Designing Magnets – Pushing and Pulling Attention in VR

The Echo Chamber – Notes 06

Eight years ago I was lucky enough to see Elan Lee speak at the ETech conference on the topic of ‘Designing Magnets: Connecting with Audiences in the Wired Age’. Elan focused on the techniques he was experimenting with and applying to attracting and repelling audience attention in the ARG world. I wrote up some notes at the time, as did Cory Doctorow, but essentially Elan’s talk described ways to draw people towards and away from the story elements, real world activities and experiences that you’re designing for them. Elan’s talk was really exciting, stayed with me and we ended up working together on a development project which I commissioned.

360 and VR has the same level of hype and opportunity attached to it as ARG’s did back then. What makes them similar is the offer of both the strength and depth of engagement with audiences/viewers. We recently covered in another post how we’re thinking about this process now as being more about creating and holding attention rather than jumping straight to necessarily generating an empathy response.

In 360/VR the viewer is able to look around and experience the virtual world in a similar way to the way they experience their own real world. This agency is creatively a great opportunity in so many ways as viewers are likely to be more immersed in the story and combined with sound design they experience an intense visual and audio sensation, with a correspondingly intense emotional and engagement response.

There is a great concern in some quarters about what happens if the VR viewer looks the wrong way, and misses a particular nugget of action. Will the story fail? Will it make sense? How do we guarantee that the viewer will be looking where we want them to? The answer is that we can’t guarantee that they might look the ‘wrong’ way.

We know from second screen research that when people say they are watching TV they are in fact doing a whole range of other things at the same time. An awful lot of time and money is being invested in making sure that those valuable eyeballs are swiveled in the right direction when the ads come on.

We believe that the trick is in not thinking of viewer attention as ‘right way or wrong way’. As filmmakers we can only guide them in the same way that Elan talked about designing magnets to push and pull people towards and away from amazing and memorable experiences. Within our ‘Echo Chamber’ drama, all the nuances and subtleties of direction, staging, mise en scène, dialogue, acting, sound and production design should combine into a jigsaw of pieces that can fit together in enough varied ways to give a compelling narrative and theme.

Both narrative and theme will work together to deliver the experience we’re designing, but in fact if viewers miss some or even all of those cues, they will still take away an experience that succeeds to thematically reach them, even if they choose to take another story route than then one we intend.