In 2016 Oculus released a virtual reality film called “Henry”. The Emmy award winning short features a lonely hedgehog celebrating his birthday who makes a wish over his flickering candles for some friends. By the magic of film, balloon animals turn up for the celebration… but hedgehog spikes and balloons aren’t the best match…. at least not at first.
(If you haven’t seen it there is a great trailer on the Oculus site).
I was shown the movie by the director Ramiro Lopez Dau, and afterwards we discussed the reactions we had both seen from several younger viewers - some of the children asked if they "could go back to Henry’s house”.
Think about that for a moment.
It’s not what we as adults would say about a film – we would say ”can I watch it again?”, because we know it was a visual work of fiction, albeit an interactive one.
The children were asking to go back to Henry’s because they thought they had just been there; when they had put on the Oculus headset they became so absorbed by what they were experiencing that they stopped realizing they were in the same room as they before they put the headset on.
As adults we use the terms “augmented reality” and “virtual reality” because our ‘normal’ existence to this point has been ACTUAL reality, making these new technologies just additional layers. Those descriptions aren’t going to make sense to the young children of today if they don’t draw the same lines of distinction.
Today’s children won’t see tomorrow’s technologies as “virtual reality”, they will experience them as “alternative realities”.
Stanford support these findings with a recent report that shows that when you bring back elementary school kids for a repeat VR experience, more than 50% will reflect back on the initial experience as something that happened in the real world. The study’s author, Jeremy Bailenson, describes this as a ‘psychological presence’, meaning people actually forget they are in a virtual space and begin to fully buy in to this perceptional illusion.
It’s somewhat surprising to me how easily our brains are fooled like this. VR still requires a headset (although in the near future we will have mixed reality eyeballs), many of us feel nausea from the motion and we can’t yet touch anything or feel the wind through our hair. And yet here are these kids having experiences written to memory in the same way as things that actually happened.
I called Ramiro a few months later to dig into this some more. I didn't see any research that Oculus may have done into what the creative team were seeing in that room, but they were certainly curious to know if they could make a VR experience that created an emotional connection with a character, more so than with a regular movie. Having come from Pixar prior, Ramiro knew a thing or two about stimulating such feelings.
He offered, “We created something that was beyond a typical movie-goers experience. When the animator’s son went to Henry’s for instance, he was a little nervous and watched some of the movie with the glasses on and some with them off. In the part when the cake explodes and sprays the viewer he was looking at a computer monitor and said gleefully “I’m glad I wasn’t there for that!!”.”
Indeed, the film contained much hidden detail that could be only be found in this format. Searching around in 360 degrees you can discover items that give away things like Henry’s hobbies or favorite flavor of cake, and Henry would just go about his always-repeating story whether you were paying attention to him or not. When I showed it to my own children they dove in with enthusiasm checking out everything there was to see, whereas I have to admit that I sat their quite still like an overly polite movie house patron. Some might say that’s just the stuffy Brit in me :)
In 2015 a 12 year old girl called Sadira gave the world a look around her existence in a refugee camp in Jordan in another 360 degree film designed by Samsung and the United Nations to stimulate a deeper emotional response. Her description of how the smell of bread “on her walk to school drives [her] mad sometimes” is a strong humanizing line that everyone can relate to, but being able to turn your own head to look around the bakery is another level of believing.
I thought about this again on a recent trip back to England. I was driving into London and unexpectedly went past the site of the very recent Greenfell disaster, a tower block fire so bad that we can only say the number of lives lost is an estimated 80 people. Having lived in London I had spent time looking at the photos online and watching the aftermath on the BBC news service. If you had asked me, I would have said “I can’t imagine what that was like, I really feel for those people”. As I came across the tower from the highway it was stood silently black in a neighborhood that was already lit up for the evening. The experience was significant; being there and actually seeing it for real meant I no longer had to imagine it, and the horror was laid out to be absorbed.
If VR becomes ubiquitous then our children won’t watch the news, they will experience the news. Surely the ever-growing push for sensationalism for ratings will mean they are there in the fire as it unfolds courtesy of a drone carrying a 360-degree camera buzzes through the site. I already worry about the over stimulated environment that my kids experience, I can’t imagine this being a positive development in their lives.
Caroline Milanesi from Creative Strategies agrees in a recent Recode piece. “What makes the emotions even stronger is that the child will be completely “alone” in this world, and taking the headset off for a few seconds might not be the first thought. If you think of those instances where you are wearing a VR headset along with headphones, you can easily see how what we call “immersive” can turn into a terrifying experience for a child. The quick TV channel switch when something inappropriate comes on, or the burying of the face in the armpit, will not work, as parents will be left clueless as to what is happening inside the headset.”
Currently the Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear are rated 13+, Sony goes for 12+, and HTC say their kit is not for children yet. We often have a tendency to allow slippage on such things assuming our own children are mature enough, but it might just be that VR isn’t an area to take lightly.