#345: Walking On a Virtual Tightrope Across the World Trade Centers

Jake-BlackAt GDC this year, Epic Games had a VR Lounge where they were showing off 10 different VR experiences that used the Unreal Engine. One of those experiences was Create VR’s The Walk VR Experience, where you can walk across a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers just as Philippe Petit did in 1974. This was created as Sony Pictures’ first VR experience to promote their film The Walk, which was released last September. I had a chance to talk with Jack Black, the Head of VR at Create Advertising, about The Walk VR experience, how it triggers the primal parts of fear in our brain, and how he reacted to it considering his fear of heights.


From a VR design perspective, this Walk experience brings up a really interesting tension between your primal brain and your rational brain. Evoking a sense of danger and fear within a virtual reality experience can be an indicator of presence, but if you’re too successful at creating this tension then the user’s rational brain may override the primal panic mechanisms and create a dissonance that breaks presence.

It’s a fine balance to successfully cultivate and preserve presence in these types of situations, and it’s interesting to hear Jake’s anecdotal results that about a quarter of the people don’t end up even trying to walk on the virtual wire in the demos that he’s seen. That means that about three quarters of the people felt safe enough to walk the walk, but it’s entirely possible that the people who didn’t walk may have had an overall more immersive VR experience. The way to measure this could by administering presence surveys to the subjects such as the Slater, Usoh & Steed (SUS) Questionaire or the Witmer & Singer (WS) Questionaire.

Here’s a promotional trailer for the experience, which interestingly enough debuted on the Sony PlayStation VR. The version at GDC was shown on the Vive:

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So I went to GDC this year, and up on the third floor of the Moscone Convention Center, there was a whole area and a lobby outside from where the talks were, where Epic Games had all of these different VR stations that mostly had a lot of vibes, but there were a few Oculus Rifts and PlayStation VRs there as well. And there were a lot of games there that were showing off the visual fidelity of the Unreal Engine. And one experience that we'll be talking about today on the podcast is Can You Walk the Walk, which was kind of an advertising installation for The Walk, which is a Sony Pictures film about the guy who walked across two World Trade Centers. He put like a tightrope and he walked across. And so this is a VR experience where you're basically stepping out the edge of the World Trade Center and you start to walk on this tightrope. And they kind of laid down this tape or rope on the ground so you get this little bit of haptic feedback as you're walking and it's enough to kind of throw you off balance so it's not just completely easy to walk on And so I got a chance to talk to Jake Black, who was the head of Crate Advertising, to talk about the process of creating this experience and some of the reactions that people had, which I think is pretty interesting. But before we dive in, I just want to put a shout out there for if people want to help support this podcast and have more interviews like this, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. And with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:51.295] Jake Black: My name's Jake Black. I run VR at Create Advertising. We're a movie trailer and game trailer house, so we focus on advertising for entertainment properties. And now we are launching a division to make VR experiences to promote those entertainment companies.

[00:02:07.746] Kent Bye: Great. So maybe you could talk a bit about the experience that you're showing here at GDC.

[00:02:11.103] Jake Black: Yeah, we built one called Can You Walk the Walk which is based on Robert Zemeckis' film The Walk. We did this as a promotion for its launch and it's essentially about a French acrobat named Philippe Petit who in the real world in 1974 walked across a tightrope between the World Trade Center buildings. So it was about 1,000 feet in the air, 140 feet across, and he walked back and forth, I think, seven or eight or nine times. So what we wanted to do was actually really put you in his shoes and give you the closest thing that you could get without actually doing it to stepping off the edge of the World Trade Center onto a tightrope. And you walk about 10 or 15 feet, and then you can turn around and walk back to safety.

[00:02:50.543] Kent Bye: Yeah, I just had a chance to try it out. And it is pretty surreal, because you kind of lay down on the ground this feeling of a rope and wire. So you kind of are walking on this wire. So part of my primitive brain was like, this is a bad idea. But my rational brain was like, OK, this is not real. I'm able to actually do this. And so it's an interesting kind of challenge for a VR experience, because anything where you're actually in danger, you have to overcome that primitive part of your brain brain with your rational brain. And as soon as your rational brain overcomes it, it can actually draw you out of the experience and not have as much presence.

