August 4th, 2016 marked the lunch of Jaunt Publishing – opening one of world’s leading cinematic VR platforms to the global community of virtual reality creators. In the past months I had the privilege of working with Jaunt on testing and evolving this platform, having my film The Pull featured as one of select works in its first wave of content.

Jaunt is a curated ecosystem, featuring a number of awesome features that benefit creators: from integrated transcoding for multiple devices, to a single deep link URL, and presence on virtually every device out there.

The feature that I am personally most excited about is something I have been lobbying for with every publishing platform I worked with so far:

View Heatmaps

The feature generates a visual representation of where the viewers are looking in my video at any given time. Presented as a colorful overlay, red indicates most popular spots, blue – just a few people looking, and black – no viewer engagement.

Why is it such a big deal?

Virtual Reality is a very young, mostly unexplored medium. Each new production is another experiment. While we are slowly developing lists of best practices and things to avoid – they are often built on anecdotal evidence, susceptible to creators’ biases and preconceived notions. With heatmaps, any creator gains access to actual, empirical evidence and statistical data on how thousands of viewers experience the content.

In an earlier article on the making of The Pull I discussed a number of theories and methods I used to direct the audience’s attention. Until now I was only able to observe how people react and interact with my work through a very small sample – private screenings, festivals, friends. Today, I am able to finally validate my assumptions and see what worked and what did not.

Drawing attention

One of worst nightmares for any VR creator is seeing their audience uncomfortable, nauseous, or flat out vomiting – as a reaction to experiencing your art. (Come to think about it, that’s probably valid for most artists). When deciding to use spinning motion as a transition between scenes in The Pull I knew I am taking that risk. My solution was to use a static UI element to draw audience’s attention and give their eyes something to latch on while the environment spins around.

I got a lot of conflicting feedback on whether it worked or not. Majority of viewers reported spinning as a non-issue, but some still experienced disorientation. Here’s what happens when the title pops up:

"The Pull" Heatmap: Title Drawing Attention

Through a combination of high-contrast typography and focused movement, the title becomes the most interesting element on the screen, drawing the majority of views towards it. In addition, desaturation and darkening of peripheral regions renders them less attractive to look at – again, motivating the audience to look straight ahead.

The method is not 100% proof. In later, more complex scenes there usually remains a small group of viewers who don’t shift their gaze onto the title. Generally though, once they do look at it, they remain focused on the text, ignoring the side-effects of spinning environment.

In other words: There is a minority of people who don’t grab the railing, but the ones that do – don’t fall over when the room spins.

The Rule of 120°

Many Virtual Reality experiences surround the camera with content distributed all around the scene, expecting it will be discovered over multiple play-throughs. While this was my first instinct, too, when first experimenting with the medium, over time I realized that the actual active region of interest is far from 360°, and actually closer to 120° – a third of available horizontal area.

120° is the field of view we can comfortably scan with only minimal head movements, while generally facing forward. It is not only more comfortable, but also highly preferred in certain scenarios – such as experiencing VR while seated in an armchair, or an airplane seat.

"The Pull" Heatmap: FoV contained to 120°
"The Pull" Heatmap: FoV contained to 120°

As seen in the image above, vast majority of the audience will maintain looking ahead as long as there’s enough interesting action happening on the screen.

The creator can motivate the viewers to look in other directions by shifting the focal point of the action, but once re-oriented, it is best to let them establish new “comfort zone”, rather than turning the film into an uncomfortable neck exercise.

Another situation in which you will see the audience looking around would be of their own volition. This kind of behavior, generally indicates lack of proper content direction – either presenting nothing of interest, or overcrowding the scene with too many things to see. In either cases, lack of directed focus results in audience randomly wandering around the scene in search of something they are “supposed to be looking at”.

Follow the Pumpkin

This one is not so much of validating a theory, as it is just something fun I noticed. In the scene with the dinner table, majority of the audiences will keep their eyes on the spinning furniture.

A smaller, but significant group though, follows a “rebel satellite pumpkin” that shoots out to the left and does a fairly close camera fly-by. Now I understand what those Whoas! were about 🙂

"The Pull" Heatmap: Follow the Pumpkin

The Credit Roll

The last scene of The Pull is designed to take you by surprise. I certainly hope you watched the film already – otherwise I am going to spoil it for you.

I placed the entirety of the film within a tight, confined space to get the audience used to a room-scale experience. When the VW minibus shatters the confines of the room, it opens and expands the stage into seemingly infinite star field.

This shift in the scale makes viewers latch onto the minibus – the last remaining element of the familiar scene, as it tumbles away into space. The need to maintain eye contact with the car was something I was hoping to achieve, but it brings a side-effect:

The audience is so invested in tracking the minibus, I was unsure whether they will notice the credits rolling by. From the vanity and recognition standpoint, it would be a shame if they did not know who built the very experience they just had!

"The Pull" Heatmap: Switching Focus to Titles

With Jaunt’s heatmaps I was, for the very first time, able to see what is truly happening. There is a small portion of the audience who never take their eyes off the minibus and completely miss my name, moving the gaze only when the credits for the audio team roll by (these are much larger and harder to miss). Majority of the viewers do see the credits, fortunately – quickly shifting their gaze from the car (top of the frame) to the title (center).

I guess I could have made the credits draw more attention by altering their size, positioning and animation – but in the end I did not want to plaster QUBA\VR logo all over the experience. Sometimes the integrity of experience is more important than a few pairs of eyeballs on your branding.

Looking Forward

Integration of view heatmaps is a great addition to an already stellar Jaunt platform. Looking forward, there are a few features I’d love to see implemented.

As an author, I’d like to be able to download the data used to generate the heatmaps in a numeric form. It could be used to curate dome projections, flat media renders and drive all manner of generative experiences.

I’d like to have the tools to filter the data set based on devices used to consume the content as well as on the demographics. I noticed that when I move the object of interest from front to the back directly above the viewer – majority of the people turn over the right shoulder, while some do so over the left one. I have a snaking suspicion it may have something to do with left- and right-handedness, but could never get a test sample large enough to validate it!

Finally, I’d love to see heatmaps become a standard feature in all platforms and players supporting 360° and VR content. Such feature would be extremely valuable, especially in test screenings, and now that Jaunt made the first step, I can’t wait for the other services to follow suit.

For those interested, here is the entirety of The Pull with the heatmap overlay – generated based on all views accumulated until August 4th, 2016.

"The Pull" Heatmap
"The Pull" Heatmap

Double-Edged Sword

We live in the era when analytics took over majority of media. Clicks, views and likes became the metrics that are easy to access, measure and validate. Many authors abandoned the pursuit of art and creativity, blindly following the statistics representing “the will of the crowd”.

View heatmaps are an incredibly useful tool in understanding how audiences engage our content. As authors however, we should be very careful in how we interpret this data and how it influences our creative process. I have no doubts, that sooner or later someone will figure out the exact mathematical formula for maximum viewer retention and we will experience an influx of VR content produced by-the-numbers in a way similar to how media is over-saturated with articles and videos based on the Top X most amazing Y, you never heard of. Number 7 will shock you template.

After all, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995) scored terribly in all test screenings and was almost pulled from release before becoming a world-wide phenomenon, while Henry Ford allegedly once stated: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.