A glowing example of how VR is changing narrative—and social interaction—as we know it.
There’s not really a quick way to sum up what Where Thoughts Go is; though we find aspects of narrative and social network in it, neither is ultimately an apt label for the experience. Maybe the best way to describe what it is is to describe what it does: it allows us to engage with each other in an entirely new way via immersive technologies.
In Where Thoughts Go, users enter into alien worlds full of floating orbs. These aren’t just props or non-player characters (NPCs)—each orb houses the missive of a real-life user who went through the experience before you.
“Upon being born in this land for unknown reasons, you embark on a journey of questions in a variety of distinct locations,” said Lucas Rizzotto, creator of Where Thoughts Go, in an interview with VRScout. “Each environment has a personal question at its center that all users must answer, and you’re allowed to explore what other people have said by waking up these strange creatures around you and leaving your own voice behind for others to find. The questions become more profound as the experience progresses, and ultimately what you decide to say will define who are in this world.”
This is the mechanism by which you progress through the narrative: sharing thoughts and confessions. But don’t worry—everything recorded here is anonymous. Users can even modulate their voices to obscure their identities. In that way, its ethos is similar to something like PostSecret, updated for the immersive era.
“Where Thoughts Go has a number of narrative arcs being crafted through the questions, the world and the user interactions—the film festival version of the project has 5 chapters, each themed after a period of life—but ultimately the meaning of the story is entirely up to the individual,” Rizzotto said. “Every user session has a unique, random cast of characters (the people who are part of your journey), and the final takeaways from the experience are entirely reliant on who you are as a person and what your story prior to the experience is.”
Rizzotto is a firm believer in world-building as a narrative strategy in immersive technologies. In Where Thoughts Go, he wanted to create a fully realized world that could spark the narrative processes of the mind, thus encouraging novel kinds of user participation.
“In VR, we’re not designing apps anymore, we’re designing places,” Rizzotto said. “Worlds with their own character, lore, rules and visual abstractions. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a game or an enterprise application, every user experience is a narrative, and if you’re not playing into that idea, you’re missing a huge opportunity to make them care about where they are and what they’re doing.”
In the case of Where Thoughts Go, Rizzotto drew from a deep understanding narrative principles to complement his background as an experience designer to further develop this emerging storytelling language for immersive media.
“World-building and narrative will become a central part of all immersive applications going forward,” Rizzotto said. “You can represent actions in a way that respects your universe without having to resort to buttons, windows and old visual metaphors. I could have easily have made the thoughts a bunch of faceless spheres with playback buttons around them, but instead I gave them faces, a narrative reason to be there and gave the interactions emotional significance: they’re asleep, and you have to wake them up to listen.
Of course, any experience that opens itself up to participant co-creation leaves room for the possibility of all manner of interaction. Rizzotto instituted security measures that ensure privacy to discourage trolling, and furthermore designed the experience to welcome users to be as free and comfortable as they’re able.
“One of the biggest challenges of the experience is that it needs to earn the trust of users and ensure them that they’re in a safe space—so the aesthetics of the experience play a huge role, specially in setting the tone for each question,” Rizzotto said. “The soundtrack, pace, tone, colors, open environments and sounds all help the user feel comfortable and introspective, designed to be beautiful but unobtrusive, not to distract you from what you should really be paying attention to: the people.”
What has the effect of Where Thoughts Go been so far?
“For some people, Where Thoughts Go changed how they interact with strangers on a day-to-day basis,” Rizzotto said. “For others, it has made them reconsider certain decisions in their lives. The point is that the experience serves as a catalyst for your own personal narrative, allowing you to reflect and arrive to your own conclusions about the world and yourself.”
This mission is close-at-heart for Rizzotto, whose formative experiences on the web drove his desire to create a VR experience like this.
“I grew up on the Internet and most of my friendships during my teenage years were with people that I’ve never seen or met: all we had was voice, so I always knew voice had the power to communicate humanity in a way that text simply doesn’t,” Rizzotto said. “I look at VR/AR as an opportunity for us to redesign the internet and I want to make sure that it serves deeper human purposes.”
His hope is that Where Thoughts Go can spark curiosity in other people—both in virtual settings and IRL. The experience works on all major platforms, but Rizzotto designed it with LeapMotion hand-tracking in mind to double down on the organic aspect of the experience—letting users their own hands to interact with the digital world.
“I also love asking people questions and finding out why they think the way they do—the project is probably a reflection of my desire to connect emotionally with strangers and it gives them the ability to be open and reflect, even if it’s only through this elaborate world,” Rizzotto said. “A lot of people are not aware that everyone around them is as emotionally complex as they are, so I wanted to create something that proved it without a shadow of a doubt.”
Where Thoughts Go will see its official release in Q1 of 2018. For more information about the experience, or to try an early demo, contact Rizzotto at the links included at the bottom of the announcement page.