Here's a shot of a typical audience:
Here's the (admittedly prompted) cheering that performers receive at the end of the routine:
Backstory: A Mission to Make Mobile VR Social
Mobile VR is a socially awkward technology.
If you're ever in a group of people and one person pulls out a Google Cardboard, brace for an awkward social situation. Based on my experience, what'll happen is:
- This novel artifact is collectively marveled at
- It goes on one person's face, teleporting them to an alternate universe
- They don't know how self-aware they should be: should they endeavor to be totally immersed? Should they report back?
- Onlookers feel awkwardly voyeuristic -- should they vicariously live through this person's experience? Should they shut up and wait their turn?
- People crack jokes to try to resolve the tension, but it only makes the person in VR more self-aware
The whole exercise is self-defeating. Immersion seems impossible to achieve when you're tethered to a collective objective eye.
Is it possible to create a mobile VR experience that's more socially compatible?
A Sidestep: Heads Up!
In trying to crack this nut, my brain jumped to Heads Up! -- a simple (non VR) mobile game where you "guess the word on the card that's on your head from your friends' clues before the timer runs out!" Here's a clip of the gameplay:
What's so useful about Heads Up! is that it relies heavily on information blindness. Participants have to contend with the fact that certain people are privy to certain information. This knowledge gap is bridged via performance, creating a cohesive and shared social experience.
This type of overt performance seemed like the right move for what I was looking for in the problem of making mobile VR more social. My theory was, if you gave specific, performative roles to the VR user and the people watching, the awkwardness would wash away.
But can VR be a performance? I mean, when you're in VR you can't make eye contact with the people watching you, never mind the fact that you're supposedly in an entirely alternate reality.
Well, while performing almost always involves eye contact, the primary function of a performance is for one person to communicate an experience to another. In the case of mobile VR, the only thing really worth performing / sharing is how a user engages with the tech. Mobile VR only has rotational tracking, meaning that a user's agency is confined to face orientation. (I may write a blog post later as to why I prefer the term "face" over "head" when it comes to VR tracking...)
So, given that we're working with performance and body shape, my mind jumped to some sort of face-controlled VR rhythm game. Everybody would hear a song, and the performer would execute a sequence of face orientations to the beat, with the audience watching. Hopefully, this would set clear enough roles to overcome social VR awkwardness.
And lastly, perhaps to make it even more social, what if multiple VR headsets could network together? This could create a choreographed dance among multiple participants.
Prototyping / Building
So one day I casually mention this sketch of an idea to Matt over lunch. After spitballing some more thoughts on it, the conversation moves on and I quickly forget about it. A few weeks later we're having lunch again and Matt whips out a VR headset and tells me he's built a prototype.
I put it on and start the demo. I try to forget that I'm in a crowded diner with a hunk of plastic on my face that's loudly blaring "Poison" by Bell Biv DeVoe. As I rock my head around, it feels great. We decided at this point that this thing has legs and we should continue. It was just so weird and fun. It was just enough directed activity to keep the user busy, but porous enough to feel fundamentally social.
Shortly after this, my life became crazy busy with other things, but Matt continued to crush in on the development, doing pretty much the entire build. The hardest part, it turned out, was getting multiple devices to sync at exactly the same time stamp, but eventually we found a workable solution.
We aimed to debut the game at Come Out and Play, and started play testing at the Game Center where he works. Here's an early play test:
After seeing it on networked performers, we felt even better. It validated that it not only felt good from the performer's perspective, but it was also very entertaining to watch.
Celebrating VR Stupidity
One unexpected thing we discovered while testing was that in addition to feeling great, it also felt totally stupid. Perhaps it felt great because it felt stupid. It felt stupid in a good way, like Old Spice commercials.
So when seeking play testers, we'd sell the game as an "intentionally stupid VR experience." This wasn't to hedge criticism. It was because we wanted to share a discovery we made about VR that was indeed totally stupid and awesome at the same time.
I mean, if you look at the mechanics of the game, it's a perfect crockpot of stupid. First off, it's VR. I mean, let's face it: VR on it's own terms looks stupid. You put your face in a brick of plastic and enter a suspended state of stupor. You're so wrapped up in your own magical experience that you lose touch with reality. Back in meatspace, you're completely unable to respond to things that are obvious to everybody else in the room. VR = Textbook Stupid.
