Interview: Meet the man who spent 48 hours straight in virtual reality
According to many in the tech world, we are standing at the edge of a monumental shift in media and culture. Virtual reality is going to change everything, they say, and it's going to start in earnest in 2016. The VR community is still very small, and while some are tiptoeing cautiously into the virtual reality world, Thorsten Wiedemann dove in head first, and he didn't come out until two days later.
Wiedemann is the founder and director of the A MAZE independent game festival. In early January of 2016, in a project titled DIS/CONNECTED held at the Game Science Center in Berlin, Germany, he spent 48 straight hours with an HTC Vive VR headset strapped to his head, experiencing a constant stream of VR content courtesy of his "VR shaman" Sara Vogl, VR Designer of Lucid Trips.
Over his two days in VR Wiedemann encountered blue whales, ate in a virtual kitchen, created art, hung out with friends and fans in Altspace VR, and slept in a cozy digital cave. For more insight into his experience and his thoughts on the VR revolution, I recently spoke to Wiedemann via Skype.
GameCrate: For people who may not be familiar with you and what you did, let's start with the basics. What do you do for a living?
Thorsten Wiedemann: I'm Thorsten S. Wiedemann, I live in Berlin, I'm 44 years old, and I am the festival director of the A MAZE festival, which is an international independent video games festival. It's the biggest festival for independent video game developers in Europe. We have talks, workshops, awards, we've had VR awards since 2015, a big exhibition. It's a festival, so we want to celebrate independent video games and the culture around them.
So I have the A MAZE festival in April, it's from April 20 through the 23rd, and for five years I've also been doing a festival in South Africa, in Johannesburg. It's kind of the same festival, just for Africans, for African game developers. It's a completely new scene, some of the people are amazingly talented, and we know some games like Desktop Dungeons, Broforce, Pixel Boy, and there's also a local multiplayer scene, also alternative controllers built with cardboard and arcade buttons, it's pretty awesome.
GC: So what inspired DIS/CONNECTED and your 48 hour journey in VR?
TW: Because I'm playing a lot of VR stuff, plus we have the VR awards so I have to test games. I'm very interested in it. I think it's not just hype, I believe it's becoming the next media standard. It will change how we see and how we consume media. It will absolutely be the future. And 2016 is the year all the big brands are coming out with their hardware. Before it was just developer kits, and I had all the developer kits at home. HTC Vive was, at this time, the best. Because of the controllers, you have this room-scale thing with the lighthouses, that was a big eye-opener. I mean, you can touch stuff for the first time. With Oculus, with the normal Xbox controllers, it was not so ideal. Now they also have their touch controllers, but they aren't shipped. So HTC Vive was much more forward-thinking in this case.
So 2016 everything starts. How will it be in 2026? So I said to myself, because I'm a big fan of VR and I think things are going to move very very fast, I think in 2026 everyone will have VR glasses, it will be normal, kids will educate themselves in simulations, we will train ourselves in VR, of course a lot of cool entertainment, new art forms popping up, film people working directly with game people. We have VR designers, we have completely new jobs, everything will change.
But still, staying in VR for two days or even longer will be something special. For this you'll have to have special places—they could be legal places, could be illegal places. It could be a little like a drug trip, something like LSD or peyote or something that you experience in a different way. Maybe you have some chemicals in the future that make it feel more like, "I can touch stuff," or "I can feel more." Everybody knows from sci-fi movies that it's going to be like this. I like the idea that the technology is now so good that it will work and be close to sci-fi. I know it sounds crazy and weird, but I do actually believe in that.
And I'm always a positive-thinking person, so hopefully we use it in a good way. That's why I was wearing the pink suit, because I wanted to create an icon of positive thinking, positive use of virtual reality, not a dark future.
So I started to make this thing DIS/CONNECTED, and I started talking to Sara Lisa Vogl, she's a VR designer. I know her from other events, and I invited her to the A MAZE festival last year to show Lucid Trips, it's a cool zero-gravity game where you have to walk on your hands and collect objects. She's from Hamburg. I asked her to help me, because she has the technical knowledge. I have no idea, I'm not a VR designer. Of course I have crazy ideas, but when there is a drop-out or something I have no idea how to restart. And when I'm wearing the glasses I need someone who takes care. It was like I was the VR-naut, like an astronaut, and you have the VR "Shaman." For every trip you need somebody who is leading you through the world. If something is happening, something bad or surprisingly good, you have somebody you can talk to who is kind of sharing the experience.
