In 2015, The New York Times caused quite a stir by publishing “The 36 Questions That Lead To Love,” based on work by the psychologist Arthur Aron. The main idea was that people would have to be incredibly vulnerable to ask and answer such questions—and doing so could quickly build intimacy.
“The most interesting thing from the research,” said Kevin Cornish, the director of Fall in Love VR, “is this premise that the thing that creates human bonds is not the words we say to each other, but the act of conversation.”
In Cornish’s new virtual reality project, released today for the Oculus Rift, users confront the question of whether it’s possible to experience intimacy with an avatar by sitting across from one of five photo-realistic actors and, one by one, asking many of Aron’s questions off prompt cards. Out loud.
The speaking-out-loud bit is key, as the potential love interests, looking adorable, yet vulnerable, respond only when the specific questions are asked. Ask or say anything else and they just sit there looking expectant.
That’s because Fall in Love VR, from Tool of North America, uses natural language processing –becoming among the first to utilize the technology in an interactive VR project–to make users feel like they’re truly having an intimate conversation. Cornish said he got the idea when working on a VR film with Taylor Swift. “There was one moment where [Swift] looks into the camera,” he recalls, “and it feels like she’s looking at you and talking to you. There’s a connection that you can get in VR and not any other medium.”
Added Cornish, “The idea is taking all the advancement in natural language processing and pairing that with an intimate conversational experience to give a sense of what it’s going to be like when we’re having conversations in virtual reality. It’s like that moment in [the film] Her, when there’s that question of how many people are you talking to, and how scalable is it [to have an AI say the words and have them repeated again and again to other users]….I only have to have that conversation once. It’s kind of like the VR equivalent of what CC meant for email.”
In short, the idea behind Fall in Love VR was to give users a conversational experience where the joy comes from the simple act of having the conversation.
When you first sit down across from your potential digital love interest–you can choose from two women or three men–he or she asks, innocuously, if you’d like to go first.
Although that gives the initial impression that this will be a two-way conversation, it really isn’t. The entire experience is built around you asking the avatar questions, and them answering. In the early stages of production, Cornish explained, the idea had been that the avatars would ask you questions as well, but that was quickly rejected because in testing, Tool found it put people on the spot, which left them feeling uncomfortable. The decision was made to limit the functionality to asking questions of the avatars and having them respond. So those interactions have to be as realistic as possible.
To Cornish, the goal was building what amounts to a high-quality, embodied chatbot with a real personality.
“So much of a personality is based on a face,” he said, “It’s that idea of pairing natural-language and machine learning with the personality and the warmth and eye contact that come with having a photo-realistic human face.”
The experience of sitting down across from one of the avatars is oddly normal. I found myself across from Grace van Dien, a 20-year-old actress who’s starred in the Netflix show Greenhouse Academy, and starting to ask her questions about her life. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But sure enough, Grace’s answers seemed heartfelt, honest, and most of all, vulnerable.
I can’t say exactly how I responded, but Cornish has watched a lot of people go through Fall in Love VR and says that often, their mannerisms–smiling, getting a little nervous–reflect what they would normally do if they were sitting across from someone having a get-to-know-you conversation. “They look down to read the question [off the card], then look up, make eye contact, and then ask the question,” he said. “It’s kind of this little mannerism that people do in the real world that you wouldn’t do if you were just interacting with a computer.”
Cornish is also fond of one bit of feedback he’s heard on multiple occasions: “We hear, ‘my wife would be jealous of this,’ or ‘my boyfriend would be jealous.’ It’s such an interesting thing in making a film that that’s the reaction….It really comes from the eye contact and the naturalness of” the interaction.
For Facebook-owned Oculus, which helped with the film’s production, Fall in Love VR was an opportunity to see how natural interactions in virtual reality can be.
“Can you create intimacy in VR that feels human,” asked Yelena Rachitsky, Oculus’s executive producer for experiences. “Can you create something that feels like a connection?”
One important thing she learned, Rachitsky said, was that the more time you spent watching the film, the more you feel connected to the actors. And that probably can’t work if the actors had been computer-generated. Instead, it was vital that the film utilize real people integrated into VR in such a way that it feel like you’re sitting across from a normal person.
Over time, Cornish said, he sees Fall in Love VR as a stepping-stone to further projects that take advantage of the ability of virtual reality to put users face-to-face with realistic avatars.
That’s led to a range of proposals for new ways to utilize the basic interaction engine Tool built. Among them, said Cornish, have been virtual retail environments offering concierge service, or sales training opportunities. There’s also the potential for using the system to give celebrities a way to interact with their fans.
“There is such a natural interaction with conversation,” Rachitsky said. “It’s definitely paving [the way to] what else we can be doing that feels intuitive and natural.”