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Narrative Affordances of Scale in VR: Remediating Traditional Iranian Storytelling

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Narrative Affordances of Scale in VR: Remediating Traditional Iranian Storytelling Seyed Moslem Tabatabaei Virtual Reality is turning into a major and more accessible medium to spatial, interactive and linear narrators, aka architects, game designers and filmmakers. This research-creation is conducted with two main objectives: First, to investigate the unique narrative possibilities that VR affords as a result of its medium-specific perceptual cues of scale. Second, to utilize the notion of scale in designing a remediated experience of a traditional screen-based form of storytelling in the Iranian culture known as Pardeh-Khani (literally translated as: reading off curtain/screen). In response to the first objective, possible ways that scale could leverage three distinct forms of immersion in VR were scrutinized under three isolated experiments. Also a broad range of VR and non-VR cases, from cinematic to fully interactive games which revolve around the idea of scale were studied. The key takeaway was that exploiting a dynamic scale of virtual embodiment could lead to spatial experiences, gameplay mechanics and cinematic communications particular to VR. Following the second objective, M.C Escher's Relativity (1953) became a key inspirational source for designing an impossible architecture which incorporates a malleable scale of embodiment but also hosts the spatiotemporal ritual of Pardeh-Khani. The challenges of and possible solutions for designing the navigational structure of a surreal spatial experience in a room-scale VR are discussed in detail. This research-creation explores the medium-specificities of VR with a multidisciplinary approach from one side, and from the other side, it raises the awareness about a marginalized tradition of storytelling through the lens of cutting-edge technology of VR.
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I
Narrative Affordances of Scale in VR:
Remediating Traditional Iranian Storytelling
Seyed Moslem Tabatabaei
A Thesis
in
The Department
of
Design and Computation Arts
Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
For the Degree of Master of Design at
Concordia University
Montréal, Québec, Canada
November 2020
© Seyed Moslem Tabatabaei, 2020
II
Abstract
Narrative Affordances of Scale in VR:
Remediating Traditional Iranian Storytelling
Seyed Moslem Tabatabaei
Virtual Reality is turning into a major and more accessible medium to spatial, interactive and linear
narrators, aka architects, game designers and filmmakers. This research-creation is conducted with
two main objectives: First, to investigate the unique narrative possibilities that VR affords as a
result of its medium-specific perceptual cues of scale. Second, to utilize the notion of scale in
designing a remediated experience of a traditional screen-based form of storytelling in the Iranian
culture known as Pardeh-Khani (literally translated as: reading off curtain/screen). In response to
the first objective, possible ways that scale could leverage three distinct forms of immersion in VR
were scrutinized under three isolated experiments. Also a broad range of VR and non-VR cases,
from cinematic to fully interactive games which revolve around the idea of scale were studied. The
key takeaway was that exploiting a dynamic scale of virtual embodiment could lead to spatial
experiences, gameplay mechanics and cinematic communications particular to VR. Following the
second objective, M.C Escher’s Relativity (1953) became a key inspirational source for designing
an impossible architecture which incorporates a malleable scale of embodiment but also hosts the
spatiotemporal ritual of Pardeh-Khani. The challenges of and possible solutions for designing the
navigational structure of a surreal spatial experience in a room-scale VR are discussed in detail.
This research-creation explores the medium-specificities of VR with a multidisciplinary approach
from one side, and from the other side, it raises the awareness about a marginalized tradition of
storytelling through the lens of cutting-edge technology of VR.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Immersion, Scale, Virtual Embodiment, Remediation, Pardeh-Khani,
Traditional Storytelling, Spatial Narrative, M.C. Escher
III
Acknowledgments
I would like to first thank my supervisor Dr. Jonathan Lessard who consistently supported me
throughout this academic journey with his insightful and thorough feedback on both research and
creation parts of the project. I would also like to thank two other members of the Thesis Advisory
Committee, Dr. Pippin Barr and Dr. Rilla Khaled for providing constructive criticism and fruitful
conversations on the defence day as well as many other occasions in the past few years. I wish to
thank all other members from the Department of Design and Computation Arts, especially the
Graduate Program Director Dr. Martin Racine who most importantly eased my academic
integration into the Master of Design Program.
