Paisley Smith, Jam3 and the NFB Digital Studio
2018 | 15 min
Every year, Canada receives hundreds of thousands of students from around the world. To make the most of their Canadian experience, many opt to live with a host family. Homestay is one family’s story of life with international students—a look at how complete immersion in another culture can create a clash of expectations and change our understanding of family, hospitality, nationality and love.
This 15-minute creative non-fiction narrative was designed for an interactive room-scale VR environment.
Homestay is a multi-layered experiment that incorporates the latest in VR technology to expand the practice of interactive narrative in an audiovisual environment. The folded paper-craft world represents the garden that narrator Paisley Smith visited while grieving for the loss of a friend and “family member,” and signifies the failure of cultural symbols to fully represent people in all their complexity. As users move through the paper garden, they have control one moment but not the next. Just when they think they’ve deciphered the symbolism of the floating boat, it unfolds and drifts away, out of reach. Paisley’s narration is that of a young person who’s discovering much of the world for the first time. But ultimately she delivers the mature insights of someone with a more seasoned understanding of universal subjects and themes such as family, culture, empathy and tragedy.
Technology Approach and Challenges
Homestay uses a game engine to create its beautiful paper-craft representation of the Nitobe Memorial Garden at the University of British Columbia. The heavily symbolic visuals fold into existence as the user interacts with key elements within the environment. As the user, you will literally construct the environment, from a single leaf to a beautiful, immense garden.
The entire experience has been built in Unity. We’ve created a number of custom shaders and textures to fully realize the paper-craft aesthetic. During the course of the roughly 20-minute experience, the garden will shift, from season to season, as the narrative unfolds. Homestay will appear on both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift platforms and utilize full room-scale.
The primary technical challenges were twofold: a) how to elevate the interactions in a VR experience so that they symbolize the themes of the story itself; and b) how to ensure the audio treatment—essential to understanding the narrative context of the piece—supports those interactions.