Black Ice VR is a sci-fi horror immersive narrative that experiments between switching between 3rd person and 1st person POV, and it was produced as a part of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ The Media + Emerging Technology Lab (METL) 6-month Immersive Storytelling Program. (Disclosure METL has been a sponsor of the podcast advertising this program and I’ve served as a mentor on the first two years of the fellowship. See episodes #863, #967, & #970 for more context). I had a chance to have a brief conversation with XR creators Arif Khan (Writer & Director), Darren Woodland Jr. (Technical Artist & Sound Implementer), and Lawrence Yip (VR Developer) about their experience.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So continuing on my coverage of some of the XR experiences at South by Southwest, today's episode is with Black Ass VR, which is a bit of a cyberpunk horror genre experience that was coming out of the Media and Emerging Technology Lab, also known as METL, at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. This is a part of their Immersive Storytelling Fellowship that they put together. Full disclosure, Ryan Smaltz has been a sponsor of the podcast in the past, and I actually helped to mentor for the first fellowship and the second fellowship, meeting with them every so often to see the experience and give feedback along the way. So it actually had a lot of improvements from even the last time that I'd seen it. And I was able to use the conceits of sci-fi to address some of the ethical and moral questions that if memory editing was possible, then what would be some of the potential moral outcomes of that. And so it's a story that kind of explores that as a theme. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Arif, Darren, and Lawrence happened on Tuesday, March 15th, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:22.926] Arif Khan: Sure. I am Arif Khan. I am the writer and director of Black Ice VR.
[00:01:26.829] Darren Woodland Jr.: And my name is Darren Woodland Jr. And I am the technical artist and sound implementator for Black Ice VR.
[00:01:31.952] Lawrence Yip: Yeah, I'm Lawrence Hiep, and I'm a VR developer.
[00:01:34.454] Kent Bye: Why don't you each maybe give a little bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR?
[00:01:40.150] Arif Khan: Sure, yeah, I originally got into VR when I was at USC film school, doing virtual reality as my MFA in film production. And then I started off my career at Oculus Story Studio as a junior producer, and then doing travel VR for Airbnb Creative Studio before branching out and working on some of my own projects and then getting a chance to work with the UNCSA and METAL with this project now.
[00:01:59.997] Darren Woodland Jr.: Right, my background and my journey to VR really started in grad school at North Carolina State University where I was studying special audio for immersive experiences in XR and I sort of just found the residency from there.
[00:02:11.806] Lawrence Yip: I have sort of an IT background but in undergrad I was working at a makerspace and I was introducing people to VR, to the new vibe. I saw sort of the potential on it and I kind of got hooked from there and then sort of just doing freelance and then, you know, did the residency and then this project.
[00:02:26.982] Kent Bye: Yeah, so maybe you could give me a bit more context as to this project and how it came about.
[00:02:31.292] Arif Khan: Yeah, sure. So, you know, the Immersive Storyteller Residency at Metal invites three developers to spend six months to come to North Carolina, Winston-Salem, and to incubate a virtual reality project. And so we came together as a team to explore what would it look like if we created a VR experience about memories and editing memories in this kind of futuristic world. And so the story really explores this notion of memory editing, and you play as David, a memory editor. And late one night, a young girl comes to you with a very dark memory of a murder that she committed. And the only problem is the more you edit and change the memory, the more she wants to kill again. And so it explores the notion of memories of how much they make up who we are. And if you can change your memories, can you change who you are?
[00:03:10.073] Kent Bye: So I guess as a team, when you are talking about a lot of these different projects, maybe just talk about from your perspective of the technological implementers, the process of collaborating and deciding on what the story was going to be.
[00:03:22.926] Lawrence Yip: Yeah, I think we very much quickly went into sort of memories and perspective and trying to tell different perspectives and what memories look like in VR. I think it was a very common thread. And then we kind of just tried prototyping various ways to show that. And then we kind of just settled more on this kind of one through line.
[00:03:40.335] Darren Woodland Jr.: Yeah. And going off of Lawrence's things, yeah, it's really about sort of coming together. Like we knew we wanted to talk about memories. We knew we wanted to talk about perspective. So we really just started brainstorming and throwing things together, seeing what stuck at the wall. And yeah, we sort of just built the story from there.
