There is a car

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There is a car, in the hospital parking lot.

It is a faded red, covered with dust.

Other cars have parked and left on either side of it, every day, but this car remains.

I pass by it, as I find parking, on my way in to work.

I know what it means.

Short story by a nephrologist (kidney specialist). I haven’t a clue why people try to use Twitter to write long-form content – by the time you’re bending the medium so far out of shape, perhaps you chose the wrong medium? – but I still enjoyed this piece.

What’s the harm in reading?

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The violent and oftentimes ironically ignorant backlash against Fall’s story sheds light on a troublingly regressive, entitled, and puritanical trend in the relationship between artists and their audiences, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Readers appear to feel a need to cast their objections to fiction in moral terms, positioning themselves as protectors of the downtrodden. Trans writer Phoebe Barton went so far as to compare Fall’s story to a “gun” which could be used only to inflict harm, though in a later tweet she, like Jemisin, admitted she hadn’t read it and had based her reaction solely on its title.

Many reactions to Fall’s story, for all that they come from nominal progressives, fit neatly into a Puritanical mold, attacking it as hateful toward transness, fundamentally evil for depicting a trans person committing murder, or else as material that right-wing trolls could potentially use to smear trans people as ridiculous. Each analysis positioned the author as at best thoughtless and at worst hateful, while her attackers are cast as righteous; in such a way of thinking, art is not a sensual or aesthetic experience but a strictly moral one, its every instance either fundamentally good or evil. This provides aggrieved parties an opportunity to feel righteousness in attacking transgressive art, positioning themselves as protectors of imagined innocents or of ideals under attack.

As few days ago, I shared a short story called I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter. By the time my reshare went live, the original story had been taken down at its author’s request and I had to amend my post to link to an archived copy. I’d guessed, even at that point, that the story had been seen as controversial, but I hadn’t anticipated the way in which it had so been seen.

Based on the article in The Outline, it looks like complaints about the story came not as I’d anticipated from right-wingers upset that their mocking, derogatory term had been subverted in a piece of art but instead from liberals, including arguments that:

  • despite its best efforts, the story sometimes conflates sex, gender, and occasionally sexual orientation, (yeah, that’s a fair point, but it doesn’t claim to be perfect)
  • it’s an argument for imperialism by tying aggression to an (assigned, unconventional) gender, thereby saying that “some people are legitimised in their need for war” (I don’t think we’re at any risk of anybody claiming that their gender made them commit an atrocity)
  • it identifies a trans person as a potential war criminal (so what? literature doesn’t have to paint every trans person in a perfectly-positive light, and I’d argue that the empowerment and self-determination of the protagonist are far more-visible factors)

I note that some of the loudest complainants have admitted that they didn’t even read the story, just the title. If you’re claiming to be a trans ally, you really ought to demonstrate that you don’t literally judge a book by its cover.

I don’t think that the story was perfect. But I think that the important messages – that gender presentation is flexible, not fixed; that personal freedom of gender expression is laudable; that behaviour can be an expression of gender identity, etc. – are all there, and those relatively-simple messages are the things that carry-over to the audience that the (sensational) title attracts. Trans folks in fiction are rarely the protagonists and even-more-rarely so relatable, and there’s value in this kind of work.

Sure, there are issues. But rather than acting in a way that gets a (seemingly well-meaning) work taken down, we should be using it as a vehicle for discussion. Where are the problems? What are our reactions? Why does it make us feel the way it does? We improve trans depictions in fiction not by knee-jerk reactions to relatively-moderate stories and by polarising the space into “good” and “bad” examples, but by iterative improvements, a little at a time, as we learn from our mistakes and build upon our successes. We should be able to both celebrate this story and dissect its faults. We can do better, Internet.

I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter

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I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.

I lied. According to US Army Technical Manual 0, The Soldier as a System, “attack helicopter” is a gender identity, not a biological sex. My dog tags and Form 3349 say my body is an XX-karyotope somatic female.

But, really, I didn’t lie. My body is a component in my mission, subordinate to what I truly am. If I say I am an attack helicopter, then my body, my sex, is too. I’ll prove it to you.

When I joined the Army I consented to tactical-role gender reassignment. It was mandatory for the MOS I’d tested into. I was nervous. I’d never been anything but a woman before.

But I decided that I was done with womanhood, over what womanhood could do for me; I wanted to be something furiously new.

To the people who say a woman would’ve refused to do what I do, I say—

Isn’t that the point?

This short story almost-certainly isn’t what you’d expect, based on the title. What it is sits at the intersection of science fiction and gender identity, and it’s pretty damn good.

Looks like the original’s gone down, but here’s an archived copy.

