Where’s your head at? Or, storytelling and perspective in 360 VR video

November 8, 2018

I often think about filming one of my first 360 VR videos. The camera attached to a monopod and held above my head as walked around the edge of Sydney harbour and under the Harbour Bridge. I stitched it, put it on the headset to view, and thought it was freakin’ cool. I was chuffed. I showed a few people, and yes, this new tech was something to be impressed by. Later, I was at a cafe and showed the staff and some of their curious customers. The reactions were exactly what you would expect – ranging from “Whoa, this is a video? How does it work?” to “This is freaky? What is this witchcraft?” One woman screamed out in a visible panic, “Oh shirt! I’m flying!” and then continued to scream some more and flail her arms around. I never itended to freak anyone out. My sole intention was just to share the spectacular view in full 360. I hadn’t really given much thought to anything else.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the this new tech and the art of storytelling. It’s a medium where we no longer have a defined window through which we carefully compose or frame a scene. In my early videos I hadn’t considered that it actually may have been more effective for me to remain still; To let the viewer have a moment to enjoy the view. I was more intent on showing off the technology. Now, this is fine if that is what your audience wants. However, if showing off the Harbour was my end goal, I should have let the Harbour be the focus, not the movement I was providing.

In our traditional film tool box, we had some element of control over what our viewers were looking at. Now, that control is with the viewer and they are going to look whereever they want at what’s around them. Does it really matter? Yes, it matters. Particularly if this is a commercial shoot and you’re trying to maximise your time achieving your client’s objectives. It is your responsibility to bring the viewer along with you and to do this you need to be their guide. You need to give the viewer a sense of purpose for being there. Giving them a sense of purpose will help direct them to explore the space that they find themselves in.

As humans we are drawn towards cues from our environment – be they visual or audible. Research on human attention suggests that if we are to maximise people’s attention we need to give our viewers a task. The more complex the task, the more attention the viewer will pay to it. For directors, this means trying to coax your viewer to discover or focus on particular moments in your scene. This will have them looking at where you want them to look at the moment they should be looking, making the rest of what’s around them less of a focus. Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris demonstrated this point in the now famous “Gorillas in Our Midst” experiment in the 90’s. They give the viewer the task of counting the number of time a group of basketball players passed the ball between each other. If you’ve never tried this experiment yourself before, I encourage you to stop reading now and go do it.

The point of the experiment can be applied with great effect while developing a 360 video scene. You don’t want your viewers to be distracted. Simons and Chabris research demonstrated that viewers will perceive and remember only those objects and details that are receiving their attention. You need to provide your viewer with a task to guide them to the object or action in your scene you want them to focus on. There will be many things happening around them in the scene that you don’t really care for the viewer to spend time noticing, so you need to create the attention or focus points. You don’t have to hit them over the head with it either. Let them discover it themselves. Discovery will create a sense of engagement with your content, and engaging with your content will help generate an emotional response.

Unlike traditional film, we are inviting our viewers to be active participants in the story. Our viewers are not passive couch sitters, or bums on seats in movie theatres, they are part of the story that is evolving around them. When you put on a headset you become the centre of the action. This leads us to some interesting ideas on the importance of perspective. Jessica Brillhart’s insights provide some good thoughts and she develops some nice theory on this subject in her introduction to Google Jump for VR Cinema. Be aware of where you place your rig for that is where your viewer will take their perspective. For VR content producers, considering perspective is a valuable part of the story development process. Think about who your viewer is in the story. What is their role in what you are presenting to them? Successful VR directors, not only require an understanding of the environment in which they are filming, but an additional understanding of where the viewer will be situated in the environment. Considering these things will help you produce an immersive experience for your viewer. And isn’t that the end goal for any VR experience?

Selective Attention Test

VR & Cinema – Google I/O 2016
Jessica Brillhart
Principal Filmmaker for Google VR

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