#727: Innerspace VR on Immersive Storytelling with “Firebird – La Peri”

I interviewed the co-founders of Innerspace VR Hadrien Lanvin and Balthazar Auxietre about Firebird – La Peri at the inaugural VR on the Lot in 2016. This is where I first got a sneak peak at their A Fisherman’s Tale puzzle game, which just released within the last week. Innerspace VR has a lot of really keen insights into the storytelling potential of VR, and this conversation helps document the evolution of their thinking on the topic.


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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. So, Interspace VR has been around the virtual reality scene ever since I started covering VR. I remember seeing them show some of the experiences that they were working on back at the SDVR mixer back in 2015. And a year later at the VR on the lot, I was able to actually see a sneak preview of an experience that they had just released within the past week or so. It's called A Fisherman's Tale. And it's really an interesting mechanic because you are puppeteering what is essentially like this fractal representation of a smaller version of yourself. And you're in this where you're trying to solve this puzzle, but you're context switching in between these different scales. And so it's just like this really trippy experience to be operating something at small scale, and then to look up and to see how you're actually changing the large macro scale at the same time. So this is a really innovative mechanic, and they've created a whole puzzle game out of that. And at the time of this interview, which was back in 2016, they were just showing me a very early prototype of this gameplay mechanic, and it was super compelling, but they weren't ready to necessarily talk about it yet. But during this interview, we talked about Firebird, or also called La Pairie, which in their experience was really focusing on dance in order to communicate a larger narrative. And so we start to unpack all the different dimensions of La Pairie in today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Hadrien and Balthazar happened on Thursday, October 13th, 2016 at VR on the Lot in Los Angeles, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:51.293] Hadrien Lanvin: I'm Hadrien Lenven, I'm the CEO of InnerspaceVR.

[00:01:54.475] Balthazar Auxietre: I'm Baltazar, founder and creative director of InnerspaceVR.

[00:01:59.519] Kent Bye: Great, so tell me a bit about what you're doing in VR, like how do you characterize what you're making?

[00:02:05.263] Hadrien Lanvin: Well, what we do is basically virtual reality entertainment, so both narrative and gaming, and we try to participate in the invention of this new media.

[00:02:16.914] Balthazar Auxietre: We are trying to blend interactive and narrative experience to create a new form of engagement into stories, basically.

[00:02:26.020] Kent Bye: Yeah, so you have a big experience that just got a Proto Award, actually, recently. Maybe you can talk a bit about that and what you were recognized for.

[00:02:35.446] Balthazar Auxietre: So, Labyrinth is the first installment of a franchise we call Firebird. which is inspired by Fantagia from Walt Disney. And the idea is to create short pieces that are structured upon a classical piece of music. And the idea of Flappery is you are on the stage, you are one of the performers, and you are part of a story where you interact with a dancer that gradually comes to life.

[00:03:07.235] Kent Bye: Yeah, and to me, one of the most striking things is the artistic style. And I think that, you know, I've talked a lot about to different people in the VR community about the uncanny valley and going towards photorealism. And it feels like you're at a really great sweet spot of having something that's super stylized and not photorealistic at all. But yet, by doing that, you're able to get a much more deeper sense of presence and immersion. I'm curious to hear some of your thought process of being able to pull off that artistic style.

[00:03:40.379] Balthazar Auxietre: Yeah, actually we had a lot of troubles in finding the right amount of realism and stylized stuff in the pipeline. Initially it was more realistic because we were really excited about the potential of Unreal. But because La Pairie is like a fairytale, we wanted to make something more stylized and really just narrow down the spectrum to be able to have something more focused in terms of visual style. Also because we don't have like crazy amount of resources.

[00:04:13.682] Hadrien Lanvin: Yeah, go ahead. Well, in the Firebird franchise, each piece will have a different visual style. So for this one specifically, we tried to do something which was more magical and in which the imagination of the viewer took a big part. In future episodes, we're thinking actually about photogrammetry or these kind of technologies. We don't know exactly how we want to implement that, we don't know how much it makes sense in that respect. And in some other episodes, we're going to keep on going the fully cartoony aspect. But at any rate, it's basically about experimenting throughout the whole creative process and having, you know, photorealistic characters versus having completely imaginary characters. That's part of all the things that we're trying to tweak and play with to know what feels good specifically for a specific episode from a VR user point of view.

