The other day, I got an ITP email inviting students to go test out a Samsung experience that recreates the sinking of the Titanic in VR.
“Hahahah absolutely not,” I said out loud. Why would anyone want to do that. After sleeping on it, and some heavy convincing from two of my classmates, we ventured off to the Meat Packing to check it out.
Part of the joy from an interactive experience comes from the act of discovery. I’ve noticed a trend in these hot new branded experiences (after 10 years in advertising, I even made a few): they don’t trust the user at all. They hire actors or “guides” to direct you through the experience, telling you what to do, correcting you if you’re wrong.
My question is: is the experience successful on its own if it needs a guide?
My suspicions were immediately confirmed when the host at Samsung attentively watched us as I signed the waiver. She introduced us to, who I will refer to as, “some dude”. It wasn’t clear if he was the engineer, the creative, or the client. He led us to an elevator where we were introduced to a flamboyant, bedazzled actress who recited her lines with a theatricalism that suggested many enthusiastic years in the New York “biz.” Her monologue was about fantastical, fictional characters, one of which was a mad scientist who discovered how to extract dreams, the other was a woman whose childhood nightmare of the sinking Titanic, we would relive.
I found it strange that A) we needed this guide, who was a close talker (watching a lot of Seinfeld recently), and took up 2/3 of the duration of the experience. B) We would begin by being introduced to three fictional characters when we were about to relive a non-fictional historical event.
Or did they just not want us unaccompanied in the elevator?
Why couldn’t they let us wander into the experience on our own time? Why were they constantly in our way? Who was “this dude” next to us the whole time? I felt like I was getting answers to questions I had no intention of asking.
Our guide directed us to a small room with a wooden ship. My eyes darted to the ceiling-mounted fans, the speakers, the VR headsets. I also noticed three people standing in a dark corner. More guides?
The simple act of stepping up into the boat and putting on our headsets was handled like they were presenting to a grade school field trip. Yes, I know where the headset is. Yes, I know how to put it on. Yes, I see the seatbelt. Yes, I know how to walk up stairs. I am going to call this Helicopter VR’ing.
To be fair, I guess they wanted to ensure safety and comfort. But I found it to be suffocating. Maybe it was the close talking, I don’t know. The experience itself was beautiful, simple, elegant. I hadn’t thought of VR as a tool to teach empathy, but I was inspired. It lasted about 3 minutes.
Why, then, did the other 22 minutes of the experience focus on hovering over the user? I believe you have to trust the user enough to put the pieces together. In fact, when you let them, I think the experience becomes more impactful. More memorable. (I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand). I’ll quote one of our readings here: “Figure out how to suggest to them what their course of action could be, and how they might uncover their story, and their own emotional interpretation of the work.”*
I feel, now more than ever, that it is absolutely to speak across to your audience, not down to them. Even if they’ve never touched a joystick before. Trust them, and stand back.
*(Igoe, T. 2012, August 21). Making Interactive Art: Set the Stage, Then Shut Up and Listen. Retrieved from http://www.tigoe.net/blog/category/physicalcomputing/405/