#792: VR Artist Ben Vance: Designing for Interactive Awe with “Irrational Exuberance”

Buffalo Vision‘s Ben Vance is the artist, designer, & director behind Irrational Exuberance: Prologue. He started developing this experience on the Oculus Rift DK1 in 2013, and it wasn’t until he saw the Valve Room demo that he was convinced that motion sickness was solvable and that he absolutely wanted to have his hands within the experience. He focused on exploring gameplay in VR that was based upon interaction with your hands, and cultivating a sense of curiosity, vastness, wonder, and awe.

Vance was showing a sneak preview follow-up to Irrational Exuberance at Kaleidoscope VR’s FIRST LOOK in September 2017, and I had a chance to talk to him about his journey into VR, designing for wonder and awe, and the magic of trying to find the balance between control and chaos. Vance says that too much control, and it feels like a mundane tool, and too much chaos feels too opaque and that there’s no trace of your agency. They key is finding something in the middle where it’s enough to see that there’s a pattern, but too unpredictable for you completely understand the logic and rules of behavior in the absence of interacting with it over a period of time. He’s interested in exploring rich, interactive experiences that he doesn’t fully understand using motion controls as he’s on the search for experiences that resets his senses and gives him a sense of wonder like he felt as a child when he saw that the world was an expansive place. It’s this design intention and purpose that is embedded within the fabric of Irrational Exuberance: Prologue, and I’m looking forward to experiencing whatever Buffalo Vision and Vance produce in the future.


Here’s the trailer for Irrational Exuberance: Prologue

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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, I'm continuing on in my series of talking to VR artists about their process, and on today's episode, I talked to Ben Vance. He's from Buffalo Vision, and he created Irrational Exuberance. So if you haven't seen Irrational Exuberance, then I really suggest that you don't listen to this. Stop, pause, go see the experience and then listen to us unpack it a little bit. I think we're kind of speaking about it in this podcast, kind of assuming that people had already seen it. It was one of those early experiences with the vibe that came out that I think a lot of people really responded to. It actually may have been one of the very first Vive experiences that I even saw as well, where you start off in this super enclosed space and then you use these different hand interactions and then the world kind of dissolves away. And then you just see this vast perspective of looking at this planet. You're in space and you kind of transport around to the different perspectives. And it was an amazing experience. I mean, it was one of those experiences that really gave me this sense of wonder and awe. And so Ben Vance had actually been working on some follow-ups to Irrational Exuberance. He's continuing to kind of experiment and to continue to innovate and push forward this interesting dynamic where you're interacting with a world and you don't quite know how it's behaving and it's kind of mysterious and you are trying to figure out the rules and logic of these different entities by interacting and playing with them. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Ben happened on Thursday, September 21st, 2017 at the Kaleidoscope VR First Look Gathering in Los Angeles, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:58.483] Ben Vance: Hi, I'm Ben Vance. I don't know what I am. Artist, designer, director of various things. Probably most known for Irrational Exuberance Prologue, which was released last year when the Vive came out. Working in entertainment and art and kind of bringing all that together. I'm working in VR, bringing art and entertainment into it, but also just trying to figure out what VR is good at and what I think it's for and what makes worth putting a headset on. It's kind of an investment, right? So, yeah, I've just been working in it since 2013, I guess, for the second time. I did it in college in the late 90s, early 2000s.

[00:02:39.195] Kent Bye: Oh, wow. Nice. So maybe you can talk a little bit about your design process that resulted in an experience like Irrational Exuberance.

