sound: epidemicsound
voice: elevenlabs.io
font: pangrampangram

_Extra Credits

a special thank you to Ralph,
Lilo, Lili, Anna-Maria,
Caro and Felix!



Conveying complex information through storytelling in VR (Bachelor Thesis 2023/24)

The only thing as fascinating as a scientific concept itself is the human who discovered it. When we put famous scientists on a pedestal we often disregard both the person and the work behind the figure. We take a shortcut by reducing them to their breakthrough discovery. This kind of storytelling fails to highlight the very core of science: the scientific process.

For my bachelor thesis, my goal was to explain science as a living story with the scientist at its core. I think it is fascinating to understand who and what it took for us to know what we know about the world. VR is an exciting medium to do this.

Storytelling in VR is unique because the listener is made a part of it with their whole body, experiencing it the way they experience their daily life: without any barrier separating them from it. This so-called immersion makes VR feel uniquely vivid and personal.

When we tell a story on a screen, we are used to time being the driving factor. The listener sits back while the story takes its course. VR is a spatial medium, so this doesn’t work as well. When the story is all around you it makes sense that it responds to you, rather than happening to you. Instead of thinking of storytelling in terms of a sequence of events providing us with information, we can think of it as an environment that holds information localised in space instead of time.

Last summer, I visited England with my family and stopped by Down House, where Charles Darwin lived for most of his life and wrote On The Origin of Species. It is incredible how being in someone’s space can make you feel so close to a person, even if they’re long dead. He suddenly was no longer just the scientist I’d learned about in school, but an actual person.

Famous scientists are often referred to as geniuses and put on a pedestal, almost like they aren’t or weren’t real people. Charles Darwin is one of them. Everyone knows about evolution, but hardly anyone knows how he actually came up with the theory. Thankfully, Darwin was an enthusiastic writer. He left behind dozens of notebooks, diaries, and letters. These form a near-perfect record of his life and thoughts which answers the question of how he crafted his theory and offers a fascinating insight into who he was and how his life shaped his thinking.

Charles’ story is complex, with a lot of detail and different kinds of information. To get a grasp of it, I read at least a dozen books on Darwin, most of his diaries, letters and notebooks. I spent hours with my headset on, experimenting with different approaches, interactions and kinds of visualisation to figure out what works best.

The challenge was to use the virtual space to tell this complex story comprehensively, without breaking the immersion. Because, while VR holds the potential for you to really get lost in the virtual world, for it to feel real, if this world is overwhelming or, the opposite, boring, it can quickly have the opposite effect. To really make use of the immersive quality of VR, the feeling of presence is essential. Users have to feel comfortable in the virtual space and story in order to become fully immersed in it.

I have identified four key ways in which I created presence during this project: Freedom, Natural Interaction, Orientation and Ambience. This is how I used them to tell Charles’ story and explain how he came up with his theory of evolution.

To structure Charles’ story in space, I decided on the key turning points in both his life and thinking and turned them into virtual spaces. I modelled four rooms, to act as time capsules to hold information. This way I anchored the story in space, instead of in time.

To allow you to get lost in Charles’ world, I avoided setting up a strict, linear path through it. Instead of forcing you to take in each piece of information step by step, I created a central space that connects all rooms. This lets you explore both the space and the story freely and at your own pace. This approach keeps the experience flexible and enjoyable, preventing boredom or frustration that could break your immersion in the story.

fig. 1.2
Walkthrough without interaction (Meta Quest screen-recording)

In VR it makes sense for the story to respond to you instead of happening independently. How your body interacts with the virtual world has a huge effect on how real it feels. I used passages from Charles’ diaries and notebooks to tell the story inside the rooms and modelled and animated the spaces to illustrate his words. Exploring each room thus gives you an impression of what he was doing and thinking at the time.

Information that takes the form of audio clips and animation, anything that requires your immediate attention and focus, is triggered by your touch. This gives you the control over the story, instead of the other way around, and is a natural, intuitive gesture that doesn’t require much thought. This simplicity ensures you stay immersed in the story without getting distracted by complex controls.

fig. 1.4
Room 1 (Cambridge, 1831) (Meta Quest screen-recording)
fig. 1.5
Room 2 (HMS Beagle, 1836) (Meta Quest screen-recording)

While it is fun to explore, it does quickly get tiring and confusing without some kind of structure to provide you with some orientation and context. I decided on a subtle way to do this, one that doesn’t limit you in your freedom. The information inside the rooms is sorted into clusters of a certain topic. When you enter the room only the most important information from each topic is visible so you know when you’ve covered the most important bits and can decide for yourself if you want to dive deeper into the topics that caught your interest or just move on to the next room.

To make the story comfortable to follow, a lot of scientific detail had to be left out for this to work. The information has to be part of the space instead of added on top of it. In short: creating one coherent narrative that keeps you engaged, instead of getting bogged down in detail and risk losing the attention or understanding of the user.

Finally, the visual and audio design plays a huge part in creating presence. It has to both be fun as well as aid in understanding of the story and orientation in the virtual world.

In the case of Charles’ story, the concept of how the virtual world is set up depends on the user’s desire to discover it, which means the design has to be interesting enough to keep the user wanting to see more. The balancing act in this regard is finding a way to do this that doesn’t distract from the information inside the scene.

Experimenting with different approaches was very interesting. I knew I wanted to avoid the uncanny valley of imperfect realism, but I was unsure about how to create a world that still felt real and engaging without being naturalistic. During my experiments, I realised that it’s less about the actual visual design and more about establishing a pattern, a set of rules the virtual world follows. By repeating certain themes, colours and styles throughout the world, your subconscious notices these things and develops a certain trust in the virtual world, creating a realism that doesn’t rely on it perfectly resembling the physical world.

I chose a simple color palette to distinguish the rooms from one another and modelled the animals and plants to look like they are folded from paper. I did this to add visual interest and create a natural transition to the 2D illustrations which are present in all rooms. This was my way of adding detail and interest to create atmosphere without complex 3D models which would take away from the performance.

To summarise, storytelling in VR is unique because the listener is made a part of it with their whole body. Using this unique feature to use space in a way that can both communicate complex information and evoke an emotional response is a powerful way to tell stories.

However, presenting too much information or too many kinds of information, especially more detailed and difficult concepts, can quickly overwhelm you. Similarly, limiting your control or freedom can have an equally negative effect. It breaks the immersion, at which point VR becomes tiring and strenuous and loses its key asset. Not making proper use of the immersion means not making proper use of the storytelling tools of VR, the key is to find a balance.

This is not an in-depth, complete account of Charles’ life and theory, but one that focuses on how the first influenced the last. In short: how he got there and what it took. This is the essence of what I wanted to convey and the kind of science communication where I see potential for VR storytelling, one that makes use of the uniquely personal quality of immersion and puts a focus on the humans behind the science.

The application is designed for Meta Quest, fully functional and will be coming to the App Lab soon, so you’re very welcome to explore it for yourself. If you want to try it already, just let me know and I’ll come by with my headset! Who knows, maybe you’ll find out you have more in common with Charles than you think.