#1132: Using Group Discussions & Voting on Moral Dilemmas to Tell Buddhist Stories in “Mandala”

Mandala: A Brief Moment in Time is an immersive theater experience for 3-6 people that uses group discussions to tell different stories from Buddhism around the themes of suffering, happiness, hungry ghosts, & living the good life. There’s a moral dilemma at the end of the experience that requires half of the participants to come to some level of consensus, and there’s a number of different endings based up what the group decides. I had a chance to talk with director Thomas Villepoux about the process of cultivating the social dynamics of this piece as well as collaborating with Beijing-based Sandman Studios on their Vast social VR platform.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[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. It's a podcast that's looking at the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support me on Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. In today's episode, I have Thomas Villapax of Mandala. This is a piece that was anywhere between three to six people. There was a social dimension of this piece. There's an immersive theater actor that is going through an interactive group discussion talking about different elements of Buddhism. There's some different group discussions that happens in a social context. Then, at the end, there's a moral dilemma that's presented to the group. The group has to negotiate what decision they're going to make in terms of what action they want to do based upon what's arising in this piece. Playing with a lot of different group storytelling and social dynamics, and also group decisions in the context of an immersive experience, and how to facilitate this whole flow of lots of different people, different Types of temperaments and how they're going to really cultivate. This is an experience So the piece is called mandala and it was showing there at venice immersive 2022 So that's what we're coming on today's episode of the voices vr podcast. So this interview with thomas happened on saturday september 3rd 2022 so with that let's go ahead and Dive right in

[00:01:33.125] Thomas Villepoux: I am Thomas Villepox, I'm the director of Mandala and my life is very uninteresting so I don't want to really talk about that. But I've been working in VR for quite a long time and especially we've been working with multiplayer and live performances in VR since a few years. So Mandala is the result of already this research and all this project that we made in that format that I think is really interesting.

[00:02:07.154] Kent Bye: Well, one of the things that I find interesting about the medium of VR is that it's bringing together so many different disciplines and expertise from film and game design and architecture and human-computer interaction and web design. So maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and what you're bringing into the process of experiential design in this project here in Venice called Mandala.

[00:02:28.690] Thomas Villepoux: Well, my background is in cinema, so traditional films and traditional storytelling. And you are very right to say that VR brings together a lot of people from a lot of different worlds, especially people from cinema and animation and people from video games that already don't speak the same language. And with Mandala and with other projects that we do, we also have live performances, so we need the experience from the live performance, the theater, and also how to organize an event, how to handle. audience coming and especially how to bring the audience to your show, introduce the audience to your show, handle this setup and the place where you show your work. That's a big part of the work we had to do. And like I say, I come from traditional storytelling, means linear storytelling. So I know a lot of tricks as a scriptwriter, how to drive the audience, but now what we are doing is very interactive and very open. What we have in Mandala is almost an open world. So the tricks are different and the ways to keep your audience entertained is also very different.

[00:03:54.178] Kent Bye: And so because you're coming from film, what was the moment that you decided to transition from coming from the film world into getting into VR? Was it an experience that you saw or, you know, talk about the journey into coming into the space of VR.

[00:04:06.884] Thomas Villepoux: So before VR, I was actually specialized in 3D, 3D movies with glasses. And I was interested in 3D because it was immersive. It was already more immersive than traditional cinema. and I directed the short film that was all in POV, 3D, POV and all in one shot. And when my friends told me about the first DK1, and a bunch of my geek friends had a DK1 somewhere, and so I thought oh maybe this film that I shot in 3D in POV would be awesome in a headset so I found a way to get the video in the headset and watch it and I realized it was very bad because it was not made for this medium at all so it was absolutely not the way you should do it but the fact that I put my head in a headset and I I saw a bunch of like the first roller coasters and stuff like that that we had on the TK1 and it triggered something that I saw the potential. I saw the potential of this and from that moment I was only working to understand the media, to understand what can be the tools for a director on this media. So I started with 360° videos. We started shooting 360° videos and we made a bunch of projects and also a lot of tests. And then I started to talk to many people and learn to work with studios. I already was working with animation studios as a 3D expert, as a stereoscopic expert. So I knew that a little bit and while going around in the XR industry I learned a lot about everything and my journey continues but I think I already fed from everything that I saw in festivals like this one many years ago to explore all the possibilities of the medium.