This was very important for me, especially because after 25 hours I had a panic attack, and I was feeling a little bit bad. I have them in real life too, but not so often. I actually had two panic attacks the first day after twelve hours, but I could lower the anxiety. And then on the second day, after 25 hours, it was too hardcore. I was so close to just putting the glasses down. But Sara was there, she was giving me a massage, she was reading me the chat because we had this nice stream going on, so she was telling me what the people were saying all the time, and it was just like pushing me into not getting completely mad and depressed and frustrated or whatever. So yeah my heart was beating really so fast and I was not feeling so well, but she helped me a lot to get out of that feeling, and then I could continue, and was kind of a new person.
And finally I did it. After 48 hours it was a fantastic experience.
GC: You've mentioned that at the end you didn't have any headaches or eye problems or nausea?
TW: Nausea you have some times in virtual reality, because some of the worlds are really shit, so they need better design. But I don't have this problem very much. But with my eyes, no problem at all. No red eyes. Everything was fine. Psychologically I don't know, *laughs* but I'm still the same. I'm still Thorsten, just that I know know a little bit more about VR design and how you can use VR. Of course it was very inspiring to me as well. I suddenly had the feeling that I wanted to create worlds as well. And actually I don't want to create worlds where you have to interact. I'm doing a videogame festival, everybody is like "You have to interact!" but I don't know...after my 48 hour trip I was just thinking, "Wow. Just having space and doing nothing...that would be awesome."
For example, Daniel Ernst is an awesome artist and also VR designer. He's actually an illustrator, he's been working on dioramas like Blocked In, like Der Grosse Gottlieb, now he's working on Pigeon Man. You live in a kind of illustrated world. It's very beautiful and kind of hand-drawn and everything, it's very wonderful. And in dioramas you don't interact, and it's pretty awesome. I think doing nothing, just hanging out there and enjoying it...you have your thoughts. In the real world, in reality, everything is very busy. You have your phone, you have two laptops, three screens or whatever. You need some kind of silent space or place. I think in the future this will be something VR can be, a sort of silent place.
GC: You mentioned before that you're very much into VR as a positive experience. When I talk to people like my mom about VR, her immediate concern is that "People are going to be murdering each other in VR!" What do you say to people concerned about the darker side of VR?
TW: We definitely need to establish an ethic of our creations. And of course you have all these horror VR experiences, but you also have it in movies and books, right? Every art form has a dark side.
Of course there are millions of possibilities with VR, also to manipulate people. You have to be careful. It's something that hopefully parents and people in the school will teach kids so they have the competence to use media right. The same as with drugs, you can't tell a person just "Don't take drugs." It's a decision that the person is making. You can keep the person away, but when you keep someone away they are more hungry than ever.
Nobody should be afraid of VR. It has a lot of positive aspects for the future. You have darknet as well, but not everybody's in the darknet. So tell your mom that everything is going to be okay!
GC: I'll do that. Have you heard of anybody performing similar VR marathons before you?
TW: I haven't really heard of anything like that. I just heard of this Kickstarter campaign where somebody wanted to stay there for I think 28 days or something. This was 2014 and he wanted to re-design his apartment into virtual reality and live in virtual reality. It was a very complex story. But I just heard about it after I started to contact all the people and write my script for what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.
If somebody now says "Okay 48 hours, now I'm going to do 72 hours!" I'm fine with it. Of course it's going to be very hard for him or her.
GC: What's your advice for them?
TW: We're still humans, right? We need to prepare. We have to not eat so much the days before. I mean you don't want to poo, right, during the sessions. I needed to have some blockers, I ate some pills to block. For peeing I just used these kinds of pipes with granulate in there. It works pretty well, but it's also disgusting *laughs*.
The advice for people who want to do something like this, just choose a good world. Sara Lisa Vogl, my VR Shaman, she did a really good job. We started with theBlu, then we went over to Job Simulator, then Virtual Kitchen. That was really nice because whenever it was eating time we went to the virtual kitchen, and I was able to change the style of the kitchen. There was a table in virtual reality, and we just used a real table and put it in the same place as the virtual table, so I was sitting there with Sara, but she was obviously not in VR, and we had a good breakfast or dinner.
I was eating bananas and chocolate of course, to "block." I also had some stuff you drink when you can't eat any more, some kind of protein stuff that you drink so you don't feel exhausted when you don't have the right minerals. I did not have any coffee, I was just drinking water all the time.
I was playing VROlympics, that was pretty awesome, Selfie Tennis from VR Unicorns, I was playing Modbox, Tilt Brush, and Hover Junkers, which is an awesome game. I really like it.
GC: What's your favorite game or experience you've tried in VR, either this time or previously?
TW: I really like Deep. I know there is another game out there called Deep as well for VR, but this one is from Owen Harris and Niki Smit, and it's actually a breathing game, a meditation game. So you have a controller around your belly, and you breathe from your belly. I don't normally do that, I'm usually breathing in my chest, but I think that's not okay, that's not good.
