Virtually Useful: Step Three — Design dimensions (what really works in VR)
Originally written for Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio (where I work), published 29 September 2017. Read the original here.
it’s just good for all kinds of storytelling — visual storytelling. The technology is going to get better and better, and the storytellers who put their mind to this are going to become a greater number, and that means more ideas and beautiful work are going to come out of it
VR pioneer, Nonny de la Peña for Ochre.is
The possibilities for making in VR are many and varied, but what specific techniques might creatives wish to bring in to their toolkit when writing and designing specifically for VR? To offer a starting point, I’d like to share a few of the design dimensions that I have seen used to great effect.
Easy does it — Going from your everyday life, straight into another, all encompassing reality can feel pretty abrupt; like walking into an unfamiliar building having been outside in bright sunshine. You need a minute to adjust and to get your bearings. Intelligent designers for VR carefully craft starting spaces that require very little of their participants. Perhaps here is where you gradually introduce some of the core mechanics, such as showing the user how to use their hand or on-body controllers, encourage them to take a few steps forward, give them a reason to look behind them or introduce the sonic motifs that will become pertinent later on. A great tip shared with me recently is to encourage the participant to stoop or crouch down early on in the experience. It is a great way to give people a sense of their own physicality in a new space, and sets an expectation that they might move their whole bodies as the experience progresses.
I have been surprised by how tempting it can be to just stay still in VR for long periods of time. It can feel rather magical and, when the views are good, really relaxing. In The Climb for the Oculus Rift, my job was to scale a rockface, however I spent a slightly daft amount of time looking behind me and out to sea. It was just beautiful.
Play with scale — as the viewer in VR is placed at the centre of the action, toying with their sense of scale can be very powerful. You can set the height and eyeline of your viewer to be wherever you choose. In Through the Eyes of the Animal by Marshmallow Laser Feast, you experience the world at the scale of a frog, a dragonfly, an owl or a mosquito.
A trailer for Among The Sleep by Krillbrite cast the player as a two year old, toddling through a first person horror game. Interestingly the trailer never progressed into a full VR game, as the makers decided that the sporadic control a toddler has over their body (tottering, falling, switching between waddling and crawling) felt awful to adults in VR. They shared a fantastic blog about their findings here.
Sometimes shifting the scale of the world, rather than the size of the player can be equally potent. In a painting created in Quill by Oculus Story Studio Art Director, Goro Fujita you can zoom in to certain elements of the image, discovering whole intricate worlds within them, that in turn contain further intricate scenes. Think of the closing sequence to the film Men In Black in reverse…happening all around you, and at your behest.
Leaning in — one of the joys of experiencing full VR (as opposed to 360 video) is that you can follow your own curiosity within a given scene. If you spot something on a table in corner of a room that peaks your interest, you can go and examine it. If you want to peek around a hedgerow to see what lies beyond, you simply lean around the brambles and take a look. One of the most pleasing versions of this (for me at least) has been the ability to lean in and look inside an otherwise solid object.
In the beautiful Alumette by Penrose Studios, we see smoke coming from inside a boat. The brave souls that move their heads closer, and then through the hull of the boat are rewarded with an extra narrative beat involving the little match girl and her role in starting the fire.
Having been fortunate enough to experience quite a lot of computer generated VR, I have developed a slightly odd habit of trying to walk into and through human characters, taking a slightly perverse pleasure in how counter intuitive that feels, as though I am Patrick Swayze jumping into Whoopie Goldberg in the movie Ghost.
It’s probably safe to say that most people won’t behave as oddly as me, so as experience designers, makers must use the creative tools at their disposal to signal to viewers that they might wish to explore a little deeper. Here, the classic and centuries-old techniques of theatre, directing attention with sound, light and movement come into their own. Even with that, it’s likely that only a small portion of your audience will adopt the ‘super-player’ behaviour of poking their head through a solid object, so unless your invitation is explicit, it is probably good to use this as a pleasing addition to reward the adventurous, or the repeat visitor, rather than a critical plot point that breaks your narrative when missed.
Looking away — Some people who have not had much experience in VR worry about how claustrophobic it may feel. Watching someone in a headset you may understandably assume that things will feel very close to your head. From well travelled YouTube clips, many worry that they will be subjected to endless ‘jump scare’ zombies in their faces whilst a friend jumps out and terrifies them in their living room.
I was speaking to Studio resident and incredible VR curator and producer Catherine Allen this week about a piece that she curated for the Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival last week, Second Date. The piece in question has courted some controversy regarding whether it should be regarded as pornography or not. More interestingly for me, Catherine shared that, having seen the piece a number of times, she spent her most recent time in VR with the film exploring the beautiful décor of the Amsterdam house boat that is the setting for an erotic scene, enjoying the rich mise en scène constructed by the director, rather than feeling obliged to follow the specific gaze of the camera, as you would in traditional film.
As a VR designer, keep in mind that you have a full 360 degrees to play with, and you have the option to provide pockets of calm, places of rest and respite away your master narrative if you so choose. This level of detail and respect for the different choices that your viewer might make is likely to reward those that replay your experience, and can encourage your participant to be curious, and to feel more in control of their own experience. Perhaps this will allow people to feel less anxious about being trapped or ambushed.
Flying high — If you had a super power what would it be? Flying, am I right? From Icarus to Iron Man, our cultural references have long betrayed a human longing to take to the skies. With VR, some creators are giving their audiences a taste of what that would be like. In the VR version of Google Earth, you can point your controller skywards and ‘fly’ from one destination to the next. Eagle Flight by Ubisoft allows you to soar above Paris as a bird of prey. Sometimes this mechanic can be deployed more subtly. In Magritte VR by BDH, you are not explicitly flying, but are moving through the artworks and landscapes smoothly, and at varying heights, almost as if on rails in a way that removes the responsibility for navigation from the viewer, and allows you instead to focus on looking all around you as you fly through a scene.
Flying from place to place can be a fast and elegant means of achieving transition in VR. The maximum tracked distance a player can travel is less than 5 meters at the moment, so walking somewhere can be tricky. ‘Teleporting’ is frequently used in VR games, but can be disorientating to the unfamiliar, and the film editors’ tradition of ‘jump cuts’ can just feel plain wrong when a viewer finds themselves plonked down somewhere entirely new all of a sudden.
When choosing to work with an illusion of flight, it is important to design in such a way that minimises motion sickness. When our eyes and brains interpret that we are moving, and our bodies do not detect the same, we read this as being poisoned and are evolutionarily inclined to try to rid the poisen from our bodies by throwing up. This is not fun. Much has been researched and written about designing experiences that avoid this pitfall so do take a look here and here if you are interested in pursuing this further.
Eye contact — More than ever before in TV, film and gaming, the creator of a VR experience knows where their audience is looking, or at least what direction their head is facing at any time. This means that you can design a character that looks directly at you, or refuses to make eye contact. This can feel extremely powerful. Henry by Oculus Story Studios is a Pixar-style family animated tale of a hedgehog who just wants a hug. I challenge anyone reading this to look into Henry’s big goo goo eyes as he looks straight at you, opening his arms, not to twitch just a little as your body moves to return the snuggle of this spikey little eulipotyphlan.
Shadow play — When you navigate, or are guided through a virtual world, one thing that can feel odd is the disconnect between what your real body is doing, and what you see when you look down in VR. Occasionally you may feel like there is a weird puppet dangling from your neck. One thing that can make you feel more connected to your virtual body, is the clever use of shadows and reflections. In Easter Rising: Voice of A Rebel, made for the BBC’s Taster platform and produced by the aforementioned Catherine Allen, there is an extraordinary moment where you find yourself in a building on fire, about to attempt an escape through a burning door. As you brace yourself for what may come next, you come to realise that, not only is the flickering shadow cast against the door you, but it is moving as you move, it shows you to yourself.
Bringing the outside in — When you work with AR and MR (see previous episode for a few thoughts on the differences) there will inherently be a relationship between the real and the virtual, however this doesn’t have to stop when you design in VR.
A wonderful collective of artists from BeAnotherLab created Machine To Be Another, an experience for two people who each wear an Oculus Rift headset, fitted with a small camera that faces forward. The feed from one person’s camera displays in the headset of the other, creating the uncanny experience of being in someone else’s body. Through a sensitively guided series of gestures that both participants enact, you develop a quite emotional sense of embodied empathy for your co-actor. Without giving away too much, I have never really recovered from the experience of shaking my own hand. Brain = melted.
So to wrap up, there is a small but growing set of wonderful experiences being developed that give equal value to those using a VR headset, and those around them who are not. In Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes by Steel Crate Games, the partner inside the headset can see the ticking bomb, wires, dials, codes and all; whereas the other partner is the only one who can see the bomb disposal manual. The pair have to talk fast and furiously to one another to work out what is needed to diffuse each bomb before it explodes. The net result is a brilliant combination of giggles, shouting and good-natured arguments.
Of course this list could go on forever, but hopefully this is enough to tickle your creative curiosity. Those making work in VR have much to learn from theatre, film, tv, video games, street games, and experience design, however VR has its own set of particular affordances and there is no better time to be exploring new ways of making and storytelling, as I have tried to illustrate above. We at the Pervasive Media Studio are really looking forward to what comes next, and would love to hear from you about what design dimensions you are experimenting with as you explore and extend this emerging form. Chat to us @PMStudioUK on twitter or come and say hi at an Open Studio Friday.
Next: Step Four — tools for making in VR