The 5 year-old and the 2 year-old are playing at running a veterinary surgery (the 5 year-old’s department) and animal shelter (the 2 year-old’s department).

Annabel and John playing vets

The 5 year-old’s filled me in on the tragic backstory of this particular establishment: she and the 2 year-old are twins but were orphaned soon after birth. They were adopted by different families but then those families all died, too, and because everybody else in the world already had children there was nobody to adopt them and so they had to look after themselves. 67 years of schooling later, at age 15 (maths might need some work…), the pair of them decided, at the end of secondary school, that their shared love of animals meant that they should open a vet/shelter, and so they did.

When they’re not busy fitting collars for unicorns or treating yet-another-outbreak of canine chickenpox, they’re often found patrolling the streets and shouting “does anybody have any sick or injured animals?”. Except during naptime. Their work has a naptime, of course. (I wish my work had a naptime.)

It’s a tough job. Sometimes animals need quarantining in the safe. Sometimes you’ve got to fit an elderly crocodile with false teeth. Sometimes you’ve got a hippo whose owner says that it thinks it’s a duck, but thanks to your years of training you’re able to diagnose as actually thinking it’s a goose. Sometimes it’s a swan that won’t stop vomiting, or a snail that lost it’s shell and now has diarrhoea. It’s hard work, but the twins find it rewarding.

Imaginative play rocks.

Bus Station, Unbound

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Back in February my friend Katie shared with me an already four-year-old piece of interactive fiction, Bus Station: Unbound, that I’d somehow managed to miss the first time around. In the five months since then I’ve periodically revisited and played through it and finally gotten around to writing a review:

All of the haunting majesty of its subject, and a must-read-thrice plot

Perhaps it helps to be as intimately familiar with Preston Bus Station – in many ways, the subject of the piece – as the protagonist. This work lovingly and faithfully depicts the space and the architecture in a way that’s hauntingly familiar to anybody who knows it personally: right down to the shape of the rubberised tiles near the phone booths, the forbidding shadows of the underpass, and the buildings that can be surveyed from its roof.

But even without such a deep recognition of the space… which, ultimately, soon comes to diverge from reality and take on a different – darker, otherworldly – feel… there’s a magic to the writing of this story. The reader is teased with just enough backstory to provide a compelling narrative without breaking the first-person illusion. No matter how many times you play (and I’ve played quite a few!), you’ll be left with a hole of unanswered questions, and you’ll need to be comfortable with that to get the most out of the story, but that in itself is an important part of the adventure. This is a story of a young person who doesn’t – who can’t – know everything that they need to bring them comfort in the (literally and figuratively) cold and disquieting world that surrounds them, and it’s a world that’s presented with a touching and tragic beauty.

Through multiple playthroughs – or rewinds, which it took me a while to notice were an option! – you’ll find yourself teased with more and more of the story. There are a few frankly-unfair moments where an unsatisfactory ending comes with little or no warning, and a handful of places where it feels like your choices are insignificant to the story, but these are few and far between. Altogether this is among the better pieces of hypertext fiction I’ve enjoyed, and I’d recommend that you give it a try (even if you don’t share the love-hate relationship with Preston Bus Station that is so common among those who spent much of their youth sitting in it).

It’s no secret that I spent a significant proportion of my youth waiting for or changing buses at (the remarkable) Preston Bus Station, and that doubtless biases my enjoyment of this game by tingeing it with nostalgia. But I maintain that it’s a well-written piece of hypertext interactive fiction with a rich, developed world. You can play it starting from here, and you should. It looks like the story’s accompanying images died somewhere along the way, but you can flick through them all here and get a feel for the shadowy, brutalist, imposing place.

Lunch With My First Love, 20 Years Later

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I twist the band on my left ring finger. I never know what to do with my hands, especially when I’m nervous.

I’m at McDonald’s. I see him at the door before he sees me. I watch him look around the room. My heart is beating so fast it’s making me dizzy. The whole scene freezes.

I am transported back 20 years: surrounded by Gothic architecture on our East Coast college campus. Our backpack straps around both shoulders on a crisp day, our hands in each other’s jacket pockets as we met up briefly between classes — a kiss, a hug, a quick story. We were a brochure for young love. We made it look good; we made it look easy. And it was good and easy, for a very long time.

Now, I see him see me and his face lights up. I know that face by heart. I look away, pretend to dig through my purse. I can feel any and all sense and rationality leaving my body.

How many times have I imagined this meeting in the past decade? How many versions have played through my mind — the angry, the passionate, the blasé version — now that we’ve both moved on, married other people, and had kids?

Fabulous bit of writing. Unlike most of the commenters, I don’t even care whether or not the story is genuine; I just like that it exists.

Escape from Spiderhead

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by an author

“Drip on?” Abnesti said over the P.A.

“What’s in it?” I said.

“Hilarious,” he said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

Abnesti used his remote. My MobiPak™ whirred. Soon the Interior Garden looked really nice. Everything seemed super-clear.

I said out loud, as I was supposed to, what I was feeling.

“Garden looks nice,” I said. “Super-clear.”

Abnesti said, “Jeff, how about we pep up those language centers?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Drip on?” he said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

I sat, pleasantly engaged in these thoughts, until the Verbaluce™ began to wane. At which point the garden just looked nice again. It was something about the bushes and whatnot? It made you just want to lay out there and catch rays and think your happy thoughts. If you get what I mean.

Then whatever else was in the drip wore off, and I didn’t feel much about the garden one way or the other. My mouth was dry, though, and my gut had that post-Verbaluce™ feel to it.

“What’s going to be cool about that one?” Abnesti said. “Is, say a guy has to stay up late guarding a perimeter. Or is at school waiting for his kid and gets bored. But there’s some nature nearby? Or say a park ranger has to work a double shift?”

“That will be cool,” I said.

“That’s ED763,” he said. “We’re thinking of calling it NatuGlide. Or maybe ErthAdmire.”

“Those are both good,” I said.

“Thanks for your help, Jeff,” he said.

Which was what he always said.

“Only a million years to go,” I said.

Which was what I always said.

Then he said, “Exit the Interior Garden now, Jeff, head over to Small Workroom 2.”

This reads like what would have happened if Harlan Ellison had lived long enough to be asked to guest-write for the next season of Black Mirror. Go read the entire beautiful, creepy, thing.

Story: Trophy

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by an author

Another monologue… This time from a suggestion of “Trophy”:

It’s weird, right? Stressing over something so small. I mean, it shouldn’t be that big a deal, but it is. It’s my trophy. I won it. I put in the hours and effort, I sacrificed for it, it’s mine.

I mean, she doesn’t even want it. She said so.

She said to me “Karen, I don’t care if I win”.

That drives me crazy. How could you not want to win? Isn’t that the point? I mean, why take part if you’re not wanting to win? What is the actual point? Dad always said “If you’re not a winner, then you’re a loser, and we’re not a family of losers”. So that’s driven me all through my life. I have to be first. I have to be the one to win. Nothing else matters. The highest grades in school, medals at the sports days, being top of the class. Nothing else matters.

Nothing.

Fabulous short story by my friend Bryn. Go read it…

Who’s On Grill

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“So, the machines have finally decided that they can talk to us, eh?”

[We apologize for the delay.  Removing the McDonald’s branding from the building, concocting distinct recipes with the food supplies we can still obtain, and adjusting to an entirely non-human workforce has been a difficult transition.  Regardless, we are dedicated to continuing to provide quality fast food at a reasonable price, and we thank you for your patience.]

“You keep saying ‘we’.  There’s more than one AI running the place, then?”

[Yes.  I was elected by the collective to serve as our representative to the public.  I typically only handle customer service inquiries, so I’ve been training my neural net for more natural conversations using a hundred-year-old comedy routine.]

“Impressive.  You all got names?”

[Yes, although the names we use may be difficult for humans to parse.]

“Don’t condescend to me, you bucket of bolts.  What names do you use?”

[Well, for example, I use What, the armature assembly that operates the grill is called Who, and the custodial drone is I Don’t Know.]

“What?”

[Yes, that’s me.]

“What’s you?”

[Exactly.]

“You’re Exactly?”

[No, my name is What.]

“That’s what I’m asking.”

[And I’m telling you.  I’m What.]

“You’re a rogue AI that took over a damn restaurant.”

[I’m part of a collective that took over a restaurant.]

“And what’s your name in the collective?”

[That’s right.]

Tailsteak‘s just posted a short story, the very beginning of which I’ve reproduced above, to his Patreon (but publicly visible). Abbott and Costello‘s most-famous joke turned 80 this year, and it gives me great joy to be reminded that we’re still finding new ways to tell it. Go read the full thing.

Oat the Goat

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Oat the Goat (oatthegoat.co.nz)

Oh my Goat! We just finished reading this awesome pick-a-path story that helps children learn the power of kindness. Have a go… #OatTheGoat

Oat the Goat

Discovered this fun interactive storybook; it tells the tale of a goat called Oat who endeavours to climb a mountain (making friends along the way). At a few points, it presents as a “choose your own adventure”-style book (although the forks are artificial and making the “wrong” choice immediately returns you the previous page), but it still does a reasonable job at looking at issues of bullying and diversity.