[00:02:47.778] Ben Vance: It's a very iterative process. It actually began life on the Oculus DK1, and that's kind of where I learned that darkness was interesting, and that space was interesting to me, that I really responded to it. That was all accidental, actually. I had a Unity project with some mechanics, and just threw things against the wall until it kind of felt interesting to me. But that was all based around the gamepad, and I always felt that was an enormous concession, and I did not want to use it, but In 2013, we hadn't really tackled motion control at all. So it's been just kind of a continuous progression of seeing new technology. I saw the prototype of the HTC Vive up at Valve, and that was the thing that convinced me, OK, VR is real. Nausea is a solvable problem. It's going to happen. I don't know how long it's going to take, but it's going to happen, no question. There's undeniable power here. And so I need to start understanding it and thinking about it deeply. What is spatial design? How do we do it? I first got the hand controllers and I did not understand how important hands are, you know? It took a couple months of trying things and seeing some demos actually that didn't have them after I had started playing with them, you know? It's like you kind of get acclimated to it and you don't realize how important reaching into the digital world is and how that is so intuitive and maps To what people do all the time every day, you know I don't know 95% of what you do in the world is touch things with your hands, right? And so I just got to this point where I was like, okay I think this is interesting and then I saw some demos that were just traditional head based VR and I was like I feel like I'm in a movie because I can't touch anything, you know? And that was kind of a revelation to me and when I started working on the initial mechanics for what Irrational is now, going from an enclosed space to an open space and having that kind of magic moment, it was all kind of how can I maximize hand interactions and do something sort of crazy with that that you can't really do in reality. So yeah, that's kind of... whirlwind tour but it has been a very iterative process and listening to what I think works and using kind of the language of games to keep people at the center of the experience and like make their presence important to it and not just like a movie that you watch with a headset on.

[00:05:07.649] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think for me the primary emotion of the experience of going through Irrational Exuberance was first curiosity and exploration, but then this exploration into vastness and wonder and awe to be able to be immersed within a world that was bigger than anything else that I had ever had a direct experience of. And so I think by placing yourself into space, it afforded itself to be able to give you this sense of wonder, things that you haven't been able to experience before. And so, as you're trying to design for Wonder and all, how do you approach that process of trying to create an experience that you could only have in VR?

[00:05:45.756] Ben Vance: That's a great question. It is a little bit about just spending time trying things and seeing what works. But for me, the magic of these spaces is really, you know, it's kind of hard to describe. But for me, a big part of it is feeling that you do have agency, but that you're not fully in control, right? Like, it's not about mastery in the same way that games are, and that, like, you know, you have a place in this world, you have a function, but it's not all powerful, you know? On the one hand, you have power, and it feels really cool, but on the other hand, you realize, wait, I'm kind of, like, stuck in this one spot, and... It's fictionalized, right? Like you're on a small land mass, an asteroid, and you can't really get off it. But you can do all these fantastic things on it. And so it kind of like going between control and like loss of control and This kind of flow between those two things is an intentional part of the design. It's really meant to mimic what happens in the real world. We like to think we're in control of our destiny, and we are to some extent, I think. But there's all kinds of things that happen to you that are completely random and out of your control. And I want to mirror some of that in the experience because that's what makes it feel authentic to me.

[00:07:09.183] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's like you're giving an embodied experience of the dynamic between fate and free will, of the things that are predetermined for you in your life versus things that you have control over. And this is a thing that I think has been coming up a couple times of different experiences that I saw here at First Look, and you're here showing your next iteration of the next chapter of Irrational Exuberance. Prologue was the first experience, and then, you know, following on, you have the Verus. And you're exploring this agency, but yet it's dialed back so that it's sort of this mystery in terms of the feedback loops, in terms of your actions, and then how the world is reacting to those actions. And as I was talking to different people in the VR community, Robin Ornette comes to mind, where he was talking about how in Soundself, he wanted to have a way of you using your voice in a way that didn't feel like an instrument, so that you would say something and something would happen immediately. But on the other extreme is that when you act, it's so chaotic that it could actually be traumatizing in the sense that it's so out of control for you feeling like you actually have no impact on what's happening. And so it's like this balance of trying to find something that doesn't feel like just a toy, but something that isn't out of control and chaotic, but something in the middle where you have some control over it, but not complete control. And I think this explorations of what you're doing, I think is probably one of the most interesting and sophisticated ways of invoking that sense of mystery that I've seen so far.