[00:05:06.788] Balthazar Auxietre: The interesting note is, actually we tried to make La Perrie a lot more realistic, like sculpting, etc. But instantly, when we put it in the VR, it instantly felt really awkward, especially because she was naked. Because she was a fairy, we didn't want to put fabric on her. So having a body that is almost realistic but not realistic and naked in front of you was really, really awkward. And that's also why we chose a more stylized approach. And also the other thing that stood out as soon as we understood more what was the potential of Unreal was it's really easy to have a light that feels real and materials that feel real. but mixing realistic light and material, but with an abstract geometry. It's a really interesting, I think, middle ground. And we really went towards this direction of a realistic, physical atmosphere, but with abstract geometry and objects.

[00:06:13.032] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think that the thing that was really striking to me was that it really felt like embodied spirit, like it felt like this was not computer-generated, that this was certainly a motion-captured human being. And so I think there was something about that that you were able to really capture with being able to translate this very human movement and dance into a VR experience. One of my big inspirations for me has been Sleep No More, where they do interpretive dance of Macbeth, and there's no dialogue. After seeing that, it really showed me the power of dance, of how dance can be used into narrative.

[00:06:48.025] Balthazar Auxietre: Are you a dancer, Kent? Did you add some dancing courses?

[00:06:54.606] Kent Bye: Have I? I'm a dancer, yeah, I appreciate dancing. But just in terms of using dance as a narrative, Expression.

[00:07:01.508] Balthazar Auxietre: Yeah, that's exactly the thing that made me want to do this project is I wanted to tell a story through dance and through motion and Because with the vibe we were able to be on the stage I saw that the story that dance can bring could be really like powerful

[00:07:20.166] Hadrien Lanvin: What's very interesting in VR compared to other forms of art is that if you take for example a movie you have the sound and visual aspects and what VR adds to that is the volumetric aspect of things and in that respect it's a perfect fit for dance where you do have the visual aspect of the choreography, the music but also the physical presence of someone performing in front of you.

[00:07:43.240] Kent Bye: Yeah and so the one tension that I see in a lot of narratives is like you're in VR and you have a sense of embodied presence and how are you going to be able to express your agency and interact with the environment while still have a story and so it feels like it's still pretty early days of that and you have some interaction there but it's sort of like Added in or I don't know. I just feel like it's a start But I don't think it's gonna be like where we're at in terms of interaction and 5 10 15 years So I'm just curious to hear some of your thought process of because a lot of people when they do narratives They just say you're a disembodied ghost We're just gonna have you sit back and watch and there was parts where I just wanted to do that and then there's other parts where I am Interacting and sort of engaging but it's this blend between what's the expression of my will versus the story that's unfolding So just curious to hear some of here Early experiments on that.

[00:08:33.659] Balthazar Auxietre: Yeah, it's a really tough challenge. I mean with La Pairie we really try to face this challenge and try to find a way to create a balance between narrative, passive and interactive and more embodied parts. And yeah, we know it's really primitive. Actually, it's funny because a lot of feedback we have on Steam from gamers are, I want to do more stuff, I want to be able to touch her, be able to go there or there. But it's not that we don't want people to be able to do that, but as soon as we have the possibility, we lose focus, we lose the story. I mean obviously there's no easy solution. I think it really depends on the meaning that you want to convey. I think a lot of stuff comes into the way you pace your story and also the staging. but definitely in terms of what we want to bring for our next projects is to push more the interactive aspect because definitely La Pairie was a small first step for us and yeah so we for example the project we're currently working on It's a very different paradigm where you're in a room and you have living objects and it's like puppeteering. You can play with these objects like when you're a child and you play with your toys and create dialogues and so on and so on. So we're trying to challenge this by every angle possible. So it's very exciting for us and we think that VR can definitely bring narrative and interactive at a different level than video games has made before.

[00:10:14.711] Hadrien Lanvin: When it comes to interaction, I think that what is expected from VR by people who try it for the first time is to do things naturally. They have certain expectations that they would have in real life, that if you take this type of object, this is the kind of interaction that you expect to have with that object. So that's the purely natural side of interactions. But then we're having to deal with gaming mechanics because that's the way VR interactive content is produced. And in video games, the interaction is extremely abstract, but it's also a very different language. What I mean is that in real life, you know the language of the objects you interact with. And in video games, you know the language of video games. You know you have a gamepad or these kind of things. For VR, right now, we wish it were closer to the way we interact with objects in real life, but the tools that we use and the initial paradigm that we as content makers use comes from the video game. I believe that where it's going is that we're going to define a new language for interaction with virtual objects in the virtual space, but clearly, we're not there yet. I mean, everyone's an explorer in that respect in VR.

[00:11:23.278] Balthazar Auxietre: I think there is definitely a sweet spot between narrative and interactive, but as I said, I think there's no rule. No one will be able to bring a special formula that works for every project. I think it really depends on the meaning and what you want to convey.

