“Dreams feel real when we are in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.” — Dom Cobb (Inception)

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 thriller Inception, was a wonderful movie. In case you have not seen it yet (if not, you definitely should), it was about “a gang of professional thieves who commit corporate espionage by infiltrating the subconscious of their targets and extract information while experiencing shared dreaming.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Inception is a story about creating a virtual world inside someone’s mind and making them believe it’s real. Immersive VR, anyone?

We'll never know if that damn dreidel stopped spinning.

Apart from being a wonderfully appropriate metaphor for experiencing virtual reality, the movie includes many scenes where a judicious use of VR techniques can create a more engaging experience for viewers.

In earlier posts, I proposed some ways that VR filmmakers could enhance the sense of presence for a viewer. Here they are again.

  1. Engage more of the viewer’s senses
  2. Acknowledge the viewer’s presence in subtle ways
  3. Create experiences with 3 degrees of freedom
  4. Allow the viewer to experience the story from multiple perspectives
  5. Let the viewer embody a character (or multiple characters) in the story

Let’s apply some of these techniques to scenes in Inception.


The Cafe Scene

Ariadne’s first experience with shared dreaming.

Cobb & Ariadne are sitting at a cafe talking, while Dom is explaining to Ariadne how a shared dream works. Ariadne realizes that they are currently in a shared dream, and at that moment, the neighborhood around them starts exploding as Cobb proves his point.

In the immersive VR version of this scene, the viewer may choose to experience this scene in one of many ways.

In the first half of the scene, the viewer could be positioned at the table listening to the conversation between Cobb & Ariadne, and can turn to either of them as they are talking. The characters could look directly at the viewer or make subtle gestures like small nods or side glances, to include the viewer in the conversation and acknowledge their presence.

As the neighborhood begins to explode, the viewer experiences the explosions all around them, just as the characters do. Surround sound effects, debris flying at the viewer, camera shakes to indicate the ground shaking as the viewer is looking around, all engage multiple senses and let the viewer connect more deeply with the scene.

OR…

As the neighborhood begins to explode, the viewer could switch to a third person perspective and view the action from a removed distance. They could move along a predefined track (3DoF) and view the action from different angles .


The Paris Bending Scene

I love the mechanical creaking and groaning sound effects in this scene. Even though we know it’s Ariadne playing with the physics of the dreamscape, the sounds make us believe that the city is actually folding. It’s the little touches that increase believability and presence.

A little later in the movie, Ariadne is still learning the capabilities of dream manipulation. As they walk through the streets of a dream Paris, she tests the physics of the dreamscape by folding an entire city block on itself.

This was done in a 2-D plane to make it easier for viewers watching the movie in 2-D, but in an immersive 3-D environment, the visual could have been done as a cube folding in on itself.


Cobb’s Subconscious Attacks Ariadne

Cobb’s subconscious attacks!

Later in that scene, Cobb warns Ariadne that changing the physics of the dream world would alert his subconsciousness to the presence of an intruder in his mind, and that they would try to identify and attack her. This does happen, as Cobb’s subconscious recreation of his deceased wife (Mal) attacks Ariadne with a knife.

Mal. Beautiful, dangerous Mal.

In the VR version, the viewer would follow the characters along the street as they talked (3DoF). The viewer would be free to look around and see all the changes that Ariadne is making to the environment (more could be added in 3-D space) while still following the conversation. When Cobb warns Ariadne that his subconscious would attack intruders, he could also glance at the viewer to include them in the warning.

As Cobb’s subconscious closes in on them (and the viewer), the viewer could choose to:

  1. Remain a separate viewer in the scene. Depending on their voice signals (gasps, squeals, sharp intakes of breath), the movie could choose to ignore their presence — OR — as Ariadne is being held, some of the other actors playing Cobb’s subconscious could reach out and grab the viewer too.
  2. The viewer could embody either Cobb or Ariadne as they are grabbed and Mal stabs Ariadne to get a more visceral feel of the scene. For many Inception fans, this is a scene that produces goosebumps due to the sudden ratcheting of tension that Nolan produces. Embodying a character would allow them to feel that tension more directly.
  3. Viewers who are more affected by sudden violence could choose to watch the scene from another perspective — either standing some way away, or from above.

Hotel Hallway Fight Scene

In this scene, Cobb’s right hand man Arthur is in a dream two levels down. He fights off hotel security while trying to keep his balance and get his team in position to deliver the “kick” that'll bounce them out to the dream level above (in which he’s bouncing around in a van that’s under attack). Making things complicated is the fact that the bouncing around of the van in dream level 1 sends the entire hotel in dream level 2 spinning, forcing Arthur to maneuver and fight in shifting gravity. It’s a magnificent scene done with practical, on-set effects, with a lot of work going into maintaining the physics of shifting gravity and requiring extensive choreography. Let’s see how we can bump up the thrill factor of this scene using VR techniques to increase viewer presence.

Different perspectives — the viewer could choose to move with Arthur as the hotel spins around them, or stay stationary with the hotel and watch Arthur bounce around the walls as he fights with hotel security.

The viewer could embody Arthur as he navigates the hallway and engages with the guards. This would give the viewer a much more tangible experience of the scene, along with a sense of the effort and coordination that the character has to pull off in this scene.


I have talked a lot about changing perspectives in this post. It’s hard to visualize, especially since we are used to watching a movie in only one perspective — that which the director chooses to show us. It’s going to take a paradigm shift in the way we think about narrative entertainment to fully grasp the possibilities that immersive VR provides to tell engaging stories.

Entertainment has always laid along a spectrum of interactivity — from movies which expect the audience to be a passive consumer, to game shows, circuses, and magic acts which require some participation from the audience, to board games and video games which are almost fully controlled by the audience.

Virtual reality is a flexible medium — VR games will be fully interactive, and VR movies will run the range from being passive experiences to ones where the viewer’s gestures, voice, facial expressions, even possibly their biometric signals like heart rate, breathing patterns, etc. would produce an experience customized to their desires. The world is about to change, and the possibilities are endless.

If you enjoyed this post, feel free to Recommend it. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Mayavi - Immersive Stories

The medium changes; storytelling is forever. Here's how to create immersive story experiences in Virtual Reality.

Neel Kshetramade

Written by

Tech. Virtual Reality. Storytelling. Imagination.

Mayavi - Immersive Stories

The medium changes; storytelling is forever. Here's how to create immersive story experiences in Virtual Reality.

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