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What Patrick Swayze can teach us about VR design

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How much does the viewer matter to the world?

How do you create a movie when every viewer exists inside the fictional world?

It's a strange question, but artists working in narrative virtual reality have to answer it. Oculus' Matt Burdette wrote an interesting blog post about the challenges they've found in creating the first two narrative experiences for the Oculus Rift, and they came up with an interesting term to deal with this challenge.

"The Swayze Effect (or just Swayze, in the adjective form) describes the sensation of having no tangible relationship with your surroundings despite feeling present in the world," he wrote. "Much like the experiences and struggles of Sam Wheat, the protagonist in Ghost, the 1990 hit crime-romance film starring Patrick Swayze. Basically, it’s the feeling of yelling 'I’m here! I’m here!' when no one or nothing else around seems to acknowledge it."

The entire post is worth your time, but the part that deals with Henry is particularly interesting. Henry is a short film about a hedgehog who wants a friend, and there are animations where the character looks at you. It makes sense, as having the character acknowledge you locks you into the experience. There's just one problem: Being there ruins the emotional core of the story.

"There was still a dissonance between presence and story: why is Henry so lonely if I’m sitting right here with him?" Burdette explained. "For this reason, many members of the team still consider Henry a flawed narrative." That's a major problem, as it implicitly states that even though you're there, you don't matter.

I actually discussed this problem in my original post about the short film. " I felt bad for Henry, and was a bit frustrated that I couldn't talk or touch him in any way," I wrote. "It was a strange feeling; I've never watched a standard film while feeling stymied that I couldn't explain to the characters that everything was going to be alright."

Just like another character from pop culture.

swayze gif

This is the uncomfortable thing about narrative VR, and there's no easy answer. How do the other characters in the experience deal with that fact that someone else is there? How does the viewer fit? How should the viewer fit in?

"While many technical hurdles we encountered were not all unexpected, the Swayze Effect was one that really surprised and challenged us," Burdette wrote. "It was one of the first obstacles we hit while trying to tell a story and relate it to our perception of self and the subtle ways we test the legitimacy of the virtual world we’re in."