Storytelling in VR

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In 2009, Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker set out to conduct a literary and anthropological experiment. They scouted through thrift stores and garage sales to purchase 100 small knickknacks–ranging from forgotten piggy banks and action figures to old mayonnaise jars–and spent no more than a few dollars on each item. The duo then asked dozens of talented writers and artists to imagine up short stories, comics, or songs for each object before putting the objects, along with their narratives, up for bid on eBay.

penny next to globe paperweight
This globe paperweight (originally $1.49) sold for $197 on eBay.

In most every case, the final sale price of each object when accompanied by its story was several times the original purchase price. One globe-themed paperweight–originally priced at $1.49–sold for nearly $200! Glenn and Walker called their project, “Significant Objects . . . and How They Got That Way,” and posted the results of their experiment online, along with photos of the objects and copies of the stories. A book by the same name soon followed.

The basis for their experiment was simple: stories add value.

This same principle applies when creating virtual reality (VR) experiences. Even a very realistic-looking virtual environment with advanced graphics is just a bunch of disjointed pictures unless there’s a narrative that explains to the viewer what is supposed to be happening. This isn’t to suggest that VR experiences need a well-defined plot, with a set introduction, climax, and resolution. That’s part of the beauty of VR; the viewer decides the course they are going to take.

On March 29th, at a Philadelphia Area New Media Association (PANMA) event, digital artist and interactive designer Fredric “Fresh” Freeman and visual storyteller and digital art direct Babs Hansen explained why creating a narrative in VR matters, even if it looks different than traditional storytelling.

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This classic toy is an early example of virtual reality storytelling.

“While traditional storytelling focuses on individual characters,” said Hansen, “in VR you have a 6th sense, and that’s space. When creating your story, it’s important to consider space as a character.”

In doing so, VR can give feeling and perspective to a space. “The environment is not just the background. It’s part of the experience and important to factor in an emotional connection to the space,” said Hansen.

What is needed to create a compelling VR experience (besides a 360° camera, a strong computer, the right software, and a video card with tons of memory)?

Freeman and Hansen provided several recommendations. The first, to watch “VR Fail” videos on YouTube, may seem counter-intuitive, but said Hansen, “It will give you a much better perspective on spatial awareness and how to avoid the pitfalls.”

Their other recommendations for building a story in VR include:

  • Thinking of how the user will react in space (Will it make them comfortable or cause anxiety?)
  • Giving orientation to a space and orienting a user’s body to a sense of space. One way to do this is to add 3D text to buildings and other objects to let users know what things are.
  • Before shooting video, walking through the location and finding a favorite place, then researching its history.
  • Storyboarding early and often.
  • Not getting tied to one idea.
  • Taking panoramic photos with a phone to decide where to place story elements.
  • Not focusing in on small spaces, as most cameras are designed for a wide perspective and the space will seem closed in once the video is “stitched” (merged and overlapped) for VR.
  • Being open to on the spot inspiration.

Not all of Freeman and Hansen’s advice was related to storytelling. They’ve also learned a lot about the VR production process through trial and error.

Additional VR creation tips:

  • VR creation is usually collaborative. Listening to each person on the team is important.
  • Always charge your equipment before shooting.
  • Always overshoot the amount of footage you think you will need.
  • Allow plenty of time in your production schedule to review and clip video. It can be very time-consuming.
  • Clap your hands at the beginning of a scene. This will make it easier to review and sync video based on the audio timeline.
  • Account for the blank space at the bottom of the video, a common limitation of 360° cameras. Be creative when adding elements or recreating the ground image to hide this void.
  • Keep in mind that the flat version of video will seem far away until it is rounded in VR.
  • Keep a horizon line when filming.
  • Shoot 48-60 frames per second to capture more information. The more information you have, the more seamless the stitching will appear.

When put in practice, these recommendations can help connect the viewer to the virtual space in a meaningful way, and in turn, create a storytelling experience that’s both engaging and valuable.

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