This project won the Hexagram Student Members Grant in 2018 and the monetary award greatly
advanced bringing a number of collaborators on board in a professional fashion. I would like to
thank Maryam Tabatabaei who helped me create the artworks, and Mahdi Sadri and Gerald
Alvarez who assisted me in addressing the technical challenges of the project. I wish to express
my deepest gratitude to members of the Sensor Lab especially Elio Bidinost and members of the
Milieux institute especially Marc Beaulieu who generously provided me with technical support
and facilities along the way. Thank you to members of Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG)
especially Enric Llagostera for playtesting different iterations and sharing thought-provoking
ideas. I would also like to recognize the support of the Teaching and Research Librarian John
Latour from the Faculty of Fine Arts who kindly supplied me with some of the key literature I
needed for this research.
Thank you to my colleagues, family and friends whose supportive presence boosted my motivation
especially in difficult times. Thank you to Saeed Alvandi, Ali Azizi, Lupe Pérez, Patil
Tchilinguirian and Joe Thibodeau for sharing invaluable thoughts and positive vibes. Most
importantly, thank you to my patient wife Simin Farrokh Ahmadi. Without her constant
encouragement and professional support, this academic quest would have been impossible.
IV
Table of Contents
List of Figures ............................................................................................................................................. V
Chapter 1 | Introduction ............................................................................................................................. 1
Chapter 2 | Question of Scale ..................................................................................................................... 4
Scale in Screen-Based Games (Non-VR) .................................................................................................. 6
Chapter 3 | Scale in VR ............................................................................................................................ 10
SCI Model of Immersion ......................................................................................................................... 13
Scale and Sensory Immersion 15
Experiment 1: PlanetS | Size Differences ....................................................................................... 15
Scale and Challenge-based Immersion 18
Scale of surrounding entities ........................................................................................................... 19
Scale of the player's virtual embodiment ........................................................................................ 21
Scale and Imaginative Immersion 27
Static Characters in Spatial Narratives ............................................................................................ 27
Moving characters in Linear Narratives (Cinematic VR) ............................................................... 29
Player/Non-Player characters in Interactive Narratives (VR Games) ............................................. 34
Chapter 4 | Remediation of Pardeh-Khani (7Pardeh) ........................................................................... 37
Exploration of Iranian Historical/Cultural Facets ................................................................................. 37
Qahveh-Khaneh (traditional coffeehouse) 39
Pardeh-Khani 40
1st Iteration: Typical Qahveh-Khaneh ................................................................................................... 42
M.C. Escher 46
2nd Iteration: Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh .......................................................................................... 48
Navigation mechanics ............................................................................................................................. 50
Honing the Rules and Restrictions 51
Playtests 54
Revisions of the Navigation Mechanics 57
Temporal Structure ................................................................................................................................. 60
Shahnameh: Story of Haft Khan_e Rostam 61
Development of the 2D Artworks 62
Development of the 3D Artworks 65
Interaction with Pardeh 68
Remaining Steps: Performance of the Naqqāl and Other Agencies 71
Chapter 5 | Conclusion ............................................................................................................................. 73
V
List of Figures
Fig 1. Ebbinghaus Illusion ............................................................................................................................................. 4
Fig 2. Scale (Good Job Games, 2017) ........................................................................................................................... 6
Fig 3. Stack (Ketchapp, 2016) ....................................................................................................................................... 6
Fig 4. Superliminal (Pillow Castle, 2019) ..................................................................................................................... 9
Fig 5. Experiment 1: PlanetS. ...................................................................................................................................... 15
Fig 6. SPHERES (Eliza McNitt, 2018) ........................................................................................................................ 17
Fig 7. Liquid Perceptions (Milieux Immersive Reality Lab, 2019) ............................................................................. 20
Fig 8. Fisherman's Tale (InnerspaceVR, 2018) ........................................................................................................... 23
Fig 9. Experiment 2: Gates (Structure). ....................................................................................................................... 25
Fig 10. Experiment 2: Gates (Mechanic). .................................................................................................................... 26
Fig 11. Ron Mueck’s hyper-realistic sculptures .......................................................................................................... 28
Fig 12. Self Portrait Photogrammetry. ......................................................................................................................... 29
Fig 13. Dear Angelica (Oculus Story Studio, 2017) .................................................................................................... 31
Fig 14. Experiment 3 (Light Sight in VR). .................................................................................................................. 32
Fig 15. Moss (Polyarc, 2018) ...................................................................................................................................... 36
Fig 16. The Last Guardian VR (Team Ico, 2017) ........................................................................................................ 36
Fig 17. Typical Qahveh-Khaneh Plan.......................................................................................................................... 43
Fig 18. 1st Iteration Qahveh-Khaneh. .......................................................................................................................... 44