[00:03:25.969] Jake Black: Oh, and that's that you hit the nail on the head. I mean, we, we do a little bit of what I call poor man's 40, which is literally, we just throw, you know, some weather stripping on the ground. So you have that haptic sensation of stepping on a wire and we'll put a fan in the corner. So you get a little bit of a sense of breeze and it's really just like $50 worth of stuff. And it makes all the difference in the world because exactly what you said, essentially your subconscious kind of fights your conscious mind. We have people literally saying, I'm on the floor. I can feel the floor beneath me. I'm in a conference hall or I'm in an office or whatever. But with that little bit of touch sensation and then the 3D audio and all that in the back of your head, your mind is telling you like, no, you're not, you're there, like deal with it. And those little bits, especially like even on a smaller scale, like the haptic feedback in the controllers, it adds so much to the experience that Even if your conscious mind tells you, like, oh, whatever, this is a game, it doesn't matter because your subconscious mind thinks you're there. And that's so important.

[00:04:24.607] Kent Bye: Do you ever have any people that get in and think they're going to do it, and then they just end up being, nope, not going to do it?

[00:04:29.791] Jake Black: Yeah, yeah. I've had people come in that are pilots or skydivers. And they're like, no, this is gonna be no problem. I mean, I jumped out of planes, whatever. And then they put the headset on and they look around and then they take it off immediately and they're like, nope, nope, can't do it. And it's weird because then you have old people that have come by, like 75 year old people that have done it and they put it on and then you're like, oh man, I hope they're okay. And then they go through it, no problem. So you can never tell who's going to react how.

[00:04:55.013] Kent Bye: Now one of the things that I thought was interesting that you have to deal with the actual physical constraints of a room-scale environment. Obviously you're not going to have 140 feet room-scale tracked experience of this and so in the middle you have to actually kind of turn around and walk back and so talk a bit about the design challenges of trying to recreate something but then in the middle having to have this imaginary like okay now turn around and go back.

[00:05:16.152] Jake Black: Yeah well what was important to us was you know, actually giving the user a sensation of completion, you know, and so since you can't actually walk 140 feet, you know, we wanted to make sure that you got the sense of like, okay, I did it, I can do it. The most important thing, I mean, the name of the experience is Can You Walk the Walk? And the movie's name is The Walk. It's not just The Walk VR experience. And that was really intentional because it was meant to be a challenge. I've shown personally more than probably 1,200 people by now. And probably a quarter of the people that try it can't do it. They literally just are too afraid to take a step. So it is a challenge. But for those people that can take a step, we want to make sure that they go out as far as possible. So what we did was actually, we have a sort of acclimation period where you start on the rooftop. And then the camera pushes you out to the edge of the beam, which is sort of a no-no with VR design. You don't ever really want to take control of the camera away from the user. But we found with a very slow, straight movement, it's OK. And then that sort of builds the tension where we push you out to the edge of a beam so that, essentially, when you take your first step, we're maximizing the amount of space that you can actually walk. And so I think right now it's probably about 15 feet or so. So that's only 10% of the way, but it's enough that people, when they take the headset off, they turn around, they're like, oh, that was all I walked? I thought I walked so much further. So it's definitely, like you said, we can't do 140 feet. It's just not physically possible. But I think with the amount of space that we have, You still get the emotion. That was the most important part to us. It was the emotion of overcoming your fear of essentially stepping into the abyss, into nothing, into something you would never do.

[00:06:58.774] Kent Bye: Have you had anyone that had a fear of heights that was able to overcome their fear of heights by doing your experience?

