Facing ‘Fear’ inside VR

Face Your Fears‘ (Oculus link) gets an honourable mention for its well-focused intention (and successful, in my case): to re-awaken those feelings of being all alone as a kid, subject to the terrors of the night. And not just this but most other fears too, including: fear of heights, fear of flying, creepy crawlies, snakes and probably more on the way. It presents an opportunity to discuss a little about this dark side to VR, to file under VR Trends as ‘those experiences which make you squirm when you thought they couldn’t’).

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Firstly, why do we do this to ourselves? Why should we try and confront our fears via VR? Well… it is exciting. We know it’s not real, even though we’ll be fully immersed in it. And my first ever injection of this ‘horror VR’ trend spoke, straight at me, as a parent with my own kids. Very quickly I started feeling that actually I needed to be reminded of just how lonely and vulnerable being a kid is — with that dreaded ‘time for bed’ end to the evening — all the way up to teenage years in fact. And I was reminded…

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You see, out of the choice of several ‘portals’ to step through I chose ‘Dead of Night’. You find yourself in a kid’s bedroom, in that position of simply sitting up in bed and, having chosen one of three spooky book titles, you’re left completely at the mercy of not one but two imaginations; your own and those of the developers.

It takes you back to a time (maybe long ago!) where it seems everyone has gone out of the house or are deeply immersed in sleep, and it’s only YOU who are awake with the ghosts and monsters; only YOU who they are interested in. You try but you can’t sleep and so must stay awake, abandoned to the now-strange shapes of toys and any sounds from inside or outside. You inspect the shadows behind those objects in your bedroom. And, in fact, you can’t really move, just in case they’ll be something that will notice you. But, in this case, there is… [no spoilers included!]

So… clown hats off to Turtle Rock Studios for my humble Samsung GEAR VR experience. You did it. You took me back to the 1980s and my terror of films like Hooper/Spielberg’s Poltergeist. It’s quite fitting that a ‘Stranger Things’ portal also takes its place in the fear line-up, but it’s more of the same really. The graphics aren’t even particularly amazing, but they’re enough, and are great value.

I’ll just re-iterate that ‘Dead of Night’ is the first ‘horror’ title that I’ve actually gotten around to trying, and I can now see that such stuff forms a big aspect of VR for young people. You can watch someone with the headset and wait for their reactions as they try and look away. But I was on my own, so I had no such alleviation. And this is the next best thing… shared or multiplayer horror experiences. Watch this space…

For this really is the allure of VR. Pure experience. I’m now looking at the promo pic for the fear of flying one, called ‘Final Approach’ of course, where I’m going to have to pay for access this time…

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…And I will. One whole euro. But… why?… Again?

I’m not very intrigued by the longer horror games where you can see Youtubers screeching in fright from inside their Oculus Rifts or other devices. It’s all too much for me. But I am drawn to the shortness of these mini ‘exposures’ to simple yet gripping, fright-enticing scenarios. But why should I be? I do have a fear of flying; why do I want to go and exacerbate that phobia?

I guess it’s the same for a movie. I want to be immersed. I want to be transported. And I want to live through — survive — an exciting experience of being on a crashing plane, with a ghost on board. Twice the potential for excitement? Go on then. The lesson for VR developers is this: it’s about the scenario. If it’s short and sweet, intriguing and exhilarating then people will have a peek, at this stage of VR at least.

The Start of Something… Gimmicky or truly Daring?

I know the time will come when I won’t bother with these kind of experiences. I do hope they’ll be more to VR than this in the future, and that it could prove a valuable tool for communication and culture. However, there’s nothing like the simulation of basic, scary scenarios like standing at the top of a building and being attacked by a giant robot. We’ve all seen this type of stuff on TV, but for the first time I’ve been confronted by its awesome sense of scale. Hell, VR is so new. Why not? Let’s take things further. Let’s push the envelope while it’s new.

And yes, VR can trick your mind and some major senses. And what will this tell us about ourselves, via our emotional responses and physical reactions? It will remind us that we can be easily frightened, that we are in fact tiny little animals when exposed to and held captive by an alternative reality. It will take us on journeys that are risk-free yet eye-opening and funny. It will bring us closer to all kinds of fantasies. They can certainly be more intense than a movie, even cinema films, but yes, they can also be tacky and boring.

But once this has been agreed, perhaps we can move on. Since it seems we’re all set to possess these roller-coaster rides in the comfort of our homes. But will we move on? Or will we end up spending more and more time dipping into and mixing realities or trying to enhance a false sense of control over our lives? Will we actually control our real lives better? Will we use scenarios to learn about our connection and level of empathy, expanding our levels of tolerance and understanding, learning and preparation? In other words: will VR experiences come to enrich? Or…

…will we use them just to escape, or for those more subtle forms of long-term self-harm, arguably like the stealthy, negative effects of social media that have recently started to trend? Facebook’s Oculus have a big hand on the reins, after all, but I think they believe VR to offer an opportunity for social media to progress and to transcend its restrictive nature. Personally, I’ve always believed it will. Fingers crossed.

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As with any fresh medium there are all kinds of possibilities waiting in the development shadows to step up and entice us, trick us or empower us.

But you cannot totally blame the tech, for once again it’s we who have the power of choice, and that is a real fear or presence that anyone using it will come to face inside VR, and its emerging cousins. Stay tuned, but do the tuning.

 

Update: ‘Final Approach’ was fun and, although a little lacking in graphical detail, it still managed to ‘get me’ after I thought I’d got a grip on these shiver-inducing episodes. Will the monsters get to your seat number before the plane crashes?! SOL! Screams-Out-Loud!

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