I Went Inside Someone Else's Virtual World and Cried My Eyes Out

By Becca Caddy on at

Imagine you’re standing in a driveway with no shoes on, just your socks, facing a house. The world unfolds around you in glorious illustrations – it looks like you’re inside a living comic book. A warm voice invites you to open the door in front of you and when you reach out, you can feel it. You open the door and step inside, and instead of hard floor you can feel carpet beneath your toes. You’re home.

This is how the virtual reality-meets-theatre performance Draw Me Close begins – and it will change the way you think about VR.

Where theatre meets virtual reality

Image Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Draw Me Close is a location-based virtual reality experience, which means it’s not designed to be watched on your VR headset at home. Instead, like when Gizmodo was given the chance to try out an early run of Draw Me Close last week at the Young Vic, you are given a specific time and place to be – much more like a play than any virtual reality experiences you’ve had before.

Once you’ve had an HTC Vive headset put on you, a new world unfolds around you: the childhood world of its creator, Jordan Tannahill. As you move through this world of memories, you get to experience it through beautiful illustrations by artist and cartoonist Teva Harrison, which are drawn, erased and redrawn in 360-degrees.

But your role isn’t just to sit back and watch. Instead, you can interact with the illustrated elements in the virtual world, as well as both physical objects and real actors who are present in the space with you.

For playwright, filmmaker and creator Jordan Tannahill, this interlacing of mediums and methods made the most sense for sharing a true and poignant story about his relationship with his mother over the course of 20 years.

“VR provides a unique affordance to replicate traversing through memory and dream,” Tannahill said at an event about the creative process behind Draw Me Close held at Canada House in London in January.

If this kind of experience sounds familiar, Marvel fans will remember Tony Stark created a similar technology called B.A.R.F. (Binarily Augmented Retro Framing), which was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War. His prototype used a pair of glasses that could connect with a user’s hippocampus, access a memory and project it out into the real world. But whereas Stark planned on using B.A.R.F as a therapeutic tool to help people process and work through traumatic memories, Draw Me Close turns Tannahill’s memories into an art form.

Virtual reality: a creative playground for artists

Virtual reality continues to prove that it’s incredibly rich with opportunities for artists and creators to experiment. Given that it’s still such a relatively new medium, research and development are still ongoing, and the technology may not always be at a level where it aligns with a creator’s visions, but the creative opportunities remain vast.

With immersive technologies, creators have more freedom to explore parts of their art and imagination, letting them fully experiment in ways they were unable to in traditional settings when they had traditional mediums at their disposal. It means near-limitless opportunities for creators to make spaces, characters, colour and story with immersive technology, making the ephemerality of the experiences themselves appealing.

Image Credit: Principal illustrations by Teva Harrison, with additional illustrations by Olie Kay.

“There’s a constant interplay between corporeal and virtual,” Tannahill said. He explains that creating art in virtual reality can be like recalling a memory or having a dream – you could see something and then it could disappear, evaporate or even shapeshift.

But it’s not just the creators who benefit from VR as an art form – there’s also the audience. Thanks to VR, we can all become the protagonist of the performance and feel the action and emotions in ways we simply can’t by watching a play or reading a comic book or memoir.

That feeling of being more connected to the people within VR experiences and the content explored isn’t just anecdotal either. A 2018 study from Stanford University found that the medium has the potential to not only make people feel more empathetic, but also more compassionate to others than other forms of media.

A beginner’s guide to creating VR memories

Image Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Not only does Draw Me Close defy genre in a traditional sense, but the process of its development isn’t run-of-the-mill either.

“In 2016 the National Theatre (NT) and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) started working together, looking at theatre, creative non-fiction and virtual reality,” Toby Coffey, head of digital development at the National Theatre, told us. “We identified two UK artists and two Canadian artists - artists in this case being writer/directors – and in October of that year we initiated a development programme from which we would create a prototype for each of their projects.”

That’s how Draw Me Close was born. After Tannahill had finished the prototype, it was developed in just eight days. “In hindsight, we would probably give ourselves a little more breathing room for that process,” Coffey said. “But all of our activity is about learning what is required to develop and stage these new forms of work.”

How immersive technology could shake up the arts

Right now Tannahill and the other companies involved are working on enhancing the Draw Me Close experience through further research and development involving the technology and physical staging.

That means, at least for now, Draw Me Close isn’t being shown anywhere else. However, according to the National Theatre, its success is promising and further opportunities for bringing it to a wider audience would be the next natural step. We’ve got everything crossed.

When it comes to the future of immersive technology in the arts, Toby Coffey believes there’s a lot of potential. “There’ll be a new genre of theatre and performance for which the intended audience experience simply could not exist without those technologies [...] There’ll also be an enhancement of forms of performances through the use of immersive technologies.”

Image Credit: Ellie Kurttz

“Immersive tech is not going to permeate all forms of theatre, or replace any individual form,” Coffey explained. “Instead, as with any technology in the hands of credible artists, it will find the places that have its most relevant and powerful influence. This is all still very early days in terms of realising the immense potential this technology will offer.”

Coffey is confident in the possibilities of immersive technology because since 2016 he’s been part of the Immersive Storytelling Studio at the National Theatre. “It’s a dedicated space for artists and creative technologists to work together to develop new forms of audience experience, performance and storytelling,” he tells us.

As virtual reality and broader immersive technology is introduced into more traditional creative environments and arts spaces, it’s important to remember that it’s a technology and a tool - the same rules still apply.

“At the heart of absolutely everything we will be developing is storytelling and the audience experience,” Coffey says. “It’s working out how the tech we use can support us in that.”

Nowadays we’re being convinced of VR’s potential to transport us anywhere more than ever before. Although being whisked away to the bottom of the ocean or flown to the other side of the solar system may seem amazing when you’re trying on a virtual reality headset for the first time, stepping into someone else’s memories and their dreams might be what transforms virtual reality experiences from nice-to-have to truly unforgettable.

Featured Image Credit: Ellie Kurttz