[00:07:03.717] Jake Black: Well, you know, what's funny is actually I'm terrified of heights myself. And I've done it so many times and set up so many times that I'm numb to it. I can get on there and look down and no problem. And then I went to one of those kind of like rock climbing, you know, places and they had a little tightrope section where, you know, you get all harnessed up. And I was like, sweet, I'm going to learn how to do, I'm going to try this and put all my experience with this into use and see if it really helped. It didn't help at all. I was still terrified. So I could see it in the long run with a lot of different kinds of experiences, maybe helping you to overcome some fears, but ultimately it's very specific, I think, to that experience and not as much of like a general fear helper.

[00:07:44.468] Kent Bye: Well, I think they have been using VR for phobias, and I think that it could be used for fear of height. You're talking about something of actually physically walking on a tightrope, which you could literally fall off of. It'd be curious to look at to see if somebody was afraid of, like, overlooking on the top of the Eiffel Tower or something like that. If they were able to not do it, but then get enough confidence by doing something like this experience and then doing it.

[00:08:06.346] Jake Black: I think I've actually, I mean, I have noticed that when I look over the railings or whatever, where my stomach used to drop, I'm a little better now. I mean, it still drops a little bit, but then I think I can kind of collect myself and just say, like, all right, well, no, just breathe, nice, quiet, easy. And it's only been since I've done this. So I could definitely see this being, you know, if it were designed to help you, like with fears and phobias, I think I could see that happening.

[00:08:31.011] Kent Bye: Well, since you are afraid of heights, what was your first experience of doing this VR then?

[00:08:34.807] Jake Black: Well, actually, one of the very first things that we did was we built just a grayscale prototype, just really simple, like built it in a week just to literally see this was a year and a half ago. So this was ancient days of VR compared to now. And so the question was like, are you going to feel it? You know, is it going to work at all? Is it worth pursuing? So we built a really simple grayscale version of New York City and the towers. And I remember when we first turned it on and I walked over to the edge and I leaned over the edge. This was just when positional tracking was available for like a month at the time. So this was all a new experience from the ground up. I leaned over the edge and I looked down and I could feel my stomach just tighten. And then I knew right then and there, I was like, okay, this is going to work. No problem. So at that point, it's just a matter of just making it beautiful and figuring out the flow of the story and the concept. But at least we knew that the core of it worked.

[00:09:28.814] Kent Bye: So what's next for your development agency then?

[00:09:31.876] Jake Black: We are working on different movie properties, which obviously I cannot say what it is right now. But we're working with studios on developing promotional experiences that still advertise their movies. I can't say what they are, but what's happening this year and I think what's going to be really great for everybody in the VR industry is that we're transitioning from out-of-home experiences to in-home. And that's, I think, going to be the biggest change in the VR industry. It's going to change the whole thing because now suddenly there's going to be an economy. There's going to be income. There's going to be return on investment that maybe wasn't there before. So we can actually develop things. And you know, VR is not necessarily cheap if you want to make a great experience. So we can't just develop things and put them out for free. So at least the experiences that people want, like the big ones. the fact that we're going to be able to put them in the stores and people can buy them, you're going to see so much more content of a higher level. It's going to be great.

[00:10:26.222] Kent Bye: So what do you want to personally experience in VR then?

[00:10:29.345] Jake Black: For me, the biggest thing that I would like to see VR overcome is just more or less the locomotion issue. As soon as you can actually really move around an environment in the way that you're used to in a traditional game, I think that's going to open up so many more possibilities So I would love to explore just a huge imaginative environment, whether it's something along the lines of like a Final Fantasy or a Skyrim or something. Those are my games, or like a Bioshock. Just creating like these worlds that are so beautiful and just designed from head to toe with this vision of, you know, whoever's creating them and being in that world. Like, I don't care what kind of gameplay it is at that point. Like, I just want to be in that world. And so as soon as we can start seeing those experiences, like I said, that maybe have a little more production value, I think that's going to be so much better than anything we've already seen. That's what I'm excited about.

