Frank He rediscovers his childhood and finds a new talent for improvisational performance as he goes hands on with Mindshow, a new virtual reality application that lets you create and act in your own interactive movies.
A childhood experience some of us might fondly remember is the acting out of fantasies based on our favorite stories, all before having to get back to the real world. Those memories and feelings are exactly at the core of Mindshow, an application by Visionary VR that lets you quickly stage, record, and experience stories in VR. Visionary VR is a company formed by many of the same people who organize VRLA, and over the weekend at their very own expo, they debuted the app. I was able to try it myself and talk with Gil Baron, CEO and Co-Founder of Visionary VR, as well as Jonnie Ross, CCO and Co-Founder. Here’s what I experienced and learned of their promising new application.
The demo experience walked me through a limited slice of what could be done, but basically it was a tutorial for recording a short interaction. I would embody one character as my avatar, act using my voice and body movements, almost as if puppeteering, and have that sequence recorded. Then I would play that back, fill in the role of the other character, and record that performance, completing the interaction. In the demo, it let me control an alien character and a spaceship commander, both of whom can be seen in the trailer. It took place on a colorful desert location, the same one where the commander says he “crash landed on an alien planet.” I took some time just to admire the nice views in VR.
It started with animations and voice acting already filled in for the commander, so that I could get a quick idea of the typical role playing part of the experience when I would play the alien. Because the commander was reacting to something and cowering in fear, it was only natural that I decided to act menacingly when possessing the alien. When I played the recording back though, I was surprised at first to hear that the voice from the alien was not mine exactly. It was actually processed and filtered to sound higher pitched and more throaty – a nice little touch. But then the demo erased the pre-acted sequence of the commander, and let me fill it in myself after I recorded the alien performance.
Now here’s where things get interesting, and where this application shows real potential. When I hit the record button, I didn’t quite know how I should be acting as the commander. The alien as per my previous recording was acting like an evil zombie, and the commander in the preset recording was originally cowering in fear, so was I supposed to just mimic that? Or could it be that, with this new found freedom, maybe I should do something a little bit more fun and creative? I went into it without really being prepared, but when it came time for my performance, I actually found myself wanting to oppose the alien version of me. It was high time that I stopped being subject to the shackled notions of my past self, or at least that’s what I felt. In that brief moment, a rebellious side of me not often seen had surfaced, and for a second, I forgot I was an adult. Then I heard laughing from the real life crowd beyond the headphones, and I began laughing myself as I became aware of what I just did, and perhaps how I looked doing it.
In any case, from this experience, it seems that the application is not only great for creating stories you already have in mind, but also for improvisation, which you can do by yourself, but also with other people. For example, I could have done my skit and then handed the headset off to someone else, and they could have done something interesting to change or advance the story. It could also have been done without passing the headset, but just the recording itself, so that another Mindshow user in another physical location could modify the story.
This is what reminded me of those games that you play as children, where you would make up stuff as you go. Something like the 3 word game. Or perhaps when you would just play pretend with whatever you could find for props. The pencil would be your sword, the laundry basket would be your ship, and your friends would be your brave allies on a harrowing adventure. You’d make stuff up as you go along, but it’d always be fun as long as you were willing to do something with your imagination. Now it’s like those old games and fantasies are literally coming to life.
That’s my own take on it, but luckily enough it’s also the kind of feeling Visionary VR wanted for Mindshow from the start. Ross describes their mission as such: “We didn’t care when we were younger. We didn’t think about it. We didn’t censor ourselves. There was no judgment to it. It was just playing, trying to make each other laugh. When we get older for some reason, for lots of different reasons, we get further and further removed from that, different people to different degrees. This thing that we lose touch with when we’re younger, this sense of creative capability… It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, especially when we have VR now… That you feel creatively capable, that’s the thing we want to give back to people. That’s what’s motivating us.”
The demo was a powerful reminder to me of exactly what they described. In addition, the freedom you have to interact with the world and with the characters is just something insanely fun to mess around with. The characters’ bodies and all the props have physics to them. I could do funny interactions with my hands like slap them against myself, and they’d bend appropriately, or in weird ways, when the skeletal animation messes up. I could even properly interlock my fingers to a degree, with minimal clipping or glitches.
All of those features, including the ones seen in the trailer, are what enable the feeling of freedom and creativity in Mindshow right now. The Early Access release “coming soon” will have them. But it’s a long way from the kind of freedom you might have in something like Garry’s Mod, which has an insane amount of features and ability to customize. What I saw felt like a glimpse of something immersive that could potentially reach that level of engagement in terms of all the fun stories that Gmod spawned.
For instance, in the demo, and in the first Early Access release, there probably won’t be any networked multiplayer, there probably won’t be the ability to import and customize, and there probably won’t be Oculus Touch support, but Ross and Baron assured me that those three features specifically, as well as others, would come in the future, it’s just a matter of time and resources, which is a reason why they decided on Early Access. It’ll help them to prioritize, and Ross says as much: “We’ll grow this product in a way that listens to the desires of the storytellers and creative people that engage with it.”
Visionary VR plans to take this project on for the long term. Ross says that “yes, we’re just getting started” and Baron adds that “the plan is to support all VR platforms” and “on building [Mindshow] for a very long time”. They want to support better and better hardware as well and take advantage of the growing industry, as that will give Mindshow users more power to interact with VR, e.g. with feet tracking when that comes out. We don’t know how long it’ll take for stuff like that to happen exactly, but in the case of feet tracking, it could happen sooner rather than later, as Valve is opening their tracking system to third parties, and others such as Oculus will follow suit in the future. Visionary VR also wants to support a wide range of viewing formats. Apparently you’ll be able to share this out in 2D video, in stereo 360, and in their app rendered in real time, where you also have the ability to move around in the scene, and if you want, modify it.
You can sign up for the Mindshow Early Access at their website here.