Deprogrammed VR

Released October 2016

Made by Mia Donovan (Eye Steel Film) in collaboration with Dpt.

Format: WebVR for Chrome using Javascript, WebGL, Three.js, Web Audio

Deprogrammed VR can also be accessed through a laptop. Trying out only the laptop experience, Deprogrammed sets out to be an interactive experience that allows the viewer to step into the mindset of three individuals who were indoctrinated into cults or extremist groups. It does so through using audio (music and narration of the stories of the three individuals), showing animated scenes, and providing the user the ability to move and explore parts of select scenes.

What worked? First, the project tells a compelling story – the overall theme and the individuals’ stories suck you in right away. You get to hear the three individuals’ experiences of being in a cult or an extremist group, in their own voice.

Second, the use of WebVR worked well. The project uses audio, user-input (mouse, keyboard), and video to create an experience that accompanied the story well. The audio is well done: The narrated script is well edited, crisp and impactful, and the music adds to the feeling and tone of the story. User-input is cleverly used too. While in the experience, as the story progress, the user loses more and more control – while in the beginning you can use your mouse to look up and around, at certain point you are stuck in a frame and even aggressively moving the cursor doesn’t do anything. Finally, it seems that the project uses low-fidelity story and character introduction while the immersive scene is being loaded as opposed to having the user wait until the whole scene is loaded.

What didn’t work? The animated scenes didn’t add to the immersion experience. In terms of the VR experience, the audio and the ‘controlled environment’ were the only compelling feature that evoked emotions analogous to ones being conveyed in the story being narrated. To embody the emotions described through the individual’s story, the project uses various landscape analogies: an endless desert, long walls that never seem to end, water suddenly filling up the scene, and long barren trees. These visual are compelling enough – while they aren’t realistic, they are well crafted. However, these visuals didn’t do much. At best, they mildly evoked the necessary emotions. Furthermore, the user is only able to move the story forward by constantly holding down the “W” key – that’s over 10minutes to keeping your finger on one key. Believe me, your finger will ask you to gently massage it after. And you are asked to press “W” while using the mousepad to move around in the scene. Lastly, the progress bar at the bottom of the screen fails to serve its purpose. While, the progress bar is interactive, one can’t click ahead. One can click on previously heard chapters, however, not to rewind the experience but to read a character’s story.

Given that the project only accomplishes to effectively use 1.5 out of the 3 tools i.e. audio and the user-input interaction to an extent, I wonder if WebVR was the ideal format to present this story. Could this be a podcast I plugged my earphones in for solely? Perhaps. However, I will give the project builders a benefit of the doubt: there is room to improve the user-input interaction and the visuals but this was a great attempt at providing an immersive, accessible story on the web!