The day my mother-in-law put on a virtual reality (VR) headset was the day I realized just how immersive this new technology could be. “I’m on stage! I’m on stage!” She was experiencing the thrill of being on a concert stage for the first time. “Look at me! I’ve never been on stage before, what should I do?” I was seeing how powerful being there could be for someone having a deeply emotional connection. This is what drove me to want to be a content strategist on virtual reality experiences.
When I first joined Facebook’s Social AR/VR Experiences team, new paradigms for VR design challenged my role: VR is a fully immersive experience where you can’t simply glance up from a screen. In most VR experiences, you have an avatar and communicate non-verbally with gestures and emotes. Being a UX writer on a product where the audience is fully immersed in the experience and uses very few words can feel like swimming through a stream of ambiguity. It was hard to figure out what content problems there are to solve. To navigate how to guide and orient people in simple, human and straightforward ways through VR experiences, I find myself leaning on my storytelling skills.
VR has the power to bring an audience inside the story and connect with the audience on a whole new emotional level — like the feeling my mother-in-law had being “on stage.” This is a new behavior, where the audience is now the participant. For years, our viewing behaviors were limited to watching TV. We’d lean back on a couch and were outside the story as a viewer. Laptops and tablets encouraged us to lean in and interact with content. Chat rooms allowed us to connect with new people and create social experiences, while web pages allowed us to interact with businesses. And now, virtual reality headsets surround us with media and bring the viewer inside the story.
VR immerses you in a world that is different from the physical world, and makes you believe you’re there, present in that reality. As content strategists and storytellers, the audience that we’re designing for is now entirely inside the experience. And the real question I have is how do you craft a dynamic narrative when the audience is within and creating their own experience? My first task is to figure out how to guide and orient people. The nature of these experiences is that you, as the viewer, are an active participant in the experience. You decide where to look, where to go and what to read.
Since VR is a new medium, without many existing design patterns, I needed to understand how people interact from other experiences where audiences participate, like live theater, location-based visitor tours and first-person video games. From looking at these experiences, I found three paradigms we as VR designers can draw inspiration from to ground our work:
1. Bring your audience into the story: Always provide a clear role for your audience
The nature of live theater is immersive. In most of his plays, Shakespeare would include and address the audience by giving them a role, Sarah Werner writes in her paper: “Hamlet opens with the question, ‘Who’s there?’ The answer is not only Francisco and Bernardo, but also that we (the audience) are always there.” While traditional theater regards the audience as physically present observers, immersive theater pushes the audience further into the performance and uses the entire space as a stage to bring the audience into the play, alongside the cast. The Speakeasy, a long-running immersive theater show in San Francisco, California, brings you into a slice of the 1920s. The audience arrives dressed in flapper-era costumes and is drinking and dancing alongside the actors, who guide you from one room to the next as the scenes play out. You’re truly immersed in the story, the space and the vibe.
Immersive theater identifies a clear role for the audience, and you explore the story through that role. Katy Newton and Karin Soukup asked this question in their research: “How do we tell a story for the audience when the audience is present within it?” They identified a core principle that “having a body means being somebody, there is no such thing as a neutral observer.” Your audience always needs to understand where and why they fit into the narrative that you’re telling, which is a core shift from traditional filmmaking where the audience is an observer.
As VR content strategists and storytellers, we need to create a clear role for our audience within our experiences. Good UX in VR is making sure that people understand what their role is.
2. Use the setting and space to convey a mood: Provide meaning to the space you’re in
In the early 2010s, smartphones enabled people to tell stories in the places where they actually happened. The Westwood Experience by Nokia experimented with connecting a story to unique and powerful real locations. Using mobile devices, they interlaced a narrative throughout Hollywood with parts of the story tied to real locations. Through the device, the audience was able to see buildings transform to how they should look in the story. This type of storytelling technique allows the audience to feel the space come to life and relive history at the site where it happened.
Location-based stories allow the audience to explore and discover the environment. The setting in literary storytelling is a powerful way to convey the mood of a story. For example, a cozy house in the woods with a fireplace burning, while raindrops pitter on the roof could make someone feel safe and warm. While a large, industrial-like steel building could make someone feel oppressed and cold. The use of visual and audio cues to further define these environments and influence the narrative is a very important storytelling tool in VR experiences.
As VR content strategists and storytellers, we need to think about how the tone of the space impacts the mood of the experience, as well as how to use the space to guide people.
3. Ease people into the experience: Let people try things out
Exploration games invite players to immerse themselves within worlds and further the story line as these interactions happen. Gone Home, a story exploration video game by The Fulbright Company, puts the player in the shoes of Kate who returns home to an empty house after a year of traveling overseas. Kate gets clues about her missing family through everyday interactions that happen in her house. The story unfolds as you pick up scraps of paper, notes, letters, photos, cassette tapes and other bits and pieces around the house.
Story exploration video games unfold a story as people interact with objects in the environment. Compared to desktop or mobile phone experiences, VR presents a new paradigm with spatial interactions, and it is important to help people ease into learning how to interact in this new space. Providing thresholds or levels is a design pattern from video games that allows people to try out and learn how to interact in new environments. Using the idea of providing a threshold, you can think about each new interaction as a building block and give your audience one block at a time, so that they can build and understand in a comfortable way. Being able to build on these “blocks” is a good way to lighten the cognitive load that comes with learning how to interact in a virtual space.
As VR content strategists and storytellers, we need to find the right moments to help people learn how to interact with the environment and build on those skills.
These examples highlight 3 key differences for how we can think about content strategy in VR and start to incorporate these techniques into our work to build meaningful experiences. As VR matures and starts to bring in more content strategists to improve the relevance of content and how people engage with the experience, we can keep these affordances in mind. VR experiences need to be simple, straightforward and human, and we’ll need to guide our teams on how to craft intuitive and natural experiences, as always, even within this new platform.
Read more about the Facebook content strategy team’s work in VR in my colleague Brynn’s piece on Medium, “A Content Strategist’s Journey Into Social VR” and check out Facebook.design.
Huge thanks to: Carolyn W., Jasmine P., Sara G., and Ali M. for your thoughtful feedback on shaping this piece. Cheryl L. for your artwork and support. Katya K. and Richard E. for your continued input and support in framing VR storytelling.
Resources cited in this article:
Eckert, S. (2018, September 01). What Is Immersive Theater?
Newton, K., & Soukup, K. (2016, April 06). The Storyteller’s Guide to the Virtual Reality Audience.
Werner, S. (2017, January 02). “Audiences” in Shakespeare and the Making of Theatre.