You Can "Star" in Virtual-Reality Dramas by UB Professor

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: June 13, 2003 This content is archived.


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You can "star" in two virtual interactive dramas by media study assistant professor Josephine Anstey now at Hallwalls.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If you've harbored dreams of starring in productions on stage or in the movies, Josephine R. Anstey has an offer that you can't refuse.

In fact, she has two offers in the form of virtual, interactive dramas in which you would play the main protagonist.

They're called "The Thing Growing" and "The Trial The Trail" and you have an opportunity to "star" in them until June 21 at the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center at 2495 Main St. on the fourth floor of the Tri-Main Center.

Anstey, assistant professor in the Department of Media Study in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, says she designed the virtual, interactive dramas for a "micro-audience of one person who acts as the main protagonist." Both were produced using the visualization capabilities of UB's Center for Computational Research.

"The Thing Growing" focuses on the creation of an emotional relationship between the user and The Thing, a computer-controlled character. It explores issues of power and control in intimate relationships, and depends on the user's emotional investment in the story.

"The impetus for 'The Thing Growing' was a short story," Anstey writes on the drama's Web site at

"In the story, I wanted to describe a relationship that was cloying and claustrophobic, but emotionally hard to escape. An immersive, interactive VR (virtual reality) environment seemed an ideal medium to recreate the tensions and emotions of such a relationship," she says. "Someone reading a book or viewing a film or video may identify with the protagonist, but in VR, the relationship is more direct -- the user is the protagonist.

"Therefore, our fiction is something that happens to the user; we didn't want the application to simply tell a story, we wanted it to implicate the user in a chain of events. To effect this, we created a computer-controlled character, The Thing -- programmed with a multiplicity of reactions -- to play opposite the user," Anstey says.

"I believe smart agents, characters and smart environments are crucial elements for dramatic VR applications. The Thing was my first attempt at building a responsive character. The Thing is a manipulative creature designed to encourage the user to jump through emotional hoops."

"I believe that the use of narrative techniques in VR can enhance interactivity," Anstey continues. "Therefore, the narrative in "The Thing Growing" has the classical bridge structure of plays and films: Act 1 introduces the protagonists and the goal, Act 2 revolves around struggles to reach the goal and Act 3 resolves those struggles. The difference in our case is that the user is one of the protagonists and in each act she is involved in interaction. The narrative as a whole is moved on, either as a result of the user's actions or by time," she says.

"The Trial The Trail," which Anstey says builds on her previous work involving "The Thing Growing," is based on a quest narrative in which users embark on a guided journey.

She is collaborating on both projects with David Pape, UB assistant professor of media study.

"Imagine Tarkovsky's 'Stalker,' crossed with 'Alice Through the Looking Glass,' crossed with 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail,'" Anstey suggests. "Now imagine embarking on a guided journey through this warped yet familiar landscape."

As users proceed through the drama, their actions and interactions are logged, interpreted psychologically and used to determine the outcome of the story.

"The Trail The Trail" is a work in progress, so the show also serves as user-testing, Anstey notes. "In order to build the intelligence for the computer-controlled characters that will inhabit the world, I need to get an idea of how different people react. At the Hallwalls show, I will share the virtual environment with the participant, who will appear as a virtual character and act the role that will ultimately be taken by the computer," she says.

Those wishing to participate in the dramas at the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center must reserve a one-hour block of time in advance. The viewing times are from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and from 1-4 p.m. on Saturday. To reserve a time slot, call Hallwalls at 835-7362 or email Hallwalls is located in Suite 425 of the Tri-Main Center.