[00:06:21.905] Kent Bye: Was there other projects that you had done and completed before you did Mandala?

[00:06:27.006] Thomas Villepoux: Yes, a few. Actually, we are in production. I'm directing a project called Jailbirds. It premiered in Tribeca. That animation?

[00:06:35.929] Kent Bye: Yeah.

[00:06:36.209] Thomas Villepoux: Yeah. Jailbird is animation and it's narrative. There's very little interaction in it. It's very narrative.

[00:06:42.970] Kent Bye: Like a bunk bed and then you're looking outside. Yeah.

[00:06:45.351] Thomas Villepoux: Exactly, that's the one, yes. It's an easier format but it's a very interesting story and we did the first episode and we are producing episode 2 and 3 and I did a bunch of other projects before and before I'm working today with my associate François Klein in a company called Digital Rise in Paris but before that we were working with a studio called DV Group And with the studio, we made a project like Alice, a virtual reality play, and the Horrifically Virtual Reality. So different projects using already live performance, live mock-up actors, and stuff like that.

[00:07:31.420] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a number of different immersive theater pieces that are happening this year in VRChat with Type Man and Gumball Dreams. But you're using the VAST platform from Sandman and Eddie Lau and his company. And so maybe talk a bit about how you came across VAST and Eddie and this collaboration to be able to do kind of an immersive theater social platform, but something that's going beyond what we have with a lot of the platforms that are launched in public right now with VRChat. But yeah, talk a bit about the process of discovering that as a platform. started the seed of Mandala to be developed from the social dimensions of that platform.

[00:08:06.250] Thomas Villepoux: So actually Eddie has been a friend for many years. So Eddie is the CEO of Sun Man Studio, which is a Chinese studio in Beijing. We wanted to work together on a project in 2018-2019 I think. decided to work on one of the ideas I had that was already Mandala. So we had already the basics of that project. So we started to work on a prototype that was supposed to be LBE, with the actor and the spectator in the same room, at the same physical and virtual space. And then at the end of 2019, we had the COVID pandemic and everything was shut down, especially in China. So the LBE project was on pause for a year and a half maybe. And at the same time, Sandman, the same studio, developed a vast platform. So actually, like you said, there's a lot of performances in VRChat and in other platforms, and VAST was really developed by this studio, and I think the visuals, the potential of this platform in terms of visual quality is really really high. I mean when you do a metaverse platform you have constraints and obviously you need to choose like do you want to build a platform where you can have hundreds of people and to log in with any hardware or whatever and of course you have to downgrade the visual quality to be open to everyone. The idea behind VAST was to still be open to as much people as possible, but don't compromise too much on the quality of the visual. So they spent maybe a year and a half or two years developing that platform. And when that platform was ready and it was used in South by Southwest as a virtual world during the festival, Then I saw the quality that they could do with this word We talked with Eddie and I think we could have Mandala in that platform. It's good enough for me to port the project into the platform and that would solve a lot of our problems because suddenly we are using a system and that is already working with a lot of hardware, it's working with different headsets, it's working with different computers, and the voice chat is already here, the system of connection and audience is already there, so we decided to put the project into VAST. So the version we have today is a metaverse version of the project, that means the the audience could be anywhere in the world and the actor with the mocap could be anywhere in the world and we can also use different mocap systems. One of the big troubles that we had with the 2019 project is that we were bound to one mocap system and mocap systems all have their problems like some are Not that good, but easy and cheap, and some are very good, but very expensive and very hard to deploy. There's no perfect system. And so the Vaast platform allows us to actually use different systems.

[00:11:29.753] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so you said that you had ported it, so had you already developed it on VRChat or on Unity?

[00:11:35.680] Thomas Villepoux: No, it's Unreal, actually. We developed it under Unreal. So we had a prototype in 2019, and then based on that prototype, we ported it to VAST and Unreal, the new version of Unreal. But we also worked on it, obviously added some words, added some elements, some interaction, we made it. It's not the same project as in 2019, but it's the same basic, it's the same universe.

