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Lou Ward on Tinker: “Memories Make ‘You’ You” – Interview

Lou Ward tells us about developing Tinker, a live, unscripted VR performance that raises awareness on Alzheimer’s Disease by making you part of the story.

Created by immersive director Lou Ward and recently showcased at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it made its World Premiere as part of the festival’s Official Selection, Tinker is a one of a kind experience. Not only is this ambitious project an interactive Virtual Reality experience, but it’s also a live and unscripted theatre performance that is never the same twice, as it is customized for each individual participant thanks to the use of improvisational techniques. In addition to that, Tinker is also a very personal story with a powerful message to send, as it revolves around a Grandfather, based on Ward’s own grandfather and superbly played by improvisational artist Randy Dixon, who begins to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms. Whether you experience Tinker as a participant – the Grandchild, who gets to bond and grow older with Grandfather in a playful interactive world, or as an invisible observer, you are bound to be highly impressed by Tinker‘s use of improvisation and technology, and deeply affected by a story about human connection, identity, memory, and love.

We interviewed Tinker‘s director, Tinker Studio founder and Seattle VR/AR Meetup co-founder Lou Ward on this groundbreaking VR experience. Here’s what he told us on how Tinker and its characters came to life, the technology and creative decisions used to show emotion and connect with the audience, the importance of memory, and more.

Randy Dixon as Grandfather holding a camera in the virtual reality experience Tinker, created by Lou Ward
Randy Dixon as Grandfather holding a camera in the virtual reality experience Tinker, created by Lou Ward (Tinker Studio)

Tinker: Connecting Through Virtual Reality and Live Improvisation

Congratulations for Tinker‘s premiere! How has your Sundance experience been so far?

My experience at Sundance has been truly humbling. It has been a dream of mine for 5 years. Sundance did an incredible job pivoting to an innovative WebXR platform which allowed us the opportunity to showcase what we’ve been working on. This is our first iteration and I’m so proud of the team and what we created. This experience was created to honor my grandfather and my family, to promote awareness for Alzheimer’s disease, and to show the power of connection and understanding that can be achieved through new models of storyliving in virtual reality.

Tinker is such an impressive project! How did it come to life and how long did it take you to create all this?

Thank you. I have been working in virtual production and combining virtual reality with live improvisational theater for over 5 years. Tinker evolved from a 2D animated film I created at SCAD, and after trying the DK2 for the first time, I was inspired to turn my project into a virtual reality experience. I could see the potential for VR and emerging tech as a transformative new way to tell stories and share experiences. This was born out of the early days in the Seattle XR community where I met great people at local hackathons, helped co-found the Seattle VR/AR Meetup and worked on the Hololens at Microsoft. Eventually, I created an XR studio, where we worked in virtual production, teamed up with professional improvisation actor Randy Dixon of Unexpected Productions, and began developing our interactive narrative.

When did you know Tinker was going to be a live, unscripted, interactive experience, and what do you think is the advantage of mixing VR and theatre together?

I wanted the audience to connect with my content in a very different way. My 2D film allowed audience members to see the story about myself and my grandfather when he developed Alzheimer’s disease, but it didn’t allow them to necessarily feel it or understand it. VR allows the audience to connect with the story in a very real way.

That is why we chose improvisational theater. By fusing unscripted narrative with virtual reality, it allows the participant to live through the story in a very real and personalized way. Through classic improvisational technique, our lead actor Randy Dixon gathers information from our participant in the beginning and weaves it throughout the narrative as the Grandfather in order to make the participant feel more connected to the story, customizing it in a way so they feel like the main character. Because the narrative is dynamic and live, there is an authenticity that augments the relationship and connection between both characters. The intentional interactions they share – both nonverbal and spoken – becomes the basis for making new memories together. We wanted our audience to do more than just watch Tinker, but to embody it; to have empathy and build a relationship with someone over the course of the narrative and connect with the story in a very personal way.

Randy Dixon as Grandfather at the beginning of virtual reality experience Tinker, created by Lou Ward
Randy Dixon as Grandfather at the beginning of virtual reality experience Tinker, created by Lou Ward

What were the main challenges of creating a project as complex as Tinker?

Evolving with the changing technology. We’ve had different iterations of Tinker with various forms of facial and motion capture tracking technology. Most recently, when Apple deprecated Ikinema last year, we were forced to pivot and create our own facial and body tracking controls through the custom framework we created. Emerging technology is constantly evolving, and in turn we were constantly evolving our experience to make sure that the technology we are using is able to best support the narrative we created. And being a small, self-funded studio to have created a fully networked and customized rendered VR experience to the scope that we have, I couldn’t be prouder of our team and I’m looking forward to how Tinker will evolve next.

