David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef VR Dive
So, you’re a publisher or author considering dipping your toe into virtual reality waters. But, what content to make? This is a big question right now for many, especially as VR feels so new that there aren’t many established ‘dos and don’ts’.
I’ve been working in VR for almost two years, and have learned that some types of scenario or narrative really lend themselves to VR. However, some really don’t – usually the type of story that has been shoehorned in from another form of communication. VR is a totally new medium and industry, with its own unique set of evolving techniques that we must work out and get to grips with.
With other forms of narrative media like books, theatre or film, there’s more literature out there on the ‘how’ than you could read in a lifetime, and dozens of courses you could potentially go on. But with VR, the existing cannon of work, and the amount of pre-existing wisdom, is comparatively miniscule. This is why it’s especially important for anyone who makes VR to share their learnings — and this is why I want to share my own learnings with you.
So, without further ado, here are three things I have found VR to be particularly good at:
VR can seemingly package human experience and transcend the boundaries of both space and time. This is a pretty incredible notion, and naturally leads for audiences to think, when they hear of VR; ‘oh, I would love to visit this place’. There is indeed an audience demand for exclusive access via VR. In a ComRes survey commissioned by UK media and technology law firm Wiggin, 37% of respondents said they would like to use VR for tourism and 27% said they would like use VR for ‘major events’ like concerts or firework displays. This is an especially great avenue to go down if you, the creator have access to places or people that you know your audience would give their right arm to visit.
Several types of exclusivity work; there is glossy celeb-style exclusivity, like MTV Cribs, or location exclusivity, where your audience can visit somewhere on earth that is unreachable but interesting, like a glacier or a nuclear bunker. If you want to see this type of access in action, check out David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef VR Dive.
Awe is the cousin of exclusivity as the two can often come together in VR. Awe is that ‘wow’ feeling you get, an intoxicating combination of respect, fear and wonder. Consider the type of experience where you’re bathed in the northern lights or are face to face with a magnificent elephant. Awe is visceral, as much a bodily response as a psychological one. It’s only with a sense of presence (like VR offers) that we can achieve a physiological response to what we encounter; for instance, VR driving and flight simulation have been proven to increase heart rate and skin resistance.
There have already been a fair few VR experiences that really push those feelings of the sublime. Playstation VR, for instance, released an experience to accompany the film The Walk in 2015 where you could ‘walk’ the tightrope between the Twin Towers in the 1970s. VR director Dorothea Gibbs created a 360 video art installation called Natural Reality 2:1 where audience members can immerse themselves in nature on the Norfolk Coast, but with a captivating varying speed timelaspe.
The Walk VR experience
When I first got a consumer 360 camera to test ideas out on, my first instinct was to try out some crazy stunt-type experiments that maxed out on the ‘wow’ factor. I suppose I was going for awe and exclusivity, as explored above. I got my boyfriend to whizz round on his motorbike with the camera strapped just behind the handlebars and I tried dangling the camera on a string out the window. I learned quite a bit from these experiments.
While the resulting content was sort of cool, it was also a bit of an ordeal to watch, especially in large quantities. There was a limit to how much could be endured. An unexpected revelation came when a colleague and I thought it would be funny to put the camera on a seat at the table with us, and involve it in the conversation we were having while we were sipping coffee in our local coffee shop. Funnily enough, the direct eye contact we made with the camera was the most powerful thing I had seen in VR, by far. The human face is evolutionary designed to be engaging, and this translates through to VR.
Get a human being to ‘interact’ with the user in VR, and the user gets the illusion that they are talking or reacting directly to them in a way that often passes the uncanny valley. Like breaking the fourth wall in theatre, direct address in VR feels personal. You can even push this quality to the max, and aim for audience-to-subject para-social relationships. You know that bond that teenage girls get for boyband heartthrobs they have never met? That’s a para-social relationship. This could be pretty powerful in VR, especially when artificial intelligence and photo-real 3D CGI become part of the standard production toolkit.
These three features of virtual reality are ripe for exploration. It is simulation and presence that underpin all three. This list is by no means definitive, but it is a great place to start. VR is of course good at other things too, but this is ultimately for you to discover and share with the world. For now, get going on your VR creation journey by brainstorming ideas with Access, Empathy and Intimacy as your jumping off point. See where these facets take you creatively. VR is a powerful and delightful new medium to make work for – have fun!