[00:11:37.853] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think the challenge is that once you give the character any type of agency or activity, they want to do anything and everything that they would expect. And it's that level of expectation. And with Valkyrie, you have this sort of mechanism where you buzz the controller to give them a cue as to like, okay, now you can actually interact. And so there's a bit of like, context switch that happens when you're you're just watching and then you know you can also see the controllers that you're having and if you have a Certain cue that you know a little glowing box that sort of says, okay now I can catch this firefly like element that's flying around but you know sometimes I think the first experience that I had where I was like Felt the buzzing controller and I like grab something and then kind of the narrative stopped and I was like disappointed I was like, oh wow. Well, hmm Maybe next time I'm not going to be so quick as to grab the thing. I want to just take it in and really receive it before I achieve the goal.

[00:12:27.949] Balthazar Auxietre: Actually, you could play a little bit more with it. I saw when you were doing the playthrough is you can actually grab it, but you can also leave it so the creature take back the petal and fly back again. So we really tried to put more of this kind of stuff, but it was really resource intensive. I mean, I wish we could have more stuff like that, definitely, like be able to play with the creatures and to have only one type of interaction to go forward in the story.

[00:12:58.971] Kent Bye: Yeah, I mean, when they had kind of like the little creature close to the ground that you're having more of an interaction with, I felt like that was really satisfying to be able to actually see it react to me. And I think that's the thing that, like, it kind of reacted in the way that I expected. And I think that's the thing that you have to maintain that level of plausibility of, like, if you're giving that level of activity, you have to match the user's expectations. And it was really satisfying that way. But sometimes when I see something, it's clearly motion captured, and it's sort of running around. It's like, OK, I know this is not a live human, this is like in the past, I know I can't do anything, and then I'm just gonna take in the beauty of it and not really have any expectations that I'm going to be able to interact with it. So it feels like you have these context switches, but you also kind of have to account for what if people refuse to engage? What if you give them the buzz and the hand, but they don't do it? Then from a narrative perspective, how do you move the story forward if you're kind of requiring them to interact in some way?

[00:13:53.443] Hadrien Lanvin: There are two things when it comes to interaction that we worked on in Firebird La Pairie. First one is you mentioned the context changes. It's actually something that we're working on for future episodes to have maybe less context changes because it makes for a more coherent experience. I mean, you don't expect the rules of physics in the world you live in to change just like that every time a door opens or the music changes. So that's probably something that, you know, I was talking about interactions earlier, that is something that we have to take more on the natural side. The other thing when it comes to interactions is that the interactions that I feel personally are the most satisfying are the ones where you don't feel the controllers. So we see the shapes of controllers now evolving more to something that's not as intrusive as, you know, holding a magic stick. The interactions that I like most are when you just, you know, wave your hand around and something happens and you don't have to pull a trigger or press a button or these kind of very gamey interactions. That's my personal intuition. How far do these kind of interactions take us in terms of experience and what for now we call gameplay for lack of a better word? I don't know. That's part of the frontier that we have to discover.

[00:15:04.970] Balthazar Auxietre: I just want to say that that plausibility was really something that I learned from the Voice of VR podcast. And during the process of doing La Pairie, that's something that really bothered me a lot. Even if it's an abstract, stylized and fairytale, I wanted to bring something that people could really trust and understand deeply and not be confused at it. So I think plausibility means, yeah, it's an important thing for us.

[00:15:34.106] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think that because you have such a very distinct art style that it really is transportive in a lot of ways. You know, it's really also satisfying to have the kind of the tilt brush-esque paint in the world around you with lights, but also just the whole design aesthetic of it just took me to another world that actually helps to expand the realm of possibilities of what's possible because it is beyond anything that I've ever experienced before and I think another thing that La Peri did very well as well is to go through different environmental changes but with using the trope of like you're on a theater stage and there's like a set change that happens around you and and that was really nice just because it was like okay I'm on stage all these things are coming down around me and then boom, then I'm like, okay, I'm in another world. And then you kind of forget that you were ever in the theater. But it was just really nice to see those different environments and scenes. And if anything, I wanted to turn the flashlight off just because it was like, it felt like, well, I don't know, like, it's sort of like whenever I, it kind of like, whenever I would shine it around, I'd be like, ah, this kind of ruins like the ambience of it, you know, and I just want to have it. But I mean, I guess there's an element there where it's expressing some level of local agency where you're able to kind of see more, but you're not actually changing anything. But it's just another way to kind of interact with that. But I just wish I could have turned it off when I didn't want to use it.

