Virtual Reality – Warbells

User research, art direction and technical development of VR experience for Vorarlberg Museum, Austria

Warbells VR or ‘Die Glocken herunter in eiserner Zeit’ (in German), was commissioned by Vorarlberg Museum as part of their exhibition about the history of church bells in rural Austria during World War 1.

The narrative and interactive VR experience features voiceover, spatial sound and 3D visuals to tell the story from the bell’s point-of-view. The Daydream Mirage Solo from Lenovo (6dof VR headset) and BOSE headphones make for an effective and accessible combination for public VR exhibitions.

Warbells was made in collaboration with Thomas Felfer PhD, Maf’j Alvarez (Root Interactive) and Andy Baker (Ixxy), as well as Anna Bertmark at Attic Sound. The exhibition  was on display between Dec 7th 2018 and March 17th 2019.

User Experience

Research on location

Andy and I took an initial trip to Austria with Thomas which allowed us to capture 360 photos and video inside the bell-towers, village, churches and museum atrium. This helped greatly when building the models. We also experienced the atrium space first-hand and discussed the project with all key stakeholders in the museum. We observed the flow of visitors and dynamic as well as experienced the audio space.

Ideation and storyboarding

Working together with Thomas, Andy and Anna we discussed constraints and audiences. At that time there was no wireless solution that would give us the 6 degrees of freedom that we would enjoy with tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. We knew that our audience was going to be a general museum audience with first time VR users, children, pensioners and school groups. Our piece would have to be no more than 10 minutes long and as intuitive as possible with a narrative non-branching mode of one-button interaction. It also had to allow for both tethered and allow for a mobile wireless version should the promised Lenovo Mirage solo become available. People also had to have the option of standing or sitting – we didn’t know how they wanted to use the space. We also knew that the subject matter was sensitive and potentially boring for children so how was that going to work?

The solution that I ideated in the end revolved around a simple vertical structure which I storyboarded over breakfast.

Use journey mapping

This idea was well received and I worked together with producer Michael Danks as a sounding board to think more carefully about the user journey and implications for interaction design using post-it notes.

The VR world layout

Using a vertical layout for our VR world meant we could move the camera up and down to the different parts of the experience. This meant that viewers wouldn’t need to move if they didn’t want to. It worked out to be a good plan.

Art direction

Both Andy and myself were captivated by the gradient mostly unlit look that we saw in Firewatch. We wanted to emulate this style with Warbells. Thinking into the future of mobile VR and possible headsets we were aiming at which would have less processing power, we felt that this approach would be both simpler to create assets for and easier to optimise for mobile headsets.

 

Developing an MVP

We had to agree on a small sample of the full experience to create for the MVP prototype. We selected a section in the middle which seemed to encapsulate the main theme of the piece and which would allow us to create the kind of aesthetic we wanted.

Narrative design

Taking the agreed user journey, I designed and recorded the narrative using the timeline feature of Unity3d. By changing the colour of the background I could evoke some of the emotional mood that I hoped to capture in the final design. We later used the central portion of this to create the final piece and hung all the other animation and sound design around it.

The final piece was translated into German and published onto the Lenovo Mirage Solo. Here is a low-res early English screen recording of the experience that we user tested at Tomtech.

User Testing at TomTech

The final piece was translated into German and published onto the Lenovo Mirage Solo. Here is a low-res early English screen recording of the experience that we user tested at Tomtech.

The Exhibition

The exhibition saw over 16,000 visitors pass through in the course of 3 months. The headsets proved reliable with no technical errors and audiences of all ages participated in the VR experience. Interestingly many children guided each other around the whole atrium which would mean that their experiences would have been very different from a person who stayed still sitting or standing on the spot. The headsets have now been moved to a small rural museum in the mountains where it will be shown for a few more months.

 

Info

Duration: 10 minutes

Status: Prototype

Audience: General – all ages

Dates: 5th October (All sessions), 6th October (Morning sessions)

Language: English

VR rig: Lenovo Mirage (standing or seated)

Space: 3m x 3m unobstructed space

View presentation

content development – Thomas Felfer
artistic direction – Maf’j Alvarez
technical development – Andy Baker
sound design – Anna Bertmark