— Directing Virtual Reality

Notes on Storyboarding for VR

Storyboarding in VR (like everything else VR) is an ever-changing, totally flexible art. How you do it really depends on what best suits your specific story / experience.

What’s fruitful to do first, no matter what your story/experience is, is to write out a user walkthrough. This should describe the experience — in detail — that at least one user might have from end-to-end (even if it’s not the only possible experience—which in VR it never is). I think it’s easiest to do this is by imagining that you just tried the experience and you’re retelling it to a friend. Make sure to take into account the physical presence of the user/viewer, and the emotion you are trying to elicit (if that’s appropriate). For instance:

I walked into a dark room and someone handed me a headset. When I put on the headset, it was dark for about 10 seconds. I heard a sound coming from the left headphone, so I looked to my left and I saw a video of shadowy figure. Suddenly, there was a burst of confetti from the ceiling, and at first it shocked me, but eventually there was 3d confetti flying all over the place and it was really amazing.

This allows for a few things things. First, it is the step one in clearing up any confusion about what is going on in the headset (and out of it). It also centers the experience around a user (which can be tricky, esp if you’re coming from film). Even if your user doesn’t have a role in the environment per se, VR is always an embodied experience. Last, if you are trying to make something with an emotional/story arc, this is a way to see what the core of that arc is.

If you’re going to be doing something in the realm of linear 360, a standard storyboard on paper can be super useful, with a sort of top down view like this one, that splits the circle into four quadrants, keeping in mind the lessons from Jessica Brillhart about how shots will align at the cuts. Feel free to annotate with text, and if you’re going to be moving the camera (virtual, or physical if you’re shooting with a 360) make sure to be clear about that.

(image from this awesome article on VRpop)

Always keep in mind that the user will only be seeing  only a portion of the entire environment, that matches the size of the field of view they are looking through (be it a headset, or panning on a screen), and that that field of view is ALWAYS dynamic (so it shouldn’t be thought of as a frame).

It may also be very useful — especially if you have an installation element (which to some degree, you ALWAYS do with VR)  like a controller that engages the physical body as WELL as the virtual body to show both the “in VR” and “out of VR” view. This can be especially important if the user is going to moving around (either in virtual or physical space) or controlling something with their hands.

To actually test a quick drawing out in a headset, you can draw something in photoshop on a 2:1 canvas (or even take a photo and scan) using something like this for reference. I wouldn’t worry too much about accounting for the top and bottom if you use this method (so you don’t have to worry about the distortion), unless looking up and down is integral to your story:

(image from tmarrinan’s github)

Pop it into premiere, edit it into a slideshow, and view it on a headset. It won’t be perfect (especially at the top and bottom), but it will be quick! This will give you some insight into stuff like blocking and timing if you’re making a linear experience.

For an even lower tech solution — or if you want to rapidly prototype something that may have some interaction, you can even get silly and try it with a really long sheet of poster paper that you tape into a cylindrical shape and hold around a user tester’s head. This affords mocking up some interactivity, too. For instance, if you want to change the scene once the viewer looks at the clock, you can wait till the viewer looks at the cake and then swap it out for the next cylinder.


(This would be an interesting thing to try for prototyping for stories you make using a tool like WondaVr, which allows for adding hotspots to that trigger cuts. If I recall correctly, Wonda might actually have built-in storyboarding, but sometimes paper does the trick in the earliest phases!)

Now, even if you test using the above method, adding interactivity means that you’re going to want to have a system diagram of some sort. I made this quick one using a tool called Gliffy. This is going to vary a lot depending on what your experience is, but having something like this (maybe even integrated WITH your scene) will be super helpful — AND it gives you a jumpstart in organizing your project in a way that is more code-able!


If you’re going to be working in true 3d (as in, with volumetric 3d models), and especially if your piece is highly interactive, you might want to think about storyboarding in 3d by using objects (legos work really well! — or just postit notes in a pinch) to represent the environment and the viewer. Write the properties of interactive objects on postits, then tap in to your inner child to do some ~*make believe*~. Can the users pick up the objects and move them? Do they play sound when they are picked up? Your storyboard can be a series of pictures of your make believe sesh, or even a video you can cherish forever.

(imagefrom sidlaurea.com)

There are also plenty of digital tools being developed for prototyping VR — some of which you make on your regular flat screen, some of which you can actually do IN VR. I find that tiltbrush is a great tool for brainstorming 3d spaces, or even 3d user interfaces. That’s for another post! And, to be honest there is nothing like the tried and true quickness of putting pen to paper.

The most important thing to remember is that even though the techniques differ from traditional storyboarding (and even from typical UX design, since physical reality plays such a critical role) — their use remains the same: to help refine your idea though really imagining it, to communicate  your idea effectively to your team and others, and to help you plan your next steps in production.

Excited for you all to share your methods!


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