The Ways Creative Studio ambr Shapes the Virtual Experience
With the growing interest in the metaverse and other virtual realms, the world of “virtual” has gained even more momentum in recent years. ambr, which has been involved in its development from an early stage and has worked on app development for various events such as TOKYO GAME SHOW VR, how does it approach experience design in virtual spaces?
ambr CXO / idiomorph Director. Responsible for the creative direction of the overall space and experience of products created by ambr, including TOKYO GAME SHOW VR and Magic: The Gathering Virtual Art Exhibition.
Foundational Technology “xambr” Supporting Virtual Experiences
── First, please tell us about “ambr” and “xambr.”
Kanna: ambr is a creative studio that creates virtual spaces and virtual experiences for corporate events and exhibitions. We have been responsible for the development of the VR venue TOKYO GAME SHOW VR (TGSVR) for two consecutive years in 2021 and 2022, as well as the planning and development of the Magic: The Gathering Virtual Art Exhibition. We handle a wide range of tasks from concept design to experience design and spatial design.
xambr is a foundational technology that provides the necessary features to build exceptional experiences in virtual spaces. It includes functionalities such as avatars, voice chat, stamps, and video playback within VR. Each event is provided as a customized individual app based on these functionalities, allowing us to design and achieve the best possible user experience for each event by incorporating suitable expressions on top of the foundation.
Kanna: Currently, we are not at the stage of mass-producing events. Instead, we incorporate the necessary functionalities from the developments we have done for each event and strengthen xambr itself.
For example, “Grab & Play,” implemented in TGSVR 2021, allows users to grab and bring images and videos to their front by using a pointer within the VR world. We considered it the optimal way to view images and videos in the virtual space and implemented it in the foundation.
We have also implemented functionalities based on events such as e-sports and urban sports that we were responsible for developing this year. These include features to seamlessly stream videos and 3D effects at designated times within the VR world, as well as the ability for users to switch between multiple live streams by moving around the virtual space. We determined that these functionalities would be necessary in various situations and implemented them in the foundation.
Define the word to create ideal experience in VR
── Please tell us about the design of virtual experiences. First of all, how do you envision the “ideal experience” in the virtual realm?
Kanna: Both the representative of ambr, Nishimura, and I were greatly impressed and inspired by the experience of “VRChat.” VRChat, being a social VR platform, consists solely of user-generated content. It differs from VR events created by companies, but it offers numerous cutting-edge experiences and serves as a kind of ideal form of a user-driven virtual world.
On the other hand, as a company creating VR events, we need to engage in a different kind of creation compared to when individuals create things as hobbies in VRChat. Moreover, each event has different targets and requirements, so there are no fixed indicators or formats for the experience. Therefore, when creating an event, we strive to be involved from the initial planning stages and approach each one with a fresh perspective.
── Where do you start with experience design?
Kanna: First, we summarize the type of experience we want to create in concise words and share it with all stakeholders involved in the planning and development, including internal and external parties. Visualization comes later, but it is important to put it into words initially.
The theme for TGSVR 2022 was Game for a Game Show; setting “dungeon” as its key point. The word “dungeon” evokes associations with adventure, journey, and discovery.
By clearly defining the image of the desired experience in a single word and carefully examining whether it will be enjoyable, we proceed with the design.
── In experience design, what is the most important aspect for you?
Kanna: Stage-setting and the story. It is necessary to make them believable; what is this place for in the first place and how do users exist and what do they ultimately gain, and words play an important role. What is determined here becomes the guiding principle for the entire creative process, so we hold meetings every week to refine it.
For TGSVR 2022, we created a stage setting based on the association with dungeons, imagining “layers of game eras stacked beneath the Makuhari Messe venue.” This led us to the expression where the upper layers have high-poly models, while the lower layers become low-poly with rough textures. The generation of ideas in this regard also benefits from discussions with external CG production teams.
Kanna: In the VR world, technically, you can do almost anything if you want to. You have the freedom to determine your own appearance, the size of the world, and even the absence of gravity. Since there are almost no constraints, it is necessary to create our own; clearly defining what to create through stage setting and story, creates various positive constraints in the production process.
── What is the goal of the world you are creating through this process?
Kanna: Personally, I consider VR as a place worth visiting. Currently, VR headsets are heavy, and while in the VR world, we need to detach ourselves from the real world. However, in order to have users actively explore and engage with the virtual world, we need to create a world worth experiencing and going to.
