Virtual Acolyte

When a medium is new, each piece of content is in a sense an argument. The creators are implicitly saying “this is what the medium is for.” Games companies were the first to hop on the consumer VR bandwagon, so “VR is a platform for games” was the initial salvo in the argument. Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus lead to the counter-argument: “VR is platform for socializing.” My privileged perches at Google and HTC allowed me to engage these arguments and develop my own. In a couple of essays, I proposed that VR is a platform for ritual.

Ritual, I realize, is not a word that immediately screams “commercial potential.” Indeed, it sounds archaic: the last couple of centuries have been all about discarding formalized interactions in the name of “authenticity”. So it’s a bit countercultural to suggest that the advent of the metaverse portends a ritual turn in our society, a shift from psychological inwardness to exteriorized representation. But the performative style of immersive social forums like VR Chat point in that direction.

During my XR years, I had the fun of designing many R&D prototypes, and I had the privilege of consulting for a number of outside developers. Through these jobs I got a basic education in Unity development and 3D asset creation.

The Virtual Acolyte project gave me the opportunity to go through the entire workflow of creating a VR experience, from asset creation to scene setup to interaction design and implementation. It was also a chance for me to test out my thesis about VR as a platform for ritual. An acolyte at a Catholic Mass performs a rote sequence of actions; the role varies little from parish to parish. The actions serve the practical function of assisting the priest, but they also constitute an active form of worship. A virtual walkthrough of the process could be used to train up volunteers. Might it also have spiritual value as a contemplative ritual?

I designed the experience as a straightforward procedural sim, utilizing UX conventions that had already become somewhat standard: voice audio cues the action, glowing ghost-image guides the user to place the object in the correct location.

I modeled the elements of the scene in Blender–all but the crucifix, which I sculpted immersively in Gravity Sketch. I assembled the project in Unity. The Innoactive plugin gave me a set of pre-scripted behaviors, along with a flowchart-style authoring environment for the state-machine.