How VR creates an immersive experience for readers

[In an interview in Tech Republic, author Romina Garber describes a new effort to use virtual reality and presence to enhance the experience of reading her books and draw more readers to them. The original version of the story includes a 7:42 minute video of the interview, and for more information see the Abelana VR website and Romina Garber’s tumblr. –Matthew]

[Image: Source: Abelana VR]

How VR creates an immersive experience for readers

Penguin Random House is using virtual reality to enhance how people read and appreciate books. Author Romina Garber discusses how VR is used with her Zodiac series.

By Dan Patterson in Innovation
October 3, 2019

CNET and CBS News Senior Producer Dan Patterson spoke with Romina Garber, author of the Zodiac series about how Penguin Random House is using virtual reality to enhance how people read and appreciate books. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Dan Patterson: We are awash in technology. Innovations are changing how we live, work, and how we read. And most of us, or at least I do, I read on a Kindle, on a tablet. But I started with the oldest technology, hard books. Romina, you are working on a project that uses virtual reality not just to bring kids from books into technology, but to do the opposite as well, help them use VR to help them appreciate literature and books. Tell me a little bit about this.

Romina Garber: So, with the Zodiac series, which is a four-book series out through Penguin Random House, I did a virtual reality worldwide assemblage of readership. And what I found fascinating was that virtual reality is so immersive and so direct and instant, it gives you something that a screen really doesn’t. It lets you interact with other people, granted through their avatars, but you’re still seeing people in the room with you.

And what I found is, just like movies can bring a reader to a book, or a TV can bring a reader to a book, so can virtual reality, because there’s immediacy. You also get to walk through the world of the book, which is something that a movie doesn’t let you do. I think the closest would be an amusement park. So you get to actually be in the environment of the book, you’re up close with the author. It’s really a whole different ballgame, I think. And if you’re drawn to that world and want to stay in it, you’re going to pick up the books.

Dan Patterson: Well, you created with Zodiac a world that is immersive, particularly for young adult readers. And there are a lot of readers. This is a fantasy setting and almost perfect for virtual reality. Tell me a little bit about the setting of the book.

Romina Garber: Zodiac is set in a galaxy where every planetary system is inspired by a Zodiac sign. And technology is huge, particularly holograms. People travel long distances by sending their hologram there. And virtual reality has a very… It’s like a sister-ship almost, with that kind of technology. So, there’s this axiom in the Zodiac universe called trust only what you can touch because there’s so much identity fraud by fraudulent holograms. And so, in the world of virtual reality, you’re kind of living the experience of a member of the Zodiac, because you’re interacting with other people’s avatars, which are like holograms, and you don’t know whom you can trust.

And because these are all planets and very new planets that are designed in virtual reality, we created portals to those worlds. So you can literally walk up to a doorway and enter those planets, which is so special. It’s even more special than watching it on a screen because it’s you, not the actor.

Dan Patterson: You worked with a company called High Fidelity or Penguin, your publisher worked with a company called High Fidelity, to render this universe in VR. Tell me a little bit about what they did.

Romina Garber: Well, they worked with another company as well called Abelana VR, and they created the elements. So I would send along images of Pinterest board type things of what I was thinking. And also, chunks of text where I describe the worlds of the characters, and they created avatars of the four main characters so that we could see them. And they were true to life, exactly the way that I described them in the books. So if a reader walked up to one, they would know who that was.

They also scanned me in and created an avatar of me, a fully walking, moving avatar, which was fascinating. And then they would send me things to approve. So they’d be like, “Okay, this is the world we’re thinking for Libras. Is this how you envisioned it?” And it was really amazing to see the detail and how much it really was my imagination come to life. So it made me feel great as an author, of course, but also just as a fan of that universe, which I get to be. It was surreal.

Dan Patterson: And tell me what happens when I put a VR headset on, whether it’s a Rift or a VIVE. When I enter your universe, what do I see in the experience?

Romina Garber: So, in the Zodiac books, we have the planetary plenums, which is when the ambassadors from every house meet and have discussions. What’s supposed to be diplomatic discussions, but often devolves into arguments and petty things. And so we recreated that environment.

So we have all the flags of the Zodiac. Everyone wears their Zodiac house color. And then you get to walk around it and see YouTube videos of things I’ve done about the series. And then you get to walk into these portals, and you get to see actually the full Zodiac rotating around you. So you see all 34 inhabited planets, you see the galactic sun, Helios. It’s quite unique. I had never had an experience like it. And you’re walking and moving, and you’re no longer in the room you’re in, you’re in this other dimension.

Dan Patterson: And finally, how does virtual reality help create new readers?

Romina Garber: I think that, because it has the ability to be so immersive, some of us, some readers like to be more passive. We like to sit down and watch the characters and their stories unfold. I think that’s great, especially with movies, with TV, with reading and whatnot. Some of us like to actually be those characters and experience it and take more agency. So we’ll enjoy amusement park rides and different ways to make ourselves feel like we’re at the center. This is for that kind of person, because once you’ve explored that and gotten to walk in the character’s shoes, quite literally, and in their world, you’re probably more likely to want to know more. And so you’re going to pick up that book and say, “Huh, let me see what adventures this character got themselves into and how that differs from my interpretation of it.” And I do think it’s a doorway into that. And the immediacy and immersiveness of it, again, it really leaves the screen behind.

Dan Patterson: What does the future of books and virtual reality and technology look like to you?

Romina Garber: So I don’t know, particularly, if it will be VR as we know it now, or if it will change and evolve into something different. But I do think that it’s more accessible in a certain way because you can also watch it online and tune in in different ways, like people tuned in to the live stream of the High Fidelity chat we did. I think that there’s VR centers all over where people can go put on the headset and get involved.

So I think it is the future. I think the immediacy, again, with the author and getting to be involved in the story and talk to the author. That’s something like you were saying, you started off reading good old fashioned paper books, same as me, and I never could have dreamed of meeting those authors or talking to them or asking them all my questions. And the difference between a Twitter chat or a Skype video or whatever, is that in this case, you’re in that author’s face. And they’re looking at you, and you’re looking at them, even if it’s through an avatar. The experience of it was something I never knew how intense it would be.

So I do think that it’s headed that way. I think books are great for adapting into this kind of world, and I definitely see VR or something like it in our future.

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