Words Works Worlds & Warcraft by Yiliu Shen-Burke

A few weeks ago, I was a volunteer with the Kaleidoscope VR world tour during their stop in Berlin. It was an eye opening experience, full of a-ha moments (both encouraging and disconcerting). As a VR-vangelist, it was great to see all these people excited enough about VR to pay thirty bucks and wait in line all night for a chance to try on a pair of goggles. As an architecture student, it pained me that they invited all these people to the massive glass atrium of the Jewish Museum in Berlin... just to cover up their eyes. (By the way, if you're reading this and are affiliated with Kaleidoscope: I never got that t-shirt? I want that t-shirt.)

As consolation to the volunteers, who would be too busy helping visitors untangle themselves from masses of wires to watch any of the content, we were given a couple hours before the event to see as many of the VR experiences as we could handle. This turned out to be a great perk—once the doors opened, huge lines formed for the Oculus and Vive, and not everybody even had the chance to use one. At least there were plenty of Gear VRs.

Unfortunately, the content I saw was mostly disappointing. In all fairness, despite Kaleidoscope's relatively high profile in the VR content world, it is only a couple of years old (like everything else in the industry). I'm sure that the quality of content from all production houses will only improve with time and experimentation. I completely get that this is an awkward phase of development that everybody has to go through.

But I needed to understand what I had seen. In the days and weeks after the event I tried to process some of my feelings of disappointment. Was it simply that VR has been over-hyped? Were my expectations unrealistically high? I don't think so. I was and still am confident that this is just a hump that needs getting over. But what is the nature of this hump?

It wasn't a question of production quality. Sure, there was clearly work from a range of production budgets on show. But Kaleidoscope has been fairly selective in their curation process, and mostly everything was well-polished and well presented. Instead, I'm starting to realize that there are basic structural qualities of the medium of virtual reality that pose brand new challenges to content creators. Central to these challenges is the question of who the viewer is supposed to be in the virtual universe that she enters. I think this question is quite tricky to answer, and probably almost unique to VR.

First, the lay of the land. Currently available VR is dominated by three groups of content producers: filmmakers, journalists, and video game makers. Each of these industries has been well-poised to jump into VR content-making, enjoy a first-mover advantage, and bring with them deep expertise in areas of knowledge hugely relevant to this medium.

All three of these industries rely more or less on narrative storytelling as a central mode of worldmaking (with some notable exceptions, such as Minecraft). Now, narrative is a powerful vehicle for the communication of complex, interconnected world states. For example, you can read on Wikipedia that "Human beings often claim to understand events when they manage to formulate a coherent story or narrative explaining how they believe the event was generated."

However, narrative also happens to be also dependent on certain associated concepts, such as causality, sequentiality, revelation, events, progression, and teleology. Narrative makes a lot of sense for the media that these industries have heretofore worked with, but it is not clear to me that narrative is necessarily the most natural or effective way to make virtual worlds, especially given all this baggage that it comes with. It's certainly not the only way.

The difference between VR and the media that have preceded it is that VR places the viewer into the world space that the narrative is about. Observations of the events of the virtual world are now subordinate to the spatial identity and values of the viewer, rather than being carefully framed and timed by an editor. Yi-Fu Tuan puts it very succinctly in Space and Place when he writes that "The human being, by his mere presence, imposes a schema on space." Space that is occupied by a human body acquires hierarchies of value—simplistically, high and low, front and back, left and right. 

On another level, space cannot be but such agglomerations of distinctly valued dispositions, as no human has ever experiences space outside of her body. Two dimensional media obviate the need to deal with this question by collapsing all inclinations into the frontal one. Films are presented on a screen in front of the viewer, and the same applies to books, photographs, websites, non-VR video games, and so on. This way, everything in front of you is of central narrative importance (by which I mean, of sole causal agency within the narrative world), where as events that occur elsewhere are distractions.

Of course, content creators have already realized this distinction about virtual reality, and are quickly developing answers to this question. They make sure to space out the timing of events so that viewers have a chance to realize they're happening. They use clever tricks such as audio cues to make sure that viewers don't miss those events. Such cues are aided by the fact that the viewer is often helplessly placed at the 'center', and therefore her spatial axes can line up with those of the scene by facing the correct direction. Once freedom of movement is granted to the viewer, this problem becomes much more difficult, requiring frequent and redundant audio and visual cues to orient the viewer the right way at the right time—something that video game designers perhaps have the most experience with.

Moreover, by inserting the viewer into the virtual universe, there is created the implicit potential for a causal relationship between the viewer and the events she witnesses. This is a relationship that very few narrative media have had to address before (murder mystery dinner theatre, anyone?). To gloss over this relationship feels disenfranchising at best, and violent at worst. By its nature, narrative wants to show you things: events that lead one to the other, connecting the dots to form a larger picture. It has something to say and already knows how it wants to say it. But in VR, without causal agency, the viewer is left with the awkward philosophical question of why they are there in the midst of the unfolding story in the first place. Is it really only to observe?

