When reading the summaries of the best experiences had by the various VR influencers at Tribeca 2019, there was one experience that was always quoted by them: The Collider. Everyone always told amazing things about it, saying that it was very intimate and very interesting, and for this reason, I got really curious about it. Unluckily, the description sounded quite obscure to me:
The Collider is an immersive virtual and theatrical experience exploring power and dependency. The viewer is invited to enter a machine built to decode the mysteries of human relationships. It operates like the Large Hadron Collider, except instead of atoms, it hurls people against each other.
Its mission: to identify and understand the invisible material that passes between people—the corrosive, delightful, and mysterious matter that keeps us together and pulls us apart. The experience guides the viewer along a journey, creating a moving choreography that becomes its own private spectacle within the heart of the machine.
I tried to find more info about this virtual reality content, but with no luck. And I also hoped for a release on the Oculus Store or Steam, but it never happened.
But finally yesterday, at Sandbox Immersive Festival, I have tried it. I can confirm that it is really an amazing and quite unique experience, that absolutely deserves to be tried. It has been for me one of the best experiences I have ever tried in a VR exhibition. For the most of you that won’t be able to try it, I will describe it here, so that you can understand what it is and why it is so special.
Beware that this article CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS, so if you plan to try the Collider soon, maybe it’s better that you don’t read it. Otherwise, keep reading and discover this interesting installation. Just to be clear: it is impossible that it will be released on a VR store, so either you will be at some storytelling festival, or you will never try it. Clarified this, I can go on.
The Collider is an installation by Anagram, created by Amy Rose, May Abdalla and developed by Clarice Hilton and Mike Golembewski. It has been conceived to make two people interact together for a total time of 40 minutes. It is better if you perform the experience with a stranger (later, I will explain you why).
When I asked May Abdalla about the sense of the project, so why they created it, she told me that the purpose was to make two people interact together and so investigate the relationships between people, but also to investigate the relationship of every person with “power”. It is interesting to notice that here “power” is not used in the classical sense of political/economic/social power, but in the one of the power of one person of changing the mood, or even the personality of another person. The Collider is about how the people we meet change our life by exerting influence on us. What is the effect of this influence on us? Is it something that we like? Is it something that we need? Do we like that someone changes our life or that someone decides how our life will be? And how is our relationship with this kind of “power”? These are the questions that the Collider wants to foster into people. Regarding the answers, well, you will have to find them inside yourself.
The experience works this way: the booth is a closed cube and there are two doors for the participants. One person will enter the left door and the other one the right one. The two users will make a parallel journey and then will actually truly meet only at the end. I was selected to enter the left door, because it was the one leading to the VR headset (and I had to review this VR experience, so it was a forced choice). The other nice Chinese girl doing the experiment with me entered the right one (that didn’t imply the use of VR).
When I entered the door, I found myself in a little room, that was a mixture of a laboratory and a bedroom of the 60s. There were various old objects, an old chair and then some scientific tools like a microscope. It was cozy, but at the same time slightly creepy. I sat on the chair and put my headphones on. Through them, a voice told me that we were in a machine to do an experiment. As the Large Hadron Collider makes particles to collide to study them, this machine makes people collide for the same reason.
After that, I was instructed to relax and think about a moment when someone got power on me. I could hear the voice being very soothing and applying some clear hypnotic techniques to make me connect more deeply with my subconscious part. I was instructed to visualize that moment in my mind and then create a diorama about it with some plastic figures that were provided on a piece of furniture.
You may think that this diorama has an actual purpose for this experience (maybe the other person is going to see it), but it will not. Even the whole moment you have thought in your mind is actually going to stay with you for all the time and you are never required to detail it. I was afraid I had to share my personal moments with strangers, but the Collider is about YOUR relationship with other people and the power they apply on you, or that you apply on them. So, it is something personal, that you do for yourself.
So, what is the purpose of creating the diorama? It’s a psychological thing. As May has explained to me, it is to put you in the mood for the experience. The reason is that, as she says “when you go to a cinema, you have a ritual that prepares you for the movie: you take the popcorns, the coke, you sit down, you turn off the phone, you watch the commercials and then when you’re fully ready, you see the movie. In VR, it is never like this: you go to an exhibition, someone puts you a headset on your head, the experience starts immediately and you don’t have the time to prepare for it”. Making the diorama, thinking about this moment of domination, puts you in the mood of thinking about “power” and what sensations it fosters in you. It makes you think about these sensations, feel them again and also make them “physical” thanks to the diorama. It prepares your mind for the true moment of the experiment, that is the next one. Miss Abdalla doesn’t care if the experience because of this and other mechanisms becomes too long and this is a problem for the festivals. She knows that to have a high-quality experience of this kind, you need a long time and this is the time that she has designed the experience for.
If you’re wondering what was my partner doing at the same time: more or less the same, but thinking about a moment in her life when she thought that someone would be important for her life and then he/she went away.
After this part of the experiment was completed, I passed through a door, opened a green curtain andentered in a little space all enclosed in green curtains. On the ground, there was a lot of sand (don’t go there with your elegant shoes as I did!) and on a stand, there was a Vive virtual reality headset and some headphones. I wore the two devices and started seeing a very abstract environment. Mostly it was all black, as if I was inside the void, with some bright bluish abstract elements in. For instance, there was like an abstract sun made of blue geometrical shapes rotating all around me. There was, at the beginning, in front of me, a chair made of pulsating blue lines. And so on.