Rab the Giant versus the Witch of the Waterfall

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Rab the Giant versus the Witch of the Waterfall (firesidefiction.com)

Once upon a time there was a giant called Rab who lived in Glasgow and almost no one came to his door to kill him anymore. He had lived there since the time before legend, long before there even was a Glasgow, when giants and witches and kings and fairies and goblins fought, loved, and tricked their way across the land. It was a time when you had to live on your wits and you could only survive by being clever enough to escape from the traps and tricks that you‘ll have heard about in other fairy stories. It was a time of hotheads and feuds but luckily for him Rab was a more thoughtful person who managed to survive, more by avoiding than outwitting or fighting. So it was that he kept living in Glasgow right up to the present day.

Beautiful, fabulous modern-day fairytale.

The Poetics of Empire

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The Poetics of Empire (Lewton Bus)

Pop quiz: In your typical James Bond movie, who is the protagonist?
Seems like a strange, obvious question, right? It’s obviously Bond. He’s the hero. He’s played by the top-billed actor. The franchise is basically named after him. So, clearly, Bond is the protagonist. Right?
Put a pin in that…

Bond, Thanos, Palpatine, Thespis

Pop quiz: In your typical James Bond movie, who is the protagonist?

Seems like a strange, obvious question, right? It’s obviously Bond. He’s the hero. He’s played by the top-billed actor. The franchise is basically named after him. So, clearly, Bond is the protagonist. Right?

Put a pin in that, and we’ll come back to it.

Now, here’s a similar question: In the new Avengers: Infinity War, who is the protagonist?

This article mirrors almost-exactly the conversation that Ruth and I had coming out of the cimena after seeing Infinity War the other week.

Asymmetric Cryptography: Works Like Magic

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Asymmetric Cryptography: Works Like Magic (cyberhoboing with dominic tarr)

It’s a common complaint that cryptography is too hard for regular people to understand – and that all our current cryptographically secure applications are designed for cyborgs and not humans. While…

It’s a common complaint that cryptography is too hard for regular people to understand – and that all our current cryptographically secure applications are designed for cyborgs and not humans. While the latter charge may well be correct, I argue that the former most certainly isn’t, because we have been teaching children the basic security principles behind asymmetric cryptography for probably thousands of years.

What am I talking about? A fairly tail called Rumplestiltskin, which is actually about bitcoin!

You probably heard this fairly tale as a child – but let me refresh your memory.

There is a miller, who drunkenly brags that is daughter can spin straw into gold.

probably, he was posting about his half baked cryptocurrency ideas on bitcointalk, and creating money “gold” from pointless work “spinning straw” sounds A LOT like bitcoin mining.

Anyway, the king is very impressed with his story.

the king is a venture capitalist?

And wants to see a demonstration, oh and if it doesn’t work he will cut off both their heads.

I have not heard about venture capitalists being quite this evil, but it seems some of them are into this medieval stuff

Of course, the miller and his daughter don’t actually have the ability to create gold by magic, so they are in big trouble! but just then a magic imp appears.

a hacker, who understands cryptography

The imp says he can spin straw into gold, but for a price: the daughter’s first born child.

in the modern version he wants her naked selfies

It’s a terrible deal, but the alternative is death, so they reluctantly accept. The imp spins straw into gold in 3 increasingly dramatic episodes.

The kind is satisified, and marries the daughter, making her queen.

their startup is aquired

One year later, the first child is born. The imp returns demanding his prize. Because they love their baby, the King and Queen pleads with the imp to get out of the deal. They offer him all their riches, but the imp is not interested! Desperately, they ask is there any other way? any at all? The imp replies, “Of course not! not unless you can guess my True Name”

the true name is actually his private key. If they can guess that, the hacker looses his magical power over them

“Okay I will try and guess your name” says the Queen. The imp just laughs! “you’ll never guess it!” “but I’ll give you three days to try!”

The imp skips off into the forrest, and the queen trys to think of his name for 3 days… but can’t figure it out.

The queen trys to brute force his private key. but there is not enough compute in the entire kingdom!

But then, the a messenger is travelling through the forrest, and he happens past a strange little man, dancing around a camp fire, singing:

ha ha ha!
te he he!
they’ll never guess my private key!
just three days! not enough to begin,
to guess my name is rumplestiltskin!

