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What Happens When You Can’t Look Away? How VR Developers Used Gaze Activated Technology To Captivate Comic-Con

A young woman runs up to the camera, frantic. She begs the viewer not to look away from her, to steady their eyes — but then, in the corner, a flash. And then another one, just out the corner of your eye. And she continues to beg, the viewer finds it harder and harder to focus, until eventually, most give in and glance over. With an ominous warning, she disappears, replaced by a fearsome monster.

Or at least, that’s what generally happened. For those viewers at last year’s Comic-Con who chose the straight and narrow path, the main character of the MTV show Teen Wolf rewarded them by killing the monster with her weaponized scream. The piece, which was sponsored by AT&T, was viewed by thousands at the event and drew almost a million unique views when it was posted on YouTube and Facebook the following day.

The most interesting part of the experience was that the user didn’t know their actions had any impact on the story. Done overtly, gaze-activation can lend a “choose your own adventure” sheen to a piece, which is fine if that’s the aim. But done covertly, it can provide fascinating insight into the human mind, not to mention a subtle way to make an experience interactive without having to hand someone controllers.

Gaze activation can also provide valuable data to both developers and the brands who fund their content. Heatmaps are great, but gaze activation allows those on the back end to see exactly what cues people responded to in order to change a narrative, even if the cues we subtle. For those who want to test certain messages or plot points, it can be fascinating to see what makes people look away or focus on something else — and of course, any psychology student would have a field day with the data from an experience like “Teen Wolf” alone.

For AT&T, underwriting the experience was a chance to connect with a younger audience and stand out in the crowded field of Comic-Con. As VR emerges, brands can take advantage of the fact that the technology is so new to create memorable experiences for users, who will then recall their first immersive experience, hopefully with great fondness and brand awareness. Adding something like gaze activated technology also allowed them to create further points for discussion, as friends who did the experience were likely to compare endings and try to figure out why they saw different things.

It’s not enough for a brand to just make a 360 experience and expect people will pay attention anymore. Both developers and brands need to explore breakthrough technology like gaze activation in order to push content to the next level of interactivity and immersion.