The Art of VR Facilitation

Camille Donegan (Virtual Reality Ireland) – 20 September 2022

Virtual Reality facilitators, or hosts as we prefer to call them, are paramount to audience members having a positive virtual reality experience. The user journey is everything, particularly when it is their first time trying the medium. The comfort of the user in the headset is imperative and the new list of considerations vary from the audience members wondering “where’s my stuff going to be when I’m in the headset” to “will I look ridiculous to other people in the room”.

When preparing with the hosts for the VR Opera Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnách by Irish National Opera as part of the TRACTION EU project, we knew that the technical instructions for watching the experience were only half the battle.

Myself and Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnách’s director Jo Mangan are both from a theatre background and based on that perspective we believe that a VR storytelling journey begins on the physical entrance to the venue. We wanted to extend the world of the opera by incorporating aspects from the narrative into Florentina Burcea’s set design.

When the audience member is met at the door, they are ushered through to a pedestal. Right at the start, the narrative of the experiences is described. Following that, the hosts bring the audience members through the technicalities of the VR headset – how to put it on, how and where to tighten the straps, how to set the earphones close to your ears etc. This induction takes approximately five minutes and then each audience member, now empowered with their new knowledge, goes to their own mat, or VR island as we like to refer to them. When the audience member arrives at their VR Island, they take off their shoes, possibly their socks, they put their coat and bag and belongings into their personal crate and close it. They then put on the headset with the hosts assisting each audience member in turn to ensure they are comfortable in the headset and have good graphic and audio fidelity.

Another important consideration is how the VR Opera begins once the audience member has the headset on. We don’t use controllers for Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnách as we prefer the audience to use their hands and eyes (known as gaze triggering) for the interactivity. Once the audience member is in the headset they look above the title at INO’s logo for 3 seconds to begin the opera. This offers a seamless start to the experience.

Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnách’s is designed to be experienced standing. However, if somebody has mobility issues, they are shown how to bring the crate onto the mat and use it as a stool. The piece has been designed to be experienced standing because it is a 360 degree visual and spatial audio environment. We want the audience to walk around the 2 x 2 metre circumference of their mat, exploring the virtual reality realms that they will be transported through. They have agency in this regard. In addition, they can see their hands in the world knowing that they are embodying a character, in this case, Nalva, the protagonist in the piece.

The VR opera is 18 minutes long and has subtitles available in both Irish or English as it is a bilingual opera, with a libretto written by Jody O’Neil, mixing English and Irish throughout.

During the induction, the host had explained to the audience how to take off the headset after the credits appear and place it back on their mat. Following that, the audience member gathers their belongings, often discusses the piece with the hosts and each other and then leaves, nearly always somewhat in a state of amazement from the journey they have just been on.Being a Virtual Reality facilitator or host is a real honour. You get to witness people of all ages become wide eyed children again. I have always particularly loved showing VR experiences to older people who often make comments along the lines of “I am so glad I got to witness this in my lifetime”. They seem truly awed by the spatial nature of the medium. Younger folks on the other hand can be harder to please, with comments like “Why couldn’t I shoot the fish?”.We look forward to continuing our national tour of Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnách with our talented crew of VR hosts ensuring that the audience have as positive an experience as possible.The Out of the Ordinary/As an gNách facilitation team are:
Eoin O Sullivan, David Toolan, May Cahill, Donall Courtney, Adam O’Sullivan