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Picture the moment you arrive at a theater to attend a concert, talk or play. Anticipation builds as you walk through the warmly lit entryway, ticket in hand. You ascend the stairs, and the doors swing open to reveal the grand scale of the space, the murmuring audience and the spotlit stage. As you find your seat, the lights dim, the curtains part and the opening music swells. The show is about to begin.
Events are defined by their rituals, their sense of mounting thrill and narrative progression. From the moment you approach the entrance all the way 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 venues — spaces that enhance the quality of our communal experiences — in the physical world. And it’s just as possible to build them in a virtual one.
With VR steadily entering the mainstream — just recently, news broke on 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 venues used by thousands, I want to share the lessons my team and I have learned so that other designers can create experiences that will remain in memory long after the headsets come off.
Take inspiration from the real world, but note important differences
The fundamentals of virtual event spaces are similar to those of real-life venues, and so is the process of designing them. Often, our design team brings in architects to ensure we learn from real-world principles.
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“There are considerations specific to 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 both real and virtual performance venues. “We have the opportunity to work with features from a concert hall in Berlin or a theater in Buenos Aires, sidestep physical limitations, and create virtual places that feel both fantastical and authentic.”
Bear in mind that virtual spaces do have different demands, however. We’ve found that virtual audience members require more space between seats to feel comfortable. And sight-lines from seats to stage must allow for the fact that audience members are simultaneously in the room together and around the world in separate physical environments. This means that avatars tend to move more often, and more erratically, than they would in a physical venue. To ensure that other audience members aren’t distracted, we often make each seating tier higher than it would be in a physical space, with the seats more spread out.
Be specific with your material choices
Creating convincing virtual experiences is an exercise in world-building. Whether an environment is wholly fantastical, or based in reality, that it feels “true” is an essential factor for its immersive potential.
We experience virtual worlds up close, which means that every environment requires attention to fine detail. From the kind of stone chosen to the cut and grain of wood — think mahogany or red cedar, not just “brown wood” — a high level of craftsmanship will make your space a destination to which people will want to return.
Design with audio in mind
The most convincing virtual-reality spaces are multi-sensory, so a thoughtful use of audio elements is key to placing the audience inside of a new world. There are a number of techniques to consider, including environmental sound, spatially anchored sound, and audio feedback to reward specific interactions, or a mix of each.
Regardless of your approach, effective spatial audio adds tangibility to a space, while deepening the impact of compelling visuals. The sound of distant lapping waves, 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 to creatives: When you can make anything, how do you choose where to begin?
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 aim is for artists, UX designers and technologists to be open to inspiration at this stage, while keeping the audience and the event’s purpose front of mind.
At this point, it’s also critical to establish constraints and define what the environment is not. We often use Miro and Pinterest boards to highlight elements to avoid — low ceilings, strip lighting, flashy chrome — so that we don’t build something generic or characterless. This process helps the creative team eliminate ambiguity, build a shared visual vocabulary and air out any assumptions.
Think of your event as a story
With each virtual-reality event, we are telling 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, like the classic three-act structure.
The start of each event, for example, should serve as your first act, one that’s characterized by scene-setting and exposition. Welcome your guests in, show them around and provide initial information that inspires them to explore more. It’s important to guide attendees — many of whom might be new to virtual reality — gently from the start, before escalating complexity.
That rising action should culminate in the event’s keynote presentation or performance, generating a different audience response. It’s also vital that guests understand what to do when the main event ends, by providing clear next steps for exiting the space and moving on.
Humanity will remain vital, even as technology evolves
Like most technology, virtual reality is evolving exceptionally quickly. Today’s designers face the task of optimizing experiences within the constraints of current headsets, while also preparing for the next evolution. The future will present even greater challenges. Artificial intelligence, for example, will soon generate not just concept art but entire virtual worlds.
But designing spaces with storytelling at their heart will continue to be a human differentiator. As we venture out into the metaverse, let’s not forget our humanity.
Michael Ogden is the chief creative officer at VR company Mesmerise, running the company’s in-house creative lab, Atmospheric.
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