The Provoking Thing: A VR Relationship

Josephine Anstey, Dave Pape
Dept. of Media Study, University at Buffalo, Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois at Chicago,


The Thing Growing is an art project; an immersive VR application centered on the creation of an emotional relationship between a user and a computer-controlled character, the Thing. The motivation for building the project was to bring a dramatic fictional experience into an interactive environment. One possibility of fictional narratives is to take the reader or viewer on an emotional roller-coaster ride. The reader or viewer identifies with the protagonist's feelings as they change in response to difficult or dangerous circumstances. Our goal was to create a similar experience in VR, but in this case the user is the protagonist and the her own emotional responses become a major part of the fiction. Although several research teams have focused on using intelligent agents for interactive, narrative experiences, including Barbara Hayes-Roth's Virtual Theater for Children [1], the Alive Project [2], the Oz project [3], we felt that they addressed the user too cerebrally to be useful role models for our application. In these projects the user is invited to create fiction with the agents, to direct them, or to marvel at simulations of autonomy and personality. We wanted to provoke a more basic emotional response in the user. Anstey's background is in fiction, and experimental video narrative [4]. Therefore our approach to building the intelligence for the application was to use some basic narrative and dramatic strategies, and to focus on the the agent's character and responsiveness to the user rather than on its own set of intelligent and autonomous behaviors.

CAVE VR system

The Thing Growing was built between 1997 and 2000 at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois at Chicago for a CAVE(R) [5], ImmersaDesk [6], or CAVE-like, VR display system. The CAVE is a room-sized, virtual reality theater. Computer generated images are rear-projected onto the walls and front-projected onto the floor. In a CAVE system, the position of the user relative to the VR world is tracked by a number of sensors. A sensor on the head allows the system to correctly calculate the 3D perspective of the real-time graphics as the user moves through the virtual environment. To create the stereo effect the user wears active-shutter glasses and the graphics system sequentially projects an image for the right and left eyes. The user carries a wand with a joystick for navigation and buttons which can be programmed for interaction. This wand is also tracked so that the system knows where the user's hand is. For The Thing Growing, we added a tracker on the other hand. Therefore the information that our application knows about the user is the position of her head and two hands, and whether she is using the joystick or buttons.

Section one introduces the story The Thing Growing application was based on and the aims of the project. Section two briefly discusses some design choices; of the Thing's visual appearance, voice and moods; and of the dancing activity which was the most significant trope used to build the relationship between user and Thing. Section three and four describe the intelligence implemented in the application both in the narrative strategies used and in the creation of the virtual character. We finish with a short assessment of the project.

1. Basic Story and Project Goals

The Thing Growing was originally a short story Anstey was developing. Its central idea was to represent a relationship that was cloying and claustrophobic but emotionally hard to escape. The goal of the VR application was to create the conditions for such a relationship to evolve between the user and the computer controlled character, the Thing. The title refers to the Thing's insidious and growing dominance over the user's emotional life (within the scope of a 15 minute virtual experience!) Three acts and the varying behavior of the Thing are designed to stimulate a sequence of emotions in the user; from interest and affection to annoyance and frustration, then to a sense of loyalty, pity or kinship with the creature. Finally the user is presented with a choice, to kill the Thing or let it live. If the user shoots it, it doesn't die - rather it tells the user she has failed the test and must return to the beginning. If the user does not shoot, the Thing assumes that she loves it and wants to live with it forever. The killing/not killing can be read metaphorically - either the user is violently ending the relationship or remaining in a relationship which is far from perfect. However, the consequences of the decision reveals there is no escape and refers to the problem of falling into patterns in our relationships and replaying them with a sequence of different people

The challenge of the project was to create scenarios and possible interactions between the user and virtual character that would enable the development of a virtual relationship along the lines described above. Because of their own personal histories different people react very differently to the Thing. Successive drafts of the project aimed to accommodate different reactions. We were not interested in designing a system that could always elicit the same emotional response from the users, but in creating a story that would react with its own internal logic to the responses that were evoked.

In his paper Expressive AI [7], Michael Mateus uses a table to contrast the criteria the scientific community use to build and judge AI with the criteria used to build and judge a cultural production that may use AI in some way. He suggests that important issues for the AI community are: task competence; objective measurement; generality and realism. For cultural production the issues are: poetics/aesthetics; audience perception; specificity; artistic abstraction. The Thing Growing is a cultural production. The computer controlled character the Thing, is not designed to accomplish a well-defined and specific task. We did not systematically record, measure or analyze the users' emotional responses to it, or run the application with a defined range of different users. We were not trying to build a system that could create intelligent characters for interactive narratives in general. The application was not designed to look real. Instead our goal was to create an involving, challenging, subjective experience for an audience that would encounter the application in an exhibition or museum context. The creation of the character was driven by audience perception of its intelligence, responsiveness, and believability. We assessed the work during development and at completion by observing people as they interacted with the application and talking to them afterwards. This qualitative assessment was a vitally important part of refining the dramatic impact of our narrative. - although the user is a protagonist in our piece we want to shape her participation in a way that furthers the basic story we are presenting. Most importantly our goal was to use immersive graphics, sound, and an intelligent system to allow the user to explore the terrain of a specific relationship and "engage the audience in specific processes of interpretation"[7] with respect to that relationship.

2. Design Choices

The Thing

The graphic design of the virtual character's body is very simple and non-photorealistic. It is a collection of transparent pyramids - one for the head, one for each arm, one for the body and several for a tail. Visually it is rather like a dragon. The head has eyes but no mouth, however the head flashes gently when the Thing is speaking in order to give a visual as well as audio clue. The pyramids are not attached to one another, which avoids the problem of body parts joining up badly when the character moves. We used a simple motion-tracking system to animate it.. The life-like movement that results from the motion tracking creates a strong illusion of an autonomous being formed from the collection of primitive shapes. The Thing's body movement are also used to convey its emotional state - it can be abrupt and jerky when it is mad, flowing and at ease when it's happy, jump about with ebullient gestures when its manic; and hang its head and arms down when sad. All the motion-captured movements for the Thing are pre-recorded . Scott McCloud suggests that viewers can more easily identify with simply drawn, iconic, cartoon characters [8]. In the same way we believe that this simply designed character will be able to stand in for any significant other in the user's life (spouse, sibling, parent, child) so that elements of the user's own relationships will seep into the emotional narrative.

We made the assumption that the user would react emotionally to a computer character. Human beings personify and react emotionally to their cars and computers, we extrapolated that they would be equally willing to react to a computer creature that itself appeared emotional and directly solicited an emotional response. We decided to give the Thing four moods; mad, happy, manic and sad. Although an earlier version of the project tried to simulate these moods with non-verbal sounds alone, grunts, growls etc., it became clear that a speaking voice was necessary to clearly convey the mood and intentions of the Thing. Its voice evolved into a primary mechanism for telling and controlling the story, indicating its emotional state and emphasizing its desires. The Thing's voice is a pre-recorded set of short sound files - approximately five hundred files were needed to cover the narrative possibilities of the application. Each sound file is matched to a motion-captured movement file of the same length. More details on the use of the body, mood and voice will be given in the section on building the Thing's intelligence.

A user dancing with the Thing

An early design decision was to use a dancing activity to build the relationship between the user and the Thing. The activity consists of the Thing demonstrating dance steps and encouraging the user to copy them. Feedback from the trackers and wand buttons tell the Thing if the user is dancing or not, or if the user is trying to drive away from it. The Thing responds with words of encouragement, praise or criticism. If the user runs away the Thing persistently follows and tries to persuade her to stay still and dance. The dancing activity is useful on several levels. It creates a second order of meaning of the information we receive from the tracking system - the numbers we receive can be interpreted as attempts to dance and therefore please the virtual creature, or as a refusal to co-operate. It is a social activity with connotations of intimacy which fit the story line of a developing relationship. The dancing makes some people uncomfortable (they are not entirely confident about moving their bodies) and therefore more vulnerable to the Thing as it praises or criticizes them. Most importantly it serves to reveal the Thing's dominating character and to delineate the kind of clinging, intrusive relationship which it is trying to foist on the user as it begs, whines, threatens, and flatters her with the single intention of making her dance. Because this is an immersive 3D experience and the Thing is approximately the same size as the user, it can also use its physical presence to intimidate and to harass by literally getting into the user's face, and invading her space. This ability to manipulate a sense of physical over-proximity in the VE feeds into the project's theme of creating a claustrophobic relationship. The aim of the dancing section is to stimulate a variety of emotional reactions from the user as she copes with the Thing's demands and moods.