With that in mind, a well-defined logic, physical laws, and a consistent history are necessary. It is similar to the approach of creating the world-building in movies and games. Instead of throwing users into a space where they can do anything, we want to create something that we believe is a good experience and invite them into it. To achieve this, we aim to find the optimal format for each segmented experience, such as “Grab & Play is the best for watching videos.”
Importance of finding the core of experience and visualizing it
── It’s a very strange sensation to “experience” a world that doesn’t actually exist. What do you think makes something feel real?
Kanna: Since avatars resemble human bodies to some extent, there are basic bodily sensations that are similar to reality. Therefore, if there are deviations from normal bodily sensations, such as “not being able to jump,” the experience will not be as good. There must be some kind of sensation related to the freedom of the body.
At the same time, it is not necessary to have control over all bodily sensations. As an interesting example, there is a VR concert by a DJ named Porter Robinson. In that virtual world, all participants’ avatars are represented as a few pixels. Despite that, they were able to jump, and when they jumped, their trajectory became colorful. This created a playful atmosphere where everyone was bouncing around and having a great time.
This means that they focused on the most important aspect of bodily sensation in that space and abstracted the expression. They narrowed it down to the part that is most closely related to the core experience. In this case, it was the most important aspect of the concert, “getting into the music,” which they incorporated into the expression. It’s about considering what the core of the experience is, extracting it, and defining it as the overarching concept for the expression. I believe this aligns with ambr’s intention of prioritizing the experience.
── That’s an interesting perspective. Can you give an example of how ambr has put this into practice?
Kanna: In the case of TGSVR2022, the core experience that can be had at this event is “exploring and adventuring in a dungeon.” As an example of abstracting and incorporating the core experience into the expression, we focused on footsteps.
For a regular exhibition, one type of footstep would be sufficient. But in the context of a dungeon adventure experience, the thrill of exploring various locations becomes the core of the experience. For a gravel path, we have the sound of stones crunching, for a suspension bridge, we have creaking sounds, and for a skywalk, we have the sound of walking on plastic. We identified these as elements to represent the core of the experience in this event and put a lot of effort into them.
── The innovations seen in movies and games that have been implemented beforehand, can they also be applied to VR? Are there any differences?
Kanna: One major difference is that we “cannot have complete control over the desired experiences.” In the VR world, users act based on their own will, so even if something is prepared, some users may not see it, and different individuals may come away with completely different experiences. Therefore, designing in a linear fashion is not suitable. While considering the stage setting and story, it is necessary to create an environment where users can enjoy the experience in the first-person perspective.
Not only in events involving ambr, but in the VR world in general, there are often instances where “users engage in unexpected actions” or they enjoy “at the most unpredictable part.” Just being in the VR world with other people can be enjoyable in itself. This leads to situations where users start getting excited just by stacking empty cans they find around.
In other words, the enjoyment of VR ultimately comes from the discoveries made by the users themselves. We create the environment and provide elements, and then users start engaging in creative ways of playing. Moving forward, we want to put even more effort into incorporating such elements that are not necessarily required but can enhance the experience.
Because there is no established mold, there is potential for new attempts.
── The VR industry is currently in the midst of growth. What is ambr aiming to become?
Kanna: Since VR is still in the phase of widespread adoption, our primary goal is to create multiple killer contents that make people think, “I want to buy a VR device for this.” As a company that creates foundations and content, our role is to create purposes for using the devices, surpassing the high hurdle of the hardware. After all, entertainment is not about solving problems, but about enriching life with surprises and joy. While ambr is different from user-generated content-focused VRSNS like VRChat, we believe there is a great deal of potential.
── Are there any specific initiatives you are working on?
Kanna: We believe that combining AI technology with VR can create new and interesting experiences. That’s why we have launched the ambr VRxAI Laboratory and started working on R&D in that area.
Kanna: As an example of AI utilization, we are considering using ChatGPT for conversations with characters within the VR world. By inputting character profile texts, we can generate conversations based on those profiles. When combined with voice chat, it is even possible to create characters that can talk endlessly. Since interactive communication with users is also possible, there are various interesting ways to use this technology.
However, as the possibilities increase, the importance of considering what is the core of the experience will become even greater. With technology advancing at an incredible speed, everyone will be able to create similar things, leading to faster obsolescence. That’s why a core experience with explosive power becomes even more necessary. We will continue to create experiences that are so interesting that many people will want to dive into the world of VR.