Virtual Reality and 360-Degree Videos: Immersion and Conversion

The entirety of visual media so far has been framed. Cinema, TV, and Video Game narratives exist within a frame. While that may be, as we’ve seen, spread across multiple screens, we never fully see all the action. Like with all new inventions, and innovations in media and technology, 360-degree videos, and Virtual Reality has eliminated the border, and allowed viewers to watch what they want, in the most literal sense. This means creators have had to be more intuitive with holding a viewers attention now they have the option to view any part of the 360-degree spectrum they’re presented with.

Of course, with any new media, there have been plenty of naysayers. ‘The media is both instigator and purveyor of the discussion; the discussion is highly emotionally charged and morally polarised (the medium is either “good” or “bad”) with the negative pole being the most visible in most cases’ (Kirsten Drotner). The main panic that surrounds 360 video, and Virtual Reality, is the realism. Some critics fear that as media becomes more and more real, audiences will be unable to tell the difference. Virtual Reality has seen an increase of Horror games, and ‘Virtual Reality Pornography’. One such marring of this, is the Virtual Reality game ‘Dead Or Alive’ (Namco). The game is essentially a ‘fighting game’ franchise dating back to 1993, but has ventured into other territories. Particularly criticised is their series of Volley Ball games, all featuring the female fighters of the series, scantily clad, with Lara Croft circa-1995 size boobs. The franchise received widespread criticism however when in 2016 when the trailer for ‘Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 VR’ was released. Critics panicked that the game was essentially a ‘sexual assault simulator’, and due to the fact the player is physically replicating the actions in game makes it a more heated debate. The player is encouraged to physically touch the female character on screen, and in response, she recoils, and asks the player to stop – which they’re then encouraged to continue. Game reviewers ‘Polygon’ stated ‘We’ve come to expect over-the-top, sexist gameplay from Dead or Alive’s beach volleyball spinoffs, but denial of consent being part of Xtreme 3’s VR gameplay takes the series to a new low.’ Despite the fact this would be a horrific experience in any video game, the advancement of being placed in this game, and your actions being replicated ingame, makes this an extremely difficult topic, and quite rightly, a panic from it’s purveyors.

360-degree video has more defenders, as its use is typically stuck to exploratory, real-world situations. YouTube and Facebook were early adopters of the technology, allowing users to upload these videos to the site. Some have been more experimental, such as the horrific explosive noise of ‘500 episodes of the Simpsons, all at once in 360’. Some however, have offered interesting narrative. 2016’s breakout series for Netflix, ‘Stranger Things’ adopted 360-video for an ‘experience’ in the Stranger Things’ universe. The YouTube video places the user in the house of protagonist Will Byers, as his mother attempts to contact him. The interesting use of 360-video here is that there aren’t any actors present in the video. We ARE Will’s mother. The camera can be spun to view any part of the room, but the video uses its horror elements well to encourage the user where to look. A flashlight shins on a wall and slowly pans the room, and the user follows. This works exceptionally well, as we have so many options of where to look, but as viewers, we are drawn to where the director wants us to be. The use of audio is excellent too, as it follows the action around the room. As we move through the house towards a ringing phone, the voice on the other end tells us to ‘turn around’. If we’re brave enough to, we’re greeted by a musical crescendo, and the shows title appearing – a false scare. As stated earlier, horror works exceptionally well in these environments, and the Virtual Reality headsets only add to this experience.

Created by Google, Playstation, Oculus Rift, and other smaller companies, VR headsets have flown off the shelves in 2016, with good reason. The level of immersion in media is increased 10-fold, and in the above example, scares are scarier. With the headset on, the false scare of Stranger Things is even more terrifying, but it’s not just about the horror in Virtual Reality games. Quirky Indie title ‘Job Simulator’ has been named the best experience of VR so far. ‘Even if you’ve never played a VR game, it works. You’ll almost immediately reach, grab, place and even throw objects in Job Simulator. It works in an obvious fashion, and it’s so good that those who play it will click with the game.’ While Job Simulator does these things well, there are still some issues with the physics surrounding Virtual Reality experiences that you yourself have to physically interact with, more than just moving your head. Inherently, tasks in VR games involve using tools, and more often than not, throwing them too. Gamasutra argues that ‘throwing sucks in VR’ but offers ways of improving upon its mechanics. In human nature, when given an item of a certain weight, and having to throw it, we (mostly) can assess the mass of the object, and the placement in our hands, thus helping us accurately aim it somewhere else. When given possession of an item in VR, we brain cannot assess this realistically, and so end up either over or under throwing. However, Gamasutra also theorises that this is less human error, and more game design, as the same throw can wield different results.

‘Maybe our first lesson in VR is that it’s actually kind of hard to throw accurately. When I had this experience, I’d assumed it was because I’m bad at VR. We accept that mastering a control scheme is part of a game’s learning curve.  But when throwing with the same motions yields wildly different results, you’ve got a recipe for frustration.’

The inherent problem here though, is that the technology is still relatively new, and experimental. The majority of a VR game world is in its physics, and while huge advancements have been made in this area over the years, they’ve never had to deal with real-life interaction before. The VR glove that accompanies the headset requires the player to press a trigger button to facilitate their character closing their hand. Pushing the button 20% of the way down offers a loose grasp, while 100% gives a closed fist. When throwing, we aren’t inherently used to releasing buttons and so timing is something that Gamasutra suggests needs adapting for better play, along with Velocity Noise. This is the 3 points theorised by Gamasutra that will help game development, and player experience:

  • Measure throwing velocity from the center of mass of where the user feels the center of mass is — e., the controller.

    Detect throwing at the precise moment a user intends to throw — e., fractional release of a trigger

  • Make the most of the velocity data you’ve measured — take a regression for a better estimate of what the player intends.

Of course, in 2017 and further, we will see greater technological improvements to game engines, and hopefully more immersive experiences. When an action in game doesn’t feel as real or fluid as in real life, that’s when the immersion is broken. It’s a difficult task, but no doubt, with the rate of improvement and development in new reality technologies, we’ll see a huge advancement sometime soon. In the meantime, maybe we should just teach gamers how to throw?



Bibliograph y

500 Simpsons episodes at once in 360-degree

Stranger Things 360-degree/virtual reality experience


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