3. Narrative Strategies

A simple narrative provides a framework for the application and the intelligence system. The narrative structure is quite controlled and keeps elements like pacing and surprise in the hands of the author not the user - this strategy maximizes the dramatic tension of the piece [9]. The Thing Growing has a bridge structure with three acts and the experience lasts about 15 minutes. The first act introduces the situation and the characters, the second act is concerned with their evolving relationship and problems that arise, the third act contains the denouement. The order of the acts is fixed but within each act there are interactive episodes. The user is therefore not in control of the entire progress of the story but experiences a measure of free will within the acts. Following a Hollywood film formula the application has plot points at the transitions between the acts designed to surprise the viewer and to provide dramatic revelations or reversals. [10] The plot point between act one and two is the Thing's announcement that it loves the user. The plot point between act two and three is that the Thing and user are suddenly transported into a new environment and confronted with an enemy. Each act is also has the goal of eliciting a specific emotional response or set of emotional responses from the user.

The goal of act one is to stimulate feelings of well-being, pleasurable anticipation and affection for the Thing. The elements used to stimulate these feelings are cheerful, cartoon-like graphics, surprise, introduced when the user opens a box and produces an explosion releasing large rocks and the Thing into the environment; and the Thing's delight at being free, and its expression of gratitude and immediate affection for the user. It is also hoped that some user's may pick up hints of unease beneath the fairy-tale exterior - these include references to Pandora's box, and lies told to encourage the user to open the box.

Act two is designed to stimulate conflicting feelings about the Thing. The main device for stimulating these emotions is the dance activity described above. The range of emotions we are trying to stimulate are; affection for the Thing, exasperation and annoyance; a sense of being trapped or bullied; resistance to a bullying other; a sense of failure or not being good enough; abandonment; amusement; interest; delight. The narrative comprises a series of role reversals to encourage these feelings. At first the Thing tries to force the user to copy its dance steps, later it will mimic the movements of the user. The former activity may become tedious, the latter often delights the users. In the middle of the act the Thing exits the scene and the user is herded and trapped by the rocks (which have come alive). The Thing releases the user from this trap, just as the user released the Thing, (and those rocks) from the box in act one..

Act three is designed to stimulate feelings of loyalty, pity, fellow-feeling with the Thing, aggression and empowerment. It culminates with the presentation of the choice to kill or not kill the Thing. These feelings are evoked by introducing four new characters, the Thing's cousins, who threaten the user and the Thing and become their common enemy. The user is given a weapon to fight these creatures and then has the option of turning it on the Thing.

The Thing Growing was built using XP [11], a VR authoring toolkit based on C++ and IRIS Performer, which was designed to facilitate the construction of art applications in the CAVE. The toolkit handles a number of activities common to VR environments, such as assembling objects into a world, collision detection, navigation, detecting events and passing messages in response to them. It provides a framework for extension; application-specific classes may be added to define behaviors for objects or characters. It provides a text file system to rapidly assemble virtual scenes: all the models, objects, their locations and behaviors are described in the text file along with messages to be passed between objects. The Thing Growing's narrative structure was created with the text files; scripted sequences were intercut with interactive episodes; the narrative flow as a whole was produced using triggers based on time, user proximity, or the completion of specific events. The text file served as production manager for the story and could easily be edited and changed. Multiple triggers were sometimes used to avoid situations where the user could get stuck at a point in the narrative unless she performed a specific action, a strategy similar to that of Kidsroom[12]. The narrative is comprised of sequences that explicate the story, periods of interactive possibility, and transitions.

Figure 1 is a simplified diagram of the narrative sequencing in act two of The Thing Growing. Each gray box represents a section of the narrative, and contains the kind of triggers that are used to move the narrative on and a description of the activity taking place. Each blue circle contains the messages activated by the triggers. These messages contain instructions which set up the next narrative section.

Figure 1

The act begins with an interactive sequence as the Thing teaches the user to dance (the details of this procedure are given in the section 4), the dance activity may continue for a maximum of 120 seconds before messages are sent to start the second section of the narrative. However, during the dance activity the application also counts how many times the user disobeys the Thing's injunctions to dance - disobedience consists of not dancing or repeatedly navigating away from the Thing as it attempts to teach - a maximum number of disobediances will also trigger the messages that start the second narrative section. In the second section, the Thing runs away from the user and hides, meanwhile rocks in the environment come alive and stalk the user - a simple algorithm is used for the rocks' movement and they move with reference to the proximity of the user and each other until one of them is near enough to trap the user. This triggers messages that cause one rock to catch the user while the other rocks are deactivated, a message is sent to the mechanism that controls the user's ability to navigate and it is turned off, and a message is sent to the Thing to reenter the scene. The third narrative section consists of the Thing taunting the user who is now trapped under the rock. Triggers for this section are time or the using spontaneously dancing to please the Thing. In the fourth narrative section the Thing mimics the user's movements - data from the tracking system is relayed to the Thing's body parts to create this effect. This section has a fixed time limit. of ~50 seconds before triggering messages that end act two and start the transition to a completely new graphic environment for act three.

