The day my mother-in-law put on a virtual reality (VR) headset was the day I realized just how immersive this new technology could be. “I’m on stage! I’m on stage!” She was experiencing the thrill of being on a concert stage for the first time. “Look at me! I’ve never been on stage before, what should I do?” I was seeing how powerful being there could be for someone having a deeply emotional connection. This is what drove me to want to be a content strategist on virtual reality experiences.
When I first joined Facebook’s Social AR/VR Experiences team, new paradigms for VR design challenged my role: VR is a fully immersive experience where you can’t simply glance up from a screen. In most VR experiences, you have an avatar and communicate non-verbally with gestures and emotes. Being a UX writer on a product where the audience is fully immersed in the experience and uses very few words can feel like swimming through a stream of ambiguity. It was hard to figure out what content problems there are to solve. To navigate how to guide and orient people in simple, human and straightforward ways through VR experiences, I find myself leaning on my storytelling skills.
VR has the power to bring an audience inside the story and connect with the audience on a whole new emotional level — like the feeling my mother-in-law had being “on stage.” This is a new behavior, where the audience is now the participant. For years, our viewing behaviors were limited to watching TV. We’d lean back on a couch and were outside the story as a viewer. Laptops and tablets encouraged us to lean in and interact with content. Chat rooms allowed us to connect with new people and create social experiences, while web pages allowed us to interact with businesses. And now, virtual reality headsets surround us with media and bring the viewer inside the story.
VR immerses you in a world that is different from the physical world, and makes you believe you’re there, present in that reality. As content strategists and storytellers, the audience that we’re designing for is now entirely inside the experience. And the real question I have is how do you craft a dynamic narrative when the audience is within and creating their own experience? My first task is to figure out how to guide and orient people. The nature of these experiences is that you, as the viewer, are an active participant in the experience. You decide where to look, where to go and what to read.
Since VR is a new medium, without many existing design patterns, I needed to understand how people interact from other experiences where audiences participate, like live theater, location-based visitor tours and first-person video games. From looking at these experiences, I found three paradigms we as VR designers can draw inspiration from to ground our work: