Virtual reality and storytelling

Posted by on 12 April 2017

Ben McEwing from Carben returns to the Learning While Working podcast and talks with Robin about the emerging role of VR as a storytelling and learning tool.

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Robin:
It's Robin here, the host of the Learning While Working podcast. In this podcast, I've got Ben McEwing back to talk about virtual reality in storytelling. Ben's core expertise is in telling stories. In the last few years he's been working with video, and doing lots of work around internal communications and training videos. He also has a really interesting background that's a mixture of advertising and HR. 

Ben's been working on some really interesting virtual reality-based projects. There's lots to talk about the potential of VR, but there's still really lots to learn about how to design and make virtual reality experiences for learning. I really hope this particular interview starts to help build up that knowledge base: knowledge and ideas about how to go about designing virtual reality experiences.

The interview covers how Ben's processes have been changed, working in a 360 environment. One of the really nice ideas that Ben talks about is the difference between someone being a viewer and all of a sudden being a visitor to a space. We'll also talk about how to get started and if you're looking to get started in VR, some of the things to do.

Ben, welcome back to the Learning While Working Podcast. It's great to have you back on the podcast.

Ben:
Thanks Robin. It's good to speak with you again.

Robin:
Off mic a little while ago, we were talking about a really exciting project that you were working on which is a VR project that was a video-based VR project. Some of the different things you're having to think through with you going through that sort of VR project. For the audience can you first of all just give us a bit of an introduction to what the project is and what you're trying to do with it?

Ben:
The project is a virtual reality work experience game. I use the word 'game' loosely. Well, we kind of joke because we say it is a 'virtual reality work experience' experience that we're giving young people. The Department of Education is wanting to attract more young people into employment and they have been looking for innovative ways to do that. Especially looking at new forms of technology and ways of communication, different mediums. So I have been put on a project where we're going to use a virtual reality framework to give people a 'work experience' experience. Yes, it has been a very, very interesting project to develop, because there are quite a few layers to consider, both from a creative point of view and then also on an outcome and behavioural change point of view.

Robin:
It's a really nice example of the ability of virtual reality to be able to move someone to somewhere else, and to be able to give them an experience in a safe environment they normally wouldn't have.

So just for people who might not be familiar, there's generally two types of VR: the type that all was generated as 3D graphics; I think Ben what you are talking about is actually one that's shot in VR, that's shot with the actual cameras and you have actors in the roles.

Ben:
That's right. Yes, we use a 360-camera rig, so we capture everything that's happening in whichever space we're in, and then use the actors to work around the camera.

Robin:
I think this is particularly a really nice example of a way of being able to give someone an experience of something in a safe environment. It's fairly easy, presumably lower costs than doing it in 3D as well. As you are walking into this, what are some of the sort of really different planning and creative challenges you're facing in terms of scripting and thinking through that sort of process of shooting video, and the acting happening in 360?

Ben:
The main thing is that it's far less linear. Being a filmmaker, you carve together a story in a series of shots that you have a lot of control over. You start with a wide shot to establish a sense of context in place and then you go into a medium shot to give a bit more detail, then you go to close-ups for an emotional response, right? Those are the kind of the tools of the filmmaker, but when you're shooting with 360, it's more like a play. It's more like rehearsing a play.

So you've to choreograph this thing first and then hide! Because otherwise the camera is going to see you. Hide in another room and then just let the actors play it out, and then review it and then make any changes. It is very different. It is like developing a piece of theatre where there are rehearsals and there's blocking and getting that flow right, and then just hitting record and running into another room.

Robin:
That's fascinating because as you were talking about the fact that you were losing your framing, I was thinking oh, this is bit like improv, where you are setting up a framework for something. But yeah, you're probably actually more like theatre where you are sitting and you still are scripting or rehearsing, and then you let it run. And as a director, once it's going you don't have a lot of control over it. The losing the language of framing in video-making is a really different one as well, the fact that, essentially, your participant can look anywhere at any time, which also means that sometimes they might be looking at completely the wrong spot.

Ben:
Well, yes and this is the interesting thing. I picked up a very valuable tool in the sense of when you're planning these things. Instead of again even doing storyboarding and again doing a linear process, instead you draw a diagram with the camera in the middle and you draw concentric circles around the camera. Really, what you're looking for in terms of guiding the narrative are changing points of interest, because the viewer, or the visitor as we call it, is able to look around. Then you've got to start to think in that way spatially.

So you think they're going to start facing off and there is going to be this actor in front of them. But then we want to attract their interest at five o'clock behind them, so what do we need to do? How close do they need to be? Is it something that's going to be subtle or more impactful? Yes, and so it is, you start to change the view. It becomes about interest more than necessarily focus, if that makes sense. Because in linear filmmaking you can show the audience exactly how to focus, but in VR or 360 degree filmmaking you want to capture their interest. It might be through sound or vision or some other form, graphics that guide their eyes. It is a very different way of thinking and it's very interesting actually.

Robin:
Yes, I think that first shift of moving to the word 'visitor' is a really nice one as well because, essentially, a visitor is less passive than a viewer but not actually as active as a user or a learner. It's still someone who is watching but has agency in that watching experience as well. That, so sparking interests through—I'm thinking of framework with audio, visual, and some graphics as well. Because I imagine there is also a moment where you don't want to switch the action from something that might be on one side of a virtual room to completely the other side, because then someone has to turn around so far to pick it up as well. Is there a little bit of making sure the action moves around the circular space in a sense of a way as well?