The Grandfather: Custom Facial Controls and The Importance of Showing Confusion

I love that the grandfather is so approachable, and so instantly likable! How did you work on creating this character and making him so relatable and “human”?

The grandfather is loosely based off of my own grandfather, and in turn, the 2D animated character from my initial film. We wanted to steer away from uncanny valley and embrace the painterly design style for our character. Utilizing the principles of animation, we designed him to be approachable with big eyes. We made custom facial controls for our actor to operate during the performance which allowed him to express the Grandfather’s feelings in a more organic and expressive way. We actually used a lot of the facial tracking data we collected when we were initially workshopping Randy’s improv performances using motion capture technology and translated that to the custom controls we created. Our UX allows the Grandfather to show a broad range of emotions to convey the narrative more completely and connect with the audience in a more personal way.

Technically speaking, Tinker is incredible! I’m so impressed by the fact that the grandfather’s glasses move like eyebrows to convey emotions!

We wanted to be independent of any other social VR platform by creating our own networked experience to give our team the freedom and flexibility to customize features. The custom facial controls for the grandfather allow our actor to have full control – to make him blink, make his eyebrows move – it gives the actor the ability to change emotions instantaneously. Especially confusion. This facial feature is seen more frequently as Alzheimer’s symptoms begin to increase over time, and our actor can control this.

Tinker ‘s Invisible Viewers

Why did you decide to have invisible viewers take part in the experience too?

We wanted viewers to experience Tinker in an immersive way. We wanted them to not just be sitting in their theater seats, but to be able to walk around and move throughout the organic narrative unfolding before them. By being invisible, it allowed viewers to connect to the experience without visually or physically interfering with the narrative. But we also gave them the ability to speak in the beginning and at the end of the performance because the viewers are just as valuable to us as the participant is – and their personal journey from beginning to end is something we wanted to be thoughtful about.

I love that there’s so much freedom of movement for both the participant and the viewers!

Lived experiences with actors and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with theater and VR is something we really wanted to do. From the viewer’s perspective, we wanted them to walk around and to be able to speak with Randy in the beginning and end, so the connection was not only between the participant and the Grandfather, but between hopefully everyone who experienced Tinker. We wanted to be mindful of the collective audience.

The Grandfather's workshop in the virtual reality experience Tinker, created by Lou Ward
The Grandfather’s workshop in the virtual reality experience Tinker, created by Lou Ward (Tinker Studio)

“Memories Are What Make You You: They Are Like DNA for Your Brain”

The room where most of the action takes place contains so many meaningful objects, and most of them are connected to memories, which are the very same things that Alzheimer’s Disease can unfortunately take away. Can you talk about the theme of memory in Tinker?

Memories are who we are and how we consume the world. Memories are what make ‘you’ you; they are like DNA for your brain. One of my grandfather’s greatest strengths was his intelligence, and ultimately that is what he lost with Alzheimer’s. We wanted to emphasize the value of memory, what it means to create new memories with others, and what it means when those memories disappear without your control. We chose imagery that was present in my life growing up in Midwest Ohio inside my grandfather’s workshop and wanted to embody that playful, creative environment he created. We chose objects that were symbolic of my time growing up alongside him, that could be used as props to build connection with participants who were now growing up alongside this Grandfather.

Why did you decide to use a polaroid as a prop?

The polaroid was supposed to be a real tangible thing that you could take in the experience to capture the new memories that you and the Grandfather were actively creating. So many of us have pictures of memories we have with our family, they are a way of connecting to how things used to be.

What’s Next for Lou Ward and Tinker

Finally, what’s next for Tinker and what’s next for you?

A short break and then back to the lab! I’m going to take time after the festival to self- reflect, to iterate, and evolve this experience to be something even better than it is today. This was our first step towards a new future for Tinker and seeing how people engage with the experience. Our next step is to evolve and polish the experience.

Our goal this year is to share Tinker with the world through major film festivals, to eventually be featured on a platform, and to partner with other organizations and events where our experience can be used to showcase Alzheimer’s disease; increase awareness and decrease stigma, support caregivers, and provide training and educational opportunities in the future. Eventually, we want to use the framework we created to help bring awareness and understanding for other neurodegenerative diseases and help in any way to showcase a disease from an organic, first person perspective.

I have invested my life savings into seeing this project come to fruition because I believe in it so much, and its potential to help others. It has also been cathartic for me to watch the performances here at Sundance, I found myself reliving some of the memories I had with my grandfather. I hope that people have been able to connect with Tinker while here at Sundance, and that they have been able to reflect on their own memories with their loved ones.

Tinker made its World Premiere as an Official Selection at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival from January 28 – February 3, 2021.

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