Alice, The Virtual Reality Play: When the Real and the Virtual Meet

Produced by DV Group, Alice, The Virtual Reality Play is both a technical achievement in the world of VR storytelling and the layout of a possible economic model for ambitious of immersive works. With creative director Marie Jourdren and innovation director Antoine Cardon, we retrace the story of this inspiring experimental project.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of making my way to a Venetian island to attend the 2017 Venice VR Festival. The program was excellent, and one of the festival’s flagship works was certainly Alice by its size and the fantasies fuelled by the large opaque box into which a few lucky attendees were given the opportunity to enter one by one. All exited sporting a broad smile.

A world apart

As you have surely understood, we are plunged into the world of Lewis Carroll. The characters are familiar—the White Rabbit, Humpty Dumpty—and you are at the centre of it all… Everything revolves around you and it’s your active participation that has the experience unfold one scene at a time.

It all begins in a first room that is an airlock of sorts between the real and virtual worlds. In this room, you go from being a simple spectator to an imaginary character. You then penetrate into the experience room itself. You first find yourself in front of a box filled with playing cards that your hands will build into a castle or simply twirl around…

A first interaction that is relatively simple is designed to “establish an intelligible grammar” as Marie Jourdren puts it. “We first ask them [the participants] to move around. They are faced with a stele along with this box and audio instructions: go ahead and open the box. The spectators thereby naturally figure out that they can walk, play and interact with the objects seeing as they are able to see their own hands…

The first thing that we want them to understand is that they are almost totally free to do as they please.

The White Rabbit appears soon after. And it is thanks to it that Alice enters a new dimension. At first glance, it may resemble all virtual characters that you may have encountered in other works, programmed to more or less relevantly recite a series of pre-recorded phrases to you.

Here an actor and a motion-capture system bring to life a real character that is able to improvise, move around freely, respond to exactly what you say and even graze your arm!

The second thing that the public grasps is that the characters can also interact.”

“The rabbit touches spectators and makes comments on how they are dressed to have them understand that it is physically present in the room. We can touch the rabbit and the rabbit can touch us. We can see the rabbit and it sees us,” explains Jourdren.

Touch transforms how you interact with this universe, which was an abstraction of sorts a second earlier. That is when the virtual and reality become intertwined. Your presence is no longer the sole determinant of your immersion seeing as the character’s [immersion] becomes just as important.

Sight, hearing and touch… However, the designers wanted to go even further. So why not appeal to the sense of taste by offering a mushroom (magical in the virtual universe, made of meringue in the physical world) to eat?

For Marie Jourdren, “our ambition was to give people the impression that they were entering a movie and that they could personify one of the movie’s characters. Who has never wanted to be a part of their favourite film? But how far can we push people? Eating an invisible mushroom is a real personal challenge!”

Does Alice eat the mushroom?

How does the public end up reacting to such an original experience? “We did not think that the mushroom would work,” Jourdren admits, “but everyone eats it! The character says that it must be eaten. There is a small cardboard sign. And everyone does as instructed.”

There is nevertheless a legitimate concern raised by eating an ‘invisible’ object. There’s also a vulnerability about being touched by a virtual character personified by an actor who sees us with his own eyes but that we can only perceive through his avatar.

“Some people are more or less comfortable with the concept. There are moments in the story where we want the spectators to feel more or less comfortable. It’s Alice, it’s about frustration and strangeness. Spectators are not supposed to feel comfortable,” claims innovation director Antoine Cardon.

“We can feel that people are startled but they nevertheless enter the game,” adds Jourdren. “When exiting the box, many people are at a loss for words. One woman exited crying. People have difficulty talking about it, certainly because we do not yet share the grammar…”

This balance between what is demanded from the public and what we offer it in return is subtle and has been refined over the course of multiple representations.

The team refuses to go with what would be easiest: fear, ranting, anxiety… Successive scenes are therefore closely monitored and the work has greatly evolved since it was first presented at Cannes. The improvisation bible given to all of the actors to help them interact with the public was greatly improved, and the scenario was expanded to constantly improve the interactions between actors and spectators.

Improvising is fundamental in Alice because spectators also often end up passing to the other side of the mirror. They are regularly engaged and become actors of their own experience.

“The performers understood that they could basically do what they wanted with the spectators! They had full latitude to do so. They could make them sing, dance, anything.” And that’s exactly what they did. Spectators have therefore sung, recited poems and then some, taking to heart their role as their story’s main character.

Alice could not be late

Launched during the Cannes Festival, Alice is an experimental work that showcases what the teams of DV Group wanted to showcase. However, there was a catch: they only had a month and a half to complete everything—from the initial idea to deployment.

Luckily for them, there are full of talented people who work at DV Group’s Parisian offices and the group eventually had to relocate into larger premises capable of accommodating its growing teams. Everything needed is therefore in place to produce Alice in so little time.

“Initially, our goal was to show investors what we could do with virtual reality (VR) a few years from now. Alice was to be a showcase intended for three people and the intent was never to present it to the public!” recalls Antoine Cardon.

Regardless, more than 1,000 people will have lived the experience in the space of a few months after invitations to set up the work were received from the most prestigious festivals in the world. That translated to a wealth of user comments and a great way of promoting DV Group even though the operation was not that great a success in financial terms…

Alice is complicated to produce and costs a fortune to install. For the tour, we have already invested three times more than what we invested in production. It’s absurd,” admits Cardon, “but it has served us well.”

Why is Alice so costly? For each spectator (the experience lasts over 30 minutes), four people are needed: the actor who embodies the characters, a host or hostess, a production assistant and a ‘ninja’ who discretely deposits or removes objects during the experience.

As things stand, for Alice to turn a profit, 350 euros would need to be charged for the 30-minute experience, but charging that much is unimaginable. However, the work sketches out the first contours of an economic model that DV Group is preparing to use.

A new successful business model for VR?

Alice is but the beginning of a new phase for a studio that began by producing 360° videos in 2013 and that—with more than 200 immersive projects now under its belt—today focuses on location-based experiences, i.e., in situ venues in which the experience extends well beyond what you would be able to experience wearing a VR headset in your living room.

It remains quite challenging to this day to distribute a VR work seeing as very few households own the required equipment and there are few VR venues out there.

“We cannot invest millions to produce a work according to the cinematographic model and hope for a return on our investment. Our model is rather that of Punchdrunk, immersive theatre or the Cirque du Soleil. Admission is expensive, around 100 or 150 euros, and limited to a single venue.”

— Innovation director Antoine Cardon

Dans Sleep No More de Punchdrunck, 25 acteurs jouent dans un immeuble de cinq étages. L’entrée coûte au minimum 120 $US.

DV Group is already at work on a new and more ambitious experience, that will be set up initially in London. It has been designed to test out this new model, but there are major changes to point out: “First of all, the experience is much longer. It lasts 75 minutes instead of 30. And it is designed to be lived by 25 people at once.”

With five actors and a few production assistants for 25 spectators, the ratio will be much more advantageous than in the case of Alice with its 4 people per spectator. In the case of this new work, three months’ worth of bookings will be needed before starting to make a profit…

In a world characterized by the emergence of VR and individual headsets, it is likely that the logic behind in situ experiences may prove promising.

By creating the rendezvous in a physical setting and transforming the ordinarily solitary experience of VR into a group experience, works such as Alice make the bold choice of giving equal importance to both the real and virtual.

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