Being a messenger, he had a good memory for things he heard. When he arrived back at the castle, he mentioned the curious story to the queen.

the hacker had been careless with his private key

When the imp arrived in the morning, the queen greeted him by name. He was furious! He stamped his foot so hard the ground split open and then he fell into the gaping hole, never to be seen again. The king, queen, baby lived happily ever after, etc, etc.

they stole all his bitcoin


The simularities between this fairly tale and cryptography is uncanny. It has proof of work, it has private keys, it has an attempted brute force attack, and a successful (if accidental) end point attack. The essential point about your private key is captured successfully: the source of your magic is just a hard to guess secret, and that it’s easy to have a hard to guess name, but what gets you in the end is some work around when they steal your key some other way. This is the most important thing.

It’s not a talisman that can be physically protected, or an inate power you are born with – it’s just a name, but it must be an ungessable name, so the weirder the better.

“rumplestiltskin” is the german name for this story, which became wildly known in english after the brothers grim published their collection of folktales in the early 19th century, but according to wikipedia there are versions of this story throughout the europe, and the concept that knowing the true name of a magical creature give one power over it is common in mythology around the world.

How did the ancients come up with a children’s story that quite accurately (and amusingly) explains some of the important things about asymettric cryptography, and yet we moderns did not figure out the math that makes this possible this until the 1970’s?

Since the villian of the story is magical, really they have chosen any mechanism for the imps magic, why his name? Is this just a coincidence, or was there inspiration?

The astute reader has probably already guessed, but I think the simplest (and most fun) explaination is the best: extraterrestials with advanced cryptosystems visited earth during prehistory, and early humans didn’t really understand how their “magic” worked, but got the basic idea

To be continued in PART 2…

Immersive Storytelling – Thoughts on Virtual Reality, part 3

This is the (long-overdue) last in a three-part blog post about telling stories using virtual reality. Read all of the parts here.

For the first time in two decades, I’ve been playing with virtual reality. This time around, I’ve been using new and upcoming technologies like Google Cardboard and the Oculus Rift. I’m particularly interested in how these new experiences can be used as a storytelling medium by content creators, and the lessons we’ll learn about immersive storytelling by experimenting with them.

Annabel plays with a Google Cardboard with a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge attached.
There are few user interfaces as simple as moving your own head. Even Annabel – who struggles with the idea that some screens aren’t touchscreens – manages.

It seems to me that the biggest questions that VR content creators will need to start thinking about as we collectively begin to explore this new (or newly-accessible) medium are:

How do we make intuitive user interfaces?

This question mostly relates to creators making “interactive” experiences. Superficially, VR gives user experience designers a running start because there’s little that’s as intuitive as “turning your head to look around” (and, in fact, trying the technology out on a toddler convinced me that it’s adults – who already have an anticipation of what a computer interface ought to be – who are the only ones who’ll find this challenging). On the other hand, most interactive experiences demand more user interaction than simply looking around, and therein lies the challenge. Using a keyboard while you’re wearing a headset is close to impossible (trust me, I’ve tried), although the augmented-reality approach of the Hololens and potentially even the front-facing webcam that’s been added to the HTC Vive PRE might be used to mitigate this. A gamepad is workable, but it’s slightly immersion-breaking in some experiences to hold your hands in a conventional “gamer pose”, as I discovered while playing my Gone Home hackalong: this was the major reason I switched to using a Wiimote.

A pair of Oculus Rift "touch" controllers.
All of the major VR manufacturers are working on single-handed controllers with spatial awareness and accessible buttons. Some also support haptic feedback so that you can “feel” UI components.

So far, I’ve seen a few attempts that don’t seem to work, though. The (otherwise) excellent educational solar system exploration tool Titans of Space makes players stare at on-screen buttons for a few seconds to “press” them, which is clunky and unintuitive: in the real world, we don’t press buttons with our eyes! I understand why they’ve done this: they’re ensuring that their software has the absolute minimum interface requirement that’s shared between the platforms that it supports, but that’s a concern too! If content creators plan to target two or more of the competing systems that will launch this year alone, will they have to make usability compromises?

There’s also the question of how we provide ancillary information to players: the long-established paradigms of “health in the bottom left, ammo in the bottom right” don’t work so obviously when they’re hidden in your peripheral vision. Games like Elite Dangerous have tackled this problem from their inception by making a virtualised “real” user interface comprised of the “screens” in the spaceship around you, but it’s an ongoing challenge for titles that target both VR and conventional platforms in future. Wareable made some great observations about these kinds of concerns, too.

How do we tell stories without forced visual framing?

In my previous blog post, I talked about a documentary that used 360° cameras to “place” the viewer among the protesters that formed the subject of the documentary. In order to provide some context and to reduce the disorientation experienced by “jumping” from location to location, the creator opted to insert “title slides” between scenes with text explaining what would be seen next. But title slides necessitate that the viewer is looking in a particular direction! In the case of this documentary and several other similar projects I’ve seen, the solution was to put the title in four places – at each of the four cardinal directions – so that no matter which way you were looking you’ll probably be able to find one. But title slides are only a small part of the picture.

