As a chain-laden ghost, I lumber through slices of moonlight in a dark, fire-lit room. I morph into a demonic specter, arching and slumping my massive frame around a pauper's kitchen, before I re-materialize as a faceless floating apparition, taking you by the hand through a snow-covered graveyard.
At least, that's what I would look like to you. In your Oculus Rift headset, I become the main character in Chained, a 20-minute immersive VR reimagining of A Christmas Carol that was one of Los Angeles' hottest tickets last month.
In real life, I'm dressed head-to-toe in a black bodysuit covered with tiny gray balls, and all I want to do are cartwheels.
Chained is the latest experience experimenting with a new trend in virtual reality that marries motion-capture live performers with scenes, sets and characters that exist only inside an audience member's headset. The added wrinkle is that these actors are standing right next to you, taking on supernatural forms thanks to VR.
"I think of the characters almost like the best costumes you could possibly have. You start living in a completely different body," said Michael Bates, the motion-capture actor who plays all of Chained's VR characters. Chained opened in New York at the Future of Storytelling's arcade of immersive experiences this week, after the project's initial five-week run in Los Angeles sold out in 48 hours in December.
I first went through Chained as a guest in VR, donning the headset and shrieking in surprise when Bates' real hand grasped mine and jerked me into a haunted Victorian virtual world. But I also got a behind-the-scenes look at how Chained performances happen. I wore a mo-cap suit alongside Bates as he tutored me in the movements he uses for each of Dickens' ghosts.
VR as immersive theater is the latest twist to one of technology's most overhyped trends. Virtual reality attracted giant investments by heavyweights like Google, Facebook and Samsung, fueling a buzz that hasn't morphed into mainstream success. Without a gotta-see-it experience, everyday consumers have been indifferent to VR and its expensive, weird gear.
But by piggybacking on the booming popularity of immersive theater, the mix of motion-capture live acting with virtual reality might be a recipe VR needs to serve up something people are willing to pay for.
Even Oculus, the VR heavyweight owned by Google, is leaning into the format to promote its forthcoming Quest cable-free headset: Oculus plans to release acalled later this year, with live actors who perform with you from a remote location.
"Let's be perfectly honest, the word VR is not the sexiest thing to say right now," Justin Denton, the creator of Chained, said in an interview before the Los Angeles premiere of the experience. "And that's unfortunate, because there's a lot of amazing VR happening today. This is an area that's barely been touched."
A close encounter
When I met Bates to demo Chained's motion-capture tech, I'd already spent 20 minutes talking and walking with him, without any clue what he actually looks like. In virtual reality, Bates embodies four different ghastly spirits, so he'd already gripped my shoulder and asked me questions as Marley's ghost. He'd led me by the hand while breathing a hissing death rattle in my ear as the unnerving Ghost of Christmas Future.
So I laughed when I reached out to shake the hand of this tall, freckled redhead like we'd never met before.
Motion capture of the live actor was central to making Chained a reality, Denton said. There are two primary elements capturing Bates' performance for VR. A suit with velcroed ball markers near his joints collects his body movements through cameras mounted around the room. It's what allows him to reach his hand out to me in real life and have his ghostly avatar do it too. And a head-mounted rig records his facial movements, so Dickens' ghosts match his expressions and their lips sync with his voice when he talks.
Unseen by guests like me, Chained is played out in a room packed with souped-up computers rendering your experience in real time, as well as reference monitors to relay the visuals inside your headset and keep tabs on Bates' motion capture. (It was the motion-capture monitor, showing a doll-like embodiment of me and Bates during our demo, that kept nudging my urge to do cartwheels.)
Though Chained is a tech-heavy project, the creators found that some elements can enhance the piece without any technological bells or whistles. They're still experimenting with modulating Bates' voice technologically and trying to funnel that into the guests' Rift headphones.
"There's something about Michael talking to you directly and his presence and his voice that feels more real," said Ethan Stearns, an executive producer of Chained with MWM Immersive.
As I experienced Chained as a guest, Bates and I weren't the only ones in the room, unbeknownst to me. A scene partner silently danced around me too. With tablet in hand to trigger elements in the show, she's in charge of guiding the VR narrative so events occur at their proper cues.
Every guest who experiences Chained will go through the same general story, but the particulars of each performance are unique. Because solo participants can explore anywhere inside a 360-degree space and respond to Bates' questions in their own personal way, Bates and his partner improvise throughout to keep the story on track -- and to suit the performance to each individual guest's personality.
Chained creator Denton has even categorized different type of guests. There are "performers," people who like playacting off Bates' characters and fabricating a character for themselves. Then there are "sleepers," those who tend to stay where they are and need to be shepherded through the experience. They tend to have the most emotional reactions to the piece, Denton said.
I was a "runner," somebody who suddenly darts off to explore some corner of the room even if the scripted action needs me somewhere else entirely.
Chained also uses an array of practical, simple effects to heighten the reality of the otherworldly VR. I can sit on a physical chair where the VR chair exists in my headset. The four-poster bed in the Victorian bedroom has physical columns that I can reach out and hold.
But the creators also subvert those props to add to the experience's mystery. Walls that I could touch and feel in one scene seem to suddenly disappear. The four-poster bed's columns vanish into thin air when I'm transported from the bedroom to a kitchen.
Only a handful of experiences like Chained exist. Many of them -- like The Horrifically Real Virtuality -- have made waves among theater, film and VR insiders. But until now, they've been removed from mainstream audiences, sticking to events like film festivals.and
Perhaps the most widely seen predecessor to Chained is Carne y Arena, a virtual-reality installation created by Alejandro G. Iñárritu that won the film director a special achievement Oscar last year. Carne y Arena's VR experience doesn't include live acting or motion capture, but it married VR with practical effects and high-art polish, and presented this to a wider audience beyond just film festivals. The experience played for months at Los Angeles' LACMA museum and then traveled to Washington DC, in addition to other tours internationally.
But besides high-end rarities like Carne y Arena, location-based VR experiences are "going toward more of a Dave and Busters thing, in between the Skee-Ball and the coin-op machine," said Stearns, who also produced Carne y Arena. "Coming at it from an artist's perspective, that bums me out because I think we can do a lot of really impactful things with the art."
In addition to trying to make location-based VR more premium and artistic, Chained's creators wanted to make this kind of immersive VR theater accessible too.
"When things like this happen at film festivals, people read ... about these VR experiences, and they can't ever get to do them," said Stearns. Chained's creators wanted to put on a show "for the community of people who actually want to see this stuff."
Early signs suggest people could clamor for it, given its sold-out run in LA, where tickets went for $40. In addition to opening in New York this week, the creators discussed potentially adapting Chained to be something you experience in your own home, too.
But for Denton, Chained's director who grew up reading A Christmas Carol every year with his family since he was around four years old, the experience was a chance to bring a favorite story to life in a way nobody ever has before.
"I'm excited to, hopefully, have people say I've really pushed the boundaries of what it can do," Denton said. "And to be inspirational for others to make more work like it."
First published Nov. 29, 2018.
Update Feb 25 and Feb. 27: Adds details about Chained's New York performances and Oculus's The Under Presents.