[00:12:05.298] Kent Bye: Yeah, because I guess if you want to do something in VRChat, you're kind of bound to use Unity, but if you want to use Unreal Engine, does that mean that you can develop it within Unreal Engine and then add like a module within Unreal that makes it compatible with VAST, or do you have to actually export it and do other things in order to bring it onto the VAST platform?

[00:12:23.695] Thomas Villepoux: I don't really know the answer to that question. I know there's a lot of Metaverse platforms today and some are under Unity, some are under Unreal, and it's possible to put one inside the other.

[00:12:39.568] Kent Bye: I guess VRChat's taking care of all the social plugins so you don't have to do like the photon networking that comes with VRChat but Unreal Engine has their own networking but I don't know if VAST is adding a similar networking layer if it's already like or yeah so I'm just trying to figure out how you go from Unreal into the VAST platform what that process is.

[00:12:58.617] Thomas Villepoux: You need to ask Eddie for that. I try to not go into his problems. I have already a lot of problems of my own.

[00:13:06.901] Kent Bye: So as a creator or the director, so you're helping architect the structure, and then who's doing the development then?

[00:13:12.764] Thomas Villepoux: So Sandman is a studio, so it's an animation studio, so they have all the teams. They are actually the main artistic creators. Essential from the studio is the artistic director. And so I'm the script writer and I have a co-writer who's Ivy Wang, who's Chinese, because Mandala is a lot about the Chinese legends. So even if I know a lot of Chinese culture, it was good for me to have a Chinese co-writer. So I directed it. So it's kind of a special role in that environment that is very close to video game. It's unusual for them to have a director. I'm like a project manager but I will communicate with them with a script obviously but also a lot of drawings and we worked a lot with drawings on prep just to know what the words are going to be and also I would give them a lot of documents on the interactions like trees of possibilities and almost writing code but using plain language and then they will take my English and turn it into Unreal code.

[00:14:29.045] Kent Bye: Okay, so it sounds like you're helping architect and design the space and they're actually having the team at Sandman build it. And to go back to the actual experience, there's a lot of themes around Buddhism. Do you have a background in Buddhism? Or I guess when you're telling stories about the content of Buddhism, what's your sort of relationship to Buddhism?

[00:14:47.439] Thomas Villepoux: I don't really know what my relationship with Buddhism is. I really don't take it as a religion. I know a lot of people who are interested in Buddhism are looking for spiritual guidance or things like that. But when I actually read about all this, just for my personal enlightenment, I understood it more as a philosophy and as a very deep thinking about life and about the human condition. And it's actually, people who know me would say that I'm more of a scientist mind and very rational. So they might be very surprised that I talk about Buddhism principles or religious principles. but it's actually, Buddhism philosophy is actually very logical and very interesting as a rational thinking and it talks really more about humans than anything else and at the same time I love legends, I love stories and the story of the Monkey King, the legends all the narrative universe and the visual universe of the Monkey King, it's extremely interesting for a storyteller. So to combine both is, seem interesting to me, to bring the Western audience into this world that they don't know. In Asia, the legend of the Monkey King is so famous, there's been millions of adaptations, and we don't know that much in the West. We have Dragon Ball. Dragon Ball is an adaptation of The Monkey King, but we don't really know that and we don't know the legend. So to bring them inside that universe and to feed them a little bit of Buddhism for dummies, you know, a very plain and down-to-earth Buddhist principles was quite funny to me and I knew it would shake them a little bit. And it does.

[00:16:58.282] Kent Bye: Yeah, structurally it's kind of an interesting blend of different structures and fusions because you've got the group experience where you have a little bit of light puzzle work so it's like a group escape type of vibe but it very quickly turns into this live immersive theater actor who ends up facilitating a lot of group discussions, which I thought is unique in the sense of the engagement into the story by providing questions or provocations to the audience for them to respond. And then from there, directing the arc of a conversation towards a certain trajectory of where you want to take the narrative as a story. So it's kind of an interesting blend and fusion of all those things. And so as you're architecting this, where do you begin in trying to map out this arc of this journey that you want to have the audience going in on?

