aries goes both ways. Al­ready with some VR games you think, ‘Hang on, is this more of a kind of in­ter­ac­tive-theatre ex­pe­ri­ence?’ And that is all to the good.

What is re­ally in­ter­est­ing, and pushes be­yond the seden­tary VR game/ex­pe­ri­ence, is the set of tricks that di­rec­tors are think­ing of play­ing on ac­tual the­atri­cal au­di­ences, who might all have VR head­sets sup­plied to each seat. And these ideas for tricks of­ten re­volve around what Lyons calls the vi­sor-on/vi­so­roff mo­ment. “So if you’re at a play,” Lyons imag­ines, “and there’s a mo­ment when you put your head­set on, and that en­vi­ron­ment is in­ter­act­ing with the real en­vi­ron­ment, or if you have it on and then you take it off, and you’re still in that world, what does that do?” Even more spec­tac­u­lar head-fakes are pos­si­ble. You are in a theatre watch­ing a play. You are di­rected to put on your head­set and you’re trans­ported to some­where else in VR. And now you’re told to take the head­set off – “and you’re some­where en­tirely dif­fer­ent in the real world!” Lyons says glee­fully. “Which is em­i­nently doable, be­cause we do it at the mo­ment with black­outs.”

Home VR de­vel­op­ers can’t count on be­ing able to pull off such elab­o­rate stunts, but the very na­ture of the tech­nol­ogy en­cour­ages fan­tasy and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion more than any other mile­stone in videogames since the move from 2D to 3D, and maybe more so than that. Theatremak­ers on one side, and game de­vel­op­ers on the other, are ex­plor­ing un­charted ter­ri­to­ries. The fu­ture looks bright for artis­tic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, at least un­til we all wear minia­turised VR con­tact lenses per­ma­nently glued to our eyes, and so­ci­ety col­lapses com­pletely.

“If you have it on and then you take it off, and you’re still in that world, what does that do?”

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