Explore dark side of virtual reality

Harveen Sandhu stars as a computer- generated digital being in Halcyon, which is set in 2040 and investigates what appears to be the first real-life murder to take place in virtual reality.
Harveen Sandhu stars as a computer-generated digital being in Halcyon, which is set in 2040 and investigates what appears to be the first real-life murder to take place in virtual reality.PHOTO: SYFY CHANNEL

New crime drama Halcyon will feature interactive virtual-reality experiences in five episodes

What better way to introduce viewers to virtual reality (VR) entertainment than with a hybrid television show/VR experience about a murder that takes place in a virtual space?

That is the premise of new crime drama Halcyon, which debuts in Singapore today. Set in the year 2040, when VR has become as commonplace as smartphones, it follows a detective in the Virtual Reality Crimes Unit as she investigates what appears to be the first real-life murder to take place in VR, a crime previously thought impossible.

Ten episodes will be shown in the usual format on TV, while the other five will be interactive VR experiences accessible to those with Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR headsets, who will be able to explore crime scenes and examine clues during these episodes.

The makers of the show took the VR theme even further when they spoke to The Straits Times and other reporters at a VR press conference held earlier this month.

Surrounded by avatars of journalists from all over the world, director Benjamin Arfmann - who was logged on to the virtual meeting space from Los Angeles - says it made sense to use the familiar genre of the crime procedural to showcase this new multi-platform series.

He and Stefan Grambart - creative director of the content studio behind the show, Secret Location - "are both fans of procedurals and murder mystery crime stories".

Arfmann, 32, says: "As you're starting to tell stories in the new medium of VR and figuring out how to engage the audience in a way that's asking so much of them in some ways, you have to put these headsets on, you have to get comfortable with the idea that you're going to be part of the narrative. Introducing them to that new stuff using something familiar like a procedural is a way to help people get comfortable.

"If you dive right into doing Citizen Kane in VR, that might be a bridge too far. For the moment, I think it's a good idea to try and make the stories approachable to a general audience."

Even so, the Halcyon team found themselves having to come up with a new visual language as they switched from 2D episodes to VR ones, which forced them to rethink tried-and-tested cinematic techniques such as the close-up.

Arfmann says: "The backbone of a traditional film and TV show is the close-up because we read so much of what other human beings are going through non-verbal cues, facial expressions, intonations and body posture.

"But once you start doing the VR portion of the story, that becomes very hard to bring into the experience. So then a lot of the story, emotion and character has to just come through in the voice."

Canadian actress Harveen Sandhu, 25, thus had to switch gears while portraying Asha, a computergenerated digital being known as Virtual Intelligence. She helps detective Jules Dover (Lisa Marcos), who is assigned to solve the murder of the chief executive of Halcyon, the world's leading VR company which makes neural implants that manipulate the senses to create a virtual world for users.

Sandhu says the traditional and VR episodes demanded "two different approaches to storytelling", which were "definitely tricky from an acting perspective because I had to imagine a lot of the VR stuff, because that was going to be built on top of the filmed footage".

Arfmann says the actress' theatrical background helped in filming the VR episodes "because she had that capability to put a lot of the character and story into the vocal performance, which is not the way you would do it in TV because that would come across as stage-y and overacting".

Here and elsewhere, the makers of the series - which was filmed in Toronto, although exterior shots include scenes of high-rise buildings in Shanghai - had to figure it out as they went along.

"We were trying to do this hybrid VR-linear thing that is really new, so it was a lot of us laying track in front of us as the train was going," says Arfmann.

Grambart, 42, says: "Everything starts with a story and concept and then a script. Where it started diverging from there is when we began shooting the live-action episodes with the cast and crew and, meanwhile, were trying to develop what the VR worlds and episodes were going to look like.

"This is nascent technology and unproven ground, so what we're saying 'yes' to is an experiment. And if we walk away from this having learnt what to do for the next production, then we've done our jobs."

But as excited as they are to be pioneers in this form of entertainment, Grambart and Arfmann admit that they share some of the ethical concerns about VR that the show raises - for instance, that users may lose touch with reality.

"There's definitely good and bad to the technology," Grambart says. "The first time I was able to pick up objects in the world - a coffee cup, which I filled with coffee - and went home that evening and told my partner about it, I realised that as I was explaining it, I was miming the actual actions.

"And not only that, but my brain was also filling in details like the feel and weight of a porcelain mug with coffee in it. Because that sensation wasn't there, my brain made it up. And I realised that was powerful. Whether that's good or bad, that depends. There are ethical concerns with VR, but I think a lot of good can also come from it."

Either way, Arfmann and Grambart believe that the VR-obsessed future which Halcyon depicts is inevitable. "It's one of those things that, whether we want it to, is coming," Arfmann says.

"So we have to figure it out. There are weird concerns, such as getting lost in VR, abandoning the real world and ethical considerations about whether you're more or less likely to be empathetic or hostile when you interact with people via an avatar. These are things that we have to figure out. I don't think there are any easy answers now."

•Halcyon debuts in Singapore today at 10pm on the Syfy channel (StarHub TV Channel 517). It is also available on halcyon.syfy.asia. VR is available on Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift through the Halcyon VR app.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2016, with the headline 'Explore dark side of virtual reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe