There was a small, unassuming picture of Houdini that captivated me when I was growing up. It sat, framed, on my grandfather’s desk, amidst organized piles of technologies, books and notes on the secrets behind magic of all forms. The picture was the only hand-drawn eyewitness account of Houdini’s final moments backstage, before his death. As the granddaughter of a magician, I grew up knowing that the world’s most acclaimed illusionist was also human, and that people have the power to produce magic.
It’s no surprise that the most prolific innovators in VR have a connection to magic. Magicians are storytellers that have mastered the ability to convince you that what you see, no matter how far fetched, is real. And, they have the knowledge of how to manipulate your attention to bring you along with their story.
Before becoming Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of The VOID, Curtis Hickman was a magician creating illusions for David Copperfield and Chris Angel. Unity’s Interaction Designer IXD UX/UI and Augmented and Virtual Reality specialist, Greg Madison, has been mastering the integration of technology into his magic performances, teachings and innovations for over 20 years.
These prominent magicians of VR shared some of their secrets with me, on how they conjure virtual experiences. I also spoke with acclaimed neuroscientist, magician and co-author of Sleights of Mind , Stephen Macknik, for insight into what VR content developers can learn from the neuroscience behind magic.
Source: Raconteur Secret 1: Make Mental Arguments
Much like magic, Stephen explains that “ VR gives you a nudge in a certain direction, and your brain extrapolates the rest .” In fact, the more you present to the eyes, it makes it easier for them to do their normal processing. The immersion into a virtual world alone, gives a feeling of presence far beyond other tricks.
But, as visitors start to explore the words, it’s imperative to make what Curtis Hickman calls “mental arguments” to convince them that what they are experiencing is actually there. He explained this concept with a simple stage magic example: A magician can be on stage, and create the illusion of a ball floating in the air above him, but the audience will assume that that there is just a clear string holding it up. So, the magician needs to rotate a hoop around the ball to make the mental argument that nothing is connected to the ball, in order to achieve a moment of astonishment.
Mental arguments that virtual worlds exist, can be as simple as leveraging the haptic feedback of a controller when it touches an object, or the ability to lift a virtual object in front of you. Most effort needs to be put on the items that are closest to the visitor in the virtual space. As Curtis explains, seeing a car floating in the distance, and seeing an object sitting on a table in VR are “ equally impossible because all images are digital … if I prove that a can sitting on a table is real, the brain assumes that the car is actually floating as well .”
Greg Madison is leading UX Design on Unity’s Carte Blanche research initiative, on “VR-in-VR authoring tools for non-technical users.” When Carte Blanche is being used “ everything is based on the fact that you’re sitting at the table so you can feel the [actual] table… it’s natural to lean on a table, so you feel genuinely related to the objects in the world. ”
Source: The Matrix Secret 2: Offer the Illusion of Choice
A mentalist is a magician that gives the impression that they have extremely strong intuition and mental abilities, to the point where they are able to effortlessly read minds and predict the future. In order to be successful, a mentalist needs to understand their audience intimately, and guide them towards choices that they feel are their own, creating the illusion of choice. The right choices are the choices that will produce the illusion of magic.
VR content creators can benefit by thinking like a mentalist. The choices that people will make in room-scale VR will impact the quality of experiences they will have with the content. It’s important for them to choose the mental arguments that convince them that they are actually present, and to make choices that will help them engage with the virtual world in the most entertaining ways.
In the development phase, Greg Madison studies every detail of people testing his experiences, from where their attention is, to their body language, to know if the cues he has developed are working. When it comes to developing content, he says that “ the observation is the biggest part ,” and retina tracking will become a powerful tool for his UI design.
Think about being in an experience at The VOID. Sceptical users can take time wondering all around the stage, seeking far-out virtual objects that aren’t actually mapped over physical objects, or distant paths that may not actually lead anywhere. But, the content in The VOID naturally integrates subtle hints, through intrigue, as well as some of the elements below, to help people feel more engaged with choosing what they do.