[00:11:19.593] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:11:25.518] Jake Black: Well, that's a huge question. I think one of the buzzwords I've heard about it is the final medium, which is essentially just a way of saying, what else do you want after you're completely in this world? There's really not much beyond that. I don't know if I completely subscribe to that. I do love traditional film and framed content. I don't think that's ever going to go away. And I don't want it to go away. But I think what will be really great, especially for VR, is that it's so versatile. There's no inherent use for it that it's made for. It's not made for gaming. It's not made for passive entertainment, it's not made for anything. It's made for all of it. So, you know, for training, it could be huge, you know, especially if you're in a class and, you know, you could, whatever, let's say watch the Declaration of Independence being signed. And there's a whole scene playing out in front of you of all of the founding fathers talking. It makes it so much more vivid and memorable. I think that'll be huge. I think, you know, when there's going to be, you know, for social content to really record moments of your life in a way that you can relive later in such a more visceral way than just looking at a cell phone video. There's so many possibilities of it. I think there's a lot of technical issues that are really being solved right now and that still need to be solved before it's totally ready for people like my parents. But with how quickly things are moving, like I said just a minute ago, like a year and a half ago, was like the Stone Age compared to where we are now. So in a year and a half from now, it's going to be crazy. I mean, who knows what technological advancements are going to happen and how quickly. So, I mean, in 10 years, I imagine the entire landscape is going to be completely different. That's what's exciting about it. That's why I'm working on it. It's so refreshing to be in a medium where, you know, when somebody asks you, hey, how would this feel or how could you do this? What would that be like? Most of the times the answer is, I don't know, but we'll figure it out. And then when you do, there's something new and surprising and it's great. And you learn so much along the way.

[00:13:27.065] Kent Bye: Great, well, thank you so much.

[00:13:28.165] Jake Black: Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

[00:13:30.206] Kent Bye: So that was Jake Black of the Crate Advertising. And just a few of the takeaways here is that, first of all, I think it's really interesting and cool that VR can stimulate people's fear of heights so viscerally that at least a quarter of the people that he had shown this experience to just decided to opt out and be like, no, this is too intense, too much. So this is an interesting little dynamic here that I've seen and noticed is that there's this creative tension between creating this exciting visceral experience that activates and simulates your subconscious mind, but the actual process of overcoming your fears and actually walking kind of actually starts to break presence because while you're doing that, you are basically telling yourself, no, no, no, don't listen to that. Prime yourself of your mind because you're totally okay. There's still a little bit of this dissonance that happens when you're like walking on a tight rope, 1300 feet in the air on the World Trade Centers. But I just wanted to share a little anecdote that kind of illustrates this is that when I was at Sundance this year they had this gear VR theater at Samsung and they have all these kind of swivel chairs in there and they're showing different experiences throughout the week, and one of them was from Funny or Die, and it was this comedic short called The Interrogation, where you're basically sitting in this room, a police room, where these two cops are asking you all these crazy, ridiculous questions, and at some point, one of the cops pulls out a gun and points it right in your face, and it's at that moment that my subconscious mind has this moment of like, oh my God, I'm in danger, But my rational mind almost immediately was like, oh wow, no, you are totally fine. And that disconnect sometimes can actually just completely take you out of the experience and your suspension of disbelief is just completely ruined at that point. And so that's kind of what my experience was in going through Can You Walk the Walk was that it kind of had this visceral feeling, but yet in the end it was kind of like, ah, yeah. Okay, that was interesting, but didn't really get the sense that I was actually walking the tightrope. So the interesting thing is that I could have done this experience and not actually walked on the wire. And I wonder if that would have been a lasting, more compelling experience to kind of just peek over the edge and still get the edge of my comfort level and maybe even be lifted up to the ground so I could feel my toes going over the edge, which when I did the void, that's kind of what they do is they have these moments where they have ledges that are just a few inches off the ground. But you don't know that when you're in VR. As far as you know, that's actually a cliff that goes down for thousands of feet. And so, yeah, you know, your mileage may vary. Like you said, different people have different experiences. So check it out if you can and see what you react to in doing an experience like this. And so again, if you do feel inspired to help support the Voices of VR podcast, then please do consider becoming a contributor at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.

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