Presence. The perception in the user’s mind that the virtual experience is real.

The greater the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, the greater their sense of presence. The greater their presence, the more their engagement with the story and the characters.

So how can we enhance this elusive sense of “presence”?

  1. Engage more of the viewer’s senses (see Part 1)
  2. Acknowledge the viewer’s presence in subtle ways (see Part 1)
  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

Three Degrees of Freedom (3DoF)

In this VR film of a Paul McCartney performance, the viewer is positioned on the stage in a fixed spot and can turn all around to take in the concert. The viewer cannot move around or look at McCartney from another angle if they wish. This is because the 360° camera was fixed at a point on the stage and only filmed the concert from that angle. This experience is known as having Zero degrees of freedom (0DoF).

Photo Courtesy: Sir Paul McCartney performance — Jaunt VR

This is great, but what if the 360° camera moved along a certain track while filming? The viewer could then follow the action or a set of characters along the track while being able to freely look all around the environment they are passing through. This gives the viewer 3 degrees of freedom (3DoF), since they are moving along a fixed track while being able to look up, down, and all around.

This approach is seen in HELP — an immersive, live action film from Google ATAP and Justin Lin.

Video Courtesy: HELP (2015) — Google ATAP Spotlight Stories

As the characters are chased by the monster, the camera follows them. The viewer can look ahead at the characters running in front of them, or glance behind at the monster following. It creates a very real and visceral feeling of being a part of this chase.

3DoF would work well in a chase sequence, or in a battle. 3DoF could also be used in a West Wing style “walk and talk” sequence.

Video Courtesy: The West Wing

The viewer follows the characters down a hallway as they have a conversation. She can look around and observe the environment, even as she listens to the characters talk. Binaural recording makes sure that the dialogue is heard from the direction of the characters, making the viewer feel actually immersed in the scene.

The next level up is to provide 6 degrees of freedom (6DoF). Here, the viewer is free to look anywhere they like, and are free to move around within the environment wherever they like. This is similar to how first person shooter games work. This works well in the context of a game, where the player is controlling the action. It could also work if the viewer is watching sports, so they can position themselves wherever they want to enjoy the sport. However, in the context of a story, where the director is trying to guide the viewer along the story and focus attention on relevant story beats, it becomes difficult to bring the viewer along with the story if they are free to go anywhere in the environment. I do not see 6DoF becoming a viable format for narrative storytelling anytime soon.

Allow the Viewer Multiple Perspectives

Most VR films created today are experienced from the first person perspective. The viewer puts on a headset and is immersed in the scene, which is happening around them. Some examples:

Photo Courtesy: The Insurgent VR Experience — Lionsgate Entertainment
Photo Courtesy: Kaiju Fury — Jaunt VR

The viewer is always at the center of the action, and is expected to experience the environment by turning around. This approach works well in many situations, but it’s hard to create complete stories where the viewer is the center of focus, and the action happens around them all the time. Sometimes it makes sense to have the viewer observe the action from a third person perspective.

Take for instance, the bullet time sequence from “The Matrix” (1999).

Photo Courtesy: The Matrix (1999) — Village Roadshow Pictures

The legendary sequence was filmed using a set of cameras firing in sequence around the scene and then stitching the video together in post, resulting in a dynamic effect where the viewer zooms around the action, viewing it from all sides.

GIF Courtesy: The Matrix (1999) — Village Roadshow Pictures

In the case of a VR movie, all the cameras would film the scene simultaneously instead of in sequence. The viewer can now observe this scene as a third party, and is able to switch perspective to any of the camera views by moving around the focus of the action. The overall effect would be akin to walking around the action as it is happening.

Where could a third person perspective be used most effectively? Action sequences like the one above are the most obvious. Or a movie with boxing like Rocky, or martial arts sequences like The Raid, or Real Steel. Viewers would walk around and observe combat from any angle they wished, or re-experience their favorite action sequences from different angles.

Let the Viewer Embody a Character in the Story

In most VR movies, the viewer is just a fly on the wall. They are not acknowledged or addressed by the characters and after a while, the viewer starts to lose their sense of being there, of being a part of the world of the movie. Their sense of presence is lost. Why not then, put the viewer in the body of one of the characters in the story and have them experience the movie as that character.

Video courtesy : Gamer’s Little Playground

Here’s a small example of this — this video is a game movie (cutscenes and actual gameplay) from the Batman: Arkham Knight game. At the 2:20 mark in the video, a policeman walks into a diner. As he enters the diner, the camera swoops in and the viewer “inhabits” the policeman character. For the next couple of minutes, we see the diner through the eyes of the policeman and other characters talk to the camera (i.e. the viewer) as if they were talking to the policeman.

This lets the viewer experience the movie in a very unique way — as one of the characters. The movie could offer the viewer the option to continue as one character throughout, switch between different characters that they want to follow, or experience the movie from a 3rd person perspective — depending on the viewer, the story, the scene, and the type of experience desired.

If you love Pretty Woman, you could experience the movie (or certain scenes in it) as Vivian, the character played by Julia Roberts. Or as Edward, Richard Gere’s character. You could choose to embody John McClane as he battles terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. Or Luke Skywalker as he pilots his x-wing into the Death Star. The possibilities are endless.

The VR movie tells a story, and offers the viewer multiple ways to experience the story and interact with the characters — the viewer decides which experience they desire for that viewing.

In Part 3, I'll demonstrate how these techniques could increase the sense of presence for a viewer by showing how they could be used in scenes from Inception (2010).

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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