Why You Should Think of Your VR Project as a Story

“Please, just one more! Please!” chant sleep-bound children anytime they spot an adult who might fall prey to their tactics to sneak in one more bedtime story. Perhaps it’s because kids love manipulating adults into doing things for them, or perhaps it’s because they fear the dark and loathe sleeping. But one thing is certain: they do really love stories. The desire to hear, tell, and share stories is a universal human phenomenon—everyone loves a good yarn. 


What everyone doesn’t love is something that seems like it will be a good yarn but isn’t—exactly what you want to avoid as you incorporate VR into your architectural projects. If you’ve been to a Virtual Reality (VR) booth at a trade show, chances are you’ve had this experience. You sit down, get comfortable, and strap on the headset, curious to be initiated into this new technology. The next thing you know, you’re flying through a Gotham-like cityscape, dodging skyscrapers and flying vehicles, doing loop-de-loops and generally defying gravity. You leave your stomach behind a few times and marvel at how queasy this VR experience can make you. And remind yourself never to get on a real roller coaster again. Then it’s over. Seeing the technology was cool, and the effects were outstanding. But you’re left feeling kind of empty. Something was missing. 


Chances are that something was a story, a narrative thread that makes you feel an emotional connection to something or someone. VR has the potential to enhance that connection far beyond previous generations of technology. But it isn’t the technology itself that generates emotion; it’s the story. 


Stories can be simple. Consider architectural renderings that include figures of people milling about within the space. Those people can tell a story by how they are dressed, the items they are carrying, and what they are doing. The time of day tells another story. Does the rendering depict a bustling downtown at midday with people rushing by to grab lunch, or does it elicit a more relaxed feeling with vacationers lounging about the perimeter of a pool, marveling at a gorgeous sunset and playing croquet on the perfect emerald lawn? What feeling or emotion are you trying to generate? Excitement? Ease? Comfort?


The first step in defining the narrative you want to weave into a VR rendering is understanding your audience. Who is the decision maker and what is their motivation? Are you building a skyscraper in Manhattan for a developer who wants to fill it with a tenant roster of prestigious law firms? Or are you bidding to design an office park for a hot tech company in Silicon Valley? What kind of emotions would you want to elicit for those two scenarios? 


The first may focus on emotions related to prestige such as a desire to show importance, intellectual dominance, and wealth. Prestigious law firms often have imposing conference rooms with sweeping city views and luxurious finishing—they aim to impress and, frankly, intimidate visitors. Your narrative would include elements that elicit these emotions—for instance, as you open a door you walk into a senior partner meeting filled with men and women sporting designer suits punctuated by timeless ties and scarves. As you open the door, the conversation stops and everyone turns to look at you. Would you feel intimidated? Is this the emotion you want to generate? 


Imagine using this setup in the second scenario—the hot Silicon Valley startup. In a culture where CEOs wear jeans and hoodies to board meetings, companies compete for talent by throwing kombucha bars and unlimited food at their employees, and the idea of flat hierarchies is underpinned by open floor office plans even for the C-suite, how would that room full of designer suits play out? Not so well.


Imagine just one more scenario. You are competing for a project, and your competitor is quite similar to you in many ways. The design they have developed mirrors your own, the teams’ capabilities are comparable, and the estimated cost is the same. The differences just aren’t all that significant in your potential client’s eyes. In short, the client could flip a coin and be equally happy with either outcome. 


The final pitch day comes. You’re both using VR to take the client through a 3D rendering of the project, you’re both equally prepared and both technically capable. There’s just one difference. Your competitor has figured out a few things about the client and built a story that plays to her interests in the VR experience. They know that she has worked hard to bring more diversity, equity, and inclusion into her organization. She loves kids, and on weekends she volunteers as an art teacher for a community center that serves underprivileged kids. She’s also a complete data geek—she finds ways to use analytics in all her decision making. Your competitor has woven artifacts of her profile into their presentation. They ensured that the people built into the rendering represent a diversity of ethnicity and genders. They added a wall showcasing artwork by children, and they staged a presentation in a room showing the client’s own avatar walking the audience through her latest analytics findings. Your presentation is technically and visually stunning, but it has empty hallways and rooms. How do you feel about your chances now? 


You can leverage VR to much greater impact than the technology would allow on its own if you sprinkle stories, narratives, and emotions into your virtual world. It will take more effort, but it will be worth your while.