[00:17:42.808] Thomas Villepoux: Well, I had a few goals and then I added the elements to go, you know, you start by the end. To me, I think the most important part is the ending, so I don't want to tell too much, but there's a moral test, kind of a moral test, and there's also a play on interactivity and the way we behave in front of a gaming principle. So the gaming principle in Mandala is based on colors. So the audience either have red, blue or yellow color and their hands have that color and it means they can interact with objects of that color. So it's very basic and I wanted that because I knew I wanted to talk to a very general audience including people who are non-gamers. So the interactions like you have, okay I have red so I'm gonna be able to touch red things. It's very basic and everyone ends up understanding it. The gamers, they understand it very quickly. And some other people, they actually need maybe several minutes to understand, but in the end everyone understands. And then you get into process where, okay, I'm red, I see something red, I push it, and I'm rewarded because I made what I was expected to do. And then at the end, I play with this. You know, they are... things you should do and things you should not do and ultimately that was what I wanted. So all this is hidden behind elements of stories, elements of interaction that will bring you into the universe, that make you laugh, that will make you think a little bit and then you arrive at that moment, that conundrum at the end but I needed to prepare the audience for that. and all the writing is to prepare the audience for that moment.

[00:19:51.503] Kent Bye: And as I went through the experience, you know, it's always difficult as I'm experiencing a piece and there may be choices that are provided to a group and then there's a certain consensus or choice that's made. And then there's the question of like, well, what if the other choice was made? And so as you are designing this piece that is fairly open-ended and having lots of leeway to go in a variety of different directions, do you have different paths or different endings based upon what the group decides?

[00:20:18.821] Thomas Villepoux: Yeah, there's basically three different endings based on what the group decides and it's actually very open because you have the actor and the training of the actor was very complicated of course, and the two actors that I have, Elliot Delage, who I already work with on Mechanical Souls, that was in Sundance I think two years ago, and that was already an open immersive theatre piece. And Thomas Alden, both of them are very good at improvisation. And it's very hard for them to improvise and then to go back to the script, basically. But yes, they have different endings. Basically, we train them like an AI. Like, if, then, if, then, if, then. So they have answers to most of the behaviors of the audience and it's also a piece that is writing itself with the sessions. Like we have a new group and there's a new reaction coming out and then the actor reacts and then we talk about it. Or could you have reacted better? Could you have said this or that? So right now we are like day three or four of our sessions, so it's already way more complicated than the first day. We have rewritten a lot of things, yes.

[00:21:52.730] Kent Bye: Oh, that's interesting. So as you're going, you're adapting. I know that you said that you're listening in, and so how do you rewrite it? Are you meeting up with the actors and having a group decision to give more direction? Because it's an evolving process even here, so maybe you could talk about your process as you're here at the festival and watching and observing and then changing and evolving.

[00:22:11.957] Thomas Villepoux: Well, so yeah, it's actually this time in Mandala, I put away for me to watch it, which was a mistake we had on Mechanical Soul. We had made that project, but once it was started, we could not listen unless we put a hole in the wall and listen out of the door. So now I added something so that we can access and we can spy on the audience and see what's happening. So afterwards, yes, it's a common group decision between me and the two actors. So when there's something to change, we... And also, because the idea, everything is designed to get the audience to be more open. Of course, more entertained. We are writing a lot of jokes, funny stuff to insert in the story. But also, we want to... Basically, what we design is the dialogue to get people involved, to get people engaged. So for example, at the beginning, the actor will ask everyone, what's your name? And this is basic. This is basic stuff. And at one point, the actor told me, OK, but there's six people, so sometimes I don't remember the names. So I ask everyone his name, but then I don't remember the names. But I said, it doesn't matter if you don't remember, but it's important to ask because it makes a person say something. So it triggers to the audience the state of mind that, okay, I can talk back to the actor. And it's an easy question, what's your name? Everyone's going to answer that. And so we start with very easy questions and then we try to go into deeper questions because ultimately we talk about the people's life, we talk about if they have regrets or if they have how they handle their human life. So we want to start with each equation and step by step we're trying to engage them more. And there is something very interesting that we discovered that it's actually way harder to engage in the setup we have now that is metaverse. than the setup we had before that was LBE. So in the LBE version the audience had to walk around and now they teleport. And actually the principle of walking around would engage them physically in the room and would also engage them psychologically and it was easier to connect with them. I don't know why, I don't know how, I'm sure some researcher in psychology could tell me why, but this is something that is really clear.

