Content Design Challenges

While the goal of VR is to create a completely immersive experience for its users, the goal of storytellers and other content creators has always been to build rich, diverse, and exciting worlds for their characters to live within. In traditional media, that world exists on a screen in front of the user in a way where they can focus and get swept up in the narrative, but are always aware of their separation from that world as third-person observers (or, in the case of video games, virtual puppet masters).
In VR, however, the user is no longer strictly a third-person observer, but rather they are actually living inside the content. This presents a whole new set of content design challenges rooted in the user’s point-of-view as an actor in the story rather than an observer, shortcomings of the current technology, and the user’s own neurophysiology.
While failure to resolve these types of problems in traditional media would lead to poorly received content and negative reviews, badly designed immersive content can have a significant negative impact on the user’s mental or physical well-being, raising the stakes considerably for content designers.

1. Putting the User in the Middle

The User Controls the Focal Point

For hundreds of years, storytellers all had one thing in common: they controlled the story’s perspective. For visual media, this meant that the entire world existed within the frame of the picture, and the viewer could only see what the director or writer intended for them to see. With 360 degree freedom of movement, the content creator no longer has this control, and must instead draw the user’s attention voluntarily to the scene’s focal point. This fundamentally changes how creators need to think and write, as not respecting the user’s new freedom could limit the effectiveness of a scene, or of an entire story.
Many experienced content creators will have difficulty coping with this change, as users may pay more attention to the books on a shelf, or the clouds outside of a window, than the narrative conversation essential to the plot that is happening on the other side of the room. While movies have had decades to develop into a craft with their own visual language, VR has just begun. The storytelling devices and sensibilities that will drive effective VR content are yet to be developed.
Some cues, however, may be taken from video games created over the last two decades. In many of these games, the user has a very wide range of motion, but the plot only moves forward when the user drives it to move in a specific, necessary direction. Similarly, a VR movie might be programmed to pause or slow down the action while the user is fixated on a ladybug on the floor, and then pick it back up again when the user returns his focus to the plot. Similarly, the writers can create attention-grabbing contingencies in case the user is not following the right path. One thing that the content creator shouldn’t do is make the surrounding environment intentionally boring or undeveloped as this could end up distracting the user even more, and will hurt the experience as a whole.

Implications of Immersion

The more immersive nature of VR content also has profound implications for how content will be received. In traditional video games, the user is simply a player, physically and mentally removed from the action, but in VR she is an actor and the owner of her actions. Similarly, in traditional film content, the user is a simple viewer, but in VR she is a witness. This will drive the user to act and react quite differently to similar situations.
Consider, for example, violence in entertainment. Most popular television programs such as NCIS or Breaking Bad casually introduce situations that, if encountered by a real person in real life, could shock and traumatize those involved. The TV viewer, however, is used to such situations and can move past them to focus on the plot and the characters. The risk with VR is that user behaviors will more closely approximate someone who is actually there, eliciting real emotions of horror, fear, disgust, or anger. Indeed, in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University stated that VR should not be treated as a “media experience”, but rather as an actual experience. [15] Content designers will need to understand that VR may have a lower ethical threshold for things such as violence, and that crossing that threshold may risk psychological consequences in the user. In this case, the change in perspective really matters.

Simulator Sickness

An additional consequence of fooling the user’s brain into believing VR is reality is the possibility of content causing nausea or flu-like symptoms in the user. This issue has been known for many years and has been given the name “simulator sickness” after the early flight simulators where this was originally (and frequently) observed.
While it is unclear exactly what causes simulator sickness, it seems to be closely related to motion sickness and the prevailing theory is that it is due to dissonant sensory signals in the user’s brain. For example, if the VR content has the user falling down a well, the user’s brain will expect a certain response from the user’s vestibular system consistent with the acceleration of falling. When this vestibular input doesn’t come, the brain will perceive its sensory input as being in conflict, and the user may experience this as simulator sickness. Whether or not a person experiences simulator sickness, and how pronounced the effects are, vary by person.
The best way to avoid simulator sickness seems to be to avoid causing this sort of sensory dissonance in the user in the first place. This can be accomplished by limiting screen vibrations or accelerated movement, allowing actual movement to control avatar movement in VR (stay away from control pads to control view) and respecting the physical context of the user in the real world. Short of that, adding a frame of reference in the picture, such as a steering wheel or cockpit, may relieve some of the sickness. One university study even suggested adding a fake nose in the frame might help. [16] Additionally, movements that may cause motion sickness in real life, such as barrel rolls in an airplane, should be avoided.

2. Storytelling Limitations of Current Technology

Respecting Physical Context

For most users of VR headsets, the experience will involve sitting down with a piece of hardware strapped to their head, and remaining seated and relatively immobile for the length of the experience. This immobile state provides the physical context for the user experiencing the content, and must be respected by content designers in order to maintain the illusion of reality. Furthermore, as previously discussed, failure to respect the user’s physical context can result in simulator sickness, possibly alienating the user from the VR platform entirely.
While this seems like an easy adjustment at first, it is easy to overlook how often videogames simulate walking or shake the screen to simulate an explosion. In movies, there are similar visual cues, whether an explosion shakes the frame or action scenes are heightened with quick cuts and changes in perspective. These types of storytelling devices need to be rethought in the context of VR.
The narrative implications of this restriction are also far from simple. The visual cues that risk simulator sickness in VR are the same cues that allow viewers to track the point of focus or fully experience the story in other visual media. Lacking these devices, the story might not match expectations that viewers have, ruining their sense of immersion. After all, how could an explosion happen so close to the user and not shake their field of vision?

Relying Only on Sight and Sound

Another byproduct of fully immersive storytelling is that users will expect realism not only in what they see and hear, but also in their other senses. As depicted in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the future might involve elaborate accessories to produce haptic or other sensory feedback to solve this issue and create a fully immersive virtual environment, but even when these types of accessories will be available, it is likely that many or most users will still be using a simple headset to experience VR. [17] This means the experience for many people will be limited to sight and sound, and that stories that elicit other senses risk breaking the illusion of reality.
This boundary seems obvious, but is worth noting as it places further constraints on storytelling. Standing in the rain but not getting wet, or standing in a burning building without feeling any heat will be a strange experience for the user, and one that could limit their enjoyment.

15. Nicas, Jack and Seetharaman, Deepa. What Does Virtual Reality Do to Your Body and Mind? The Wall Street Journal. [Online] Dow Jones & Co., January 3, 2016. [Cited: April 28, 2016.]
http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-does-virtual-reality-do-to-your-body-and-mind-1451858778.

16. Orland, Kyle. Virtual noes keep real-world VR sickness at bay. Ars Technica. [Online] Conde Nast, March 26, 2015. [Cited: April 21, 2016.]
http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2015/03/virtual-noses-keep-real-world-vr-sickness-at-bay/.

17. Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York : Crown Publishers, 2011. ISBN: 9780307887436 030788743X.