Everything you ever needed to know about immersive VR
The realm of Virtual Reality is a dazzling place; with no creative limit on where you can be or what you can interact with. If you can imagine it (and you have enough time and budget) you can create it in VR. But, when it comes to VR production, there are a few key points in planning, production and distribution it’s important to consider.
“There are a few key points in planning, production and distribution it’s important to consider”
So how do you create an immersive VR experience? And where do you even begin? We’ve broken down the process into three easy parts, to help guide you through the virtual world and see you well on your way to creating your own immersive VR experience.
1. Concept Creation
Before you delve too deep into the virtual world, you need a concept. VR brainstorming differs to those you might do for films – as there are so many more layers to consider. The first questions you need to ask yourself, are:
- “What’s this for?”
- “How do I want my audience to interact with it?”
- “Will they have access to a headset?”
If it’s for an event, the experience could be different to one you’d create for home use. If people are wandering round an exhibition hall, it can’t be 20 minutes long. Concentrate on feelings first, visuals later and brainstorm concepts with only rough references. If your piece looks like the most beautiful thing in the world but your concept has little interactivity, your audience won’t engage with the experience.
2. What Hardware?
Once you’ve got the initial concept sorted, it’s important to think about the hardware you’ll need. Your experience depends massively on the headset you choose, so design for who will use it:
- Can your audience use the functions of an Oculus?
- Are they technology savvy?
Different hardware has different capabilities. For example, more people have a Samsung Gear VR, but there’s lower graphic capabilities and a limit to the amount you can direct the experience. On the other hand, Oculus and HTC Vive, tethered headsets, render out higher definition but you have to be wired in to use and currently, only the early adopters own them. You can still get a low level of interaction with a 360 video using gaze hotspots on Google Cardboard – so if social reach is important, this could be a good option to consider.
3. Key Interactivity
In the early stages of planning, interactivity is key. Instead of simply watching an experience, like you might do in 360, VR experiences are lead by engaging interactivity. Think about this:
- If you walk into a wall, what happens?
- Do you bounce off it, cartoon character style?
- Do you walk through it like an 80’s Patrick Swayze in Ghost?
Planning the interactivity in your piece should come before the visual concept. You also need to ask – is your experience guided, or is it open world? Can your audience move around by themselves with headset controllers or are they moving on rails? Once you’ve thought about the elements your viewers can interact with, it’s key to storyboard the interactive wireframes before the environments. Consider the engine before the body.
4. Where to Distribute
After you’ve marked out roughly how your audience will interact with your experience, decide how you’re going to distribute it. Knowing where it’s going at an early stage is vital, as this will affect what you create:
- Is it being designed for a live event and if so, will you need to film the reaction?
- If you’re using a tethered headset, is there money for someone to man it?
- Will you distribute it via an app specific to one of the platforms?
Or, if social is an important factor in your campaign, a 360 video might be better suited to your audience. Have a read of our recent piece on ‘Everything you need to know about 360’ [INSERT LINK] for some more info and handy tips on where to distribute your experience.
5. Nailing the Timings
Don’t underestimate the amount of time required to test interactive experiences. When you’re creating a film, you can watch it a couple of times, give your feedback and tweak it with relative ease. However, with an interactive piece, you essentially need to test every single interactive possibility before it goes out to your audience, to make sure all the bugs are ironed out.
“Don’t underestimate the amount of time required to test interactive experiences”
To create a full experience, you also need to consider how long it will take to complete. Generally this ranges from between 1 – 6 months, depending on the levels of complexity. Another thing worth considering is that an interactive experience renders in real time, rather than up front – so taking the time to test before it goes out is key.
6. Finalising the Budget
Plan the budget up front. Depending on what you need to create, it should be scalable with a couple of tiered options. It takes a lot of craft to create a smooth VR experience, so consider everything; from app development costs and the team you need on it, to testing costs and audio effects. Your budget should also factor in any assets you need to create:
- Are you building CGI assets from scratch or buying digital files?
- Do you need to create imagery or artwork for app stores or accompanying explainer videos, to help your audience understand the experience?
When you’re building an immersive landscape, 3D or binaural audio effects can also help take it from a simple landscape to an engaging environment. Most importantly, make sure you also factor in enough time and budget for feedback, well ahead of the delivery date.
1. The Right Software
Using the right software can make a massive difference and it’s important to understand how software works differently for VR. Rather than rendering up front, immersive experiences render in real time. This means that whatever actions have been coded in and whatever your audience decide to do or pick up, affects the outcome – there’s not one set story line.
“Rather than rendering up front, immersive experiences render in real time.”
