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Michael Hay

Published on

May 11, 2016



Last week, in my post asking “How big will Virtual Reality be for PR?”, I discussed the exciting future that Virtual Reality has and started asking the question about how we can utilise it to communicate a brand’s message.

Content once again is the key here. So how do we make good content for VR? Last week was the Why. Let’s now discuss the What, How and Where.

What is Virtual Reality?

There are many different kinds of experiences that could be classified as ‘Virtual Reality’. I’ll discuss these in more depth in next week’s post, but for now the key thing to be aware of is ‘immersion’.

When you wear a VR headset you should feel immersed in the world around you. It doesn’t matter necessarily if you can fully move around, or if it is a video world or a computer generated world, or even how much you can interact with it. If, when you take your headset off, you feel like you are coming back from another place then the experience has been immersive. This opens up a very powerful new form of storytelling which is still only in its infancy. There are many areas that can affect the level of immersion and effectiveness of the story.

How Can We Interact with Virtual Reality?

The beauty of VR is that the viewer can turn their head and control what they are looking at. This is what really aids the immersion. It gives the viewer a sense of ownership over their experience. It does, however, also make it much more difficult for the filmmaker.

Missed moments

Storytellers have to be mindful that viewers may be looking the other way when a key piece of action is about to happen, and they might miss it. They either have to subtly direct the viewer’s attention to that spot at that exact moment, either using story, direction or audio cues, or they can embark on non-linear stories with multiple arcs or repeating moments. The best way is to lead your audience with cues but in a way that they still think they are the ones making the decisions. That’s where clever storytelling really comes into play.

Static Camerawork: Does it Work in VR?

For now the majority of VR systems are static. You can’t physically walk around in a free environment. You may have some mechanism to move your character in a certain direction, or it may be an ‘on rails’ experience where your camera moves along a certain route automatically, but in general you have to take the story to the viewer. The action has to come to the camera.

This is extremely counter-intuitive to most filmmakers that are used to having the power to move the camera almost anywhere they want and to use zooms, cuts and edits to fuel their storytelling. With VR it is indeed like real life in the sense that it’s continuous, linear and from one fixed point of view. The recent film Hardcore Henry was a brave attempt at telling a continuous story from the viewer’s first person point of view. Some critics, however, have said that it didn’t quite have the storyline or the immersion to fully pull it off.


Once again it is the games industry that has the greater experience in storytelling in this way as games such as Half Life back in 1998 began to tell stories within the first person perspective whilst giving players the ability to look around while the story was happening. VR filmmakers may well hire game designers to lead their stories and cinematography.

Take Your Time

One of the key benefits of a VR experience is the ability to explore your surroundings. Don’t bombard your audience with a fast paced narrative like a Hollywood movie. Allow them time to explore their environment and take in their surroundings before you dynamically trigger the next audio or visual cue. Story can be progression based rather than time based.

The power of audio

Audio is hugely important for immersion. I’ve spoken before about how you can watch a film on a small aeroplane screen a few rows ahead of you but still feel immersed because you have headphones on, but conversely if you are watching something on your big 50” LCD screen in your living room but the audio is slightly too low you are totally pulled out of the experience.

Audio is just as important for VR but even more so with the use of 3D audio or binaural audio. This is an incredible technique that produces sound that truly feels like it is coming from around your or behind you. It can be used to give an audio cue to make you turn your head to see the main set piece action, or like any good horror movie it can be used to build tension by letting you hear things whilst not being able to see them, making you constantly look around to hunt for the source. Less can be more, and in an expensive VR environment production that can be beneficial on several levels.

Interaction in Virtual Reality

The level of interaction will be key in making stories more immersive. Passively watching a 360 video where the story rolls out in front of you is one thing, but if you are then able to reach out and interact with objects in the story, affect the flow of the story itself or learn more about a section that intrigues you, that is a powerful step up on the immersion scale. Interaction can happen in different ways, using haptic gloves, gestures or voice commands to control on screen interfaces, choosing paths in a story etc.

It will be interesting to see who pushes the boundaries here and what narrative tools become most common. We’re at the beginning of a whole new chapter in film-making and entertainment experiences.

Where Can Virtual Reality be Used?

One of the tangible benefits of VR is that you are not bound by normal time and space. If in real life you were wanting to organise some kind of event you would often have to get approval from the police or the local council, or get some form of insurance or health and safety licence. With VR you can have an event or a webinar taking place anywhere at all, or even in a virtual CG world, and let people attend remotely, but still giving them a sense of really being there with all the other virtual guests. Viewers can experience an event or stunt remotely rather than just watching it. As discussed last week you can give everyone the experience of being in the front row.

The front row at your event is now of infinite length.

VR is a new technology and it needs to be done well to be a powerful experience. Content can take a relatively long time to create and needs to be included in the early stages of a campaign rather than as an afterthought.

Right now it’s not cheap.

But those who can take the first step into this world now can create strong brand awareness with immersive experiences. Within VR environments you could host events, display a website or online store, showcase a brand experience, tell stories and a lot more. But it has to be done well and because you have a good content idea, not just to jump on the ‘me too’ VR bandwagon.

The bottom line is that you have to tell the right story in the right way in order for it to work in VR. Too many bells and whistles and it just seems like a desperate tech demo. More than any other medium this has to be about the experience. But if you get it right then you can create a very powerful, immersive experience where you can help lead viewers whilst still having them feel empowered. The possibilities there are endless.

Next week we’ll bust the jargon and look at exactly what the difference is between VR and AR and everything in-between.

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