The Unbearable Automaticity of Ghostbusters VR

Hello - quick announcement that I'm giving my first talk in VR on Friday.  Event will be in High Fidelity on Friday at 2pm Pacific. 

The Behavioral Science of High Fidelity: I will be speaking on how open source changes people's psychology, how social norms get established, and why physical movement increases shared presence in VR. Bring your questions about the social science of VR to the Zaru Theater June 2nd at 2pm Pacific.

You can connect using VR or your PC. Download High Fidelity here: https://highfidelity.com/download.

The wax statues were over the uncanny cliff.

The wax statues were over the uncanny cliff.

I was in NYC to give a talk about the behavioral science of immersive technology. While I was there, I went to The Void’s Ghostbusters Dimension Hyper-Reality and a production of Sleep No More. In my next blog post, I’ll write about Sleep No More. First up is Ghostbusters (unrelated to the PSVR game). Spoilers!

High-end VR for the general consumer

The Void’s Ghostbusters Dimension is a VR experience offered inside of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, which is located in the Times Square area of New York City. If you haven’t been to Times Square before, this should give you an idea of what to expect around there.

I should have known given the hyper-touristy nature of Times Square that The Void’s Ghostbusters wasn’t for me. Anything designed for tourists is not going to appeal to someone with specialized knowledge. The Void has made a terrific VR experience for the general consumer, but as someone who has logged hours on a Vive, I was underwhelmed.

It felt like a cinematic experience. The art and animation was outstanding. However, it wasn’t fun, especially when you compare it to a something like Epic Games’ Robo Recall.

Here’s The Void’s promotional video. You can get a sense of the the art and animation.

Want more evidence that Ghostbuster is built for a general audience? Look who they are promoting testimonials from:

Time, BBC, Wired, FastCompany, Forbes, Tech Insider, and Popular Mechanics.

Have you ever looked for an entertainment recommendation from Popular Mechanics?? That’s where people go to compare reliability ratings between Hondas and Toyotas.

No risk and no fun

Ghostbusters felt like a cinematic storytelling experience only. I felt like I had zero autonomy or agency in the experience. There was no potential to fail. Risk is part of what makes games feel fun. Ghostbusters has scrubbed out all threats and automated the experience.

It seemed like there was no interactivity between me and the ghosts that I was shooting.

o My avatar was never damaged by the projectiles that the ghosts threw at me.

o It felt like the ghosts were on a timer and were going to be defeated no matter how much or how little I shot them.

I was shadowed by an employee during the experience.

o He told me before I put the headset on that if I ever needed help I could raise my hand.

o At one point when I had stopped to look at some animations, he lifted the headphone off of my ear and told me to proceed to my right. He assumed that I was stuck.

I was aware of there being other consumers waiting for me to complete the experience so that they could take a turn.

o I suspect that there’s no risk in Ghostbusters because they need to cycle consumers through to keep it profitable. If people need multiple attempts to defeat the boss, that would take too long. Plus, some consumers won’t enjoy having to make multiple attempts.

o Contrast this with Schell Games’ I Expect You to Die, a game with no time constraints. The creators expect you to need multiple attempts to complete a level. And each level gets subsequently more challenging to solve.

It seems like they made a safe bet and decided to provide a terrific viewing experience. I wouldn’t call it a gaming experience.

But they had an elevator

There were a couple things inside of the experience that you wouldn’t get in a normal HTC Vive session.

One, they had an elevator simulation that was cool. You stepped onto a platform and it shakes and rumbles. The HMD animation makes it appear as though you are going up several floors and being approached by creepy ghosts. You are sprayed with water when a ghost touches your face.

There’s also a rickety bridge that you have to cross, which messes with your balance.

Lastly, when the Marshmallow Man is defeated, you have the scent of roasted marshmallow around you.

I see the potential for VR arcades. There is an opportunity to build in robust multi-sensory experiences in an arcade that you wouldn’t have at home. But, my take is that arcades are unlikely to appeal to someone like me who already has unfettered Vive / Rift / PSVR access.

Who wants vanilla?

Compared to a recent VR release like Robo Recall, Ghostbusters is vanilla in comparison.

In Robo Recall, you go at your own pace. I died and respawned. I was confronted with choices constantly. It’s highly immersive — I got surprised by the robots. I punched the desk in my VR room until my hand was numb. I was really into shooting those robots.

Ghostbusters is a pretty flat experience in comparison. It’s over in ten minutes. I made zero choices. I was trailed by employees making sure that I stayed on track. They would have stopped me before I hurt myself.

Takeaways for designers

  • Consider who your experience is for. Is it going to be for a VR savvy audience? Or, readers of Popular Mechanics?
  • Chose the level of automaticity that fits your goals.
  • Kent Bye has created an Elemental Theory of Presence to piece together the different aspects of VR (film-making, gaming, emotional resonance, etc) and how they best fit together.
  • I would recommend this be used in conceptual discussions of all VR development so at least you are clear on what your goals are.

Want to create something similar to Ghostbusters? Space is not your primary constraint. I believe that the room I was in was only about 20 feet by 30 feet total.

In my next post, I’ll give a rundown of Sleep No More, a theatrical production of MacBeth and takes place in a four-story building in NYC. The audience trails the actors around the set for three hours so I’ll talk about the implications for immersive storytelling.