[00:08:34.511] Ben Vance: Thanks. Yeah, I do think part of that process is, you know, as a viewer, as a player, or as someone in a new space and trying to understand it, it needs to react to you, right? But how it reacts to you can change over time, right? So it can move between something which is very direct, But I find that, you know, things that are very direct and controllable can be fun and toy-like for a moment, but that they kind of, like, lose their interest. Or they might be, they turn into more of a tool, right? Can I use this tool to get a job done? But that can kind of, like, flow into something which is a little more opaque. and something which, again, is kind of like mirroring what happens in the real world a little bit. Like you learn about something and you're like, okay, I understand that pretty well, but that just makes you ask more questions. I have deeper knowledge, now I can ask deeper questions. And a lot of the systems in Irrational are meant to kind of echo real-world things but not exactly because you know, I don't want to beg the question of is this a literal interpretation of a Plant or a thing it's related to things that you know, but not exactly those things You know, you might find a substance in this universe which looks like, you know, maybe it's a lichen or a mold But maybe it's a chemical or it has some kind of energy to it, and you don't really understand it, and the process of interacting with it is understanding what it can do, how it reacts to you, and the rules that it has. So these things are kind of living in a sense, and they have kind of their own logic, which is the discovery process, and how you kind of keep that wonder going, and the ways in which those things interact with each other. So yeah, there's a lot to unpack,

[00:10:19.300] Kent Bye: Yeah, and just talking to Emily from Ape Lab, she said that in the process of world building and creating these interactive stories, she sees the rules that you're creating as the story, so that these interaction feedback loops that you're creating for the player is, in essence, a way for you cultivating that experience, and that cultivation of those interactions can actually become the story. But for you, how do you start to think about this process of immersive storytelling as you are trying to cultivate some sort of linear experience for somebody or has some levels of agency and interactivity, but what are some metaphors or way that you think about this process of immersive storytelling?

[00:10:57.611] Ben Vance: I mean, I generally don't think of story first. You know, like, it's not really a word that is in my vocabulary, so to speak. I mean, I think we, I guess, are telling stories, but that's not my background. And I think more in terms of feeling and kind of how do you evoke feelings through interaction and through place. So Irrational's been designed intentionally. The prologue, which most people have seen more than the new stuff, which this is the first time I've shown any of the new stuff, but prologue's been designed, you know, to start kind of very quiet and very, you know, it resets you in a way. It's the spectacle is not really there yet. you know, like you're very enclosed and it's very quiet and that's intentional to kind of establish a baseline and then we can use that kind of as a springboard to kind of make it more spectacular and take you to some very wildly different environments and scenes which I think produce some interesting reactions and in some of it's not completely predictable. You know there's one location in particular which I think it's the first thing that you jump to when you make your first jump in Irrational Exuberance Prologue. It's very dark and it's very solitary and that's kind of like a almost a commentary or experiment in like VR can be a multiplayer experience, right but it's also Useful as a solitary experience, right? like you can put this thing on and kind of wipe away your senses and like People are not part of that and it is useful to kind of disconnect a little bit and have that experience But like what is the extreme version of that? Like how far away from planet Earth? Could you be how far and what does that feel like? You know some of it's like not a question that I can answer I can just let people put themselves in these situations and see how they respond and I one person in particular did that and actually I think it was Kate's mom and she got out of the experience and she was like That was wonderful. But like I did not like that location. I was like, oh really? She's like I felt so alone like I don't know if I've ever felt so alone and I was like that's really incredible to me and part of what irrational I think wants to do is provide these spaces that you could never go and allow you to kind of explore your own boundaries and if you're not comfortable with the space totally fine like it's not a game or a puzzle and that like you're stuck there until you can figure out how to leave it's gonna give you ways to like OK, I don't want to be here. I like that other place better. I want to go hang out there. So I'm going to go teleport or use a mechanic to get there instead of being where I am. And that's where some of the mindfulness and travel elements come in that I was referring to before, which is being able to challenge yourself in a way, but also have a relaxing experience if you want that. It's trying to provide a variety of things that you can follow to your own level of interest or engagement.

[00:13:45.493] Kent Bye: So what do you want to experience in VR?

[00:13:50.817] Ben Vance: I guess, yeah, things like I'm building. I mean, that's why I'm building it, because I want rich, interactive experiences, which I don't fully understand. It sounds kind of funny to say it, but I love games and I love motion control is a completely new thing. And so you put those two things together and you can see, you know, things basically look like digital sports happening, right? You know, there's a lot of very active. almost sports-like experiences happening like in the Vive store and I think that stuff is like really cool but it's still like a you know it's an understandable experience and a lot of if I come into an experience and it's just a game that I can master and I can just understand the system it becomes a contained box. I mean, I can get that experience on a screen, so I'm not really looking to put a headset on and have that experience. I'm looking for something that kind of resets my senses a little bit and that, like, gives me a sense of wonder and kind of gets back to, you know, childhood a little bit. You know, like, makes me feel like the world is an expansive place again, which is very easy to forget sometimes.