4. Creation of Virtual Character

The basic XP system was extended to build the intelligence of the Thing. Its intelligence is a simple, hierarchical, finite state machine related to the narrative. Examples of states at the highest level in the hierarchy are EMERGE_FROM_BOX, TEACH_DANCE, MIMIC_USER, and the narrative flow moves the Thing from state to state. In the EMERGE_FROM_BOX state the Thing performs a scripted sequence of actions. Its behavior as it emerges from the box it is trapped in and first meets the user is always the same; it says the same lines and moves in the same way. However, the TEACH_DANCE state describes an interactive episode and is more complex. It has two sub-states: TEACH USER TO DANCE and REACT TO USER WHO IS RUNNING AWAY. A change from one state to the other is triggered by the user - if she attends to the Thing and tries to dance the Thing is in the TEACH USER TO DANCE state, if she navigates away from the Thing it changes to the REACT TO USER WHO IS RUNNING AWAY state. Both these states are sub-divided into further states with a basic rule system for the Thing to follow.

Figure 2 is a simplified diagram of the sub states and rules for the TEACH_USER_TO_DANCE state.


First the Thing teaches a new step to the user. The dance step is one of the short, pre-recorded, motion-captured movements. The Thing performs it while humming a related pre-recorded sound file. Next the Thing watches while the user dances. The action of watching is another short motion-captured movement and the Thing hums again. At the same time the application is checking the state of the tracking system to assess the user's performance. This checking process determines what the Thing will do next. It will make a comment recognizing that the user either danced correctly, danced badly or didn't dance. Again its action will consist of the appropriate motion-captured movement and sound file. If the user has danced correctly the Thing make its comment and proceeds to teach a new step, and so the process repeats. If not the Thing will repeat the step together with the user, while simultaneously checking the state of the trackers.

For each of the sub-states described in figure 2 there are a number of similar actions that the Thing can perform - by action we mean the Thing's body parts executing its motion-captured motion while a sound file plays. This adds variety to the creature's responses and prevents repetition. There is not just variety in the movement or words of the phrase, but also in the mood of the action. As mentioned earlier the Thing has four moods; happy, mad, sad and manic. So for example, if the state is comment danced correctly, and the Thing is happy it may bounce a little and say "Great!"; if it is manic it may wave its arms ecstatically and shriek, "Fabulous darling!", if it is sad it may droop and say, "OK", if it is mad it may shrug and say, "Well if that's the best you can do...". Before deciding on an action the Thing therefore has to check to see what its mood is.

The Thing's mood changes depending on the point in the narrative and feedback from the user with some random noise thrown in. In the dancing section it starts out happy. A user who dances enthusiastically keeps the Thing happy or makes it manic. A user who moves more sluggishly may change the mood to sad or even angry. So although the Thing may acknowledge that the user is doing the dance step correctly it does so in a critical rather than praising manner. As previously mentioned we count the number of times that the user does not comply with the Thing, by not dancing or by running away. As this count increments it triggers alterations to the Thing's mood making it sad then mad. The Thing's mood also deteriorates over the timed period of the dancing. However enthusiastic the dancer is, it tends to become sad or angry and complains that she is not trying hard enough. The system also progressively judges the correctness of the user's dancing more harshly. The inevitability of the Thing's worsening mood is demanded by the story structure. The dance activity is broken by the Thing running off in a huff, upset by the user's inability to please it. The intelligence is designed to reach this point by one path or another - either the user disobeys too many times or the timed dance sequence is over. The reason that the Thing leaves, dramatically speaking, is to simulate a rift in a relationship.

To summarize, the Thing's behavior consists of a library of about 500 actions(movement and sound). When the piece is running, the Thing's intelligence selects an appropriate action according to the point in the narrative, the user's actions, and the Thing's own emotional state. It sends messages to its voice and body parts to execute that action. Pape wrote code to interpolate between the end of one action and the beginning of the next, so that the movement is visually smooth. One of the major headaches of writing for the Thing was to ensure that anything it said fit in with the last thing it said and the next thing it was going to say. This, in essence, meant keeping track of the hundred of different phrases and the multiple ways they could be combined. The constraints of the narrative and basic routines like the one described above made this possible. The XP textfile made it easy to change the way the actions were organized and combined if phrases did not fit together well.

