When Found Studio invited me to come and try out its new VR experience, The Vanishing Act I was nervous. My previous VR experiences, like a night out in Dalston, had left me feeling nauseous, underwhelmed and old. Still I was intrigued, due to the caliber of the studio’s self-initiated projects (for example Mondegreen) and its billing as a “way to help people better understand the potential of VR”. So I visited the pop-up in Output’s studio in Farringdon, London to have a go – and not only did I feel no nausea whatsoever, I left feeling genuinely gripped by the possibilities for VR in immersive theatre.
“I’ve been to immersive shows, and of course VR experiences like the Bjork show at Somerset House, and I wanted to combine them in a way,” explains Marcus Moresby, creative director at Found, who is leading the project. “I wanted to explore the idea of a story or puzzle narrative in the VR world, rather than gameplay.”
Before Found, Marcus was head of animation for Mainframe working on big projects for the BBC, MTV, Universal Music and Playstation, but left “looking for something new”. The Vanishing Act is a passion project for him to experiment with how VR can become more widely accessible than the gamer market, and tap into the burgeoning immersive events sector. “I did a day’s workshop at Punchdrunk to learn about interactive theatre design,” he says. “They create space in a way that leads you round without holding your hand. If they want you to see something they will subtly design the room to guide you there, it’s so clever.” The Vanishing Act does just this, but rather than letting users loose in an elaborately dressed-up industrial warehouse, like for example Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, it all takes place in a small meeting room.
The project uses RoomScale VR, which means you stand in an empty room with a headset and gloves on, tracked by cameras in each corner of the ceiling, and just walk around the virtual environment (hence no nausea) using your hands – which appear as virtual hands – to pick up and push objects in the virtual world. To stop you straying too far, or walking into a wall, the environment is designed in a way that, while you feel you’re wandering freely in a limitless dream world, you’re unwittingly navigating a very small floor space.
Once I have the headset on, I’m dropped into the animated world, landing on the rooftop of a sand-covered, futuristic tower block. Behind me is a lift, which I gingerly step over to, extremely conscious that I’m actually still in that meeting room looking slightly daft. But Marcus encourages me to step into the lift, and as it slides down into the building I quickly forget my embarrassment and begin to explore. Marcus has written a script based around an elderly male protagonist whose memories have been digitally stored in a series of rooms around this building, hidden around narrow corridors and behind numerous doors. As I move round the space I find out more and more about the character and his life, discovering intricately designed rooms peppered with details: a childhood bedroom with a box containing clues to the character’s history, a museum plaque engraved with a mysterious quote, and eventually a dramatic event in a forest – which I will keep to myself, but caused me to physically gasp, proof perhaps that it was so atmospheric and absorbing that I’d actually forgotten where I was.
While the version I try is still in beta, and being tweaked daily by Marcus, it demonstrates how an interactive story navigated by the user makes VR accessible to everyone, not just gamers. It opens the door for an experience that could be multi-layered to entertain both the VR savvy user and the novice.
“The idea is to use this in a theatrical scenario, bring it to festivals so everyone can have a go,” says Marcus. “The dream would be to eventually have it installed on a huge scale in a hangar somewhere, with tons of people in there at once. It could happen, VR technology is just evolving so fast, it’s exciting.”
The Vanishing Act is available to trial now; contact Found to find out more.
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