HowTo: Create Immersive 3D/VR Scenes and Albums

Posted 2017-08-29

While 3D experiences can be vast, hours-long experiences, there are a few steps you can take to help your viewers immerse themselves in smaller experiences. This obviously applies to, but it's good to consider in general.

Light White Noise

Make sure to include sound. Have you ever played a beta game or demo virtual reality experience that doesn't include sound? It creates a strange, empty feeling. If I listen to the sounds while I sit and write this at home, I have a TV show on in the background, but can also hear a chirping (strange, crickets in Los Angeles), and the background cars driving on the nearest large street, including the roar of the occasional speeding car.

Including audio in your scene is important, but it can be hard to record on your own. It's good to make a note to try recording audio of wherever you're creating a scene from, but the quality of phone audio may not be up to your standards. When I create scenes, I look for free sounds (attribution not required, in many cases) that will provide a background similar to my experience. I'm still looking for better sources, but works for now.

We want to find useful sounds to our visitors. Our plan is to include options like: water (waves crashing, rain, trickling streams), city (cars, people), other nature (crickets, wind), and music (from relaxing classical to upbeat/intense). We'll also work to include attribution in-album for those sounds that require it and fit perfectly. But don't hesitate to try to create your own completely authentic experience!

Create a Sky

Photosphere is the name given to 360 degree photos. Many people are unaware that Google (and probably other companies) have built apps that allow you to create them with your iPhone or Android smartphone. If you've seen a 360 photo on Facebook or watched a video on YouTube, you've probably noticed how much more interesting they are in some cases compared to a regular photo. When you view them in VR, that excitement goes to another level. Suddenly, mountains and trees tower over you, when a regular photo a friend took is constantly explained as "well, you have no idea, it's so incredible when you're there!" The first time I looked up in virtual reality, I was sold.

You have quite a few options to create a 360 photo, and be prepared for how inexpensive it is! If you've got 5 minutes, you can create one free with your iPhone or Android device. With Android, the tool is usually built right in to the camera app. On iOS, there are a few options, but I would start with the Google StreetView app to create your own. Got a little money and want it faster? There are a boat-load of cameras on Amazon that will take photospheres, both pictures and videos. Looking right now, there's one listed at $70 USD! But just to be clear, you will get what you pay for. The more costly cameras usually create much better photos.

Here's a quick run-down:

  • Phone Apps are great. They create high-quality photospheres and don't cost a penny. The downside is that they're time-consuming, and a scene with a lot of movement can get chopped in weird ways because the software can't detect how to stitch each image together.
    My advice: Definitely try this! It's just fun to do occasionally, and people will point and laugh as you spin your body and tilt your head.
  • Low-end "VR" cameras are quick and cost-effective. You'll get the shot, but expect 2 things to bother you pretty quickly (speaking from experience):
    • The picture is going to be low quality. Those crazy megapixel numbers may sound awesome, but they're stretching them over a large surface!
    • A black circle at the bottom. Those fish-eye lenses aren't magic, and they can't see under the base of the camera, which creates a large black ring at the bottom of your image. This is not a huge deal as that's usually where your feet are, but it can be pretty limiting nonetheless.
  • High-end cameras will set you back. I haven't personally tried one, but I've seen amazing videos of these in action, and you can see the difference from the low end.

There are new projects and devices coming out to build depth into these images. And while you already get a sense of height and distance from a photosphere, the true depth coming in the future will be incredible (and probably going to require a bunch of work to get working with them cheeky). My advice is to get out and start experimenting with photospheres, so you understand the problems described, and so you can feel the immersion for yourself!

Last Thoughts

Everything you add to a scene adds an additional layer of depth and heightens the experience. We discussed audio and photospheres here, but that's just the beginning. Here are some other layers we're building, or at least thinking about:

  • Rain: It's already in our beta. Those falling droplets are great in the right scene!
  • Fog: Similar to rain, we've tested a bit and haven't had much luck, but will definitely be working on this more.
  • Buildings and landscapes: Adding a building (for example, a museum with your photos) or an outdoor cabana with your pictures on display as waves crash.
  • VR: Just to mention it, everything mentioned here applies to 3D scenes. But when someone jumps in to VR and feels like they're there, the fun and excitement increases. And it continues on with additional VR elements, like tracking head movement and arms!