The thing VR experiences were missing all along was real people

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The virtual-reality production Chained: A Victorian Nightmare isn’t like many other VR experiences.

For starters, it begins before you even put on a headset. You begin standing outside a door. Knock three times on the door, adorned with a large knocker shaped like a wolf, and find yourself inside a small room with an actress who smells of peppermint. She says she’s been waiting for you a long time. When you do put on the VR headset, seated at a desk before a large oval mirror on the wall, you see a digital recreation of the same room. A ghastly arm reaches through the mirror and pulls you out of the real world and into the Victorian nightmare.

Following a three-month run in Los Angeles, Chained is being featured in Future of Storytelling’s Story Arcade, a pop-up installation in New York City’s Chelsea district, from Feb. 23 through March 24. That’s where I saw it.

The experience of walking through a wall that stood before me moments earlier was jarring. But, somehow, the physical interaction with the actor made it less disorienting than other VR experiences I’ve tried. Being in a room with tangible objects and a real person, even if that person appeared to me in the form of decaying ghost, grounded the experience. It made it more realistic. For me, the lack of real interaction had been holding VR storytelling back.

The 20-minute experience—inspired by Charles Dickens’ haunting Christmas classic A Christmas Carol—was designed as a singular, solitary journey that melded VR and immersive theater to allow for choice and improvisation. Writer and director Justin Denton, who has worked on other immersive experiences including the Legion mixed-reality experience at San Diego Comic Con in 2017, merged the two mediums after researching acting methods that might work best in a virtual world.

“When I went to immersive theater, I just kind of fell in love with it,” Denton told Quartz. Live actors like those in immersive theater allowed Denton to tell a VR story where people could make choices, he said. “It just immediately felt like I needed to marry the two in one creation,” he added. The actors in Chained also came from other immersive theater shows—one had performed in New York’s Sleep No More.

During the experience, I was asked disarming, personal questions such as, “what do you miss most from your childhood?” and “what do you fear about the future?” My answers were woven into the broader narrative by a live actor, who was improvising his responses, Denton said. The actor, who I sensed from their scent was different from the actress who initially greeted me, guided me throughout the experience, often with a hand on my shoulder and a deep, raspy voice in my ears. With the aid of a motion-capture suit, such as those used in creating visual effects in big-budget action and fantasy films, the actor appeared before me in various guises, including a decaying figure bound by chains and the ghosts of the past, present, and future.

The virtual environment changed before me from a bedroom to a classroom, and later, a graveyard. I navigated it with the help of my other senses, like sight, sound, and touch, and was aided by physical objects in the room. When the spirit asked me to sit down, for example, there was a real chair there. The ghost was corporeal when it took my hand. It was uncomfortable at times, but made the VR experience feel more realistic.

Other productions, such as Draw Me Closer from London’s National Theater, have combined VR and immersive theater before. Facebook’s Oculus is reportedly working on VR that would include live actors on a remote motion-capture stage. (Users wouldn’t be able to physically interact with the actors, but could still interact with them otherwise in real-time.) Companies like the VOID have also created immersive VR experiences that include real sets and effects. The VOID has 11 locations around the world and is growing, and has staged experiences at locations like Madame Tussaud’s in New York City. With the addition of Chained, immersive VR experiences are slowly becoming a more popular art form.

Denton worked on the production with MWM Immersive, a unit of Madison Wells Media, and co-producers Here Be Dragons. The project aimed to open up this new form of storytelling to the public by staging the show in Los Angeles and now New York.

“This isn’t just an experience that’s for the VR community,” Denton said. “To me it’s something that I think of as immersive theater that happens to use VR. We’re using that technology to help enhance a medium that already exists.”

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