[00:03:53.787] Kent Bye: There's a lot of experimentation when it comes to the interactions, and maybe you could talk about some of the evolution of going into the memories as one conceit, but also starting to embody some of the different characters within this piece.
[00:04:05.612] Arif Khan: I think one of the interesting elements that we thought about with these memory dives is really the notion of embodying characters and using that as a way to enter a space and enter a character and enter a scene. And we felt like we hadn't seen that as much in a lot of virtual reality experiences, but it was a technique that we were interested in exploring in terms of just immersing ourselves deeper in these projects and also seeing how we could just tap into the narrative aspect of it through this embodiment mechanic that we built out.
[00:04:29.602] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's kind of an interesting conceit where you're sitting there and nothing's happening and you're like, OK, what do I do? And then you start to move around and you have these little orbs that you put your hands over and then you start to get, I guess, guided into starting to embody these different scenes. And so, yeah, I'm just curious from a technological implementation perspective, the evolution of that as an idea.
[00:04:51.297] Darren Woodland Jr.: Yeah, a big part of that is the sound design, and we had a couple of really great sound designers working with us. And we sort of just worked through this, and once we sort of knew, like, we wanted to have people activated in that space to really get their body into that motion, we began to talk about, like, what does that sound like? Like, what does it sound like to enter someone and sort of be in their space, in their headspace, in their world, and see the world from their perspective? And we also knew that this was a cyberpunk piece, so we wanted to talk a little bit more about You know, what does it sound like to have computers and sort of that glitchiness and that effect be a part of that biologicalness? So we work with the sound designer to sort of design these sounds to implement into those head and hand spheres to bring that sort of interaction and depth to that experience.
[00:05:31.358] Kent Bye: What were some of the other aspects that you were really focusing on in the development of this project?
[00:05:35.952] Lawrence Yip: Yeah, I think we really wanted to tell multiple perspectives and what we tried to do initially was just kind of make you play as a whole bunch of different characters but we found that there was absolutely no onboarding on that so this mechanic kind of was like the third or fourth like iteration of the story and we found that we were trying to take things from film of the idea of like an establishing shot like have that frozen in time being a third party and then walking into that space and that was kind of like taking inspiration from different fields trying to put it into VR and trying to make it
[00:06:05.878] Arif Khan: work. I think the other element that's really exciting though is as a player you get to control the pacing of the experience you can take a moment to take in the scene and when you're ready to enter and move on to the next scene you can then embody these characters and then move through at your own pace which is important for us as well.
[00:06:20.390] Kent Bye: So I guess I should also disclose that I was involved in giving some feedback on this project along the way. And so I actually got to see the evolution of the project in some sense. And then I stopped and then I got to see it here at South By just to see how it ended up. And so, yeah, I'd love to hear any feedback on what it was like for you to kind of work in a part of this metal immersive program and interacting with different people, giving feedback along the way and what that was like in terms of how the project evolved.
[00:06:47.333] Arif Khan: Yeah, I think it was a really unique scenario with the residency, especially because we have different mentors in different departments, you know, writing mentor and interactive mentor, as well as a music sound design mentor. And I think it allowed us to think more iterative in the process and really get outside feedback so that we weren't really working in a kind of a vacuum, but we actually had experts and experienced veterans in the industry to give us feedback and to kind of guide us along the way. And I think it allowed us to really make a stronger product that was influenced by that experience as well.
[00:07:13.428] Lawrence Yip: Yeah, and I think a big part of the residency that I loved the most was it was a protected time where we truly could just take risks and try out things that people can't really try out if they, you know, they have to meet certain deadlines or if they have to make something that's super marketable. So they really gave us some space to actually try out these more stranger mechanics, these more surreal things, and it was super helpful.
[00:07:36.020] Darren Woodland Jr.: Yeah, I really saw this as like an experiment into the design process. So like the mentors really were that iterative step. So they really came in, they gave us that feedback, and then we would continually go back and run through our different, you know, styles or different storylines and everything. We sort of just brought that in iteratively as a cycle with each mentor session that we had.