Take that, and add dancing in public (while unaware of how public you are), and you have the level of stupid that #WeAreDanceFace can provide.
A Note about Labels and Counterculture...
Celebrating the notion of being labeled "stupid" isn't something that's unique to this project or even VR. I'd argue that all cultural movements have varying degrees of appearing "stupid" to those outside the culture.
For example, if you look at hippies -- here's a culture that, from the conventional perspective of their era, valued sexual deviance and drug abuse over owning up to personal responsibility. They were a group of unwashed kids who lost touch with reality.
The inability for conventional folks to understand the new culture's value system is celebrated by these countercultures. If countercultural actors feel confident in their value system, it only makes sense that they'd want to play up the boogey-man appearances, as if to say: "Screw your labels, we all agree that you simply don't and won't get me, and honestly, that's not my problem anymore."
Designing for Counterculture
I bring this up because #WeAreDanceFace takes the form of a countercultural statement. Instead of treating the we-look-stupid issue as a VR thing we'll someday outgrow, this project directly addresses it by declaring: "This grotesque face-appendage of plastic is totally awesome. So is my dancing and so is this ridiculous 90s song that we're piping in from an alternate reality. Eat me."
To sum it up, our countercultural statement soon became the design thesis for the project: Celebrate VR Stupidity.
The name "#WeAreDanceFace" incapsulates this assertive stupidness. It's bombastic and self-involved. It's also a social, declarative, and performative (something that a band yells at a performance), all of which gets further digitally amplified with a gratingly annoying hashtag.
The hashtag in the name prompted us to get a twitter handle, which we used during the event to publish animated gifs of the performances. I tried my best to accompany each gif with equally bombastic and stupid text (which, by the way, was an exhausting exercise for someone as typically chill as me).
This thesis of celebrating VR stupidity also provided direction on the UX at the event. While training the on-deck performers, the line that consistently got the most laughs was "Remember: You probably look cooler than you feel". This instruction partially points to a game mechanic (your choreography may feel boring but only because you can't see the group as a whole), but it also reinforced that we're here to not give a damn.
This is not a Tech Demo
Having a cultural statement like this elevated the project above "tech demo" status and into something else, which proved to be hugely useful.
This project would have been much less successful if everybody viewed it as a demo. Demos succeed and fail based on how useful the underlying tech appears to be, and utility is defined by what value it adds and how reliable and convenient it is.
By these metrics, at this stage, #WeAreDanceFace is a pretty, uhm... not great technology... lol. At runtime, the software required the core developer to babysit it. The VR visual interface is so confusing that it requires that you sit through a lecture (by me) and an in-VR training session with Matt. It took a long time to reset between demos and the line to enter the experience was dauntingly long.
But despite these challenges, we were able to pull together a convincingly good experience because...
This is primarily a live performance
Early on we discovered a different way to frame the project: as a live performance. This framing made magically made everything better.
First off, it sets clear expectations for performers and audience. Focus gets directed to how much fun people are having, not how performant / useful the tech is. They don't mind waiting in lines or waiting for tech to resolve. From this framing, watching tech people do stuff almost feels like peeking under the hood of a magic trick. You're wait not because the tech is bad, but because the experience is worth it.
In addition to clarifying expectations for the audience, it helped direct my and Matt's behavior during the run. It was a lot of fun to assume the role of crowd control manager -- hamming up on all things performance-related. I (annoyingly) started referring to the performers as "the talent", and coached them on how to get the best reactions from the crowd. Between games Matt and I would assume the role of stage hands / roadies, handling equipment and ushering people around.
Lastly, by seeing this as a "live performance", everybody was better equipped to process the experience. Performers were 110% behind the work they were tasked to do and took their roles seriously enough to instigate a fun time. Audiences grasped at the ephemeral nature of the performance, cheering, laughing, snapping photos, and generally just enjoying themselves.
The event was a success. People who already know about VR encountered a fresh look, and the unacquainted got introduced to a form of VR that extolled its awesomeness while poking fun at its shortcomings.
To be clear: mobile VR is still socially aberrant and still looks stupid. And running an event based on mobile VR technology sucks because you're juggling an immature tech with crowd management -- a logistical nightmare.
But despite all this, people keep flocking to VR experiences anyways. Why? Because VR is just that awesome.
And this tension between stupid and awesome undergirds how VR fits into the bigger picture. Designing along this tension is definitely a challenge, but it's phenomenally fun and rewarding to do so.