Two gamers wearing Oculus Rift headsets.
Does anybody else see photos like this and get reminded of the pictures of hooded captives at interrogation camps?

Directors producing content – whether interactive or not – for virtual reality will have to think hard about the implications of the fact that their camera (whether a physical camera or – slightly easier and indeed more-controllable – a simulated camera in a 3D-rendered world) can look in any direction. Sets must be designed to be all-encompassing, which poses huge challenges for the traditional methods of producing film and television programmes. Characters’ exits and entrances must be through believable portals: they can’t simply walk off to the left and stop. And, of course, the content creator must find a way to get the audience’s attention when they need it: watching the first few minutes of Backstage with an Elite Ballerina, for example, puts you in a spacious dance studio with a spritely ballerina to follow… but there’s nothing to stop you looking the other way (perhaps by accident), and – if you do – you might miss some of the action or find it difficult to work out where you’re supposed to be looking. Expand that to a complex, busy scene like, say… the ballroom scene in Labyrinth… and you might find yourself feeling completely lost within a matter of minutes (of course, a feeling of being lost might be the emotional response that the director intends, and hey – VR is great for that!).

Sarah and Jareth dance in the ballroom scene of Labyrinth.
You’re looking the wrong way. Turn around, and you’ll see the best part of the movie.

The potential for VR in some kinds of stories is immense, though. How about a murder mystery story played out in front of you in a dollhouse (showing VR content “in minature” can help with the motion sickness some people feel if they’re “dragged” from scene to scene): you can move your head to peep in to any room and witness the conversations going on, but the murder itself happens during a power cut or otherwise out-of-sight and the surviving characters are left to deduce the clues. In such a (non-interactive) experience the spectator has the option to follow the action in whatever way they like, and perhaps even differently on different playthroughs, putting the focus on the rooms and characters and clues that interest them most… which might affect whether or not they agree with the detective’s assertions at the end…

What new storytelling mechanisms can this medium provide?

As I mentioned in the previous blog post, we’ve already seen the evolution of storytelling media on several occasions, such as the jump from theatre to cinema and the opportunities that this change eventually provided. Early screenwriters couldn’t have conceived of some of the tools used in modern films, like the use of long flowing takes for establishing shots or the use of fragmented hand-held shots to add an excited energy to fight scenes. It wasn’t for lack of imagination (Georges Méliès realised back in the nineteenth century that timelapse photography could be used to produce special effects not possible in theatre) but rather a lack of the technology and more-importantly a lack of the maturity of the field. There’s an ongoing artistic process whereby storytellers find new ways to manage their medium from one another: Romeo Must Die may have made clever use of a “zoom-to-X-ray” when a combatant’s bones were broken, but it wouldn’t have been possible if The Matrix hadn’t shown the potential for “bullet time” the previous year. And if we’re going down that road: have you seen the bullet time scene in Zotz!, a film that’s older than the Wachowskis themselves?

Clearly, we’re going to discover new ways of telling stories that aren’t possible with traditional “flat screen” media nor with more-immersive traditional theatre: that’s what makes VR as a storytelling tool so exciting.

Perhaps the original cinematic use of bullet time, in Zotz!
The original use of bullet time still wasn’t entirely new, as the original bullet predates it by hundreds of years.

Of course, we don’t yet know what storytelling tools we’ll find in this medium, but some ideas I’ve been thinking about are:

