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Imagine the moment you arrive at the theater for a concert, talk or play. Anticipation builds as you walk through the warmly lit entrance, ticket in hand. You ascend the stairs and the doors open to reveal the grand scale of the space, a murmuring audience and a spotlighted stage. When you find your seat, the lights dim, the curtains part, and the opening music kicks in. The show is about to start.
Events are defined by their rituals, their sense of heightened excitement and narrative. From the moment you approach the entrance to the moment the closing applause dies down, a well-designed theater conveys a sense of shared occasion and purpose. Historically, humans have been great at building these places—spaces that enhance the quality of our shared experiences—in the physical world. And it is also possible to build them in virtual.
As VR continues to enter the mainstream – there were recent reports of two new headsets from Meta and Sony, both set to expand VR adoption – it’s vital that designers create virtual spaces that acknowledge our humanity. As someone who designs virtual places that are used by thousands of people, I want to share the lessons that my team and I have learned so that other designers can create experiences that last long after the headphones come off.
Get inspired by the real world, but notice the important differences
The basics of virtual event spaces are similar to real venues, as is the process of designing them. Our design team often 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 elements from a concert hall in Berlin or a theater in Buenos Aires, bypassing physical limitations and creating virtual places that feel fantastical and authentic.”
However, keep in mind that virtual spaces have different requirements. We found that virtual audience members need more space between seats to feel comfortable. And the line of sight from the seats to the stage must allow for the fact that audience members are simultaneously in the room together and across the world in separate physical environments. This means that avatars tend to move more frequently and erratically than in a physical location. To ensure that other audience members are not distracted, we often make each tier of seats higher than they would be in the physical space, with the seats more spread out.
Be specific when choosing your material
Creating compelling virtual experiences is an exercise in world building. Whether an environment is completely fantastical or grounded in the fact that it feels “real” is a crucial factor in its immersive potential.
We experience virtual worlds up close, which means that every environment requires attention to fine details. From the type of stone selected 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 a destination people will want to return to.
Design with sound in mind
The most compelling virtual reality spaces are multi-sensory, so thoughtful use of sound elements is key to placing the audience in a new world. There are a number of techniques to consider, including ambient sound, spatially anchored sound, and audio feedback to reward specific interactions, or a combination of both.
Regardless of your approach, effective surround sound adds tangibility to a space while deepening the impact of compelling visuals. The sound of distant lapping waves or a seagull flying overhead can enliven a space, so consider how your landscape contributes to your soundscape.
Empathize with your audience
Virtual reality presents a new challenge for creatives: When you can create anything, how do you choose where to start?
The initial discovery phase is key to deepening your understanding of the 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, 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 important to set limits and define what the environment is No. We often use Miro and Pinterest boards to highlight elements to avoid—low ceilings, strip lighting, flashy chrome—so as not to create 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 tell a story with a beginning and an end, just like a real performance. To ensure participants feel the narrative unfolding, it’s helpful to provide cues inspired by screenwriting basics, such as the classic three-act structure.
For example, the beginning of each event should serve as your first act, characterized by set design and exposition. Welcome your guests, show them around and provide initial information to inspire them to explore further. It’s important to guide participants—many of whom may be new to virtual reality—gently from the beginning before escalating in complexity.
This rising action should culminate in a keynote presentation or performance of the event, which would elicit a different response from the audience. It’s also important that guests understand what to do when the main event is over by providing clear next steps to exit the space and move on.
Humanity will remain vital even as technology evolves
Like most technologies, virtual reality is evolving extremely quickly. Today’s designers are faced with the challenge of optimizing the experience within the limitations of current headsets while preparing for future developments. The future will present even greater challenges. For example, artificial intelligence will soon generate not only concept art, but entire virtual worlds.
But designing storytelling spaces will continue to be a human hallmark. As we venture into the metaverse, let’s not forget our humanity.
Michael Ogden is the Chief Creative Officer of VR Enthrallrunning Atmospheric’s own creative lab.
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