The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Making an experience real

As more Virtual Reality (VR) content is produced, Neil Stevenson has been pondering a simple question: What makes 'good' VR content good, exactly?

This may become increasingly important as clients want to test VR stimuli to show participants. For instance, this VR online community platform allows you to upload VR content for participants to evaluate.

www.cmnty.com/vr

There are bound to be more and more questions around what constitutes good content, so I investigated further with the help of some colleagues.

The Guardian, 6x9

The purpose of 6x9 is to show how being in long-term solitary confinement can affect the minds of prisoners. The VR viewer is in a cell experiencing different things, including food being served and a dream sequence. It’s narrated by real people who have experienced solitary and punctuated by a realistic prison soundscape. It was quite simply the best VR experience all of us have had. The piece does an exemplary job of demonstrating and helping us feel as opposed to telling us about things, and that feeling is a spooky and visceral nine-minute journey. You are immediately struck by, oddly, the audio aspects of this experience. It expertly combines powerful narration speaking directly to the viewer, with atmospheric sounds: the light buzzing, the prison clinks and clangs, and cries from other inmates. These coalesce to produce an eerie realism.

It also strikes a perfect balance: allowing you to explore different things and having a central narrative ‘all viewers’ experience. At a specific and limited time, you can look at letters on a bed, the toilet, a meal in the door, or a health magazine, each unlocking a specific narrative. Also, when looking at one of these the surrounding room gets darker and the light focuses on the object, expertly and naturally helping to prompt the viewer.

Last, this piece makes use of mixed visual media to good effect. At different points, text flashes on the walls emphasising facts about solitary confinement, your character floats across the room, taking you with them, there’s a dream sequence with real video footage representing memories, and a surreal animated moment when the walls fragment, helping to illustrate a psychologically stressful experience.

Dreams of Dali, The Dali Museum

Where 6x9 is grounded in realism, Dreams is visually and selfconsciously odd and it isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s here where it succeeds, generating a sense of mystery, suspended belief and intrigue. It is akin to feeling half aware that you are having a good dream while sleeping. The viewer floats along a surreal Dali landscape, drifting under and through towering figures and elephants on stilts. At one-point we enter a crumbling structure to be greeted by a psychedelic tune with a matching figure in rainbow colours, and then we float up and out of the roof to continue another part of the journey.

This experience also works when the viewer becomes aware of different landscape aspects through a combination of the floating nature of the POV and naturally exploring 360° of vision. As the viewer passes by, over, or under something in their journey, a new and interesting side is revealed; the viewer is prompted to naturally explore 360° and it is often like passing over a mountain ridge in a helicopter and looking back at the other side as you drift away. In this way, what is interesting about your experience is constantly changing and subjective.

Similar to the 6x9 experience, sound is crucial. Atmospheric sounds, swishing and swooshing, echoing, Arabic-sounding language, and a telephone ringing at one point all add to the eerie dreamlike quality, enhancing the visuals and experience immeasurably.

The Art of Patrón, Patrón

This story — shot in mostly real 360° video — shows how Patrón, a tequila, is made. We take the perspective of a bee flying through Agave fields, to the Hacienda Patrón in Mexico and get an up close view of the painstaking process of creating the drink. The magic of this experience is in its blended and seamless nature. The story flows together from the fields, to the barrels, to the bottling and drinking using clever tricks such as the viewer flying through a keyhole and subtle fades between scenes. The viewer is always in motion, like a bee, which gives the video a literal journey-like vibe. The music is well chosen, evoking Mexico with its Spanish guitars.

Much like the Jack Daniels marketing style, the video is narrated by a friendly but gravelly voiced avuncular type and successfully draws the audience closer to the brand by revealing behind the scenes processes. This neat piece of VR branded content doesn’t try too hard, mixes visual, audio, and storytelling elements well and gently guides the viewer along while still allowing for a good nosey round. Its pull lies in its subtlety.

In summary

Hopefully, this brief tour through a few VR examples has highlighted some elements that make ‘good’ content good, which will help when thinking about how to create great VR stimulus. In sum:

  • Show the viewer and don’t tell them;
  • Err on the side of subtlety and less is more;
  • Let the viewer explore and follow their interest;
  • Use light and darkness in smart ways;
  • Pay attention to soundscapes;
  • Mix up your media palette;
  • Tell interesting and thoughtful stories.

 

Neil Stevenson
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2017