[00:16:55.017] Balthazar Auxietre: Yeah, you're not the first person to say that actually. With the flashlight we wanted to add magic, but we couldn't find the right approach and the right interactive element. We spent a lot of time trying to, but it was something that was contradictory with the other mechanics that are in place. We prefer to keep the flashlight, as you say, to have a local agency throughout the whole experience, but I'm agree that it's not ideal. It could be more magical.

[00:17:25.889] Kent Bye: Yeah, it just I mean when I guess the thing was is that it was almost like a there's more mystery when you don't see what's there and then I flash the flashlight around and it's like oh now I've seen it and I know what's there and it I guess it kind of made me bring it back to like oh I'm on a stage and this flashlight is bringing me back to this reality of what I would expect a flashlight to do in this world and like I was almost like I wanted to be transported to this world where it's just like I only can glean what's in the environment and I I think there was a certain amount of transportive quality that happens that made me feel like a suspension of disbelief. And then it was almost like stepping behind the curtain of The Wizard of Oz and being like, oh, well, here's what's really going on.

[00:18:05.832] Balthazar Auxietre: Actually, I think this feeling can be interesting, but the aspect of being behind the stage was something we wanted to convey, but maybe could be refined.

[00:18:16.958] Hadrien Lanvin: It's interesting also that in VR these little tiny details take such an important place in the suspension of disbelief that you were mentioning and I mean really specifically the flashlight was a key point of discussions in the studio internally so well it's good that you noticed that and you know in future updates if you can turn the flashlight off we'll have to credit you for that.

[00:18:40.740] Kent Bye: Yeah, well it's just I think that there's a wide range of different people what they want and what they get out and I think there's probably like if you were to do a survey there may be like a split between some percentage who love it and hate it you know like or want to just have the option to not use it so I think that's the other thing that's really challenging is that You know, I know that back in 2014, Oculus Connect won when they first showed the Crescent Bay demos, and there was like a series of like eight or ten different experiences, and then people were coming out of those demos, and they kind of had the favorite experience of like, oh my god, this was the best, or this was the best, and so I think there's a bit of like the taste of what people want to experience in VR, but also like the aesthetic of what they really find pleasing. So I think it's still too early to really define what those genres and types are, but just to recognize that, you know, that's kind of my preference, but you know, you have to also kind of chase your own artistic vision, but also do what you think is aesthetically pleasing and it may not be something that everybody likes. So that's, I guess that's a challenge that you have to think about and like, how do you take in feedback if it was like from somebody that may have not been your target audience, you know?

[00:19:47.963] Hadrien Lanvin: There's two types of feedback, I think. There's the one where the message that we get is that this type of parameter that you could adjust prevented me from enjoying the experience and that's a problem for us. And there's the more creative feedback because people have tons of ideas and one of the job of the creative directors is to, you know, filter those ideas, pick one direction and then just go with it. And that's your job, Balthazar.

[00:20:14.168] Balthazar Auxietre: No, that's true, exactly. I totally agree with him. I think filter is definitely a really skill needed for VR. Filtering, be able to filtering things through all the feedback. And even you, I mean, I'm so frustrated when I do the La Pairie because I know all the amount of stuff I wanted to bring in and couldn't because of the time and resources. I need to filter myself, basically.

[00:20:40.953] Hadrien Lanvin: Actually, the whole filtering and focus and narrowing down the experience to the core of what you want to show people or what you want to express is something that's extremely important. Because, I mean, this medium is so amazing that it's easier to have tons of ideas than to trim them down to an experience that is actually meaningful and coherent and that just works, purely and simply.

[00:21:07.009] Kent Bye: Great. So what's next for Pinterspace VR, then?

[00:21:09.783] Hadrien Lanvin: Well, so right now our main project, our main focus is an escape game framework that we're developing to release our future game, which is unnamed at the moment. So that's pretty much under the radar. A few people have tried it. Apparently we're onto something. So hopefully we'll be able to share that with the world and the whole VR community early in 2017. That's our main focus. And in the longer run, the future episodes of Firebird, which are all stored in Balthazar's head. He let me see the future. It looks absolutely amazing. So stay tuned for more.

[00:21:51.002] Kent Bye: And yeah, I had a brief chance to check it out. And it's beyond anything I've ever seen in VR so far. It was kind of like a trippy experience. And I look forward to seeing more of it. So yeah, and finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual? No, not now. You know, I prepared this. This is a partner placement for FedEx. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality, and what do you think it might be able to enable?

[00:22:21.635] Balthazar Auxietre: So I'm a bit like Hugh Kent. I'm an AI nerd. I think that AI with characters can be really insane in VR. So yeah, being able to fall in love with a girl in VR that is a character is really something I look forward to do someday.

