Can an Interactive VR Experience About a Grieving Man Teach Empathy?
Hue doesn't see colors anymore. He has lost his ability to write, too. His life is black-and-white and blah, and in the demo for the eponymous virtual reality interactive film Hue, he sits in a room, despondent. It's up to the viewer to try to bring color and words back into the man's world.
Created by L.A.-based interactive filmmaker Nicole McDonald, Hue was part of the Sundance New Frontier Lab last year and recently made an appearance in the New Frontier section of the famed film festival. It is anticipated for release on various virtual reality and touch-based platforms in 2018.
In order to help Hue, you have to touch him. You can stroke his hair or tap his shoulder, but he might not respond. You can reach for his hand. Maybe he'll grab it. Maybe he won't. The story can test the user's patience as well as empathy. You have to figure out the best way to approach a person who may not want to interact with you right now. You must wait for the person to give you a silent go-ahead that the story can move forward.
"We have a tendency, when we're in an interactive space, to touch everything and poke everything and also figure out the limitations," McDonald says. "With Hue, he is sad and if you push him too far, it doesn't say very nice things about who you are."
McDonald grew up in Massachusetts with parents who worked with computers and encouraged her to learn the then-emerging technology. When she was 9, she took a coding class on a machine with a monochrome monitor. "The instructor said, some day, we were going to see more colors," McDonald recalls. "At least that's how my brain heard it, and what he meant was RGB and what I imagined was more colors than were in the rainbow."
Her understanding of the instructor's statement triggered an idea. "I had this crazy storyline where these new colors were in charge of our emotions and were almost like the weather," she says. "It was beautiful."
McDonald admits that she "probably forgot" about that moment as she grew older, but she did end up on the creative side of technologically advanced projects, first as a 3-D modeler and art director for video games, then in interactive film. She moved around the country, eventually landing in Los Angeles for what was supposed to be a yearlong stint, but she decided to stay put. The idea of more colors came back into her life "a couple years ago" during a conversation with a friend about interactive films. That's when Hue began to take shape. The original idea was to make the story with touch devices, like the iPad, in mind. However, virtual reality platforms with hand controllers hit the scene and changed the plan. "VR ... taps into our psyche in a way that I think nothing else has," McDonald says.
Inside a Culver City workspace, I step into Hue's world via the Oculus Rift VR headset and approach the character apprehensively. Sometimes he makes a slight response. Sometimes he doesn't respond at all. While Hue is an animated character, his despair feels real. I don't know how to help. Should I leave him be? What if he doesn't want me here? What if I touch him too quickly or too forcefully and startle him? Even when he does respond, I'm not sure what I can do to make him feel better. I hear a direction to move him toward his shadow. Eventually, sunny shades of yellow start to fill the space. Yellow, McDonald explains, is the color they chose to express creativity. Hue can write again.
Shadows are important for McDonald and play a crucial role in Hue. "The shadow is symbolic of Hue as his best self. Hue not wanting to be sad inside," she explains by phone a few days after our first meeting. "The shadow is something where magic happens. … Shadows always remind me that there is light, so I thought that was a really beautiful way to help guide viewers toward the experience."
When completed, Hue will be between 45 minutes and an hour in length and the titular character's story will take on more angles and more color. In this demo, Hue is mourning the loss of his brother and that's affecting the writer's ability to work.
The goal, McDonald says, was to imbue Hue with something that would be relatable. "I have always wanted it to be a universal story about sadness, just that wonderful, universal ache that we all feel," she says. That he is, in the demo segment, dealing with loss and that it's affecting his ability to work captures that sentiment.
"I think that we as humans carry a lot of sadness around," McDonald says. "It's not something that we are used to communicating, and I think that it prohibits us from reaching our greatness."
Much has been said about the lack of empathy in the face of technological advancement, but McDonald is using the latest technology to create an experience that's reliant on the user's ability to be empathetic and to treat a character with compassion. That ties to her vision of what can be done in interactive film. "I think the ideal interactive film is from the point of view of the storyteller," McDonald says, "but we get to participate in that story and, therefore, when we leave that space or that narrative, we are energized and better for it."
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