[00:07:54.107] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the things that I was struck by seeing the final version was just how emotionally evocative it was in terms of the tension that was built up and the music. And there's something about a piece that once you have everything all working together, that it's able to kind of evoke a different visceral emotion than what I had seen before. So I don't know what had changed from the last time I had seen it from the final version. But yeah, what were some of the things that, you know, you told me, oh, it's changed a lot since the last time I had seen it. Like what happened that last stretch leading up to South By?
[00:08:24.134] Arif Khan: Sure, I think, you know, early on we knew the type of game or story we wanted to tell, and I think a lot of the last three months and even then a couple of months leading up to South By was really just sound design and polish and a lot of music design and lightened effects to really drive some of those high emotion stakes higher. And if we knew we wanted the player to feel with the resources that we have in terms of a quest game with the lightened scenarios, with the characters that we had, with the animations we had, With the sound design that we had, how could we kind of needle in on that exact motion? So it was a lot of tweaking, a lot of just polishing those elements to kind of get it to a point where we felt that it was strong enough.
[00:08:56.645] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd love to hear a little bit more about the lighting because there was a bit of a theatrical nature of it, but also helped amplify different aspects. I don't know if you speak to that.
[00:09:05.782] Lawrence Yip: Yeah, so something that we tried to do is the idea of vignettes of the memory and that memory shouldn't be like this super clear visceral thing. You only hook on to very specific parts of it. So we very much kind of have like the spotlight effect of growing things in and out and then we try to use very specific colors to tell you the things that are interactable and various effects to help push you towards like entering different spaces and giving feedback for these interactions that you're doing.
[00:09:31.830] Darren Woodland Jr.: Yeah, I think another big part of this, you mentioned like the theatrical nature was like working with actors and doing motion capture and being able to sort of guide them through our story, guide them through the different parts of the memories and direct them to give us that feedback in our animations and everything like that.
[00:09:47.288] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you're embodied throughout the entire piece into different characters, but I guess you're switching the embodiment. But there's also scenes near the end where you're looking from a third-person perspective into the scene, and I think originally it might have been a first-person perspective, but I'm just curious to hear about some of those perspective shifts and what you think that adds to the experience.
[00:10:06.384] Arif Khan: Yeah, I think especially with that final moment on the train, as you're kind of pushing closer, I think the player doesn't know if they're playing as David or if it's a third-person moment, and that kind of unclarity kind of adds to the tension and notion of if the character is going to react to the player. And I think that adds just the right tension in that final moment. And so that ambiguity, I think, plays into the horror and the kind of thriller aspects of the piece, too.
[00:10:27.744] Kent Bye: What do you think it is about VR that makes it particularly well-suited to doing the horror genre?
[00:10:34.834] Arif Khan: Sure, I think what's really unique about VR is that it really just encompasses your entire emotions, your entire perspective. You give yourself entirely to the experience when you put on a VR headset. And by that same token, that means you're giving yourself to the experience. And so things can be very scary. You can amplify sounds in so many different ways. And I think that notion, I think, allows horror to work really well in VR. And so it's also why you find a lot of like jump scares to be really effective in VR, but we were also, especially with this game, not necessarily thinking much about jump scares, but more thinking about the feeling of horror and dread, and less about playing into some of the more easier scares as well.
[00:11:09.528] Darren Woodland Jr.: Yeah, and I think a lot of that goes, like, when you're saying giving yourself to the story, a lot of that goes towards the feeling of presence, and VR is very good, you know, when it's well-designed to give you that feeling of presence, to really give you that spatial aspect of it, to the communication with the characters, the communication with the space, and that really just amplifies a lot of that tension that you build in horror.
[00:11:28.588] Lawrence Yip: Yeah, and just the whole first-person dynamic of VR makes it very easy to kind of just lean into as well because it's just so close to you and so visceral.
[00:11:37.838] Kent Bye: So what happens next coming out of South By? Where does this project go from here?
[00:11:41.891] Arif Khan: That's a good question, Ken. I think there's a couple of few elements that we would love to dive into in regards to Black Ice. I think, you know, the first of all is really diving into the festival circuit and really trying to get it out there into the world. We're lucky enough that South by Southwest is our world premiere and we're able to get a lot of wonderful industry folks and the public to see it for the first time, but we're excited to maybe take it around the world at a lot of different other international film festivals and to potentially see if we could land on the App Store or on the Steam Store to see what's next. But I think the potential of editing memories is such a unique concept that it could extend beyond Rin's story and could be a lot of other stories as well to play with.
