This is part of our Road Trip 2017 summer series "The Smartest Stuff," about how innovators are thinking up new ways to make you — and the world around you — smarter.
Snowflakes flutter around my face, taking me back to my childhood in Ohio where I'd tilt back my head to gaze at the swirl of tiny crystals spiraling toward my blinking eyelashes. When I stick out my palm to catch a snowflake, I'm a little disappointed that I don't feel a tiny, cold pinprick on my skin.
Instead of playing in the suburban driveway of my family's Columbus two-story home, I'm inside the storybook woodland of Baobab Studios' latest virtual-reality animated short, "Legend of Crow." Golden sunrays filter through the trees, casting long shadows. The motion-tracking controllers I'm holding turn my arms into translucent blue branches that can conjure up snow with a flick of my wrist. I sweep my hands to blanket the cushy grass with white drifts.
In literal reality, I know I'm standing in a gray-carpeted conference room in the VR animation studio's small office about 35 miles south of San Francisco. Through the room's fishbowl-glass entrance, I see most of Baobab's 20 employees quietly tap keyboards at a hodgepodge of desks in different heights and five colors of laminate veneer. A wall of windows looks out over a strip mall and San Francisco Bay wetlands.
But knowing all that doesn't stop me from trying to reach out to grab a snowflake. Twice.
Don't judge me. Virtual reality is hacking my brain.
VR, which relies on audio-visual headsets that you strap over your eyes to immerse you in a digital world, is being hailed as one of the tech's industry' next big things. Companies like Google, Facebook and Samsung are investing billions of dollars to figure out how to make VR stories, games and apps compelling enough to convince you to spend $80 to $800 for one of their headsets. For animators, including startups like 2-year-old Baobab, VR marks the first new medium since 1995, when Pixar released its ground-breaking, computer-generated feature film, "Toy Story."
"It's a way to animate directly to another single human being," says Alvy Ray Smith, who co-founded Pixar with Edwin Catmull in 1986 and now sits on Baobab's board of advisers.
That's because VR triggers human responses — both psychological and neurological — unlike any medium that came before it. It goes beyond the pounding of your heart during a movie's car chase or the sniffles you try to hide when a TV show's protagonists finally find true love.
With VR, you can look down and see yourself in a different body. Take a step forward and your vantage point shifts as it would in real life. The effect goes beyond the novelty of watching your bunny belly bulge when you squat. Embodying an animal in a virtual environment can trick you into feeling physical prods that aren't there and even enhance your connectedness with nature. Characters — humans, aliens, animals and other creatures imagined by animators — look you straight in the eye as if they're actually seeing you.
Like most people who've tested VR, I've felt uncomfortable rubbernecking my head in circles, mouth agape, with a clunky black box cinched to my face. I know I look silly in the photos people snap while I'm in VR. But in a few years, we might be spending more of our money onthan on music worldwide.
This is your brain on VR
An evolving body of science suggests this kind of immersion and interaction fires up your brain in ways a big-screen movie or a book can't. That's allowing studios like Baobab to drive the art of storytelling.
In Baobab's case, it's with help from bouncy bunnies, zany aliens and a bashful skunk. When Chloe the white bunny hops up to you in "Invasion" and twitches her pink nose to sniff you, she's subtly mimicking your own movements in the same way two people on a good first date mirror body language. You may not realize it, but Chloe's subconsciously signaling "I'm into you."
"We're trying to see, can we get you to forget about the interface and feel as though it's completely real?" says Maureen Fan, Baobab's co-founder and CEO. "You feel like [Chloe's] so real, you actually really love her."
Research by Stanford University suggests that kind of flirtation has the same effect in virtual reality as it does in real life. And when you remember an experience in VR, your brain's hippocampus — believed to regulate emotion and memory — lights up, as it does with real recollections.
"If you think of an intense experience you've had in your life that has changed the way you think or behave — and if you believe that VR can feel real — then you can start to understand how VR experiences can change the way you think or behave," says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the school's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
In other words, VR animation fools your brain into thinking a story's characters are actually real. That in turn forges an emotional connection with them. By tricking your subconscious, Baobab is hacking its VR-powered tales more deeply into your head.
What does that mean for you and me?