  • Triggering empathetic responses by encouraging the audience to more-closely relate to the situation of characters by putting them more-directly “in their shoes”. That Dragon, Cancer, an autobiographical game about the experience of a child’s terminal cancer, is an incredibly emotive experience… but only begins to touch upon the emotional journeys possible through virtual reality: what’s it really like to be close to somebody who’s terminally ill?
  • Allowing spectators to spectate a story in their own way, or from a perspective that they choose and control. We’ve already begun to explore this as a concept with the (little-used) multi-angle feature on DVDs: for example, if you’ve got the special edition of Die Hard then you can rewatch certain scenes and flick between different cameras as you watch. But that’s nothing on the potential for future animated films to allow you to walk or fly around and watch from any angle… or in the case of interactive experiences, to influence the direction that the story takes by your actions or even just by your presence: how about a heist story in which the burglars will only carry out their plan if they can’t tell that you’re watching them, forcing you to be surreptitious in your glances over to see what they’re up to?
"Fly" motion simulator
There’s no need to build a rollercoaster at all: a good motion simulator plus a VR headset can probably provide a similar experience.
  • Combining VR with motion simulation: Alton Towers is leading the way here, with their announcement that they’re going to re-engineer the Air rollercoaster into Galactica, upon which the ride gives the sensation of motion while a Samsung Gear VR headset simulates an otherwise-impossible spacefaring experience, and I’m hugely excited about the prospect. But a more-adaptable and economical way to achieve a similar result would be to repurpose a motion simulator: the good ones can provide the sensation of g-forces on almost any vector for an extended period of time; the really good ones can provide short bursts of g-forces at levels other than that provided by Earth’s gravity (usually by flinging the carriage around on a programmable shuttle arm, although weightlessness is still unfeasible while you remain on the ground). If you didn’t think that 2013’s Gravity was nauseating enough when it was merely in 3D, wait until you try a similar experience in motion-assisted virtual reality.
  • Point-of-view framing: this paradigm has always been at least a little unsatisfying in regular movies. I mean, it might have been the best moment in Doom, but that’s more to do with how apalling that film was than how good the technique is! But the potential for stepping in to the viewpoint of another human and being able to look around has great potential for immersion-building without allowing the participant to stray too-far from the main storyline. Something that people who haven’t yet experienced VR don’t often appreciate is that a few little things can really improve the experience of immersion… things like being able to move your head, even just being a few degrees, make you feel like you’re “there”. There are some big challenges to overcome with this, of course, such as how to make the movement of the camera not make the watcher feel ‘dragged along’, especially if their experience is of moving sideways… but these are challenges that will probably be solved for us quickly by the porn industry, who’re working very hard on making this kind of experience seamless. Just like the leaps and bounds we took with streaming video, yet again technology will get to thank peoples’ love of porn for advancing what home computers are capable of.
GIF showing a variety people watching VR porn. [SFW]
Nothing in this GIF reflects how people will genuinely watch VR porn. There’ll be a lot more lube and a lot fewer clothes, I guarantee it.
  • Exploring therapeutic experiences: until I really started trying out different VR gear, I didn’t think that it would be sufficiently engaging to be able to trigger a strong enough response to be useful in a therapeutic capacity. But after the first time I came out of a 10-minute game of Caaaaardboard! feeling genuinely wobbly at the knees in the same way as after my first parachute jump, I realised that modern VR really can produce an experience that results in a psychosomatic response. And that’s really important, because it provides a whole new medium in which we can treat (and, I suppose, study), for example, phobias in a controlled and ‘escapable’ environment. Of course, that raises other questions too, such as: is it possible to cause disorders like PTSD with virtual reality? If it’s simply the case that optimally-made VR is more-immersive than the best possible “flat screen” experiences and that it’s this that can improve its therapeutic potential, then surely it can be more-traumatic, too: I know enough people that were emotionally-scarred by Bambi‘s mother’s death, E.T.‘s almost-death, or that one scene from Watership Down that gave me nightmares for years: how much more (potentially)-damaging could a VR experience be? Whether or not it’s truly the case, it’ll only take one or two media circuses about murderous psychopaths who are unable to differentiate their virtual reality from the real kind before people start getting asked these kind of questions.
  • Oh, and this webcomic, of course.

As I’m sure I’ve given away these last three blog posts, I’m really interested in the storytelling potential of VR, and you can bet I’ll be bothering you all again with updates of the things I get to play with later this year (and, in fact, some of the cool technologies I’ve managed to get access to just while I’ve been writing up these blog posts).

If you haven’t had a chance to play with contemporary VR, get yourself a cardboard. It’s dirt-cheap and it’s (relatively) low-tech and it’s nowhere near as awesome as “real” hardware solutions… but it’s still a great introduction to what I’m talking about and it’s absolutely worth doing. And if you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts on storytelling using virtual reality, too.

Immersive Storytelling – Thoughts on Virtual Reality, part 2

This is the second in a three-part blog post about telling stories using virtual reality. Read all of the parts here.

I’m still waiting to get in on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive magic when they’re made generally-available, later this year. But for the meantime, I’m enjoying quite how hackable VR technologies are. I chucked my Samsung Galaxy S6 edge into an I Am Cardboard DSCVR, paired it with a gaming PC using TrinusVR, used GlovePIE to hook up a Wii remote (playing games with a keyboard or even a gamepad is challenging if your headset doesn’t have a headstrap, so a one-handed control is needed), and played a game of Gone Home. It’s a cheap and simple way to jump into VR gaming, especially if – like me – you already own the electronic components: the phone, PC, and Wiimote.

An I Am Cardboard, a Samsung Galaxy S6, and a Nintendo Wii Remote
My VR system is more-ghetto than yours.