[00:25:12.412] Kent Bye: So you're finding that because people are teleporting around, they maybe have a more abstracted embodiment and it's more difficult to connect to them at an intellectual or sort of a group social dynamic?

[00:25:21.715] Thomas Villepoux: Yeah, we know that if you teleport, of course, you have less embodiment. But I didn't think it would impact your emotional engagement, but it does. You have less engagement. So what we need to do, we need to compensate with more dialogue and more eye-to-eye contact for example or more fake physical contact like when the actor is playing on going through your body and high-fiving you in virtual world or things like that. It's very basic but it's actually necessary to engage the audience more to compensate the fact that they are not engaging physically with the space.

[00:26:07.478] Kent Bye: I think when I was going through the experience, I had the experience of when I was speaking there was like an echo or delay or it felt like I was kind of hearing my voice and there seemed to be something that was different that I was kind of hearing feedback that impacted my own ability to communicate and so I felt like I was able to hear some people speak clearly but other people weren't. I don't know if that was a bug within the platform of Vast or if that's something you came across but I felt like there's something about the technology glitches that sometime can like prevent some communication that's happening.

[00:26:36.418] Thomas Villepoux: Absolutely. First it's possible that it was a bug because obviously we had some. It's a premiere and you know how festivals go. So we had a few bugs especially with the sound. Sometimes you start hearing yourself as an echo and it's very annoying and it's definitely clouding your ability to communicate. Also, we are in an environment that is quite noisy. So even with the closed headphones, you still hear some music from the other experience and stuff like that. For example, in the temple, it's raining and we put the sound of the rain because it's very soothing and relaxing. And in the environment, we have nobody hears the rain. It's just too loud. And initially we wanted to separate everyone so that you don't hear your own voice in the mic of the other person. So obviously the setup is not ideal and the sound is very important to be able to communicate, yes. But it's, I mean, the whole setup makes it like you kind of forgot all that once you're in the story. It's the talent of the actor to make you forget all that. But every, every bit of information that comes to your senses is important. If there's a beep-beep from someone having a text message on his phone, it's going to take you away from the immersion. Everything is very important.

[00:28:07.318] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that there's this concept that's gone through the immersive theater circles, which is that there's the skimmers who are at the surface level, the dippers going a little bit deeper, and then like the deep divers, and so there's different degrees which people that really want to engage a lot, and then the challenge I'd say is sometimes there could be a overtaking of a conversation by some people or trying to engage the people who are less engaged. And so how have you dealt with that dilemma of trying to balance a conversation in a way or at least keep everybody engaged?

[00:28:38.655] Thomas Villepoux: Well, in my experience, there are two sweet spots in terms of number of people. So Mandala is three to six people, because when you have six person, random pick of six persons, you're going to have one or two that are very talkative. At least one or two that are very talkative. So they're going to support your group. They're going to be there, they're going to answer the question, they're going to play the game, and they're going to explain when someone is very shy and not talking, they're going to help that person. And often, on SIGS, there's also one or two persons that will really not talk much. Maybe they will say yes, no, and their names, and that's all. But we also experienced the fact that those people actually enjoy it that way. So, sometimes we had people that would not say a word for the whole experience. And we would say, oh, maybe she's bored, she's not enjoying the experience. And then at the end, that person would come to us and say, oh, it was amazing. I loved it. It was a great moment. So actually, it's just some person are quite shy. They don't really want to interact. And they prefer to be a little bit like an audience, passive spectator. but they enjoy it that way. So six is a good number to have that balance. What we've experienced is that four people, if the four people are quite engaged, four is a sweet spot to have the best experience. But we get six, because four, if no one talks, it's very hard. So six is safer. and we noticed that you have another sweet spot that's around 12-15 when we do experience with more people like mechanical soul we do with 20 people now and around 12-15 is interesting because Everyone is still engaged and there's maybe three, four people leading the conversation, but everyone is still engaged. More than 15, you're going to have some people who start to talk together and not be attentive and stuff like that. Of course, I'm saying that it depends on your audience. Also, one thing we experienced with Mandala is that Mandala was presented as a prototype in China. and also presented to international audience and then now we're here in Venice and the people don't react, obviously don't react the same way. Chinese people, European people, American people, French people, they don't have the same way to speak. They don't speak easily, maybe, in China, also in France, they are quite shy. Americans speak very easily, but they don't speak on the same subjects. And you can find ways to wake them up. You know, there are subjects that we know French people will engage on that subject. and Americans it's different. So it's why I love that kind of live performance. It's because you really adapt to the public, you have a direct contact and feedback and you can change a little bit the way you do your experience to really talk to your audience.

