One of the major selling points for creating virtual reality experiences is emotional impact. VR has proven powerful in terms of affecting our feelings, for instance making us happy, curious, anxious, scared, or excited depending on intention. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently trigger people’s sentiments in unintended ways due to an oversight, or direct attention away from your main point, which is why affect must be thought into every step of the experience’s creation process.
The more immersive the experience, the more viewers gain what anthropologists call “embodied knowledge” from this form of media — combining physical, emotional and visceral cues to deeply connect with the story in ways that make it seem authentic. —Humanizing VR, Google
Let me take you through two examples of emotional affect.
Walking through the dark dungeon in Dreadhalls (2017) wearing the Oculus, I was frightfully aware of every sound resonating of the stone walls, not least because every time I looked down at my map I wasn’t able to see what was in front of me. Meeting “the horror girl” sent me into a panicked state as I sprinted blindly down unexplored halls in an attempt to escape my pursuer. 40 minutes I spent in the game. 2 hours later my body was still showing signs of elevated stress and concentrating on tasks was difficult.
Sitting on a chair in the 360-degree experimental video Tabel (2017), I was given the opportunity to eavesdrop on the people around me. From the three architects, each boasting about their ingenuity in the creation of the restaurant, the Mayor and his wife on the brink of a divorce, to the businesswoman conducting a rather rigorous interview. The kitchen eventually begins to burn, but no one reacts—it’s not their responsibility they claim. The film is about taking environmental responsibility, but I was somewhat busy digesting my emotional reactions to the various human interactions I had been witnessing for the past 5 minutes to properly notice.
Two very different experiences, but my point is the same. Not only did the immersion and included emotions affect my reactions within the experience, they also affected me afterwards.
Research suggests that people retain less information when switching from one subject to another, not least following emotional stimuli, “After switching our attention from one subject to another, a brief phenomenon may occur, known as an attentional blink, during which we are unable to fully focus on the second stimuli” (Psychologistworld). Smith et. al. connected this attentional blink to emotions in 2006.
Emotions can block our ability to focus on information following initial stimuli
The solution, to address this attentional blink, is in theory very simple; space out information and leave time for initial reflection, but this idea needs to be an active part of the planning process.
As an example, I would like to highlight the VR experience Colosse (2016), developed by Colosse Team. It is short and non-interactive but takes you on a beautiful little journey that will wake your curiosity. Moreover, it delivers its story with good pacing, allowing you to take in information and give your emotions space to develop at a suitable pace. For instance, during the first minute of the story, the main character of a young man is established as a hunter, and you are given time to look around and take in the beautiful and serene surroundings—time to develop your curiosity, but also feel very much at ease in your new immersive surroundings. Then the Colosse arrives. His big, slow movements accentuate his size, which in VR is awe inspiring. Again, this part of the scene doesn’t play out too quickly. We can absorb these new impressions at a steady pace, wonder where this Colosse might have come from, and observe the young man as he is running away. Even as the experience ends, we aren’t ushered away in a hurry, but the credits are delivered within the scene and gives time to digest what just came about, both cognitively and emotionally. In general, the experience avoids the risk of causing loss of information via attentional blink.
We might run the risk of emotionally saturating people
The challenges with emotional overloading or a saturation are what I described in the Dreadhalls example. Whereas it can be a powerful tool to leverage and affect how people feel during an experience, you want to be careful not to overload them, which can have a numbing effect, or create an experience that is so emotionally saturated that it almost becomes perceptually abstract.
Moreover, if every experience out there aims to affect people emotionally, then our audience may grow tired of them—especially in the case of companies that overtly attempt to generate positive viewer/player affect towards their brand. I am not saying that companies should avoid leveraging the way VR can impact emotions, but simply that emotional effect should (typically) not be the primary goal of creating the experience. Develop an application that via VR delivers value to the users, and think how you would like users to react to this experience as well as how such reactions are elicited. Do you, for instance, want to evoke emotions through storytelling and the introduction of characters? Or maybe the core concept’s activities will in of themselves cause emotional reactions, and to underpin these reactions you utilise music or ambient soundscapes. Conscious choice in direction is key, as opposed to simply using a method because you know it to be efficient.
In addition, it is worth remembering that we associate better with stories or experiences that align with our current mood, and this mood also influences how well we remember. I.e. if you are in a good mood, then you are more likely to associate with an experience that is presented as positive and will furthermore also be more likely to remember this experience in the future when you feel positive. This mood congruence effect was studied by Gordon Bower back in 1981, but still remains relevant to this day, as the importance of our associative memory is explored. In other words, if you can slightly affect and subtly ease people into a good and happy mood during the very first part of the experience then the chances of them identifying with positive messages and feelings along the way are greater.
Using emotions in VR can be a huge boon to the way a user might perceive your experience. Efficient communication in virtual reality isn’t necessarily easy, especially when it comes to communicating and affecting emotions. VR deserves its current hype, as it is a media form with huge potential to positively affect people’s lives. But we are still learning how to create the best possible content, which requires equal measures innovation, bravery, and caution. There are no cookie-cutter solutions, as it depends on audience and intentions, in the same way as there is a huge diversity in any other medium, such as film, depending on genre and intended audience. This article can hopefully help you avoid a few possible pitfalls while leveraging some of the advantages of VR, or just make you more aware of the medium’s ways of affecting you as an experiencer.