Experiments with Scale
Notion of scale in VR was one of the key questions of my research-creation: Narrative Affordances of Scale in VR: Remediating Iranian Traditional Storytelling in VR. My argument was that the medium-specific particularities of VR makes perception of scale unique when compared to frame-based mediums. Beside many VR and non-VR case studies I gathered in this research around the scale and its narrative affordances, I also did my very first experiments in VR on the same question. I used a particular model of immersion as a framework for these experiments, namely SCI proposed in the paper: Fundamental Components of the Gameplay Experience: Analysing Immersion (Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005).
It is not a VR-specific model, and the components by which the sense of immersion is leveraged in the video games are examined under three main categories, namely: Sensory, Challenge-based and Imaginative modes of immersion (SCI model). My objective was to examine how scale could leverage the sense of immersion under each category.
Experiment 1: PlanetS | Size Differences
For the first experiment, I chose to visualize the solar system as it is a domain of extreme scale differences. The idea was to examine the sensory effects of encountering the familiar planets with relatively correct proportions in the same space. It was specially designed to observe how visceral the reaction would be when confronted with the Sun which is massively larger than all other objects. Such a huge difference is perhaps the main reason why we usually don’t see their relative sizes (and distances) accurately depicted in books and other flat-screen mediums and even inside the physical museums.
It was interesting to see some playtesters (from faculty/cohorts) wanting to grasp the planets with both hands or bend over or underneath them, which could be considered a proof of a sensory immersion. There was a clear level of astonishment when the Sun was revealed but not really that visceral reaction I was anticipating. For some, the giant surrounding walls felt like frames of a big poster of the Sun. Also the visibility of the text I used is not occluded by any object and its size stays the same, regardless of how far the Sun is positioned. This might be another reason why it was not perceived as large as it really was. Perhaps the more emphasized atmospheric effects like haze could have magnified the scale and depth cues too. I later experienced a successful example of the visceral impact I was trying to achieve in Irrational Exuberance: Prologue (Buffalo Vision, 2017) where you find yourself in a small cave-like room at the beginning. It is only by breaking the walls around you that you suddenly see a colossal planet behind and realize that the room is actually floating in outer space.
You can download the executable file by clicking on the download button. SteamVR is needed. It was tested on Vive, Windows Mixed Reality and Quest 2 (using the link cable).
Experiment 2: Gates | Multiple Scales of Embodiment
The idea behind my second experiment was to let the player interactively change their own size and experience the same scene through multiple scales. The objective was not to design a challenge but it was to go beyond the sensory immersion and start toying with scale of embodiment as an interactive element. It started with creating a desert-like scene in Unity which was then covered with a gigantic open structure consisting of several inclined columns. I scaled a duplicate of the same structure down and placed it on a tiny area of the desert. It was under this inner structure where the player was spawned at the beginning with the default scale. Then I imported four random but well-known historical sculptures from the Sketchfab online 3D library and placed them on four sides of the inner area. Four gates were placed on each side, facing towards the sculptures.
I enlarged two of the sculptures into massive scales and placed them in distance and kept the other two as tall as the player and much closer. The idea was to make the gates behave like portals; by stepping in the ones facing the giant sculptures you get as big and teleported next to them. By entering those facing the standard sized sculptures, you get tiny and teleported beneath them which now appear so gigantic. To be able to return back to the original spot/scale I also placed four returning gates.
The first thing I learned from the feedback of the playtesters was that the change of scale of virtual embodiment is not always easily recognizable. It is perhaps because of the fact that a sudden change of size is not a familiar experience in the physical world. One solution is to place some scale cues in the scene. I populated the desert with palm trees and it was convincing. I also added audio cues; the sound pitch of the ambient music and sound effects gets lower when the player gets big, and vice versa when they get small. Also I realized that the initial scale of the player matters as it will presumably be perceived as their default/original scale. Another idea to punctuate the change of scale was to make the scale animation visible instead of obscuring it behind a fade-to black dissolve that was the case in this experiment. This was tested and discussed in a final experimentation of the research.
Experiment 3_a: Light Sight | Shot-framing in VR
I was curious to see how it feels to encounter the humanoid 3D character of my short animation Light Sight (2016) in VR and in different scales. One of my attempts in that film was to magnify the feelings with the use of appropriate shot-framings and camera angles. For this experiment, I selected three parts of the film in which the character is in three distinct emotional statuses: a) curious and wondered, b) arrogant and thrilled, c) broken and sad. The following shot angles/framings were used in the film for each of these parts respectively: eye level (medium/fullshot), low-angle (long-shot), high-angle (close-up). These parts were imported into Unity in FBX file format and in three different scenes of three various scales.
In the first scenario where the character has a similar size as yours, it feels like your engagement with them is more cognitive rather than emotional; as if you are occupying the same space with similar power dynamics and are ready to start a dialogue. This could feel physically intimate and hence easily uncomfortable. That was the response I also witnessed from a few people who tried it; “oh he’s looking at me!” and some even stepped back a bit. In the second scenario where the character is roughly six times smaller than you, a strong feel of pathos and care was provoked. You are given a dominant view and power over the character and I found this size relationship functioning very much like a close-up shot in cinema, that is especially effective for emotional stories. In the last scenario of this experiment, you are almost fifty times smaller than the character who is arrogantly jumping around. Unlike the previous cases, your proximity to the large-scale character has a way more significant effect on how big you perceive them. To avoid the need for a long-way travel to see these differences, I added a very slow dolly movement to the camera position which takes the player from a corner of the room (that is also enlarged) to right below the character’s feet. I found this scale relationship behaving very much like a long-shot when the big character is far enough, as it similarly encourages you to look around and see the character in relation to its surroundings. But it never feels like a close-up shot even when you are so close to the character. In fact, the sensory and visceral impact surpasses the imaginative engagement. “I’m about to be smashed under his huge feet!” is a typical comment.
Experiment 3_b: Self-Encounter
Exaggeration and manipulation of scale for even merely static characters could deepen the imaginative immersion, as it amplifies the surrealism and fictitious aspect of the atmosphere. I am referring to spatially-dominant narratives (like in a museum) that are not as linear as a film and not as interactive as a game. Inspired by works of Ron Mueck, I did another experiment in VR. His works are perhaps the best examples of how manipulation of the scale of a human figure scale could incite emotions in a spatial experience. It seems that the magically poignant feeling about most of his works relies on the contradictory use of scale, very much like the contrapuntal technique in composing a film score. Scales of his figures contradict their gestures and facial expressions; the bigger they are the more vulnerable and intimidated they seem to be. I chose the most familiar object to myself, my own body to be replicated in front of me in three different scales and gestures. To reach a similar level of detail as in Mueck’s works I used the photogrammetry technique to scan myself using a cellphone camera and generate the 3D mesh via Meshroom software. I then exported the high-poly models to Blender and optimized them, which didn’t turn out so polished. Imported into unity, I started scaling and arranging all three models in one scene.
They all felt to me like papier-mâché sculptures at first glance, apparently for the lack of detail and movement. But surprisingly, it was my default scale body which provoked the most peculiar feeling. I have not experienced walking around a mummified myself previously, and perhaps no other medium is able to simulate such a literally out of body experience. The thing I clearly noticed was that I have a misperception of my own size in reality, and realized that my body occupies a larger physical space than what I thought.