[00:32:03.205] Kent Bye: I think probably another issue would be that, you know, because we're in an international conference, a lot of times we speak English to be able to make sure that there's like common language. But imagine that if English is not someone's native language, that I would imagine that a piece like this, depending on their fluency in English, that could also impact their experience based upon the degree to which that they're able to really engage in some of these deeper philosophical contemplative and reflective conversations about life the meaning of life and regret and happiness and joy and you know these big broad topics so yeah i don't know if you've ran into any of those issues around the language barriers that people may face as well

[00:32:42.499] Thomas Villepoux: Well, it's one of the reasons that the actor is using very simple words. Even if we describe very complex concepts, we try to stay with a very down-to-earth way of telling that. But also, I think it's good to have different versions. In Mandala, we had a Chinese version, obviously, because it's basically a Chinese and French content. mechanical souls we also performed in English and French and I think it's yeah we should do different versions because it's it relies a lot on communication like we said so yeah communication is the key to that experience.

[00:33:24.080] Kent Bye: As you've been watching the different performances what's been surprising to you some things that you weren't quite expecting behaviors that you're noticing

[00:33:33.152] Thomas Villepoux: Oh, so much, so much. Every session is different. There's a lot of funny reactions. I'm always surprised in what's happening in the end, like the moral choice. Initially, I would expect everyone to kind of react the same because the story is quite simple and who's the bad guy and who's the good guy is also quite simple. But actually, no. Some people root for the bad guy, and some people don't really know what to do. What surprised me is the incredible range of reactions that I have. Yeah, especially in the end.

[00:34:18.751] Kent Bye: Well, there's one option where it's revealed, one where it's secluded. What's the third option?

[00:34:22.673] Thomas Villepoux: No, actually, the option is betray, fight, or hide.

[00:34:29.610] Kent Bye: Ah, okay. So betray, fight, or hide. So you have different paths that you can go down. Okay. So as a group you have a decision. Yeah, it's interesting to kind of like be asked to lie within a context of an immersive experience. I think that that's sort of a very fun... I've had other... There was a... There was an immersive theater piece. It was a puzzle game that was at Tribeca, I think at 2019 that you're kind of put into a room and there's someone who comes in and they ask you a thing but you've been told to give certain information so yeah I think that's sort of the ability to do that kind of live action role play where you're adapting a certain role and motivation and character it feels like that there's some building blocks there for people to understand like what's it mean to embody a character or a scene and especially when you have a group situation then there have other group dynamics of like what is the group consensus that's emerging so I found that there was a lot of interesting things to negotiate as an audience member of reading not only what I thought but also what the behaviors were and also to what degree you want to participate in this realms of deception.

[00:35:34.147] Thomas Villepoux: But the base of my reflection for Mandala is, you know, all the social experiments, especially, I think it's a Milgram experiment, you know, it's a test on how you react to authority, where there's a person in a room and you are supposed to ask them questions and punish them if they are wrong. and then you are told that the punishment is not harmful but actually you can hear that the person you are punishing is in extreme pain but you are in a state of someone is giving you orders and you're just supposed to press the button that they told you to but you can hear that you're actually harming someone and it puts you in that state of disconnection you know in your brain between what you want to do good you want to do what you're told but you're obviously doing something bad and it's that kind of situation that I wanted to recreate obviously in a less torturing setup but it's so funny because it's that's where you learn a little bit about yourself about how you behave with a group, about what place you take in the group, and how you're going to react in front of an authority, an authority figure. All that, it's just super interesting.

