Although VR is pretty awesome, it raises some new challenges for designers. One of the major issues arises from the fact that the player/user/specator has the ability of looking around in 360°. There could be something very important happening right in front of the user, but he might miss it completely: he is so intrigued by your beautiful virtual sky that he’s constantly looking upwards. If we instead would lock the angle of view, like in film, we would be discarting one of the best features of VR. So we want people to experience 360° environments, but somehow we have to guide the body, head, and eyes of our user to the things we believe are important. Let’s examine a few ways of achieving this.
1. Light and darkness
Visual cues can attract the body. People are naturally intrigued by light and tend to move towards it. We even do it in our afterlifes, so they say.
Another interesting way of guiding the body in VR is by touch. Many VR developers unknowingly already do this by placing their audience in a chair. This allows for unrestricted vision, but directs the attention forwards at the same time. You can take haptics a big step further though. Look at how people hug the representation of the mountains in Merrells Trailscape:
3. Bineural sound
Smart use of audio can trigger people to look in a certain direction. Implement this simple structure into your Unreal Editor‘s level blueprint to make sound appear to come from left or right, depending of the direction your user is facing. There are also plugins such as FMOD or better ways of implementing bineural sound but I haven’t been able to get any of those working. 4. Pointer actors A moving point of interest – such as the Guilty Spark character in Halo – can also touch down upon key elements in the virtual world. These ‘pointer actors’ as I like to call them don’t always need the ability to talk, nor do they require a prominent role in the narrative. However they do point at important elements, for example: first you might only see black ravens circling in the skies but as you get closer the story takes a turn for the worse…
So now that we have things in place to guide our audience, we can decide which restrictions of navigating through your worlds are suitable. Should your audience have the ability to move freely through virtual space? Or are you – the designer – the one who chooses fixed points-of-view? These are the two extremes in the realm of navigation in VR, but there are many alternative options that lie in between. Let’s discuss these options and their pros and cons in order from unconstrained free navigation to no such ability at all. Keep in mind we are actually exploring the line from game-design – the art of allowing the user to explore virtual worlds – to the field of cinematography – the art of portraying other realities through a frame defined by the maker -. It is important to think about this before you start building your VR experience, because each choice leads to new choices further down the road.
Let’s assume you are designing a VR experience and you decide that the user should be able to walk freely through the virtual reality. For this you assume a controller is required. How would that actual controller be integrated in the virtual space and narrative? In VR-design, walking through virtual reality with a joy-stick is very bad practice as it blocks the mind from fully immersing into the new reality you trying to portray. People usually don’t walk with their thumbs. So how would you simulate the walking? That was a trick question. As Trailscape demonstrated, you don’t have to simulate walking. But if you want to, use these pointers:
2. Integrating a joystick into the narrative
Or you could choose integrate the joystick by placing the virtual person in an electric wheelchair. We call this ‘creative cheating’, which we fully endorse if executed properly.
3. Auto-movement + unconstrained position + unconstrained looking
Another way of creative cheating would be to decide that the player always moves forward automatically and chooses the desired direction by looking a certain way, much like in the VR flying experience AirDrift.
4. A fixed path + unconstrained looking
You could also decide that walking isn’t actually that necessary. Instead you place your audience in a vehicle that does all moving for them, like the Unreal Rollercoaster: a VR experience many people share a love/hate relationship with. Also the boat from Sensa Peso is a great example.
5. A fixed position + unconstrained looking
If movement isn’t that important either anymore, worlds can still come and go. This is demonstrated in the surreal VR experience SightLine: The Chair. Also, most filmed VR experiences lock their audience in place. Check out the music video of What Do We Care 4 by Steye & the Bizonkid. Some filmed VR applications, such as The Prism, allow their audience to manually change the point-of-view through a set of fixed positions.