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Imagine the moment when you arrive at a theater to attend a concert, a talk or a play. Anticipation builds as you walk through the warmly lit entrance, ticket in hand. As you ascend the stairs, the doors open to reveal the grand scale of the space, the murmuring audience, and the illuminated stage. As you find your seat, the lights dim, the curtains open, and the opening music rises. The show is about to start.
The events are defined by their rituals, their sense of rising emotion, and narrative progression. From the moment you approach the entrance until the final applause dies down, a well-designed theater will impart a sense of shared occasion and purpose. Historically, people are great at building these places, spaces that enhance the quality of our community experiences, in the physical world. And it is possible to build them into a virtual one.
With virtual reality (VR) steadily entering the mainstream this month alone, news broke about two new headsets from Meta and Sony, both set to broaden VR adoption, it’s vital that designers create virtual spaces that acknowledge our humanity. . As someone who designs virtual places used by thousands, I want to share the learnings that my team and I have collected so that other designers can create experiences that will linger in the memory long after the headset is removed.
Take inspiration from the real world, but be aware of the differences.
The fundamentals of virtual event spaces are similar to those of real-life venues, as is the design process. Our design team often brings in architects to ensure we learn from real-world principles.
“There are specific considerations for the audience, the program and the context; it’s just that this audience is made up of avatars and the context is virtual,” says architect Christopher Daniel, who designs performance venues both real and virtual. “We have the opportunity to work with features of a concert hall in Berlin or a theater in Buenos Aires, circumvent physical limitations and create virtual places that feel both fantastic and authentic.”
However, keep in mind that virtual spaces have different demands. We found that virtual audience members require more space between seats to feel comfortable. And sightlines from seats to the stage must take into account the fact that audience members are simultaneously in the room together, as well as across the world in separate physical settings. This means that avatars often move more frequently and more erratically than in a physical location. To make sure other audience members aren’t distracted, we typically make each level of seating higher than it would be in a physical space, with the seats further apart.
Be specific with your material choices
Creating compelling virtual experiences is an exercise in world building. Whether an environment is totally fantastical or grounded in reality, how “real” it feels is an essential factor in its immersive potential.
We experience virtual worlds up close, which means every environment requires attention to detail. From the type of stone chosen to the cut and grain of the wood (think mahogany or red cedar, not just “brown wood”), a high level of craftsmanship will make your space feel like a destination people will want to go to. to return.
Design virtual spaces with audio in mind
The most compelling virtual reality spaces are multi-sensory, so careful use of audio elements is key to placing the audience inside a new world. There are many techniques to consider, including ambient sound, spatially anchored sound, audio feedback to reward specific interactions, or a combination of each.
Regardless of your approach, effective spatial audio adds tangibility to a space while deepening the impact of compelling visuals. The sound of waves crashing in the distance, or a seagull passing overhead, can bring a space to life, so consider how your landscape contributes to your soundscape.
Empathize with your audience
Virtual reality poses a new challenge for creatives: when you can do anything, how do you choose where to start?
An initial discovery phase is key to deepening understanding of a space’s purpose and intended audience. How do you want your guests to feel? How will the space serve them? Or surprise them? The goal is for artists, user experience (UX) designers, and technologists to be open to inspiration at this stage while keeping the audience and purpose of the event in mind.
At this point, it is also essential to establish constraints and define what the environment is. No. We often use Miro and Pinterest boards to highlight things to avoid (low ceilings, strip lights, flashy chrome) so we don’t build something generic or lacking in character. This process helps the creative team remove ambiguity, create a shared visual vocabulary, and air out any assumptions.
Think of your virtual event as a story
With every VR event, we tell a story with a beginning and an end, much like a real-life performance. To ensure attendees feel that narrative progression, it’s helpful to provide cues inspired by screenwriting fundamentals, such as the classic three-act structure.
The beginning of each event, for example, should serve as its first act, one characterized by staging and exposition. Welcome your guests, show them around, and provide introductory information that inspires them to explore further. It’s important to guide attendees, many of whom may be new to VR, gently from the start before adding complexity.
That escalating action should culminate in the main event presentation or performance, eliciting a different response from the audience. It’s also vital that guests understand what to do when the main event is over by clearly providing next steps for getting out of the space and moving on.
Humanity will remain vital even as technology evolves
Like most technologies, virtual reality is evolving exceptionally fast. Designers today are faced with the task of optimizing experiences around the limitations of current headsets while preparing for the next evolution. The future will present even greater challenges. Artificial intelligence (AI), for example, will soon spawn not just concept art but entire virtual worlds.
Designing spaces with storytelling at its heart will continue to be a human differentiator. As we venture into the metaverse, let’s not forget our humanity.
michael ogden is the creative director of the VR company hypnotizewhere he runs his in-house creative lab, Atmospheric.
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