[00:37:02.489] Kent Bye: Yeah, it reminds me of the Robert McKee quote where he talks about in stories, you can understand the story by the character being placed in a situation and context and being asked to make choices and take action. And through those choices, they're revealing their character. And the more intense the situation, the more of their central character that's being revealed. And so as you think about this experience of an individual in a group context being asked to be put under these situations of pressure and to make choices, what character is being revealed by the audience member as they're being asked to be able to make these different choices? Like, what part of their essential nature are you trying to get at?

[00:37:43.523] Thomas Villepoux: That's complicated. Like I said, there's the reaction to authority. And when I say authority, it's quite large because it includes the gaming principle. Like I said, there's a gaming principle, that you understand and you do something and you win, basically. And it's how a lot of video games work, like you have something to do and if you do it, you can keep on winning and if you fail, then you lose. This setup is very easy for us. It's very pleasant for us because we have a clear mission and we do it and it's within our reach to succeed. And we do it and we have a reward. So that's why people love video games, because it's just something that you don't have in life. In life the mission is unclear, you don't really know what you want to do. Even knowing what you really want to do is not that obvious. And when you do choices, you don't know if you succeeded or not right away. And you don't know what the consequences are going to be. So in real life, it's all blurry. So we love that situation where the things are very clear, and we have this to do, and we do it, and we win. So what I'm trying to reveal in the writing of Mandala is, OK, Are you going to be able to think outside the box? Meaning, are we going to put you in a situation where everything seems to be very clear and you have to do one thing and you do it and you succeed. And then at one point, it's not going to be that anymore. And are you going to be able to recognize it? if we're going that way in a very big debate, it's one of the problem that we have in society today that we are all living in a society that has codes and we know those codes and we live our life and most of us live quite a cool life and there are things happening that are hidden behind the codes of society and The big question is are we able to stop and think and realize that maybe someone is lying to us or someone is manipulating us or someone is making something in the backstage, in the background, you know. and it's happening in a lot of countries, it's happening in a lot of situations and it's a big problem that most humans don't have that ability to snap out of the clear situation that they thought they had figured it out and to be able to see what's happening outside of the tiny space.

[00:40:41.343] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's reflecting those normative standards of a culture and the way that you're pressured to either follow what the norms are and you have the outliers who are kind of going against the grain and trying to rebel in different ways. And so, yeah, this is kind of recreating those social dynamics in a way and in the context of a mini immersive theater piece, opportunities to kind of explore those dynamics and either to comply or to rebel or to fight. So you have the hide, the... what are the three again?

[00:41:09.858] Thomas Villepoux: It was fight, hide or basically give up. You know, like conform to authority. Those are the three options. And obviously it's interesting because you also have a group dynamic. like the six people that are there sometimes they don't know each other sometimes they know each other prior to the experience but there's going to be a group dynamic there's going to be maybe a natural leader and there's going to be maybe someone who goes too fast and sometimes actually you ask me what i love as reactions what i love is the reaction at the end when the group is going for one option, and then there's one guy that says, hey, maybe we should not do that. And he's not even sure. He's just wondering. And you can see that the other five did not take the time to think. They went right away for one option. And number six is like, Are you sure guys? Maybe we shouldn't do that. And that's the best part. That's the best conversation we're having there.

[00:42:20.433] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think the group I was in was kind of more of a consensus. But yeah, it's sort of like, I don't know if this is the dynamic, if one chooses to be able to fight, if everyone's choosing to fight, if it only takes, if there's five people that are fighting and one person to betray, does it only take one person to betray? What are the game mechanics of when those situations happen? Do you have to have like a group consensus or?

[00:42:41.580] Thomas Villepoux: It's always about the colors. So there are three colors, red, blue, and yellow, but there are six players. So it means you have two reds. If you have a full group, you have two reds, two blue, and two yellows. So to take any decision, you need one of each color.

[00:42:56.929] Kent Bye: Oh, okay. I didn't realize that. Because it's still just happening in a conversation, but there was never put to a vote, at least when I was in it. So I just felt like it was a

[00:43:05.668] Thomas Villepoux: It's not put to a vote, but when you do the action, you need all the colors. So at one point, you're going to need at least three people, so at least 50% of the group to take a decision. What if there's only three people? If there's only three people, then it's the three colors, then you need all three of them to act.

[00:43:26.186] Kent Bye: Okay, so they all have to agree at that point.

