Filmmaker Magali Barbé has captured 480,000 viewers on Vimeo with an ambitious short film about augmented reality, Strange Beasts (thanks Road to VR for bringing it to our attention). The five-minute film starts out as essentially a Kickstarter pitch video for a virtual pet application that runs on an implanted light field display. The permanence of this display ends up having some fairly dark consequences for the protagonist from the perspective of the film. But I think we should address that thoughtfully (spoilers ahead).
One of the interesting ideas that the film starts to explore is the idea of a shared augmentation; it’s something we have seen a lot of in Microsoft Hololens demos and something that is decidedly missing from all of the fun ARKit demos that have been floating around the last couple of weeks. It’s also something the film has to undermine to give us the dystopic vision of a man relating to nonexistent characters all by himself.
In the film, we as outsiders cannot participate in his world, because he is the only one that is augmented. But in the real future, no product that fully baked and sophisticated is going to magically appear on just one person; a community will form around that product, and they will all live together in an augmented reality. In that case there is perhaps little practical difference between the virtual and the real. Everyone will understand and experience the presence of the virtual items and --- assuming sufficiently advanced AI --- virtual characters that inhabit that reality. It won’t be sad and pathetic, as long as you share the augmentation.
The bar for what constitutes a sufficiently advanced AI may be lower than we might like to think. We saw a sign of that this week in a viral video about a promotional stunt that a Japanese games company pulled for their Waifu simulator Niizuma Lovely x Cation. Using an HTC Vive, they staged a “wedding” between a real life man and a virtual anime character, complete with a chapel and a simulated “kiss the bride” moment with rubber lips. (Interestingly, the 3D VR software looks to be a one-off; the application being promoted seems to combine complicated dialog trees with 2D artwork.) This alone seems considerably more dystopic than Strange Beasts, which never lets us see how humanlike the little girl’s behavior is (maybe it’s just as good as the real thing, a la A.I.).
But consider that a design goal of any character based game is that we want our users to care about the characters we have created, and our users are alternately inhabiting or interacting directly with those characters. To choose a somewhat more familiar example, take Firewatch. Though the character of Delilah is a disembodied voice on the radio throughout the game, players still feel very invested in their relationship with her; making decisions about how to interact with her, and the game’s efficient backstory that you choose how and when to reveal to her, creates a much more intimate feeling than merely watching two characters interact in pre-scripted cutscenes.
We haven’t had the opportunity to see this applied in full force with a digital human in VR yet, primarily because it is very expensive and difficult to do and the market can’t organically support the effort yet. When we do start to see things progress beyond experiments like Bandai-Namco’s Summer Lesson, and once these experiences make their way westward from Japan, which is clearly pioneering this stuff, we are going to see some fascinating and possibly frightening reactions emerge in the public sphere. It’s certainly fun to think about the Hatsune Miku phenomenon and what it would be like if millions of people considered themselves to be in an intimate, monogamous relationship with the same digital human. Especially if we start seeing that play out in a shared, augmented reality with multiple instances of that personality.
Kent Bye checked out the NYC out-of-home VR scene for his Voices of VR podcast.