Imagine walking through a deserted park at sunrise when you spot a girl, too young to be by herself, crying on a bench.
If you're seeing her in a film, your heart may go out to her, but you don't take any action inside the darkened theater except maybe to munch on more popcorn. If you see her in a video game, you might talk to her because she could be part of your quest. If you see her in the real world, you'd probably feel compelled to help her. In real life, you know the stakes are higher.
That's how Eric Darnell, a co-founder of Baobab and its chief creative officer, explains the new interactive format: It combines the participation of actual reality and gaming, the bigger-than-life stories of games and cinema, and the empathy of film and real life.
"You can take those three things — film and games and real life — and make a little Venn diagram," Darnell tells me. "Right in the middle, I think, is VR."
Darnell, who in 1998 directed DreamWorks' first CG film, "Antz," knows how to tell a story. Seeing him spin a yarn feels like witnessing a proto-form of virtual reality as he reels you into the imaginary world of "Asteroids," the company's second release after "Invasion," about two aliens named Mac and Cheez. Darnell opens his hazel eyes wide and his soft voice speeds up as he relives Mac's increasing desperation for you to wake up Cheez, his unconscious spaceship co-pilot. And when Mac rejoices at Cheez's revival, I watch Darnell's eyes crinkle up behind his wire-rimmed glasses and see him smile and exhale an almost inaudible laugh.
So how does VR do its magic? It boils down to three things, says Tony Parisi, co-creator of Virtual Reality Modeling Language, the first tool for representing 3D interactive graphics on the web.
First is immersion, with the visuals and sounds surrounding you.
When I'm inside "Legend of Crow," I don't see a rectangle of images unspooling in front of me. The trees in that twilight woodland encircle me. Their branches create a golden canopy as I look up. When Crow flies, singing around the woods, his voice spins around me, too.
Second is presence — the sense that you're actually standing someplace else.
Hearing the soft rustle of a lovelorn skunk sliding down a grassy knoll makes me want to lie down on the cushy, green ground next to her. In VR, presence is most often noticeable when it's shattered: If you've ever watched a 360-degree video with a visible "stitch line" where one camera's shot doesn't quite transition into another, the break reminds you that what you're watching isn't real.
And third is agency, or the level of control you have over events. This can be as simple as directing your gaze or as complex as manipulating the environment you're in, as when "Legend of Crow" morphs into a wintry playground that lets me conduct a symphony of flurries with my hands.
Baobab's pieces hit all three facets, says Parisi.
"It was kind of an 'aha' moment when I saw it at Sundance," Parisi says, referring to the premiere of "Asteroids"in Park City, Utah, in February. "It felt like I was in a Pixar movie."
Roll with it
Darnell tells me he's seen lots of people suspend disbelief — essentially accepting fiction as reality — when viewing Baobab's work.
When a bunny hopped up and looked viewers in the eye in "Invasion," for instance, "people were doing stuff they'd never do in a movie theater," Darnell says while showing me the hand waves and head pats the audience gave his computer-generated rabbit.
"I never really believe in 'House of Cards' that Kevin Spacey, when he turns and looks at the camera, is looking at me," he says. "But with VR, there's a part of our brain that just buys into that 100 percent."
The idea of duping audiences isn't unique to VR. Samuel Coleridge described the phenomenon in 1817 when he coined the phrase "suspension of disbelief," suggesting that readers and theater-goers could accept even the most fantastic tales. And the story goes that early audiences panicked when Louis and Auguste Lumiere first screened their 1895 short "The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat."
But VR has the potential to make you react in new and different ways, even at this early, clunky stage of the technology.
"It's like a crude form of artificial intelligence," says Fan.
You can experience "Invasion" on high-powered, pricey headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, which unlock the full treasure chest of VR trickery. The animated short was downloaded more than 1 million times in its first six months. A less interactive version of "Invasion" and a preview of "Asteroids" are available for phone-powered headsets like Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream. Baobab also offers simplified, 360-degree video versions on YouTube and Facebook.
Aside from gaming content, VR doesn't pay – at least not yet. Baobab doesn't charge to download its shorts. While some creators are experimenting with promotional sponsors, advertising, subscriptions and pay-to-download models, Baobab has never run any kind of ads with its work.
