Christopher Nichols
Issue: Volume 39 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2016)


“This is only the beginning” is more than just a familiar phrase, it’s where any realistic discussion of VR should start. VR has certainly conquered some of the limitations that used to hold it back – higher resolution, lower latency, wider field of view. But to the artists who are grappling with how to use this technology in a professional or mainstream capacity, the truth is obvious. We are still defining what works for the medium – sometimes at a very basic level.

What the Oculus revolution has done is solve the first initial problem of VR: replacing our vision in a believable way. And now that VR has piggybacked off mobile technology, phones have started to become important drivers. This presents its own challenges, but it also has encouraged more people to engage with VR. Did you know, for example, that after The New York Times’ free giveaway, five million people now have a Google Cardboard? That’s a lot of opportunity for artists who want to reach people. But even so, a lot of questions still remain unanswered on the design front. 

A glance at new games timed to ship with Oculus’s official launch might make it seem like we are further along than we are. But, make no mistake, VR is in its infancy. We haven’t mastered first-person VR narratives yet, or how to entice people to wear that headset for more than five to 10 minutes at a time. Or even how to help people move naturally within spaces without injuring themselves.

Talking about these things doesn’t have to kill the excitement, though. It’s how we keep it going. New discoveries lead to new breakthroughs, which artists can then share with the world. Within the next five years, I can easily see friends meeting in a virtual Cancun, totally immersed in a tropical experience. But to get there, we need to invest our focus in a skill set that is currently devalued in many discussions of VR – environment design. 

A Sense of Place

When you think about it, environments are the basis of the entire experience. The whole point of VR is to take people to a place they’ve never been and then have them interact there. Characters can be fun additions, but it’s the world that will hook them in and sell them on their new reality.

So why aren’t environments front and center in the experience? There’s an easy answer. In the new VR landscape, many people are looking to the entertainment industry to drive VR content. Film and broadcast firms have leapt at the opportunity, with many studios opening up dedicated VR practices to handle the potential workload. 

Right now, their current method is to try and bend VR to the practices of traditional third-person filmmaking. This means VR is forced to focus on controlled narratives, something VR likes to fight against. Because we are still in the early stages of VR, this isn’t surprising. Many people attack new problems with the tools they already know. In this case, those tools can only take them so far.  

The reason: VR doesn’t live on a one-way screen. It isn’t a movie or a TV show. It’s a first-person experience that prizes interactivity and self-direction within a space. In a lot of ways, the space is the story, and the story changes as the users pick their paths. Great narrative styles will emerge, but they won’t be carbon copies of the past. They will rely on the surroundings and what a designer was able to do with them. This much is clear, and is a main point coming in from Chaos Group Labs contributors and V-Ray customers who also see environmental design as a linchpin to a successful long-term VR strategy.

The good part is no one has to start from scratch. Creating interesting environments is not a new concept. Creating a narrative around spaces isn’t, either. Both these skill sets actually have a long history within the traditions of architecture and design, where its practitioners make their living telling the stories of new and unbuilt spaces. What is it like to live there? To work? To walk the floors at night? Visualization and interior design experts know how to present their stories in the first-person narrative VR requires, and as they continue to develop their skills within the medium, they can pass along those secrets to VR artists in other industries.

You don’t have to know an architect or interior designer to learn these skills. You can study what they pay attention to in your own time: form vs. function, the scale of a space and how someone feels when they are in it, the space from different angles and positions. The right mix can deliver a strong, implicit message to your brain. 

Consider a cathedral. These were buildings designed to make you feel small, so the religion would feel grand. When you add in the symbols, stained glass, warm color of the veneer, you get spaces that were frequently awe-inspiring to people – in this and other centuries. 

Spatially Aware

Thinking in 360 degrees is another tool that arch-viz artists use constantly in environmental designs. Spaces change as you move through them – light changes, perspective changes. An issue common to the film-centric VR method is the “movie screen” dilemma. Most film artists are only taught to think in terms of where the camera is pointing. Environments don’t have to be fully considered when the main task at hand is one view. As time goes on, film-influenced VR artists will have to learn to think past this habit. Game studios that deal in first-person narratives and open worlds are already halfway there.

The other thing VR artists can learn from architects is abstract space design. Realistic environments are always going to be extremely compelling for most people, especially as resolution rates go up. Abstract designs also carry incredible opportunities to stun the viewer. Architects such as Lebbeus Woods, whose conceptual designs were poached for 12 Monkeys, and John Hejduk, whose designs could out-abstract many abstract artists, can create spaces that are like nothing on earth. Spaces that are memorable, transcendent even. 

That’s what a lot of this will come down to. Whether something moves your mind. There are a million reasons not to continue with VR after the initial try. Head hurts, boredom, nothing new, not enough, too much. A lot of questions will have to be answered. What makes people want to stay? Invite a friend? Play through a mission? 

At all levels, the goal of a virtual space is to add something powerful or exciting to the life of the viewer. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always felt that architecture and travel applications would be immediate winners. Imagine peering out over Paris after a tough day, or spending a rainy night at MoMA from your living room. These use cases have nothing to do with explosions, crazy characters, or car chases. They just make sense.

But we have to start talking to each other and sharing information. That’s one of the reasons why Chaos Group Labs put out our free VR Guide ( at the end of last year. We recognize that this is a new art form where the lines are still being drawn, so we wanted to share what we’ve learned. That’s why I’m rallying for environments today. Critiquing what doesn’t work is as important as shining a light on what does. 

What I do know is VR can’t continue (in the long run) without thoughtful environmental designers coming to the forefront of the process. Architects and interior designers will need, for community, to open up lines of communication so we really can give this VR thing a go. 

On the off chance that the VR games aren’t that good or that compelling VR movie experiences aren’t ready for another decade, there are some immediate applications that are both exciting and possible to use and learn from now. Yes, they require people to learn new skills. But we all knew that going in. We jumped into the deep water this time, but like film, games, and photography, we have a history of progress. What is done predominantly with pre-rendered CG content today will grow into something else. Maybe phones will add positional sensors and depth cameras that make them even more viable for big-ticket VR; maybe someone will figure out the best way to present first-person narratives next year. The best part of VR is how quickly it’s all changing.

This time, let’s get there faster. Let’s partner with unexpected people and hire architects in unexpected places. Let’s host VR gatherings that are for more than just one industry. It could change everything, and I’m happy to make a few introductions.

Christopher Nichols is the director of Chaos Group Labs. After years with Method Studios, Digital Domain, and 

Gensler, he now turns his interests for VFX, research,  architecture, and visualization into unique experiences for the CG community.