If you are a publisher planning on collaborating on or releasing your own VR, the best way to give your work the edge is to speak to audiences about their VR experiences, in order to really understand what works for them and what doesn’t. Last weekend my company, Limina Immersive, put on the UK’s first VR-only arts festival for the public in Watershed, Bristol - and I got to do just that: speak to hundreds of people who had just experienced a range of VR content.
The festival was called the Limina VR Weekender, and set out to make artistic and story-driven VR accesible to the general public. Each session consisted of one to three VR experiences that audience members would experience in groups of six. After every session, I ran a discussion group where people could share their thoughts about what they had just experienced.
Image credit - Emma Hughes
I’m not going to beat around the bush: it was really hard work, and quite a few friends of mine have told me the challenge I set myself was a tad ludicrous. There were so many different perspectives to take into account. It was exhausting, but the outcome was invaluable. Unlike film, TV, gaming or books, there isn’t an existing audience culture that VR work goes into. We haven’t grown up with it either. This makes it hard to have any about ’intuition’, creatively about what will work and what won't. The fastest way you can develop that intuition is by speaking to audiences.
So, here are a few highlights around what I learned:
A ‘journey’ can be as powerful as a classic ‘story’
Audiences for creative VR content seemed to enjoy physical or metaphorical ‘journeys’ where they travelled through a range of places or scenarios. This was as interesting to them as a more classic storytelling structure. We found, however, that the key to getting the most out of the ‘journey’ format was giving the audience context beforehand as to how best to approach the piece. People told me they liked it when the VR host said beforehand ‘just sit back, relax and let it wash over you’.
When pieces are edited, too many cuts can discombobulate audience members
People described fast and unexpected edits as very confusing as to why they had moved, how much time had passed and what was going on. It would be a bit like teleporting in real life, without any control around where you’re going and why. However, this isn’t to say that cuts in 360 video don’t work at all. It is just important as to how they are handled.
Audience members told me it was generally fine when they understood where they were going next, or when the length of each scenario was quite long, so there was time to get used to each new scenario. From a creator’s perspective, looking to theatre is a good place to get inspiration from. Things happen in scenarios rather than though intricately edited cinema ‘language’.
Audiences get stressed by feeling they are not looking in the ‘right’ place
Discussion group participants told me that in some pieces, they felt that there might be a ‘right’ place to look, and that they felt like they weren’t getting the most out of their experience unless they looked in that place. This pressure is something that publishers should bear in mind when planning VR content. My suggested solutions comprise of offering a guide character who shows you clearly where you should be focussing your attention, being clever with spacially-placed audio and directing audience attention that way, or doing away with the need to look in a certain place completely - instead making sure the piece works at all times, whatever the direction you’re looking in.
For me, as both a VR curator and a consultant, these conversations were deeply enlightening. Publishers, you could learn a lot in just a day: similar discussion groups with your target market could be organised with pre-existing VR content. Articles in FutureBook are great, but trust me - talking to audience members is the most effective way to learn about this emerging, mysterious new medium that is VR, and how it intersects with the storytelling you're developing through books.