[ originally published on Virtual Reality Pop ]
If I am a pawn in someone else’s chess game, you better believe I am going to demand an explanation before being shoved at some rook. I’ll play my part, damn it, but I want the courtesy of being asked for my consent!”
― Thomm Quackenbush, Danse Macabre
A few weeks ago, I presented Pawn VR at Advertising Week NYC’s TechX Playground. “Presented” being an ambiguous word, considering the experience we offered to AdWeek delegates wasn’t a simple VR demo. Essentially, it was a work in progress, with plenty of progress to be done.
AdWeek TechX’s Playground was designed to be a space to demo ongoing work and show delegates the process of creation. With this in mind, my co-founder, Marjorie Wang, and I proposed an interesting idea for our AdWeek booth: what if we created a VR experience from scratch over the course of the four days of conference, involving delegates in our process? What would an experience like that look like?
We’d only founded our mixed reality studio, intern019, a few weeks before after collaborating together for over a year and wanted to demo something unique for AdWeek delegates to showcase our skills. Presenting our workflow offered an intriguing opportunity for AdWeek delegates to get involved. It definitely helped that creating VR experiences was what we did best. And so we decided to explore how we could make the process the experience.
The art of creation usually happens behind closed doors and when most agencies ask for a demo, they don’t understand all the inner workings that go into creating an experience for them. But often the process is as important as the final product. After all, it is during the process, in between the debugging, the brainstorming, and the designing, that one can truly perceive all the different use cases for a medium. Especially with a new medium like VR, understanding the process opens up the possibilities. This was an opportunity to let people in on the secret.
Both Marjorie and I really do not enjoy playing video games. Or even trying other VR experiences. To us, playing a game is incredibly boring. It is a chore. At most, it is viewed as research for our own experiences. Some people would argue we are playing games wrong but, to us, making the game is the game. Figuring out how to create a better VR experience for others is like a strategy game that never ends. It is always stimulating, always puzzling. Therefore, it was only fitting that the experience we shared with AdWeek delegates was the experience of creating. Because, in our eyes, creating is the magic.
We knew it could be done. We are both rapid prototypers — experienced marathon runners when it comes to VR development. We’d been working in VR for over a year so creating a fully-realized experience in four days was entirely doable, if not incredibly easy — even for a team of two.
Playing on the phrase ‘being a pawn in someone else’s game,’ we gave delegates who visited our booth the opportunity to be turned into a chess pawn themselves. By photoscanning with a Structure Sensor, we were able to transform delegates into 3D chess pawns which we would then place on our larger-than-life chessboard. Participants could then play chess with their stone doppelgangers in an eerie VR world.
Manipulating chess in this way to create a VR experience was a simple solution to make VR accessible. Chess has been a cultural cornerstone for hundreds of years, an easy metaphor to understand for the non-technologically minded and appreciate the opportunities presented by VR.
We called our experience Pawn VR, tempting people with flyers to stop by our ‘Pawn Shop’ . With PAWN VR, we paid close attention to designing not only the user experience of the final VR game, but also the experience of creating alongside AdWeek participants. This presented an interesting dichotomy. One thing we should have anticipated was having to deal with people coming to your booth and building the back-end logic to run the experience at the same time. This meant that a lot of the more advanced coding (such as the actual chess logic) could not happen. But we didn’t stay overnight or skip out on sleep to get this project done. One easy solution was to just arrive half an hour early each day. Before 12 noon, the crowds were pretty slim so it was easy to focus on getting the code to work.
The Pawn VR experience was well-received. People loved the idea of seeing themselves as a chess piece. They marveled at how a simple Structure Sensor attached to an iPad could produce a 3D model of themselves in just a few minutes. They were equally impressed with the semi-finished VR world we were populating with chess pieces. We encouraged people who came in on Day 1 to check in again on Day 4 to see how the VR experience changed.
Even the President of Advertising Week, Mari Kim Novak, heard about our project and loved the idea of ‘being a pawn in someone else’s chess game’ so much that she had all the Advertising Week staff turned into chess pawns. And so at the end of the four days, we actually ended up with two complete chess sets, instead of one.
It was a fun experiment for our young studio, although definitely a little nerve-wracking in the beginning. You never know what nightmarish technical difficulties decide to introduce themselves and how they might delay production on a tight deadline. Luckily, our technical difficulties were minimal at best and easily solved by simply attaining more power strips.
Perhaps our booth was little less decked out than the others and our product a little more vague, but I like to think we gave AdWeek participants something really valuable: a little taste of what its like to create a VR experience from start to finish, and how maybe they could too.