Storytelling vs. Story Enabling: Crafting Experiences in the New Medium of Virtual Reality

This past June, I attended an IxDA lecture presented by Andrew Cochrane, a Director at Mirada in Los Angeles, titled “VR, AR, and Beyond.” After describing his thoughts on the emerging lexicon of virtual media, he posited that we are still in the infancy of true virtual reality, arguing that the content creators who will do great things with the medium haven’t even been born yet. What really struck me, however, was how important it was to him that we move beyond the idea that today’s great storytellers are as equally suited to be content creators in the virtual space. The crux of his argument lies in the concept of user agency within the true VR realm.

As experience designers, we are beholden to the user. We craft and create experiences with the explicit purpose of allowing a user to feel actively engaged.

While I plan on writing a longer piece about of the importance of user agency, what you need to know for now is that user agency relates to the idea of freedom and choice within an experience. J.J Abrams and Wes Anderson are indeed masters at crafting a world in which to tell their story. However, it is their story that they are telling. They meticulously dictate every aspect of how that story is told, from the plot and pacing, to the camera angles and lighting. Everything about their medium (cinema) is meant to share their vision with you, the viewer. However, by doing so, their medium is entirely passive. The viewer has no choice in the matter. This is the very definition of story telling: a narrative is told to you through visuals and audio, and you must passively accept it. While you may enjoy the ride, you have no say in the direction.

As experience designers, we are beholden to the user. We craft and create experiences with the explicit purpose of allowing a user to feel actively engaged. In our traditional discipline of web UX and UI, this can come through interaction design, animated “surprise-and-delight” moments, or (most often) in the form of simple, clear, and intuitive IA and visual design. Though our goal here is often to lead a consumer down a certain path, it is also important that we think through the scenarios of how they might deviate from said path, and create a great experience regardless. True VR is exciting in that it allows for this concept to be taken to an extreme form. In a fully realized VR experience, the user may choose to do whatever he or she desires, be it follow a story path, or sit on the ground and look around. It is this user agency that allows for memorable, unique experiences. When done correctly, well-designed VR experiences are not about telling stories to a passive viewer, but about enabling the user to be able to engage with and perceive their own unique story.

Where It’s Working

As I outlined above, designing a VR experience with the goal of story enabling means designing so that the user comes away with their own, distinct experience. Through VR’s intrinsic ability to allow a high degree of user agency and autonomy, it’s a medium that’s uniquely suited to this task. So what are some examples of VR experiences that are doing this well?

Valve’s The Lab

The Lab (Image Source)

The Seattle based Valve Corporation (content creators and makers of the Steam marketplace and Steam VR) are rumored to have a third of their roughly 300 employees working on VR related development. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the earliest and strongest examples of story enabling would come from their team. Using some of the characters and settings from the universe of their Portal game series, The Lab is described on steam as “a compilation of Valve’s room-scale VR experiments set in a pocket universe within Aperture Science. Fix a robot, defend a castle, adopt a mechanical dog, and more.”

This virtual playground is moderately to very successful at story enabling, depending on which experiment you’re engaging with, but where it really shines is in some of the room-scale UX and UI conventions that it helps establish.

Given that room scale movement is a strong component in truly immersive VR experiences, determining a way to make that movement seem natural is very important. From a UX standpoint, The Lab establishes some great ways to use the teleportation tool in combination with free movement in order to make it feel like an easily navigable interactive space. There is a large degree of freedom of movement that lets you explore the space, and the overworld of the lab itself never forces you down any one narrative path. Instead, by using engaging and interesting-looking content, the user is inherently drawn to interact through innate curiosity, allowing them to proceed freely, at their own pace, and in whatever order he or she chooses. It feels full of agency, thus giving ownership to the individual and enabling their own story.

As for UI, The Lab does a fascinating job at establishing several great conventions. First, from the overworld, in order to enter one of the experiments, the user “picks up” an orb that is sitting in front of the experiment model. When hovering the Vive’s controller over the orb, it becomes highlighted, indicating interactivity. The user clicks and holds to grab the orb, then pulls the orb towards his or her face in order to “enter” the experiment. It’s a fun convention that simultaneously feels intuitive and new and exciting. Coupled with some delightful animation, it makes for great interaction design, nice looking UI, and feel-good UX.

Another thing that The Lab does well is allow the user to use tools in an intuitive way. As Google has found out in its VR research, VR is uniquely suited for tool-based interactions. Valve does a nice job of using this to great effect in The Lab. The balloon tool, the giant slingshot, and the bow and arrow are all used to great effect, allowing the user to feel both in control, and fully immersed. While I can describe them all here, they’re best experienced in person (virtually?), so go grab a Vive, load up The Lab (it’s free!) and give it a try. Also, you get to virtually repair a robot, which is just plain fun.

Fix a Robot!

Google’s Tilt Brush

Tilt Brush (Image Source)

Google has been investing heavily into R&D in the VR space, and it will be exciting to see what impact Daydream has on consumer VR. Until you can get your hands on a Pixel/Daydream combo, however, find a way to try Google’s Tilt Brush. Tilt Brush is simple, yet profound. By allowing users to paint/sculpt in a 3D space, Tilt Brush presents an experience that is immersive and full of agency, all while being simple and easy to use. While not enabling a literal narrative, Tilt Brush is story enabling in the sense that it allows the user to create content that feels entirely theirs, and entirely unique, every time. The complete user agency, and large amount of customizable parameters, leads to an end product that feels fully created by the user, leading to a great user experience.

Where Tilt Brush really impresses, however, is in the user interface. Pairing the dominant tool-activating hand with the rotating set of menus on the user’s non-dominant hand allows for a tool kit that is fully diegetic. The user never has to feel like he or she has left the experience, because all of the UI elements are literally within reach at all times. While it has a bit of a learning curve presently (due to the newness of VR UI), I feel that Tilt Brush represents a stellar example of how diegetic VR UI can be constructed successfully as the medium progresses. As with The Lab, Tilt Brush is better experienced than described, so go find an HTC Vive, fire it up, and play around.

In Conclusion

The Lab and Tilt Brush are merely two of the dozens of VR experiences that have been released that embrace story enabling. However, they are two of the best, and can serve as a benchmark for what the medium is capable of, and how we as designers can begin to establish best practices from which to grow and develop our skill sets. My intention is to set a foundation from which to expand the story enabling concept, and use it as a guiding light as I develop my own VR experiences. Over the coming months and years, as the medium of VR continues to develop, I plan to continue highlighting experiences that are successfully embracing story enabling through their UX, UI, and IxD, and I’m excited to see how new minds develop and propel this exciting medium.