The New Rules of VR Engagement


Christian Serge Nelson

Christian Serge Nelson,
Director of Photography, creativity, Condition One

We're now immersed into the world of VR. New acronyms seem to come online almost daily. Companies change their strategies every time a new VR headset (HMD) is offered. And trying to distinguish whether or not you market your company as an Augmented, Mixed, Digital, or Virtual reality company, is becoming more challenging each day. The "AR" (actual reality, no pun intended), is that whether you create games, live video, or a combination of both, virtual reality means telling the story well, in the space provided, while entertaining the most ADD users to date.

With all the fuss and chaos in the world of virtual reality, I've come up with a few rules that are all-encompassing for any kind of "!!R" project. A set of rules that when used, and appropriately broken at the right time, can propel your Oculus or Vive piece into the universe of the Matrix. A universe where even Neo would be proud. There are quite a few rules, so I'll start with the top 3 in this article. Apply these to your production and you're off to a good start.

• Rule #1 Make the action happen in a persons primary view.

“What Does Your Software Really Do?; explain to me the algorithm(s) being used and whether they are to look at a specific imaging finding for many diseases, or a specific disease process that can have many imaging findings?”

People don't really want to turn their heads to see behind their backs very often. The average person while turning their heads sees about 120-180 degrees of the world. That's it. Especially while watching TV or driving. I mean, how many times do you really check your blind spot by turning your head? When a person has an HMD (head-mounted display), attached to their face, the peripheral vision is blocked and they most often sit patiently and wait for something to happen in front of them. So for the sake of the rule, I take and average view of 150 degrees. This space I call the Primary View.

In my experience, having a VR user turn left or right any more than the primary view only happens about 25% of the time. On average humans, can rotate our necks about 80-110 degrees giving us about 180 degrees of viewing movement. With peripheral vision, it extends that viewing range to about 270 degrees without actually turning around. But that extra range adds strain for the user. Just for kicks, let's say that after the front 150 degrees of the primary view, a user can see, maybe 60 degrees more on each side. But doing that is a bit uncomfortable. So, if a user can't twist their body, they quickly return to the primary view most of the time. I call this "uncomfortable" section of neck twisting, the additional 35 degrees on each side, the Secondary View in VR. It represent and additional 90 degrees on each side.

Finally, the last 120 degrees of the VR circle is behind you. I've found that most users make broad sweeping motions, quickly see if something is behind them, then get back to the program. That's not to say you can't guide the viewer to turn around. But not typically a great idea to have the kissing scene happen behind the viewer. I call this the Back View. (I know, it needs a more technical name.)

So what does all this mean? It means, that most of the time, author your content within the Primary View. If something happens in the Secondary View, make it intentional. Write something into your edit or your music that can cue the viewer back to the Primary View. Breaking this rule without intention and thought can lead to a very disengaging piece and cause them to change the channel... or in this case, find something else to watch.

• Rule #2: Use the 9-foot engagement guide

I named it that... There's no magical model on what is technically in or out of your space, but I find it closely matches the real world. Objects 1-3 feet away from the camera feel like they are invading your space, in your face, or generally trying to be inside your bubble. Use that wisely. If you've seen the Bison shot we captured at Condition One, you'll know what I mean. A large hairy, but friendly Bison comes up to your face, sniffs and licks you. It's provoked several screams and gasps for sure.

Objects from 3-5 feet away feel like their in a conversational space. What I mean by that is. When you're having a conversation with an acquaintance or someone you just meant, most often, it's at a distance from 3-5 feet away from you. You feel connected, but have your bubble still safely wrapped around you. Any further than that, and we tend to disengage.

Objects from 5-9 feet away feel like they are in your view, but not in your space. For example. If you're working at your office and your significant other or co-worker stands at your door to speak to you, it's easy to quickly get a message across then be about your business, or ask them to come closer for a better conversation. This space lends well to filling your frame with fun stuff to look at but not engage.

Objects further than 9 feet away are not in your space, and sometimes, just noise. This is for several reasons. But suffice it to say, that whether its due to the lack of resolution of a lens or an HMD, or the camera, objects further than 9 feet are background. And they stay that way. Often times, they're even unintelligible. So I've found it best keep objects I want in the consciousness of the viewer to stay within a 9 foot circle of the camera position.

• Rule #3 Height in VR is the new establishing shot.

Filmmaking or any cinematic game has an establishing shot. It's usually the first shot in a scene that attempts to show the audience where the action is taking place. but in VR, the wide shot beyond 9 feet feels disengaging. This is where height comes into play.

In VR, every inch matters. If the VR camera is the view of the user, then it would stand to reason that if the viewer is taller, they would have a better view... a wider angle. Raising a camera height just 12" over the action can create a dramatic feeling of "overlooking", or floating, or being just above all the action. It's a great view, and with just the right amount of height, you can tell a lot of the story.

Adversely, if you lower the camera below eye level or even to the ground, the viewer gets a sense of being small, the action happening above, being enlarged, or being embedded into the ground. But be careful. This sense of height can be overused and send your viewer away feeling like they just couldn't see.

Well, there you have it. The first 3 rules of VR film making. I use them on every production, whether it's for live action filming or interactive worlds. These rules can make or break your VR piece.

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