Eugene Chung, founder of Penrose Studios and co-creator of the Oculus Story Studio, has acknowledged the challenge that VR poses to storytellers. Through his experience producing short films and experiences for the Oculus Rift, Chung has come to realize there seems to be an inherent incompatibility between presence and narrative storytelling. In this article he writes, “A high quality VR experience… has the potential to deliver Presence. However, this poses a challenge for VR storytellers—a challenge that can be captured in another simple phrase: Presence and Storytelling are in conflict with each other."

Chung describes the conflict as arising from the competition between Presence and Storytelling for the viewer’s attention.

“When we truly engage with a story, we begin disengaging with the physical stimuli around us that aren’t germane to the narrative… If someone in the theatre sneezes or if a cell phone goes off, we are jolt out of the experience."

“When we’re experiencing things in reality—when we’re fully present—rarely is our brain engaged in the same way than when we’re told a story… We experience the sights and sounds as a present individual, but we don’t feel like we’re being told the story of our [experience] outside of our own bodies."

“A similar thing happens in VR. Presence means we’re viscerally transported to another world, but because we inhabit this other world so completely, it is difficult to tell a story in the classic cinematic, theatrical, or campfire sense. To enhance storytelling, we might conduct tricks such as darkening the stage… but this consequently decreases the sense of Presence."

“While Presence and Storytelling are not necessarily inverse functions of each other, they appear to be in conflict. The deeper question that this conflict brings up is the question of Point of View—who are we supposed to be in the VR experience? This identity question is a lot harder to answer than on first inspection."

This is a hard question indeed, and I have the feeling that the narrative mode of world building places unnecessary contrainsts on the kinds of answers VR content creators can come up with. For example, how about discarding some of the associations with causality, sequentiality, revelation, events, progression, and teleology that I brought up earlier? These concepts all serve to force the viewer to the periphery of the action, even as VR places her sensorially at the center.

The sum effect of these challenges to narrative storytelling in virtual reality was that watching these films and experiences often felt oppressive, not liberating. I acutely felt the reality—that somebody had strapped a screen to my face and was forcing me to watch their particular version of a sequence of events—rather than the virtual reality—that I had been magically transported into a place other than my physical location.

Perhaps those best equipped to deal with this problem currently are the game makers, since player agency is such a central component of game design. Although even the most critically acclaimed video games still rely heavily on a progression through a good story, gamers know exactly who they are within the universe of the game, and they have a body with spatial agency that is fully under their control (usually to allow the pointing of large weapons). Recently, open universe games have appeared, such as Minecraft, and No Man's Sky, which attempt to do away with narrative altogether, granting full agency to the player to explore, build, destroy, make friends, make enemies, or simply be bored.

I think there is great potential in this non-narrative mode of worldmaking for virtual reality. I also think that architects are perfectly positioned to contribute to the conversation at this point, because the spatial design disciplines have had to deal with the problem of designing worlds for itinerant users since... forever. Buildings and cities can suggest patterns of usage, but architects can only establish the general conditions of possibility for the stories that unfold within and between these spaces, not the narratives themselves. Perhaps this way of worldmaking is less predictable and less precise than the narrative,  but it is certainly no less powerful, especially over the long run.

Therefore, the reasons I am fascinated by virtual reality are the same reasons I am fascinated by architecture. The creators of virtual worlds will have to learn to grapple with the same hard questions that architects and landscape architects and urban designers have asked themselves for centuries. But that chain of reasoning also suggests the reverse: that spatial designers, who have already developed the vocabulary and mental models and tools necessary for non-narrative world building, are a natural population from which the creators of virtual worlds should emerge. Just as the invention and popularization of the touchscreen turned graphic designers into user interaction and user experience designers, I see the invention and popularization of consumer virtual reality turning spatial designers into virtual spatial designers.

So, grab your tub of Purell wipes, and let's go—the future is waiting!


The VR Hardware Ecosystem This Summer by Yiliu Shen-Burke


I recently came across this very thorough VR ecosystem map created by Greenlight VR, which aims "to clarify the various industry sectors and companies, as well as the relationships between them." It's a commendable attempt to organize the very complex and ever-evolving situation on-the-ground in VR, but looking at the chart made my head spin pretty badly.

For those who are still relatively new to the world of VR (like myself), but are eager to start making virtual worlds to experience and share with others, Greenlight's chart might make the chaos and fragmentation of the VR market 'clear' to the point of abject intimidation. I realized that content creators would benefit from a quick and easy way to keep track of the primary VR options available to the person-on-the-street, if only as a very basic component of audience research. Hence, the following chart:

VR Ecosystem Infographic