Virtual reality has been wowing the crowds of more than 200,000 pop culture fans at San Diego Comic Con for several years now, as Hollywood movie studios and television networks embrace new ways to engage these highly influentual attendees.
At the 2016 convention, one of the most talked-about VR experiences came from FX Networks. The American Horror Story Fear VR Experience was created by FX, experience design agency North Kingdom and software company Groove Jones. The experience was created using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 technology.
In support of the Sept. 14 season premiere of the new season of American Horror Story, FX built a large black warehouse on the Hilton Bayfront Park grounds right next to the San Diego Convention Center. Once inside the ominous-looking metal structure, groups of five visitors were transported into a brightly-lit, futuristic laboratory with four sleek beds. Each user was wrapped in a surgical blanket and plugged into an HTC Vive headset.
The five-minute VR experience explores different fears that connect with prior seasons of the award-winning series. It begins in the basement hallway of the murder house, which is filled with specimen jars and surgical tools. The focus is on medical fears, including dissection and dead body parts. The second fear is claustrophobia, which takes place in the asylum where the white nun locks the user in a corpse freezer in the morgue. The Coven sequence has the witches hoist the user up on a stake, where they burn you alive. The fourth scare comes from fear of clowns and features the grotesque Twisty from the show. He ties up the user and throws sharp objects at them. The final chapter brings the fear of falling to life. Set within the haunted hotel from the show, the user is pushed down a hallway on a baggage cart and then dumped down an elevator shaft.
“Unreal Engine 4 was something we were familiar with,” said Matt Miller, lead developer at Groove Jones. He had previously worked with the game engine at Gearbox Software, where he developed the Borderlands and Aliens games.
“Unreal Engine 4 was something we could get up and running very quickly, so we could get to prototyping very quickly,” Miller said. “That’s important for horror as a genre because it’s something that when you’re making it -- especially when you’re making it incrementally -- it doesn’t work until it does. It allowed us to prototype and iterate and move through different things to see what could we get to work, and what wouldn’t.”
Daniel Ilic, executive creative director and partner at North Kingdom, said American Horror Story is a show where narrative and aesthetics are perfected season after season. With that in mind, his team wanted to absorb the audience in an experience reflecting everything the show represents.
“In order to blur the lines between reality and fiction, it was important to create something with an authentic look and feel to give the audience an even more intimate experience,” Ilic said.
Miller spent the entire Comic Con watching people experience this virtual reality creation. He said the reaction was amazing. In fact, sometimes groups would go through and you could hear people screaming outside of the warehouse. He said some people would just curl up and try to hide.
Although this VR experience is passive, Miller said his background in video game development helped bring the horror to life.
“We’re still in the Wild West of VR tech, so we’re exploring exactly how we can move the scenery, or move the player, or move the view point, or what different types of things we need to be aware of in terms of how the user interacts with the experience,” Miller said. “It’s also very helpful coming at it from a user experience standpoint and how a person experiencing the VR is going to look at it, what’s going to draw their attention, and how we direct the flow of the experience.”
One way Miller guides players through their fears in virtual reality was by utilizing sound.
“The sound was a very big part of what we were doing,” Miller said. “It was night and day once we got sound into the build. It was very important to utilize the head tracking with positional sound, so that you can hear things coming from different directions and pull their gaze around the room.”
Part way through development of this project, Epic Games released the Unreal Engine VR Editor. While there wasn’t enough time to meet the deadline for this project, Groove Jones is interested in utilizing this technology moving forward.
“We have been keeping an eye on that and we’re definitely looking forward to that in our future projects,” Miller said. “You experience things differently in VR. In the office we had a golden rule of you do not test outside the headset because things look different when they’re in the headset and you actually have the stereoscopic depth and have the sense of space. Things that may look right on the computer screen can be out of scale or the lighting could be off when you put on the headset. It will be very helpful to operate in VR and iterate quickly on that.”
That could help studios create even scarier experiences in virtual reality, which would be quite a feat given the reaction the American Horror Story Fear VR Experience garnered in San Diego.