Fig 19. Mind Maps: Experience Levels ....................................................................................................................... 45
Fig 20. 2nd Iteration (Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh). ................................................................................................. 48
Fig 21. Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh (Without Details) ............................................................................................. 49
Fig 22. Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh (Architectural Details) ..................................................................................... 49
Fig 23. Navigation Possibilities ................................................................................................................................... 52
Fig 24. Navigation Rules. ............................................................................................................................................ 52
Fig 25. Teleportation Points. ....................................................................................................................................... 53
Fig 26. Teleportation Laser-Beam Collision ............................................................................................................... 55
Fig 27. Playtest Session (Seniors) ............................................................................................................................... 56
Fig 28. Research Exhibition (Maquette) ...................................................................................................................... 57
Fig 29. Scale Mechanic (Iteration_1) .......................................................................................................................... 58
Fig 30. Scale Mechanic (Iteration_2) .......................................................................................................................... 60
Fig 31. Rostam’s Haft Khan | It consists of 7 distinct events which occur in a chronological order. .......................... 62
Fig 32. Character Sheet ............................................................................................................................................... 63
Fig 33. Early Thumbnails ............................................................................................................................................ 63
Fig 34. Pardeh Aesthetics ............................................................................................................................................ 63
Fig 35. Single-frame Pardeh(s) .................................................................................................................................... 64
Fig 36. Visual Style Options ........................................................................................................................................ 66
Fig 37. 3D Artworks .................................................................................................................................................... 66
Fig 38. 3D Artworks (Main Composition) .................................................................................................................. 67
Fig 39. 3D Armatures .................................................................................................................................................. 68
Fig 40. Blend of 2D/3D Space Inspiration (Non-VR) ................................................................................................. 69
Fig 41. Interaction with 2D Pardeh (Left) ................................................................................................................... 70
Fig 42. Interaction with 3D Artworks (Right) ............................................................................................................. 70
Fig 43. Voiceover Timeline ......................................................................................................................................... 73
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Chapter 1 | Introduction
Because of its strong potential for immersion, VR has been a major focus of research and creation
for various disciplines of art, design and storytelling. The increasing accessibility of VR
technology, especially in the past few years, has encouraged the publication of a great variety of
content providing ample material for both researchers and creators
1
. Having a background in
architecture and 3D animation, it seemed natural for me to move on to the immersive mediums
and VR in particular, which incorporates both visual and spatial features. My initial line of inquiry
was if and how my architectural design and storytelling skills could be synchronized with the
particularities of VR to tell immersive stories.
Immersion has been so frequently used as a commercial buzzword that it has somewhat lost any
precise meaning. However, dismissing immersion in the academic discourse on VR appears to me
like neglecting God in a religious school. After all, VR has been promising the highest level of
immersion for a long time and it is now bringing a variety of specialities together, to whom the
term immersion is not necessarily interpreted the same way. It is because the objectives, priorities
and use cases could be completely different for each discipline: architects are attracted to this
medium for the hope of sharing a more true-to-life simulation of the spatial experience of their
projects to their clients, filmmakers seek for a more immediate presence of their audience in the
story world and closer connection to its character, as for game designers and software engineers,
intuitive and natural interactions of the players/users also becomes an important factor in how they
define immersion.
Immersion is sometimes interchangeably used with other abstract terms like presence and
transportation. Burcu Dogramaci & Fabienne Liptay, editors of the book Immersion in the Visual
Arts and Media (2016) introduce the term immersion as “any act or experience of plunging into
something, without necessarily applying to computer-generated virtual environments.” (1) They
draw upon the notion of the liquid spaces which appeared before the creation of digital/virtual
spaces; which is the idea of the images as windows or mirrors through which the viewer is invited
1
Due to the urgency of remote communications as a result of the global pandemic, social interactions
through VR have started to make even more sense.
2
to immerse themselves into the liquid spaces of the artworks (2). This brings to mind the “Logic
of Transparent Immediacy coined by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in the book
Remediation: Understanding New Media (1999). They describe this logic as one of the
preoccupations of the contemporary media which attempts to efface the medium interface and to
produce experiences without mediation. VR is considered as the manifestation of this logic whose
purpose is to disappear. They remind us that the same desire (of creating a transparent interface)
existed throughout the evolution of older mediums like painting and photography. The technique
of linear perspective in particular was a major but not a sufficient step in dissolving the picture
into the reality around the canvas (24-25).