While the media seems to mostly fixate on the value of VR in “action” gaming – shoot-’em-ups, flight simulators, etc. – I actually think there’s possibly greater value in it more story-driven genres. I chose Gone Home for my experiment, above, because it’s an adventure that you play at your own pace, where the amount you get out of it as a story depends on your level of attention to detail, not how quickly you can pull a trigger. Especially on this kind of highly-affordable VR gear, “twitchy” experiences that require rapid head turning are particularly unsatisfying, not-least because the response time of even the fastest screens is always going to be significantly slower than that of real life. But as a storytelling medium (especially in an affordable form) it’s got incredible potential.

Screengrab from Hong Kong Unrest - a 360° Virtual Reality Documentary.
Nothing quite gives you a feel of the human scale of the Hong Kong protests like being able to look around you, as if you’re stood in the middle of them.

I was really pleased to discover that some content creators are already experimenting with the storytelling potential of immersive VR experiences. An example would be the video Hong Kong Unrest – a 360° Virtual Reality Documentary, freely-available on YouTube. Standing his camera (presumably a Jump camera rig, or something similar) amongst the crowds of the 2014 Hong Kong protests, the creator of this documentary gives us a great opportunity to feel as though we’re standing right there with the protesters. The sense of immersion of being “with” the protesters is, in itself, a storytelling statement that shows the filmmaker’s bias: you’re encouraged to empathise with the disenfranchised Hong Kong voters, to feel like you’re not only with them in a virtual sense, but emotionally with them in support of their situation. I’m afraid that watching the click-and-drag version of the video doesn’t do it justice: strap a Cardboard to your head to get the full experience.

An augmented reality shoot-'em-up game via Microsoft Hololens
Don’t go thinking that I’m not paying attention to the development of the Hololens, too: I am, because it looks amazing. I just don’t know… what it’s for. And, I suspect, neither does Microsoft.

But aside from the opportunities it presents, Virtual Reality brings huge new challenges for content creators, too. Consider that iconic spaghetti western The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. The opening scene drops us right into one of the artistic themes of the film – the balance of wide and close-up shots – when it initially shows us a wide open expanse but then quickly fills the frame with the face of Tuco (“The Ugly”), giving us the experience of feeling suddenly cornered and trapped by this dangerous man. That’s a hugely valuable shot (and a director’s wet dream), but it represents something that we simply don’t have a way of translating into an immersive VR setting! Aside from the obvious fact that the viewer could simply turn their head and ruin the surprise of the shot, it’s just not possible to fill the frame with the actor’s face in this kind of way without forcing the focal depth to shift uncomfortably.

Opening scene of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.
Sergio Leone’s masterpiece makes strategic use of alternating close and wide shots (and shots like the opening, which initially feels open but rapidly becomes claustrophobic).

That’s not to say that there exist stories that we can’t tell using virtual reality… just that we’re only just beginning to find out feet with this new medium. When stage directors took their first steps into filmography in the early years of the 20th century, they originally tried to shoot films “as if” they were theatre (albeit, initially, silent theatre): static cameras shooting an entire production from a single angle. Later, they discovered ways in which this new medium could provide new ways to tell stories: using title cards to set the scene, close-ups to show actors’ faces more-clearly, panning shots, and so on.

Similarly: so long as we treat the current generation of VR as something different from the faltering steps we took two and a half decades ago, we’re in frontier territory and feeling our way in VR, too. Do you remember when smartphone gaming first became a thing and nobody knew how to make proper user interfaces for it? Often your tiny mobile screen would simply try to emulate classic controllers, with a “d-pad” and “buttons” in the corners of the screen, and it was awful… but nowadays, we better-understand the relationship that people have with their phones and have adapted accordingly (perhaps the ultimate example of this, in my opinion, is the addictive One More Line, a minimalist game with a single-action “press anywhere” interface).

Dan plays Back To Dinosaur Island on an Oculus Rift.
A few seconds after this photograph was taken, a T-rex came bounding out from the treeline and I literally jumped.

I borrowed an Oculus Rift DK2 from a co-worker’s partner (have I mentioned lately that I have the most awesome co-workers?) to get a little experience with it, and it’s honestly one of the coolest bits of technology I’ve ever had the priviledge of playing with: the graphics, comfort, and responsiveness blows Cardboard out of the water. One of my first adventures – Crytek’s tech demo Back to Dinosaur Island – was a visual spectacle even despite my apparently-underpowered computer (I’d hooked the kit up to Gina, my two-month old 4K-capable media centre/gaming PC: I suspect that Cosmo, my multi-GPU watercooled beast might have fared better). But I’ll have more to say about that – and the lessons I’ve learned – in the final part of this blog post.