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Opinion and Insight
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Virtual Reality: The Four Principles for Creating VR Content

Happy Finish, 10 months ago

Happy Finish account manager Ed O'Brien on how VR can bring a brand campaign to life

Virtual Reality: The Four Principles for Creating VR Content

The next few months will see the closing of what has seemed like an eternal beta phase for the Virtual Reality industry. Last week saw the consumer release of the Samsung GearVR, the first of the four mass produced head-mounted-displays (HMD’s) coming to market in the next year. The GearVR has sold out across all outlets until after Christmas and is predicted to account for the majority of HMD market share over the coming year, mostly because it's not a stand alone VR solution like the Oculus, Vive and Morpheus which require a much greater outlay comparable to a low-end T.V or a games console.  The GearVR is a relatively low cost accessory or add-on (retailing at $99) for users of Samsung smartphones which account for the largest share of the smartphone market at approximately 20% compared to Apple's 14%. The potential user base for GearVR is the order of hundreds of millions.

Predicted total sales of HMD’s in 2016 vary, with the lowest estimates of 1M quoted by Forbes, to 5M by Deutsche Bank, however the real game changer is the mass distribution opportunity which Google cardboards provide. These are now mass distributed for free via many channels, one of the largest being the New York Times who distributed 1.2m to their subscribers this month.  The bottom line is that VR in some form will be readily accessible for everyone in the developed world within a year, and content will be diverse. The Oculus Rift was initially conceived as a gaming accessory but now predicts a 50/50 usage mix of gaming vs non-gaming experiences.  Virtual cinema and streaming, 360 film and animation, social apps, industrial applications, there will be something for everyone.   

Yet a ghost of VR past still hangs over the industry.  VR, like nuclear fusion, it’s a tech that has perpetually been on the edge of breaking through for decades but hasn’t, due to it’s reliance on progress in so many disciplines. VR has overcome many of its obstacles, but some remain, and there are still few who are willing to say categorically that consumer VR will stick this time around, however there are even fewer ready to dismiss it. From kids using Google Cardboard to study history in school  to grandma exploring an Italian villa in the Oculus Rift, everyone who has tried even the most basic iterations of the new wave of HMD’s have been struck by the possibilities.  

At Happy Finish we don’t consider the question of whether VR will take hold a passive issue. The mass adoption of VR will be driven by content that continually excites and makes obvious it’s worth when compared to traditional media. 18 months ago I began the process of trying to determine what that content might consist of, by analysing and questioning users during and after a range of VR experiences...

I’ve seen around 3000 people use VR, many of them for their first time and then beyond. I’ve collected something approaching a data set and based on that, I’ve developed a set of principles and key observations that I believe anyone commissioning or creating VR should be aware of:


1: First time users respond primarily to head tracking.

The ability to turn your head and see different areas of a 360 experience is the most impressive feature of HMD’s and it’s the essence of all virtual reality. Even the most basic 360 still image will wow a first time user when viewed through an HMD. So, first time users are not particularly helpful when trying to determine the lasting value of content, they’re too pre-occupied looking around! When the user gets used to this and has tried multiple experiences, you can begin to ask for critical opinions on the content.


2: Frame rates should not be pushed too hard.

There are two primary causes of motion sickness in VR. Head tracking latency i.e. how long it takes the image to catch up when you move your head, and motion blur. Head tracking latency is no longer an issue in consumer headsets as they are fitted with powerful IMU’s (internal measurement units) made specifically for VR purposes. It’s still somewhat of an issue when using smartphones in enclosures like the Google cardboard as the phone uses it’s non-VR specific, and therefore less accurate/fast IMU, which was primarily designed to determine which way the phone is facing for navigational purposes. This should be considered when creating experiences for Google cardboard where a user having to move their head too rapidly within the experience will lead to discomfort.

In terms of frame rate, whether you are moving your head or keeping it still, movements that are too rapid will cause motion blur on the screen. Motion blur, especially in stereoscopic 3D is extremely uncomfortable and should be avoided. The high end headsets have screen refresh rates of 90hz which is sufficient to display most rapid movements. The GearVR and most smartphones have a refresh rate of 60hz. Rapid movement should be used sparingly when producing content for those devices.

You have to be in it to win it, and no matter how well made or engrossing your work may be, if the viewer can’t watch it without being nauseated then it’s by the by. I’ve witnessed this many many times.


3: Resolution issues are less noticeable when the subject matter is human and within a tangible distance. 

HMD’s utilise powerful lenses to magnify the display and expand your field-of-view, creating the sense of immersion that we need to feel truly present in a VR experience. Magnifying and expanding the display causes pixels to become far more visible than if we were looking at it without lenses. We essentially have the same number of pixels but distributed over a much larger space. There are two main ways to make this pixelation less noticeable. The first is to make interesting and challenging content which provokes concentration, thought or emotional involvement from the viewer. Preoccupation with the experience leaves less mental room for noticing technical flaws. The second is to heavily utilise human faces within a 1-10 meter range. Facial recognition is one of our most well honed abilities. Since the moment we’re born we’re able to infer emotion and intent in human faces. This can be taken advantage of in VR. Our brain can fill in the blanks in detail that are left by pixelation.

The experiences that consistently provoke strong reactions and receive the least technical criticism in first time and experienced VR users alike are more often than not close proximity situations with other humans.


4: Movement breaks the illusion of presence unless accompanied by an obvious means of locomotion.

The most consistently observed issue with VR experiences is that you can’t see your arms or feet, and when you can, they are usually someone else’s and not moving in sync with yours in the real world. This creates a curious and confusing sensation which some enjoy and some don’t. Either way it will alert your brain that this is not reality, and we should always try to avoid that. Feeling present in the experience is VR’s usp and what ultimately draws people back to it. Hand and body tracking should be utilised whenever feasible as the instant sense of realism achieved by seeing a virtual limb move in synch with your own is profound. If this is not possible i.e. in 360 video then we should leave the camera still for the most part and allow the action to take place around the viewer.   


CONCLUSION:

We know that from a creativity perspective rules are there to be broken, or at least bent sometimes.  Further and continuous research is needed to ensure the industry produces the kind of content that will consistently draw users back beyond their first VR experiences. I’ll be regularly updating my findings and reporting on the research of others. The things we can’t do in VR will diminish rapidly over the next few years. Our challenge is to stay right on the technology curve, ensuring our work stays just within what limitations will allow.

At Happy Finish we’re educating young directors in both the incredible potential, as well as the current limitations of the technology in order to ensure experiences remain watchable and engaging. We’re experimenting and dedicating resources to help them unlock the artistic potential of this entirely new 360 medium which we have the ability to create in with ever increasing ease, thanks to bespoke solutions coming to market.



This article was originally posted on the Happy Finish blog