I couldn’t see the real world around me, because I was in VR. The soothing voice started talking with me again, again with its hypnotic techniques. From now on, it started giving me instructions telling me what to do. As being the one that was there in the role of the person that “undergoes the power of someone else”, I had to suffer from this treatment of being forced to do what the voice told me to do. At a certain point, someone used the controllers of the Vive and started moving them, and I had to follow their movements with my bare hands just by seeing their position in space in VR. Then I was told to sing in a loud voice following the rhythm of my visuals. I was touched. I was given like a squeezable toy in my hands and I had to make it sound. Weird things of this kind. All without being able to decide what to do. It was someone else that decided everything for me: the other person entered in the Collider with me. I could only obey.
Later on, chatting with my partner, I discovered that these weren’t even her decisions: in her second room, she had a machine that printed little papers with on the instructions of what she had to do to me. And then she could enter my “stage room” to actually perform them (like touching me or moving my controllers). Oh the irony: even the one exerting the power, in the end, was suffering the power of someone else.
I admit that I felt quite uncomfortable during the experiment: having someone controlling me, without knowing what I had to do next, was unsettling. I didn’t like the sensation at all… probably I’m not someone that likes to be controlled by someone else. The experience made me feel vulnerable all the time. It made me connect deeply with my emotions associated to being in some way dependent on another person, to being powerless, to being uncomfortable, to being sad. It was a trip inside what makes me uncomfortable. The other girl confessed me she felt strange too, even if she were in the opposite role.
What is interesting is that May Abdalla had the idea of the Vive on the head of a person and the controllers in the hands of another one when one person had to make her try a demo with the Vive. As you can read in this fantastic interview to her:
The person facilitating the experience had picked up the controllers for the device and began walking over to me. There was a way that the controllers moved in his invisible hands across the space that was instantly, uniquely human. It was fascinating — what could be sensed or inferred from the movement. I reached out my hands in the direction of the 3D models of the controllers floating in front of me, and my hands and the plastic made contact. Out of one realm into another.
When talking with me, May also talked about the fact that she wanted to create an experience where you could use all your body in VR, but without sensors to have your body in VR. So, she’s not interested intoKinects or Vive Trackers, but in using other cues to make you feel completely in VR, without making the system more technically complicated. While I was the cavy of this experiment, I had to use:
- My feet to move and to “feel” the sand;
- My bare hands to follow the controllers;
- My body to dance;
- My voice to sing (in a terrible way, actually);
- Furthermore, I have been touched on various parts of the body (not in that sense, you pervert! :D).
Even if I couldn’t see my body in VR, I have felt and used it completely. All without suits and sensors. This is very powerful… and apart from increasing the sense of immersion in the “virtual world”, it also serves in increasing the deepness of the “hypnotic status”.
This is why I say that the Collider will never be on a VR store: it is an experience where the VR headset is just a little part of it, and there is almost no software. It requires the physical interaction between two people that don’t know each other and this is very hard to recreate outside of an event.
After that all this happened, I could remove the headset and I found myself alone in this little stage. I could move to the next room, that was like a living room of a house in the 60s. I found my cute partner there and we sat together around a little table. We had in front of us a menu with a series of questions we should ask each other about this experience and what we felt in it. The idea of the “menu” was good to break the ice, but actually, after those 5 questions, we continued talking a lot. When the bell rang, we took the exit door and we were out. We continued talking, with arguments ranging from the experience we felt to our working life. I so discovered that my partner was a girl from Chinese theatre company Fun Age, that is thinking about exploring the use of VR in theaters in China. She was a nice person, so we decided to keep in touch.
When I listened to a talk from a woman working for Dreamscape, one of the interesting points that she said was that to make people connect each other during a multiplayer experience, you should make them feel vulnerable together. The Collider makes you feel deeply vulnerable, it makes you remember a moment in your life in which you felt vulnerable… and then you are like a puppet all the time. So it is normal that when you go out, you feel a bond with the other person. May says that “becoming friend is an unexpected consequence of the experience”. I don’t believe that it is not made by design, due to how the experience is conceived, but I agree that it may not be its main purpose.
It is best that you enter to the Collider with a person that you don’t know, because of various reasons:
- This way you can have a new friend in the end;
- You may be more open and more honest when talking with a stranger you will never see again;
- One of the purpose of the whole experience is making you do with a stranger things that you would never do in a different context (not those “things”, you pervert again :D)
I have done it with a stranger and I loved how it was. Another person made it with a friend and told me that it felt a bit less exciting in the final part, the one of the dialogue… because you have less to discover from the other one.
I also loved talking about the experience with May the day before doing it, since she’s an incredibly talented person that really shines creativity all the time. She thinks that the experience is hardly monetizable, and I agree with her: it takes too much time, it is hard to explain, it is not scalable. But I think that even if it can’t make some people earn money, for sure it can provide a lot of emotional richness to the people experiencing it.
The Collider is very deep, it is an experience that digs inside you. That’s why there are people that cry while they do that. “But people cry when they are alone, not when they are in front of the other person” says May.
I never felt the urge to cry, but for sure the experience has moved something inside me. I can’t tell you what, I can’t tell you why. Maybe it has been the Collision with the other girl. I can’t tell you what has changed inside me, but I will take this with me for the rest of my life. The experiment has been successful.
Foto by Anagram