[00:22:41.668] Kent Bye: yourself or to create an artificial intelligent girl that other people fall in love with?

[00:22:45.452] Balthazar Auxietre: Yeah, absolutely. It would be amazing to have feedback from people like that. So it's really something like character-driven experiences are really something we want to push. And I think AI is the frontier.

[00:22:59.548] Kent Bye: Well, I mean, I think there's, I have a couple of reactions to that, just to kind of unpack it a little bit, because I think of, obviously the movie Her is a big example of a character falling in love with AI. But yeah, I think for some people, you know, there's a dystopian part of that, of like, oh, am I going to, like, go into VR and fall in love with this kind of artificial intelligence? To me, I like to ground both VR and AI as technologies that we can learn more about ourselves so that the more that we go into VR and have these experiences or try to replicate intelligence, we both learn more about our perceptual system and ourselves, but also our own intelligence. So I don't know, I get scared when I hear the idea of escaping and falling in love with something that's synthetic.

[00:23:43.957] Balthazar Auxietre: Yeah, because my way of imagining this kind of character is definitely into a story. And for me, a story has a beginning and an end. And that's why it's cool, because it's like, I don't know, like Marilyn Monroe on the screen. You can fall in love with her, but the movie has an end. And it's only in your mind. And I like this idea. And I think, like, definitely VR can bring this without being dystopian, I think.

[00:24:10.912] Kent Bye: Yeah. And what about you? What do you think the ultimate potential of VR is?

[00:24:13.414] Hadrien Lanvin: Well, I just want to say that I love my wife, so she shouldn't get jealous or afraid. I think it's hard to predict exactly where VR is going, whether it's going to be a generic word for VR and AR. But what I believe is that one of the most interesting fields, at least for me, is really in interaction and in interaction design, because that's going to shape, in my opinion, so much of the way VR entertainment that's going to shape so much of what VR entertainment will be in the coming years and how we will think about and make VR entertainment. That's the field I'm the most excited about right now at the moment. And also, Balthazar is already taking care of all the creative stuff for Innerspace, so that's for his to discuss.

[00:25:02.296] Kent Bye: Awesome, well thank you so much.

[00:25:03.617] Balthazar Auxietre: Bye bye.

[00:25:04.657] Hadrien Lanvin: Cheers. Au revoir.

[00:25:07.653] Kent Bye: So that was Balthazar. He's the co-founder and creative director of Interspace VR, as well as Hadrian Lanvin. He's the CEO of Interspace VR. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, the cinematic storytelling language of virtual reality is something that has continually been iterated and cultivated and developed. And I feel like this interview captures some of those early discussions and I guess debates in terms of trying to figure out what the fundamental component parts of this cinematic language are. And by focusing on dance, you're able to take what is essentially a form of spatial communication and start to translate that into different narrative components. And so there's a number of different innovations and things that I think were very interesting in the La Paris The different dimensions of you feel like you were engaging in small different ways And I think that they were able to take some of those early lessons and in their latest a fisherman's tale It just turned it into a complete interactive game where you can basically interact with anything within the experience But once they did that then it became more of a puzzle game rather than just a pure narrative. And so I I think that Interspace VR is a company that has been really trying to pioneer the forms of this cinematic storytelling language are and what they're going to be. And I think Balthazar has a very specific idea of that, and they've continued to create lots of different experiences and continue to iterate. And so if people want to check out both La Paris or also A Fisherman's Tale, I think it's got some really interesting take on this puzzle game, which is You've basically got this fractal representation where as you operate things at small scale, you're also changing things at large scale. So once you actually have that embodied experience, it's quite trippy to be able to manipulate your space around you by being able to change things with a little toy model in front of you. So I think since I did this interview, there was a lot of different conversations that I've had with different dancers. In fact, Lily Baldwin, as well as a following interview that I'll be airing is about the Frankenstein AI and how they were using dance within the context of their immersive theater piece that they did at Sundance last year. And just in general, Sleep No More, as well as something like Then She Fell, are all using dance as a form of visual communications. There's something about moving your body through space that's able to communicate something that goes way beyond what you can do just with a 2D screen. Actually being co-present within some of these immersive theater pieces where people are dancing right in front of you is a very visceral experience. And so I think it translates pretty well into virtual reality. And I really love what they did with La Paris, which was to really take this and stylize it and just create a whole narrative around a dance piece. And I'm just really curious to see what else Interspace VR is able to create within the virtual reality, because I really think they've got a good design aesthetic. So that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Wusys 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 your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com. Thanks for listening.

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