The company won't comment on how it expects to make money, other than to say it's healthy and can continue to create animated VR stories. Since its founding in 2015, Baobab has raised $31 million, the highest known amount of any startup making animated VR.
Baobab has already changed VR storytelling by being among the first to put the viewer inside a character's body. With early VR content, for instance, the viewer was often a disembodied observer. When you looked down, you wouldn't see your feet. Sometimes in live-action VR video, you'd see the lower part of the camera or even an inelegant black dot.
But in "Invasion," you see yourself inhabiting a white bunny body, similar to the rabbit that hops out of a cave to sniff you in greetings. In "Asteroids," you're a "Class C Menial Task Robot," a janitorial droid with purple pincer hands. And in "Legend of Crow," you take on a mysterious persona, manifested as those ghostly, snow-conjuring branches.
That can do wonders for empathy and understanding.
In a study published last year, researchers from several universities put college students inside the virtual bodies of cows. (Those poor undergrads had to crawl around on their hands and knees and drink virtual water from a trough.) The study measured an illusion called body transfer, which gauges how much you feel like you've actually become a brown-and-white bovine.
"Once you really feel like you become the avatar, we can simulate just the avatar in the virtual world without simulating your physical body, but your brain still tricks you into thinking that you're feeling it yourself," says Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, one of the study's authors and founding director of the University of Georgia's Games and Virtual Environments Lab.
Ahn and her colleagues also put students inside the avatar of a piece of coral. They watched in time lapse as acidity in the ocean — a side effect of global warming —dissolved their virtual coral arm and heard it drop with a thud. Meanwhile, another group watched a video of the same images without a VR headset. The students who saw pollution corrode their virtual limbs had a stronger sense of urgency and awareness about the problem than the other group.
Chameleons and copycats
High-end VR headsets can collect more detailed information about your individual activity than video, gaming or even theater. A headset like an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift can tell where and how you move. Your subconscious body language — nodding your head in agreement, cocking it to the side in confusion or jerking it back in surprise — produces data that Baobab uses to create and advance "smart" characters that react to you in various ways. Its characters mimic your movements, for instance.
Our tendency to prefer people who copy our movements, called the chameleon effect, is well-established in social science. But the effect's been found to hold up in virtual realms too, says Stanford's Bailenson.
Of course, "smart," reactive characters aren't unique to VR. Video games have relied on them for years. But the reality part of VR heightens their impact compared with what you'd feel in a game.
That's where interactivity — me waving my arms to make snow — affects memory.
"When you drive yourself through a virtual environment, you have better memory for it than if you just sit there and watch a video for that exact same virtual environment," says Thackery Brown, a cognitive neuroscientist who's launching a neuroscience laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology. "That feedback loop in the brain is very important for helping to build these more detailed representations of the experience."
Maybe that's why I beamed back to childhood Ohio blizzards when I watched snowflakes gust around me in "Legend of Crow"?
The episode of "Legend of Crow" marks a new direction for the company. It introduces a franchise based on a Native American fable that has nothing to do with the bunnies-and-aliens universe of "Invasion" and "Asteroids."
But more than that, the characters don't look at you. They don't react to you. And when you look around the woodland clearing of "Legend of Crow" you don't notice yourself embodying anything. At least, not at first. The company says it wanted to explore giving the audience a different kind of role, one in which most of the characters aren't aware of your existence but you still have control over their environment.
That may be why this work-in-progress installment of "Legend of Crow" doesn't carry the same visceral punch as Baobab's earlier shorts. It doesn't rely on many of the tricks VR can play on your brain — yet.
The story is planned as a series, with chapters that will introduce more characters and transport you to otherworldly lands. Darnell, Fan and Baobab's team of animators are curious about what I'll feel when other characters can't see me but I have power over them.
I caught a glimpse of how fun that can be when magic snow gusts sailed me back to those frosty, swirling afternoons as a Midwestern kid, breathless from racing around a powdery front yard. With more "Legend of Crow" pledged to be on the way, it's only a matter of time before I'll return to being a blissed-out brain captive inside Baobab's beautifully drawn virtual world.
Road Trip 2016: Reporters' dispatches from the field on tech's role in the global refugee crisis.
Road Trip 2015: CNET hunts for innovation outside the Silicon Valley bubble.