A similar concept to immersion in terms of complexity and ambiguity is realism which has been
one of the most debated notions in cinema. In the cinematic discourse, the idea of a perfect realism
(a full immersion) is usually linked to the notion of the “myth of total cinema” coined by well-
known film theorist André Bazin. He considers the evolution of cinema a response to an ongoing
desire for “reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color, and relief”
(Bazin in Prümm, 2016 :142). Like immersion, various types of realism have been introduced by
different film theorists throughout the history of cinema, each trying to explain the formal and
social elements which could transport the audience into the fictional world. I found the concept of
perceptual realism first coined by Stephen Prince (1996) very helpful in developing the initial
question of this research. As opposed to photo realism which solely relies on photo-indexical
references, perceptual realism is created from any signifier from the virtual world which anchors
the spectator to the audiovisual experience of their daily life in a real three-dimensional space (not
only to the photographed images). These signifiers are referred to as perceptual cues by Prince.
Inspired by the notion of perceptual realism, my first major objective was to explore the VR-
specific perceptual cues that could leverage the sense of immersion. After experiencing different
VR contents, it became evident to me that there is something special about how we perceive scale
in VR. My assumption was that the manipulation of scale of the entities in VR could bring about
unique narrative affordances. In other words, I believed that the medium-specificity of VR possibly
relied on the notion of scale. My two main methods for examining this assumption have been
comparative case-studies and prototyping with scale in VR. Besides my own reflections in a form
3
of autoethnography, feedback from those who tested the experiments along the way are what
shapes the core of my discussions. I have been documenting the takeaways of each major playtest
session as well as meetings I had with the collaborators who helped me program the interactions
and create the artwork assets.
Fundamental Components of the Gameplay Experience: Analysing Immersion (2005) by Laura
Ermi and Frans Mäyrä was a key literature for creating a framework under which I could channel
my case-studies, and start early experiments with scale in VR. Among different forms of
immersion, I found their proposed model simple yet overarching which as a result allowed analysis
of the scale in a wide variety of VR narratives that each engage the experiencer differently. In the
next chapter (2nd), I will elaborate on the question of scale; why I find our perception of scale in
VR different than in other screen-based forms of representation. Then I will go through some of
the use-cases of scale in non-VR mediums and games in particular. In the third chapter, I will first
overview some of the technological distinctions of VR which affect our perceptual cues of scale.
Then, I will focus on VR examples which have exploited scale in one way or another.
The second objective of this project was to utilize the specificities of VR and narrative affordances
of scale in particular, to create a standalone prototype which merges facets of linear and spatial
narratives. Even before delving into VR and raising the question of scale, I was musing how the
mediation of Augmented Reality (AR) could manipulate the architecture of Hijimi Museum of
Literature (Tadao Ando, 1991) and make it an ideal place to experience the sequences of Spirited
Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) one by one. Is there any need to alter the physical architecture
and/or the story and its cinematic direction in order to mix these realities more naturally? After I
decided to focus only on VR and skip AR and other immersive mediums, still I needed to answer
questions like: what genres of screen-based contents and what kinds of architectural spaces are
ideal for the amalgamation of spatial and linear narratives in VR?
Eventually, I went for the remediation of a traditional screen-based form of storytelling in Iran
known as Pardeh-Khani which is now almost extinct. In the fourth chapter, I will first explain how
Iranian traditional culture became my main source of inspiration. Then I will discuss how M.C.
Escher works and Relativity (1953) in particular came to inspire the design of a VR-specific space
4
which also suits Pardeh-Khani. And finally I will go through the steps that have been taken to
mold the temporal structure of the experience, and will conclude the chapter with the questions yet
to be answered.
Chapter 2 | Question of Scale
Scale in its spatial sense is the relative size of things. It is our understanding of how much space
objects occupy in relation to ourselves, to each other and to their surrounding space. Scale is
generally a fixed parameter in the real world and we don't notice objects' change of size as much
as we see them move and rotate. Change of objects' volume usually occurs gradually and through
the slow and organic processes of metamorphosis or erosion in the physical world. Scale is
relational and the Ebbinghaus Illusion (fig.1) is a proof that without measuring tools, our
perception of scale is completely relative. So we compare the scale of things in relation to a
reference. In the physical world, there are objects that have become our perceptual yardsticks by
which we comprehend the scale of everything else. The size of our body is perhaps our first and
foremost benchmark. But other natural bodies like trees as well as some of our own artifacts like
furniture and vehicles come to assist. It is the relativity and invariability of scale which make its
exaggeration and manipulation in the physical space evoke strange emotions and communicate
certain meanings.