Depending on your needs, you can use Unity or Unreal Engine to create an immersive experience – both popular in game creation. Unity is more scalable in general and works better on phones, but Unreal Engine has a higher definition and is more oriented towards games. Choose your software with your budget, target tech and distribution in mind – it’ll help smooth out the production process.
2. Building the Worlds
One common misconception about VR is that the environment and texture get designed early on in the process. In fact, much like a real world structure, the basic building blocks of the world are key in making sure no time and budget are wasted. Test your interactivity with the basic design, so you can pin down if the movements work and how viewers navigate this world.
- Do they travel through different environments and how does that happen?
- What are the rules of the world?
- Is gravity up or down, or even real at all?
Consider what would be a good place to interact with. Think about how elements like lighting, weather, textures and atmospheric sounds will factor into your piece but also think about what you can put in place to tell the story or get across a feeling in the VR world. Start with storyboards, wire frames and build a mini world from the ground up. And by starting with a basic world, if anything major needs to change, you haven’t wasted precious design time fleshing it out.
3. Designing the Visuals
Once you’ve got the basic building blocks in place and have tested the motions, you can start work on designing the visuals:
- How will it look and animate?
- What overall style and tone do you want from your experience?
- Are there any references you and your client like as a starting point for the design?
The beauty of VR is that you’re not limited in visual style. If you’re creating a game, it doesn’t have to look like a ’game’. Your experience could be cartoon designed, sketch style, photo-realistic, abstract, black and white, neon – any style you can imagine. Texture is also critical in a VR environment. Build in details in texture and consider how the shadows and lights change in the design as you move, to create a rich environment.
4. Coding the Gameplay
If you’re looking to create a gamified VR experience, there are some different considerations to keep in mind. Rather than simply filming or animating elements, actions and building blocks need to be coded into the experience:
- What your audience does will affect the outcome of the experience.
- How does the game progress?
- Are there different storylines, depending on what they do?
When budgeting for gameplay, make sure there is enough time and budget for programmers to code the experience and test it. It’s important they’re involved from the start, so they can develop the system into an empty environment, rather than retrofit code into a world which has already been created. Also consider what input devices you are using. Do people need a tutorial to see how it works? What happens when users try to interact with non-interactive things?
1. Application Development
So your visuals are sharp but do you need an app for your experience? For experiences which run through specific headsets, like the HTC Vive, often you’ll need an app which can be submitted to a developer store. That way viewers can download it and experience it for themselves through their headsets.
“Can people share the experience?”
If your experience is purely for an event, you can normally run the file straight off your headset without having to create an app – but you should still consider any supporting assets you need, like screenshots, icon, artwork etc. Also consider if you need social integration built into the app. Can people share the experience? If it’s a 360 video, are you just playing it through an online browse or do you need an app for Gear VR?
2. Publishing on Platforms
The last important thing to consider, is what platform you’ll be publishing on. If you’re launching your experience through Oculus, Google Play, or another of the major platforms, they all have specific rules, regulations and costs associated with them. You also need a developer account to be able to upload content. Largely, the platform you launch on will depend on the content you’ve created. For example;
- HTC Vive has positional tracking and lean around
- Gear VR has a control pad.
If you’re going through the PlayStation store, you’ll also need a safety certificate, insurance (in case someone falls off their sofa), along with all the standard assets for the other platforms. With the bigger players, there are often more levels to get through before your experience is allowed on the store, so make sure you leave enough time to get the right permissions.
If you’re looking to create an immersive VR experience, keep some of our top tips in mind and you’ll be well on your way to a snazzy, CGI, ballroom in no time. And, if you want just a little more insider information to help you make the most out of the production process, we asked our in-house VR Director, Toby Barnett, for some of his top VR tips and tricks.
Toby’s Top Tips
Tip 1: “Plan an experience, NOT a video. Most people approach VR production from a film background and only focus on what you see directly in front of you. But you need to consider the environment as a whole when you’re thinking about planning the project.”
Tip 2: “Don’t over complicate the interactivity. A simple and accessible user experience will allow the widest range of people to explore and enjoy your VR Experience. Too much choice or elaborate fiddly user controls will kill the immersion and make it much less engaging on the whole.”
Tip 3: “Bend the rules but be wary of breaking them. Your experience doesn’t have to happen in the real world. Play with the parameters of the world, gravity is optional, scale is variable. But beware of pushing it too far – an unfeasible environment can break the immersion.”
So if you’re thinking about making an immersive VR experience, why not drop us a line? Or, to get this guide as a free, handy download, click on the link below!