In Deep you learn how to breathe from your belly, and by doing that you move underwater. You can discover an underwater world, it's kind of abstract and beautiful, good sound design, good music. It's a perfect meditation. It's definitely a thing that you have to experience. And your mom should experience that as well!
GC: That's the big question, right? What do you give to someone who is skeptical of VR? What's a good introduction?
TW: Deep is definitely something. Because it's easy, and it's fascinating. It's also, in a way, kind of bringing you down. At the beginning you're super excited, and a lot of the experiences are kind of "Wow, sensation! Boom boom boom!" And then it's over after five minutes. Some people puke, some people survive. But this kind of VR like Deep is really amazing.
And like I said, I really like the dioramas like Blocked In. And I also like Fantastic Contraption, it's really awesome. It makes complete sense, the whole game, because it's a sandbox game, and a puzzler, it's so much fun and so cute. It's brilliant. Lucid Trips, I told you before, from Sara, my partner in crime, is also fantastic.
I did a lot of sport, actually. I think sport is going to be big as well. And I was shooting a lot.
GC: How was that? How was shooting in VR?
TW: It was fun. I normally don't like to shoot that much, I don't like shooter games, but in VR it felt kind of real, not real-real, but it was good and fun. It just felt good.
What was definitely a highlight of the whole session was social VR. I met some friends in AltspaceVR. I had never been to those kinds of places before. Most of the stuff Sara showed me, I had never been in there before. And it was really really cool to hang out in social VR, just hanging out with avatars and traveling from planet to planet in VR. I was also watching movies in there, hanging out with people.
VRChat is even better, I think. People were really celebrating my performance, and that was really awesome. They made an avatar that was looking like me, with the pink suit and the glasses. And for my first time in VRChat most of the people were wearing this avatar. And it was so strange standing there, looking around at 25 or 30 people who looked like me. And I was hopping with them from world to world, and that was really cool. I'm definitely going to go back. I mean, we know it already from Second Life, it's nothing really new, but now I think it makes sense. It makes much more sense than Second Life.
You were asking me before about the future, and I think all this social VR stuff is going to be huge in the future. I actually want to do a new performance with Sara together, where we're both traveling in VR. Because I think it's very very important that you have somebody by your side, kind of a sidekick. Just walking around, having a good time, meeting people. Also exploring together, just hanging out, watching the sky. It sounds a bit touristic, but a lot of people are thinking VR tourism is going to be a big thing.
GC: I was going to ask you about VR as a solitary and lonely experience, because you're the only one really seeing what you're seeing, but it sounds like you did a lot of social things in VR.
TW: I'm happy I did both, for the first time. First of all I wanted to be completely isolated, with noise-cancelling headphones. With noise-cancelling headphones in the kinds of worlds I've been in, I would stay just a maximum of 10 or 15 hours. Not for 48 hours. Because the worlds are kind of small at the moment. They're too simple. They're not complex enough. They're not challenging, even not for your eye. I'm not talking about sensation or that there must be something happening all the time, but it's just that world...you realize after a while that there's a screen. It's just a screen. This is something that we definitely have to change. We have to work on the feel, this is very important, how people really feel. Because we are humans, also, in virtual reality. We should not forget the people who are in virtual reality.
And the social aspect is a big thing. What was also very cool was Minigolf VR multiplayer. I was playing with a developer. It was awesome. He was in Melbourne, I was in Berlin. We were playing some holes, I was super bad. But the cool thing was, we had a conversation. He was interviewing me, I was interviewing him. In the future I think you can have business meetings or something like that. You can interview me but I'm not looking at the screen, we're actually doing something. We were playing golf, but nobody was talking about minigolf. It was very refreshing.
GC: Was HTC involved at all in the production of DIS/CONNECTED?
TW: No. I just wrote Chet (Faliszek of Valve) because he sent me the glasses and I said "Hey, I'm going to use the glasses for the performance" and he never replied to that. He just replied when he noticed that it was kind of a success and that the press is picking up everything, and they like to hear my opinions. He's pretty happy, and he's also looking forward to the documentary.
Also Oculus wrote something like "When you do the next performance you should definitely wear Oculus glasses" *laughs*. Definitely when we do the performance together, when Sara and I are both wearing glasses we'll use both of the glasses. Maybe then I will test the Oculus.
GC: So after you spent 48 hours in virtual reality, how long was it before you went back into VR again?
TW: The next time was just a week after the experience. Because I went skiing just after the performance, then I came home and somebody showed me something in VR. I don't remember what it was. But I'm regularly testing stuff. It's not like I've had "enough" VR.
Many thanks to Wiedemann for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow A MAZE on Twitter to keep up with Wiedemann's festival, and check out the Facebook page for DIS/CONNECTED for more information about the upcoming documentary film covering his VR marathon.
DIS/CONNECTED images courtesy Thorsten Wiedemann and his team.
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