min read

Representing a narrative space in VR that discusses the emotional side of geographical distance, a student engineered a novel environment that facilitates organic interaction without relying on conventional input devices.

Abstract image of data elements configured in a tunnel shape
Credit: agsandrew / iStock © 2018

opia n. the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable

Interaction and narration in virtual reality environments has enraptured me and profoundly influenced the work that I have been producing over this past year. Starting in the fall of my junior year at Yale University, I began developing virtual reality experiences using the resources provided by HP's Campus of the Future project. Working on an Omen desktop PC, I began to develop content for the mixed-reality headsets and the HTC Vive headsets provided to us by HP and with the support of our collaborative on-campus group, Blended Reality: Applied Research Project. As I honed my skills, I grew more and more restless, feeling increasingly confined by the interactive limitations of working with controllers as the primary sources of user input. The experiences I was designing quickly began to feel repetitive and bland, with each environment I developed relying on the same, stale controller interactions, as I unwittingly let the default interactions circumscribe the potential creativity of my work.

Exasperated by the creative bottlenecking of my pieces, I briefly explored alternative controller options before rejecting them altogether. That moment ultimately initiated my development of the piece featured here, which relies exclusively on the placement of attention to direct the viewers' experience and engagement with the piece. Being present, fixating on interesting details, pursuing that which intrigues us—these are natural means of interacting with the world around us. We partake in them ceaselessly, and they define our ability to interface with the natural world. Bolstered by the removal of the artificial abstractions of action inherent in the use of controllers, organic interaction felt, to me, like an avenue for higher-level engagements to manifest in a virtual space. In turn, this could surmount the implicit requirement for viewers to memorize arbitrary button combinations out of necessity, with failures in retention precluding straightforward engagement with their environment.

In this piece, the visitors to this space find themselves in a dark environment, able to see very little other than the looming darkness of the matte black skybox cast over the scene. Two human figures stand in stark contrast to the featureless darkness, living and moving like animate centerpieces in this dark universe. Each one is entirely transparent, bearing no physical features or textures of their own. In place of their own traits, they show those of another world directly through their forms, functioning as windows to display the features of their surroundings in each of their two distinct environments that exist beyond the darkened limbo-esque landscape. The two are engaged in a telephone conversation. They alternate speaking to one another as they walk through this darkness and, in turn, through their own universes, thereby showing us the landscapes in which they appear to reside. As time passes, the conversation continues, fireflies begin to emerge, they begin to pace as they continue their discussion, and the sky begins to show stars.

This piece served as an analog for my long-distance relationship with my girlfriend, with whom I had intermittent contact and could only seldom reach by phone over the months she spent away. I began to construct this world as a way to feel as though we were operating together, not in spite of our separation but because of it. This "collision of universes" concept, around which I constructed this virtual universe, was dreamed up as a way to demonstrate the simultaneous proximity and absence of two figures, engaged in a shared activity, divided by a tremendous geographical distance. As such, the worlds visible through these figures are representations of the locations in which each one of us was spending our time, while we talked on the phone and exchanged words. The alternating dialogue spoken by the two figures is actually the real verbal exchanges that we traded over this time period. Because we were often busy at different times and texting felt too impersonal for us, we began sending one another voice messages, short recordings of our voices answering or asking questions, and checking in on one another during the hectic times that we couldn't speak on the phone. These were all collected and organized systematically by sender/recipient and time sent, to create a vocal "back and forth" that simulated real dialogue and reflected the way that we communicated for those months.

In my pursuit of this goal, I hope to introduce a novel way to think about narration in virtual reality, and to explore and interact with virtual environments outside current paradigms. With the collaborative efforts of Yale's Blended Reality group and the support of HP, our immersive media team hopes to further push the boundaries of digital interactions and continue questioning the systems in place as we move forward in our engagements with virtual worlds.

Jack Wesson is a Senior, majoring in Computing and the Arts, at Yale University.

© 2018 Jack Wesson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 International License.