“Designers stand between revolutions and everyday life. They’re able to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and society and convert those changes into objects and ideas that people can understand.”
In September 2013, Stanford researchers conducted an unusual experiment. Outfitting volunteers with virtual reality (VR) headsets, they researched the behavioral effects of giving someone the simulated experience of having a superpower—namely, the power of flight.
They wanted to know whether an experience in the virtual world could have a lasting effect, one that might continue into the physical world. In the simulation, they gave volunteers the following story:
There has been an earthquake warning, and the city has been evacuated. A child has been unaccounted for, and the parents have informed authorities that their child is diabetic and will go into shock without insulin. You have a vial of insulin in your pocket. Your task is to fly through the city to find the child and deliver the insulin, saving the child’s life. You may now begin your search. Lift your arms above your head to take off from the ground.
While none of the volunteers left the experience thinking they could fly, something almost as strange did take place: Volunteers were measurably more altruistic in their subsequent daily life (PDF).
Not only were the study’s participants more likely and more willing to help others, they were faster to help. And they helped for a longer time. Though each volunteer was consciously aware they were no longer a superhero, they did, at least in some small way, continue to act as one.
There have been many VR experiences in which people can fly. In helicopters, in planes, on flying carpets. But what was different in this experience was the researchers didn’t just give viewers new technology—they gave them a story.
VR is a storytelling superpower. No other medium has quite the same potential to create empathy and drive human connection. Because viewers are for all intents and purposes living the experience, they walk away with that history coded into their memory banks—easily accessible for future responses.
However, while much of the research into virtual reality has been about solving hardware or systems software challenges, the really hard problems have to do with content.
As Disney discovered when researching the use of VR to simulate a ride on Aladdin’s Flying Carpet (PDF), users can believe they are flying, that they are in a real place that could exist in the real world. But the second they can’t interact with the other aspects of the experience (for example, talk with characters or pick up objects), the illusion shatters.
Solving the content problems in VR requires new skills that are only just starting to be developed and understood, skills that are quite different from traditional storytelling. VR is a nascent medium, one part story, one part experience. And while many of the concepts from film and theater can be used, storytelling through VR is not like making a movie or a play.
Scenes have no edges. Action takes place behind the camera. The narrative unfolds at the command of the viewer. And then there are the physical considerations of the audience themselves. Bad movies lead to boredom. Bad VR leads to motion sickness.
In VR, the user has to be guided through an experience of a story, which means many of the challenges in telling a VR story are closer to UX design than anything from film or theater.
Take the issue of frameless scenes. In a VR experience, there are no borders and no guarantees where a user will look. Scenes must be designed to attract user attention in order to guide them through the experience of a story.
Sound design, staging cues, lighting effects, and movement can all be used to draw a user’s attention.
However, it’s a fine balance between attraction and distraction.
“In VR, it’s easy to overwhelm the user. If you see a flashing light and in the background, you hear a sharp siren, and then something moves, you’ve given the user too many things to understand,” says Di Dang, user experience lead at Seattle-based agency POP. “Be intentional and deliberate about how you grab audience attention.”
While addressing UX challenges, content creators must still contend with the existing challenges of telling a good story. Characters and dialogue must evoke strong emotions. Plots must offer deep engagement. And the narrative must maintain the integrity of the world you are creating. In VR, this integrity means maintaining what is known as the “fidelity contract.”
“The goal of VR is not to create a photorealistic environment. It is to uphold the contract with the user that things are consistent with the experience of the real world,” Dang says. “Users have to believe they are seeing things in a place that could exist and that the interaction with that place makes sense.”
This balance between the “place illusion” and the “plausibility illusion” is not something that can be solved with traditional approaches to storytelling. You cannot make a VR environment feel more real by describing it in more detail.
Instead, it must be solved at the user experience level. UX designers help to define the rules for a particular virtual world and then help storytellers to craft narratives that maintain those rules. In VR storytelling, you can convince people they are standing on the surface of Mars, but if they can’t pick up the rocks, they won’t believe it.
Stories give meaning to experience. Our lives are not just the passing of time; they are filled with struggles and triumphs and defeats. In many ways, designers share the same goal. They, too, want to give users an experience that has meaning—one that makes sense and has a lasting and positive impact on people’s behavior.
The interplay of “story” and “experience” in a VR environment means that, more than any other medium, storytellers are required to think like designers and to navigate the difficult process of translating a story into an experience.
In virtual reality, the experience is the story. For a VR story to work, one cannot exist without the other.
What this means in the long term is difficult to say. VR is changing not only the way we tell stories but also the kinds of stories we are able to tell. Rich with empathy and human connection, directed by users and enabled by design thinking, it beckons creative thinkers with the potential to tell stories that no one has ever told. To boldly go where no one has gone before. To write the future.
As mediums mature, writers, directors, and audiences develop a shared lexicon. Close-ups. Jump fades. Montages. We understand these things in film and TV, but we are still discovering what they mean in the world of VR.
As VR continues to develop, perhaps we will see the emergence of story experience or story UX—a new superpower that merges the skills of storytelling with the discipline of design thinking to create experiences that tell stories.
If the short history of VR is anything to go by, designers are not just going to be important in the emerging world of VR—they are going to be superheroes.