[00:12:15.135] Kent Bye: Very cool. And finally, what do you each think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:12:23.807] Darren Woodland Jr.: Yeah, I think a lot of what I was saying before, this feeling of presence, VR gives you that sense of being somewhere different. It has a very transformative property, like we can learn a lot about ourselves and a lot about other people just by putting on a headset and becoming someone else or maybe being in a space that isn't so real, maybe it's a little bit surreal. And it allows you to sort of experience things in a different way than you normally would in reality.
[00:12:46.045] Lawrence Yip: I think for me what I'm most interested in VR and exploring is the ability to share a perspective and I think the best word is like empathy for it but I try to use like the word embodiment and like really being able to accept and buy in that you are this character to be able to take on these emotions and I think figuring out you know the proper design around it and kind of breaking the rules of reality because that's the affordances of VR that gives you being able to really take on that perspective and learn, you know, feeling new ways that you haven't really thought before.
[00:13:17.434] Arif Khan: Yeah, I think for me what's really exciting is that notion of being able to enter worlds and really explore different types of stories, but also explore stories in unique and interesting ways. And I'm super excited about the types of artists, creators, and storytellers that are really creating new types of content and stories for audiences to dive into. So I'm excited about the potential in so many different ways.
[00:13:37.597] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?
[00:13:41.540] Arif Khan: Well, I guess even being at South by this is my first film festival post pandemic. And I just want to say it's been really exciting and inspiring to see the type of VR, AR, XR content that's coming out even in this past year. And I'm incredibly excited and thankful to be part of this industry and looking forward to where it goes from here.
[00:13:57.747] Darren Woodland Jr.: Yeah, and to go off of that, again, this is my first festival ever here at South By and I am incredibly thankful for the team and incredibly thankful for METL for giving me the opportunity to do this. And yeah, I'm super excited about what's going forward. I've seen a lot of cool stuff in research like spatial audio and other, you know, XR technologies. I'm just really excited to see where that goes.
[00:14:16.036] Lawrence Yip: Yeah, for me this is also my first sort of like big festival and it's just been great seeing all of the teams that are all going through like the same things of like this design is so difficult, everyone's kind of just experimenting, everyone's trying to find the like proper funding to keep their projects going on, so it's great kind of just everyone is just willing to discuss what they're doing, how they're trying to do it, and it feels like a really great community.
[00:14:38.101] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, congratulations again for completing the project and ending up here at South By. And yeah, a lot of distinct artistic style and the sci-fi horror genre that I think is able to evoke these different emotions and experimentations, I'd say, with the interactivity and see how that plays into the future. So again, yeah, thanks again for joining me here on the podcast.
[00:14:57.980] Arif Khan: Thank you, Kent. Yes, thank you. Thank you so much.
[00:15:00.792] Kent Bye: So that was the team from Black Ice VR, which is a project that came out of the Media and Emerging Technology Lab, also known as METL, at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, including Arif Khan, the writer and director, Darren Woodland Jr., the technical artist and sound implementer, and then Laurence Yip, the VR developer. So, a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, well, the experience itself, I think, was able to evoke this visceral emotional reaction through the combination of the themes of going in and doing this memory editing, but also the lighting and the sound effects and everything. I thought it was able, in the end, to pull off a good combination of all these different factors to evoke emotions by the end. He's got his own specific style that has a lot of the sound design, the lighting, and just as a topic in general where that's about memory editing as a sci-fi trope that has been discussed a number of different times. But in this piece, I think the difference is that you're also being invited to embody different characters. And so, there's floating spheres at a certain point, you have to put your hands in those, and then all of a sudden you're immersed within that perspective. And so, you have this omniscient third-person perspective, ghost-like, and then you kind of switch into this first-person perspective, and then being able to interact with the story as it unfolds. As a memory editor, I think that's an interesting conceit to think about as you're going back into these different existing memories and starting to change them in different ways. It is the horror sci-fi genre. So if you're into that, then definitely seek that out. If they eventually comes out in some fashion, maybe it'll release on the app lab at some point. So keep an eye out there. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a message support podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue being in this coverage. So you can pick a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.