Ben:
Yes absolutely. I think, look, VR is still relatively in its infancy and so people are finding out what works in that respect. Something in terms of my approach to storytelling and filmmaking is that I'm just a total stickler for rhythm and flow. I think every story has a flow to it, and our job and our responsibility is to draw the audience into that rhythm. If you're making people—if they're get whiplash because their heads are flipping around everywhere, then that's not really respecting the rhythm of the audience. What we are finding with VR is that you actually do have to slow things down in terms of guiding attention. It's better to move slowly than quickly because people are getting used to the physical sensation of being in a VR environment.

It does something to your senses. It immerses you, and we don't want to overwhelm people. We want to entertain them, but also be very mindful and respectful. I guess coming back to what you said about calling them the 'visitor': you're kind to visitors. You're gracious towards visitors, hopefully, when they come to visit you. So in terms of visually, we want to be mindful and respectful of them as well, not to over-inform them in anyway and just giving them some space to take it all in.

Robin:
I'm sort of imagining that you're in a spot where the experience starts, where people are donning their headset. They start to get their sense of what's in the room, who's there, and then the action starts to happen. That timing thing happens because the reality is specifically the 360 VR experiences that are based on video, I think are really different to what I know I've experienced in the past.

The first generation of VR in the 90s was really about 3D graphics, and video wasn't actually able to be used for doing this sort of 360 work. So it is a really different experience and quite odd. A couple of times when I've used it—how do I put it? I'm fairly active and people in the room get annoyed with me that I'm possibly moving around too much and could possibly be putting myself in danger because of that. It is interesting how you are talking about trying to slow people down, which is really different to a whole lot of media stuff as well where everything is getting shorter and faster. But because this is a new tech it's a slow start into it.

Ben:
Yes, it is like when commercial air travel became a thing. In the back of every seat on an airplane is a motion sickness bag. When people started travelling commercially, those things were getting used all the time, because being up in a plane with turbulence and G forces and all that kind of thing was a new sensation for people and so their bodies, that there's a period of adjustment, not just personally, but through a generation where we get used to that way of moving, right? Hardly anyone now uses a motion sickness bag. It's just there as almost just an afterthought now. I think it's the same for VR. This is a new environment. Our bodies are adjusting to it. Our bodies are curious about it, but again, if we overindulge we could feel nauseous.

So that is what I mean. I think over time we'll be able to speed things up and make it more dynamic. I know with the more computer graphics side of it, that's fine because it's very controlled and very structured in how it is presented. Until the human body gets used to the VR environment, we've just got to take it a bit easier.

Robin:
Okay, interesting. As you have been developing your story and ideas for this, what sort of things have you been looking at for inspiration and learning about the medium? I'm sort of thinking of someone who is getting started, where could they start?

Ben:
Well there is a lot happening now in the VR world. Just in Melbourne, where I'm located, there's a VR cinema that's opened up. You can go there and sit on a swivel chair and put on your headset and watch a selection of VR films. That's a great thing. There are some more basic kind of things on YouTube where you can just use your phone. You may not put it in a headset but you can just get that 360-degree experience. That's been very helpful for me as well.

I saw an exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne as well. This amazing 18-minute video called Collisions, which was about an indigenous painter who witnessed an atomic bomb test, I think in the late 50s. That's a completely 360 degree VR experience. I remember when I saw that I was like oh, okay, this is interesting. That's where I learned about moving slowly. There was a drone shot over this brush fire. If that drone was moving quickly—basically, it feels like you're in the drone, so if it is moving quickly it is going to feel awful. But it was just floating. That was really inspiring because I was like, oh, this is an interesting shot. It was like I was sitting in a little balloon above the world and I was like, okay so playing with height is an interesting thing.

I just think if you Google VR, experiences of VR games or VR films, more and more stuff is popping up. I think that is the thing; immerse yourself in that world to see what other people are doing. See what resonates. Then also look outside into other forms of visual storytelling and ask yourself the question, "How could I bring that into the VR world?"

Robin:
Yes, the Collisions exhibition at ACMI was one of those things that it was on one time when I was in Melbourne recently, but I couldn't just get a slot it in. I really regret having not seen it, and especially now after your talking about it as well, it sounded like a really awesome, a really interesting experience.

Ben:
Yes, and also I think as well, again, we are in this growing state. We're in these early stages of the VR world, so anything you see will be interesting. Most stuff is quite simple at this stage, and I think it should be. Just seeing anything that makes you put on a headset and you are looking around, it just does something. It's kind of infinitely fascinating.

Robin:
Yes, it is a totally interesting. I think when you're thinking about starting to make something for a medium and spending as much time working with it, experiencing what's possible is really what you are talking about as well.

Ben:
Yes, absolutely because one little spark and there's an idea for something. Yeah, and you can never underestimate how that's going to happen or how powerful that could be.

Robin:
Ben, thank you for that really great short intro to storytelling for VR. It might be even interesting to catch up again in the future to see how, after it's all been shot, how your perceptions of it all change as well.

Ben:
Yes, that would be great. I've just said it's been a very interesting journey so far in the process because we've had to distil a lot. It was very complex to start with. We just keep boiling it down and boiling it down and boiling it down to what is the essence and what will the audience get out of this that they always come back too, and that informs the story from there. Yes, I'm happy to update you once it is all done.

Robin:
Cool. Thank you for joining me today, and again, if anyone wants to get in contact with you to help out with their storytelling, what is the best way to get in contact with you?

Ben:
You can reach me at ben@carben.com.au or check out the website which is carben.com.au. Yes, let's tell some stories.

Robin:
Thank You.

Ben:
Thanks.


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