In many ways it is fortuitous that our virtual character is dominating because a very pro-active character can both "tell" and control the story - the user blames her lack of control on this character and on her own inability to wrest control from it not on the limitations of the program. And of course the program is limited. We cannot write code for every possible action a user may make. We need to find ways to constrain those actions into a manageable subset that the program can react to. Pinning down the human subject and her responses was not a one shot deal. We consistently tested the application with a variety of users and watched what they did. Then we adjusted, refined, and added to the Thing's functionality so that it had responses that could fold the users' different reactions back into our narrative thread. This iterative process also honed the story since watching users made it very clear when people were not really "getting" the narrative we wanted to send. For example, the culmination of the story is to bring the user to a point where she can destroy the Thing if she chooses. A major problem was creating enough ambivalence at this moment. In early versions virtually everyone shot the Thing. We adjusted the program to try and make the Thing more likable, by adding the section where the user moves and the Thing mimics her and by substantially reworking the dialog the Thing uses in act three. After this less people shot the Thing.

Assessment of Application

Robert McKee suggests that a good movie creates a rhythm of rising and falling tension, which allows the audience to reach tremendous emotional moments with a clarity that is absent from real life.[10] The Thing Growing is similarly designed to allow the user to take part in a model of a dysfunctional relationship, that is simplified and for that reason more easy to grasp. Much of the Thing's behavior models childish power plays. It is designed to engage at a level beneath that of polite adult intercourse.  It pouts, whines and threatens when it doesn't get its own way. It flatters outrageously and insults viciously. It gloats when the user is in its power. To express its love it copies the user or demands to be copied. All of these behaviors are designed to conflate self and other. In the Bonds of Love, Jessica Benjamin suggests that during the process of differentiation from the mother, the child's task is not merely to establish that it is separate but that a step of mutual recognition must occur as the child realizes that the other is also a subject. " And mutual recognition is perhaps the most vulnerable point in the process ..."[13] She discusses the sadistic or masochistic positions that the evolving self may become stuck if unable to negotiate this point : "If I completely control the other , then the other ceases to exist, and if the other completely controls me, then I cease to exist."[13] It is this emotional territory that the The Thing Growing is designed to explore.

There are several reasons for involving the user in this provoking relationship. Some people may fall into similar patterns in their own relationships, these people may be able to see the patterns of the relationship more clearly in this fictional setting and assess their part in its creation more objectively. The virtual relationship is a safer space to play out issues of domination and control than real life. Other people may be very immune to the kind of relationship that the Thing inflicts. The virtual environment gives them the opportunity to step into an unfamiliar psychological pattern and may give them insight into other people's more troubled relationship patterns. McKee suggests that the real self of a movie character is revealed as they are put under pressure that forces them to make moral or ethical choices. In this virtual environment we put the user under pressure so that, possibly, she reveals herself to herself. She may also role play in the environment making choices that she would not make in her real life and allowing emotions that she would normally censor.

How can we assess whether The Thing Growing meets the goals outlined above, or, indeed, that any art experience conveys its essence to the audience? The judgment is necessarily subjective. It depends heavily on the particular audience member. We have shown The Thing Growing in various states of development to approximately 300 people. Our observations of people interacting with the application, and feedback from users tells us that at the very least it is engaging and entertaining for most people. Some reactions and comments indicate that for some people it does hit deeper into the psychological realms we are interested in exploring. All our evidence is anecdotal, but users have specifically said that the Thing feels like a being who is present and alert to them. They say it reminds them of their spouse or child. The way people talk about the Thing also indicates that they are engaged with it, reacting emotionally and also judging its behavior. The following comments were made by users who we interviewed after a show in March 2001 at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory in Chicago.

"It's so real dancing there in my face, insulting me making me mad. Actually I took a couple of swings at it. But I got my revenge with the laser gun, which was really cool. And I killed off its whole family."
"The character was very manipulative."

Many users also talk back to the creature even though it does not respond to their voices. They claim that they are dancing correctly when it tells them they're doing a step wrong. They tell the Thing that it's to blame when the cousins capture them and threaten to kill them. They tell the Thing to shut up when its making comments as they try to kill the cousins. One user even said, "I want out of this relationship!"

I would describe many users as "smart subjects" who respond to this experience on two levels, allowing themselves to become emotionally involved, yet aware that it is only through their active and continuing consent that the fictional experience happens.

"I was talking back to it. It said, "You're doing a bad job." And I said, "I'm trying." I became very interactive, which I think you should do, because if you don't you won't enjoy the [experience]."


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  13. J. Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the problem of Domination, Random House, NY, 1988