A Storyboard for Virtual Reality

But what does a storyboard look like in VR?

Andrew Leitch
Jan 5, 2017 · 5 min read

I’ve been participating in a Virtual Reality Lab for the last three months or so, where my focus has been on Cinematic VR.

Coming from a film and an experience design background, I wanted to sketch the concepts I was thinking about on some sort of storyboard. But what does a storyboard look like in VR?

We all know what a storyboard looks like for film and video. It’s a series of frames, most often in a 3x2 or 2x3 grid, with blank lines underneath each frame to describe what’s happening in each shot or series of shots.

The immediate problem with trying to use this kind of template in Cinematic VR is that there’s no frame. When shooting with a 360° camera rig, the rig is capturing everything around it in a spherical video, so there’s no longer any way to “frame” a shot. We have to stop thinking in frames altogether, and start thinking in “worlds”. Trying to modify a standard cinematic storyboard to force fit a VR world into it just isn’t going to work, and there needs to be a better way to represent 360° spherical video in flatland. This is essentially the same problem as representing the actual world (i.e. Planet Earth) on a 2D surface, and as cartographers know, there’s no elegant solution to be had without some serious tradeoffs .

There are a lot of smart people out there thinking about VR these days, so I turned to Google to see if anyone else was tackling this problem. The first search result pointed me to Vincent McCurley’s excellent article and accompanying VR Storyboard template. He outlined the problem very succinctly, and his proposed solution was well thought out and elegant.

But when I downloaded the template and tried to sketch in some of my “worlds,” I found that it wasn’t completely working for me. The first issue was that although the different gray segments indicating “probable areas of interest” were helpful reminders about where the main action should take place, in practice, sketching over the top of a gray background with a gray pencil (my storyboarding tool of choice) made it harder for me to see what I was actually sketching.

And although his template did an excellent job of showing how a VR world was structured, it wasn’t doing it from the POV of the viewer (or to use Jessica Brillhart’s more VR-centric term, the “visitor”), but rather from a top-down perspective, or “God’s-Eye View” (with a slight 3D “tilt”). In a classic cinematic storyboard, the frame is always showing you what the camera is seeing, and hence, what the viewer is also seeing. So I thought, what could a visitor’s POV look like from inside the Head-Mounted Display? And I came up with this:

What I was trying to do here was show a visitor’s possible POVs from both front and rear-facing perspectives. The shape, a sort of a curvilinear rectangle, which for the purposes of this article I’ll call a “VRame,” is meant to indicate both that this is not a conventional cinematic frame, and also that it’s representing an expanded, spherical perspective which more closely approximates our field of view.

The first VRame contains the forward-facing POV, or “main content zone,” and the arrows above the second VRame indicate that the POV has been rotated 180° into the “curiosity zone” (I’m using Mike Alger’s elegant nomenclature here). The dotted lines near the edges of the VRames indicate where peripheral vision and/or a head turn would reveal more content.

When I shared this template at the lab, the feedback was that while this was a useful way to capture a visitor’s POV, there was no way to easily visualize the blocking that is so critical when staging for a 360° environment, or to capture the depth of the world. I’d gained a First Person POV, but lost the God’s Eye View that made Vincent McCurley’s approach so useful. So I went back to the drawing board, and came up with a second iteration:

This is essentially a mashup of my first attempt and Vincent McCurley’s storyboard, but his gray 3D oval is now a more simple top-down view with a plain white background (so my pencil scratchings will be more visible). The top-down view is bifurcated by another dotted line which indicates which half of the world appears in the main content zone and which half appears in the curiosity zone, and these two halves map to the front and rear-facing POVs in the adjacent VRames. And the dot in the center of the oval indicates the camera position.

The idea here is that you can have the best of both worlds: You can sketch the God’s Eye View of the whole scene, showing the blocking and the relationship between objects, and you can also sketch what the visitor could actually see inside the HMD, both from the front and rear-facing POVs. The two different perspectives work in tandem with each other, and the interplay between the God’s Eye View and the First Person POVs offers a more complete picture of the entire experience.

Here’s an example from a project I’m working on in the lab. The top-down view gives an overview of the world (a path flanked by a pond and some trees, and with a balloon hovering between the trees). The forward-facing POV shows the pond from a closer perspective, with the far bank now visible. In the rear-facing POV, we can see that the balloon is now the main object in the foreground.

I’ve been using this storyboard for about a month now, as have some of my fellow labsters, and we’re generally finding it to be a useful (although by no means perfect) tool to conceptualize and sketch our Cinematic VR experiences.

So I wanted to share it with the wider community and have some more VR practitioners to bang on it. You can grab the image below, or download the PDF (with some additional annotations) here. Comments are encouraged, welcomed and appreciated.

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A digital magazine exploring the new realities of immersive storytelling.

Andrew Leitch

Written by

Experience Designer, Director, Musician. Webby Winner, Sundance Alumnus, VR Voyager.


A digital magazine exploring the new realities of immersive storytelling.

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