[00:43:27.987] Thomas Villepoux: Yes, absolutely.

[00:43:29.108] Kent Bye: Okay, so that's kind of interesting. I didn't realize that those rules were in place when we were in a discussion.

[00:43:33.871] Thomas Villepoux: Well, it's made by the system. Like, one option, you have to push the three buttons. So, sometimes there's two of them. There's a blue and a red. And they say, hey, we need a yellow. Oh, I got it. I got you. Yeah. Yeah. And that's how the rules are made. It's just pure, like I said, very basic interaction, but a lot of possibilities.

[00:43:57.016] Kent Bye: Oh, OK. OK. Yeah, that's interesting. Because it's not like a spoken decision. It's more of an embodied decision at that point.

[00:44:03.304] Thomas Villepoux: Yeah, exactly. It's all in the interactive process. Okay, interesting.

[00:44:08.187] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's kind of a fun way of creating group dynamics and social dynamics and adding the gameplay elements in there. So, yeah, really neat to reflect on how that was architected and my experience of it. But yeah, what's next for the piece?

[00:44:24.576] Thomas Villepoux: That's a very good question because it's very new and even for other projects like Jailbirds we had a very clear path but for Mandala because it changed format so much we are very open. It's probably something that we can show to the audience because like I said it's a metaverse platform so basically anyone with a headset and a computer could connect to Mandala. So we are probably going to do some shows online very soon. I don't know with whom, I don't know from where, but very soon we're going to have shows online where you can book a ticket and join us. But I also want to organize other shows in LBE form. Because, like I said, the physical implication is different. So yeah, I'd love to do that. We are working, actually with Digital Rise, we are working on a new creation that is not exactly content, but that would be a venue, and that venue is a creation by itself. but a way to have people enjoy immersive contents all together in one big narrative universe but aggregating different contents including content that we didn't do but from our friends or from people that we know but that fits a certain narrative, certain universe and we want to bring all that together and do one big immersive show And Mandala could be the flagship of that. So it's a big, big project, and we need some big partners for that. We have found a few, but there's still a little bit of road ahead. But if we manage to pull that off, it would be a next step in immersive entertainment.

[00:46:25.114] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling might be, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:46:34.888] Thomas Villepoux: Wow, that's a big question. I don't really know what to answer that. I mean, the potential are incredible, but we need to adjust to the usage. We need to adjust to the real world. Right now we are in a festival, we are among friends and we are among people who already have that passion for virtual reality and all immersive technologies, but we need to adjust to the real world. So that's actually why all the projects that I've been talking about, that venue, and the way we are handling jailbirds, it's also a way to say, okay, we are doing amazing stuff, but sometimes it's very difficult to access it, or it's only for a very little amount of people. So we need to find, now we need to find ways to bring it to the general audience. It's really our goal right now and we are actually working with other French studios with CNXR and CNC and different institutions in France and we're trying with the studio to bring a standard, for example, you know, to have a standard for a venue, for a type of space and hardware and everything that would fit different contents. So that we can actually produce something and then distribute it in maybe a thousand venues like that. And this is where we're gonna finally start to reach the audience. This is the way to go. And it's, yeah, we are working on that. Everyone knows it's the next step. I know about that next step. I don't know what's gonna be the ending of it, but the next step is that one.

[00:48:24.225] Kent Bye: Anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?

[00:48:28.407] Thomas Villepoux: I'm good. I don't think so. It's been great talking to you. We've got so much subjects. It's cool. And enjoy virtual reality as much as you can.

[00:48:41.574] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I enjoyed the group experience and social dynamics that you're exploring here in Mandala. And yeah, thanks for sitting down and help unpacking it all. Thank you very much. So that was Thomas Philippax. He had a piece there at Venice Immersive called Mandala. So, if you want more context for the wrap-ups, then I'd recommend checking out the episode 1121, where I talk about all the 30 pieces in competition. And in episode 1144, there's an immersive panel that I did at Venice with some other immersive critics talking about the art of reviewing immersive art and immersive entertainment. I recommend checking that out in order to dig into a little bit of my own process of what I'm trying to do with these larger series and trying to unpack and discuss the art and science of immersive storytelling with a lot of these different pieces that we're showing at Venice Immersive 2022. 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 listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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