[00:15:01.105] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:15:09.507] Ben Vance: Oh, boy. That's a big one. What really excites me about it is just that it has the potential, I think, to unlock and to kind of deprogram people in a way. You know, there's a dystopian version of VR, which is used as a method of control. And it's another, like, way in which Media is delivered to us and we're sort of passive just kind of consuming this stuff But there's also this like other version that I like to think could really happen which is that it helps reconnect us to our bodies and it helps reconnect us to our senses and Ironically to nature, you know, it helps us remember that there's more going on than we're kind of used to like there's lots of layers to things and lets us see things in new ways and you know, it's gonna take some time for it to kind of permeate culture and for it to like take hold but the sort of extrapolation or application of creativity and the ways in which you know, you can apply it to countless different fields right and sort of way in which we can interrogate different disciplines and blow those open with virtual reality is really exciting to me and I think the kind of crosstalk that we're going to start getting and the way that it allows people who aren't in the computer world, aren't super techie, allows them to interface with digital work is really interesting to me. The intuitiveness of motion control means that we can now work with computers in a way that anyone can do. It's no longer a thing that you have to really invest your time and energy and understanding before you can even hope to, like, make something interesting with it, right? And so the interface starts to fade away and that just has so many implications for, like, basically everything, really. So there's just so much potential and I don't pretend to, like, know where it's going, but the hopeful version is that it really changes our relationship to technology and to each other.

[00:17:17.553] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Yeah. Thanks. So that was Ben Vance of Buffalo Vision. He's a artist, designer, and director most well known for the Irrational Exuberance prologue. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, this conversation with Ben actually had a really huge impact on me. And in fact, you may have heard me mention Buffalo Vision and this concept also talked about with Robin or not about this spectrum between control and not control. There's this sweet spot between not having something that is so mundanely understandable that just turns into a tool where you understand, okay, this is the input and that's the output. There's a direct one-to-one translation. The other extreme of that is like absolutely having no control and it's completely chaotic and you can't understand it at all. And that is just as boring and not exciting for you to kind of play with because it's like, you might as well not be doing anything at all because you can't find any traces of your agency in that system at all. But somewhere in the middle where you're able to have some influence on a system, but still how it reacts is a bit of a mystery. And so you try to make these models in your mind as to what is the rules, what are the system, what's the logic. And a lot of the experience then becomes about your interactions to try to learn about this hidden system of order and unpredictability. So that was the takeaway that I had from the follow-up of the experiences from Irrational Exuberance where you were playing with these different alien-like life forms and that you were able to kind of influence the evolution and growth of these different entities. And it was just like super fascinating. It just filled me with all of this wonder and awe. And so, you know, just talking to Ben a bit about his design process, which is very iterative. He's very focused on the emotional phenomenological experiences first and trying to take these game design principles of like putting the user at the center to see how their interactions are going to be the thing that is orienting them into the world. But he really likes having this mystery of not really knowing how things are actually working and He would like to see more experiences where you go in there and you don't actually know what this is about. It's just very surrealistic, but it's more about this discovery process of trying to understand the rules of a system based upon your interactions. And there is a bit of this sweet spot of making it feel like you do have some agency, but you don't have total control. You have a function and a role to play, but it's not all powerful. You may be limited or constrained in other ways. So it's like this tension between the control and the loss of control and the flow between these that he's really playing with in his experiences in the artwork that he's making. 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 your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. Uh, just $5 a month is a great amount. Uh, if you are willing to have the capacity, highly recommend that you support this podcast. I could really use your help. I feel compelled to be able to capture the history that's unfolding right now. And I'm just going back and go through the different conversations that I had that had an impact on me and try to string them together into this whole series of VR art and the processes. And there's a whole other different types of series that I'm going to be diving into as well, including the neuroscience and VR and architecture and virtual production, volumetric capture, there's all these different other series that I'm looking forward to diving into. And so I'd love to get your support and to hear back from you and to have more of a direct connection and to just make myself available for Q&A and just be more directly connected to what's happening at the frontiers of this immersive computing revolution. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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