In the Blink of a Mind — Engagement

Jessica Brillhart
The Language of VR
Published in
8 min readJul 6, 2016

In the Blink of a Mind is a short series on editing techniques for virtual reality. The first post can be found here. The second, on attention, can be found here.

“Put [yourself] in place of the audience. What is the audience going to be thinking at any particular moment? Where are they going to be looking? What do you want them to think about? What do they need to think about? And of course, what do you want them to feel?” (pg. 21)

In the last post, we talked about attention. By identifying points of interest (POIs) in a world, and by making bets on where a visitor’s attention will most likely begin and end, a creator can craft a path — or multiple paths — through the overall experience.

But crafting paths can get complicated quickly.

Tram with 4+ POIs

In the above tram shot, we have people, we have windows, speakers, signage, etc. Identifying POI’s isn’t enough to go on.

We now need to consider potential engagement. If attention is about the whats, engagement is about the hows and whys. To further illustrate this point, I will now present some market research analysis on a creepy baby website.

Here’s Version 1 of aforementioned site.

Creep Baby Website, Version 1

To your left, creepy baby. To your right, text and some other stuff. The heat-map illustrates how long a user is engaged with areas on the site. As the heat-map suggests, more users were focused on the face of the baby for longer than any other part of the site.

Now here’s Version 2.

Creepy Baby Website, Version 2

The elements — the whats — haven’t changed. What did change was the creepy baby’s orientation relative to the text. This simple adjustment made a substantial difference in user engagement.

Worth noting that I did not do this test myself, and I’d be the first to say that while this stuff isn’t lost on me, I’m by no means an expert. Thankfully, I don’t need to be, since there are a slew of other more qualified people out there in fields like UX, game design, theater production, psychology, neuroscience, paleoanthropology, and more. Each has fantastic insights into why we behave as we do and how we are compelled to interact with the world as a result. These insights can be very useful.

Let’s go back to the tram.

On the tram again.

What would I do if I found myself on this unfamiliar tram? Well, I’d try to engage with the people first. I’d notice that most of them are looking out the windows of the tram, and, like the creepy baby ogling the text suggested, I would most likely follow suit and look out the windows, too.

So now I have a much better idea of what a visitor will most likely do in this more complicated space — looking out one of the tram windows — and I can use this information to bring her into the next world.

At this point, I could match on attention and have the windows reveal something important in the following world that a visitor would otherwise miss. But since I can’t make substantial bets on which window a visitor will gaze out of, that method may not be very fruitful.

Instead, what I did was something I call extend/respond. It’s using the momentum of a visitor’s engagement to carry her into the next world.

To extend means to reinforce her engagement. Much like opening a portal that she can fall through naturally.

Extending Engagement

In the case of the tram, if you look out the front or the back windows, I extend that engagement by cutting from gazing out the window to looking down a long walkway in a horse stable.

Front Window > Hallway

To respond is to meet her engagement head on. Much like grabbing the visitor by the hand and pulling her into the next world.

Responding to Engagement

So if you look out the left or right windows on the tram, I respond to that engagement with a horse face.

Side Window > Horsey

It just so happens that a Japanese tram and an Icelandic pony stable are a match made in extend/respond heaven. But you don’t need four windows and some horses to make great engagement-related edits.

Spatial engagement, for instance, is something that seems pretty straightforward but is nonetheless important to get right in VR. In this crypt scene from Resonance, I move a visitor from the middle of the room to the back of the same room. If I had oriented the middle of the room one way and then oriented the back of the room a different way, I would have made the visitor feel, well, disoriented. Her engagement with the space would have been severed.

Instead, I keep the orientation of the middle room and the back of the room consistent so that the visitor’s spatial engagement isn’t broken. It provides a much more comfortable experience.

Middle > Back

I’ve found crossfading to be the most ideal in these situations. It makes the move feel more like a conscious step backwards instead of a toss to the back of the room. But like all “rules”, you can break this one. Just be aware of the outcome and make sure it fits with what you’re trying to accomplish.

Engagement also involves prior associations we have to people, places, and things. In Resonance, we understood that given a few reinforcement worlds (more on that later), the visitor would feel compelled to find our violin-player, Tim, in each world. We could then use this connection with Tim as a means of revealing a journey and a story of sorts.

We could link Tim to doors in order to suggest how we got from one room to the next.

Tim to Door to Tim to Door to…

Or we could link Tim to other characters in order to suggest additional relationships or subplots.

Tim to person to Tim to new person to…

We’ve previously established that attempting to craft a pre-meditated frame is futile when VR involves worlds of potential frames. How a world is framed depends on that visitor’s experience. However, how you choose to handle engagement will motivate how a visitor experiences those worlds and the frames that exist as a result.

One example is from our latest piece Go Habs Go!, which takes you to the opening night game of the Montreal Canadiens. At one point along the experience, I wanted to go from the torch ceremony on the ice and cut to the stands during gameplay. The most straightforward approach would be to orient the worlds such that if a visitor was focusing on the players passing the torch, it would cut to being in the stands with the rink as the focal point.

I took a slightly different approach. I put you in the stands, but instead of the rink as the focal point, the focal point is an alarmed and slightly annoyed Habs fan.

He’s the best.

The fan proceeds to give you a skeptical look-over before turning his attention back to the game, thus revealing the rink.

Rink Reveal

By choosing to do this, a slew of other great things happen:

  1. The rink becomes a discoverable element, and its discovery is prompted by a character in that world.
  2. The visitor has a shared experience with a fan. She’s now more apt to feeling part of what’s happening.
  3. The visitor’s existence is validated with eye contact.
  4. The world opens up to the visitor. It’s reaffirmed that there’s more. She might be more compelled to explore the worlds that come after this one instead of leaning back and watching the game.

If I had just cut directly to the rink, none of the above would have happened. The experience would have been fine, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as dynamic or memorable. Its purpose limited to just presenting the obvious.

Relationships between elements. Evolutionary psychology. Cultural norms. Spatial awareness. Identity. Discovery. Perception. Energy. All of these concepts and countless others can and should be harnessed by creators to better connect our visitors to the worlds we build.

And as Walter Murch also notes —

…if you keep this in mind (and it’s the preoccupation of every magician), then you are a kind of magician. Not in the supernatural sense, just an everyday working magician.” (pg. 21)

Perhaps studying Houdini wouldn’t be such a bad idea, either.

Yet while engagement is useful on the micro-scale, it is also important to understand the flow of engagement over the entirety of the experience we’re creating. How I choose to handle one world has repercussions to the worlds that come after and should be informed by the worlds that came before. Experiences build upon themselves. We learn, adapt, cope. We are different coming out than we were when we went in.

There is a cadence and a rhythm to this, and it’s our job as creators to understand this flow and to be able to know when a world works towards what we want to achieve overall, and when it doesn’t. To get rid of those worlds even if it hurts.

As any editor would attest to — this is editing in its purest form.

And that’s for next time.


“Creepy Baby Website” heat-map images taken from Kissmetric’s 7 Marketing Lessons from Eye-Tracking Studies

Quotes on editing taken from In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Much, © 1995



Jessica Brillhart
The Language of VR

Researcher, writer, designer working in immersive media.