Fig 1. Ebbinghaus Illusion | An optical illusion also known as Titchener circles in which’... a circle surrounded by other circles
will appear smaller if the surrounding circles are enlarged...’ (Barile, n.d.). Image retrieved from:
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ebbinghaus_illusion&oldid=981656398
5
There are plenty of architectural examples, sculptures, urban installations and land arts whose
popularity is mostly warranted by their unusual scales. Sacred spaces and statues are the classic
examples of overemphasized use of scales usually to make visitors awed and impressed. The
contemporary examples are those usually referred to as novelty architectures, in which the building
literally takes its form from a familiar object of a totally different size. The Big Basket building
(Longaberger Company, 1997, Ohio) is a good example in which scale is used merely as an
advertisement tool. Oversized sculptures of Claes Oldenburg like Floor Burger (1962), are the
examples of scale serving critical practices in a satirical form. The unusual scales of the physical
objects and spaces play a significant role in creating landmarks and shaping the memories of a
place.
Our understating of scale in analog/tangible mediums of representation (a 2D painting for
instance), is affected by our mental image of the represented subject. But it is also the physical
frame of the canvas that impart in shaping our perception of scale. In the architectural and
engineering drawings which are typically printed on standard-sized papers, the scale of the
represented building has a standard ratio relative to its real world equivalent, and this ratio is
annotated typically in the form of scale bar. Scale bars as well as the drawn figures (human, car,
tree, tiles, etc.) act as scale references by which we could better estimate the size of the real artifact.
In screen-based mediums (ex. cinema), the scale of the represented entity becomes dynamic. Still
a frame (screen borders) with a quite standard size and aspect ratio remains as the main reference
to our perception. Actually, the size of recorded entities in front of the camera relative to the screen
frame is known as field size which is one of the fundamental components of the cinematic
language. Close-ups, Medium Shots and Long Shots are the three primary ranges of the field size.
Technically speaking, field size is created from a combination of the camera's field of view (FOV)
and the distance it has from the entities (depth). Field size could be considered a
compositional/spatial use of scale, but when it is set in motion (i.e. zooming effect) it also
contributes to the temporal scale.
Scale in the digital/interactive mediums is the third transformation attribute after movement and
rotation in the Cartesian coordinate system of the virtual space. The fact that virtual objects/spaces
6
are no more camera-recorded in Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI) but fully simulated, makes their
scale as malleable as their other two parameters. Movement, Rotation and Scale have become the
standard transformation tools equally vital to most 2D and 3D graphic software. However, I have
not found scale to be exploited in video games as much as the other two parameters. This is
especially true in the photorealistic and plot-driven games because scale change has less indexical
reference to our daily interactions with real objects. Same is true for VR games. VR is a digital
and inherently more interactive medium than cinema and game designers have been perhaps the
most active group experimenting with it. Before delving into VR examples in the next chapter and
pointing out its fundamental differences with other screen-based mediums, I will first go through
some of the uses-cases of scale in non-VR screen-based games.
Scale in Screen-Based Games (Non-VR)
I found some of the most straightforward examples of playful and creative use of scale among the
casual mobile games. They usually have an abstract visual style in which the size of entities
prompts meaningful interactions. One of them is Scale (2017) from Good Job Games which is a
2D arcade mobile game (fig.2). Your target is to cut a pool-like board by placing a slicer in
different spots and directions and shrink down the board size. The challenge is to watch out a ball
that is bouncing around while you are placing the slicer, so that it does not hit the slicer before the
cut is completed; as the board gets smaller and more irregular in shape the challenge gets tougher.
Fig 2. (left three images) Scale (Good Job Games, 2017), Retrieved from: searchman.com/ios/app/us/1200921809/en/good-job-
games/scale
Fig 3. (right) Stack (Ketchapp, 2016), Retrieved from: ketchappgames.com/games
7
Stack (2016) from Ketchapp is another mobile game with a similar geometric aesthetic (fig.3).
Your challenge is to stack the falling boards on top each other as high as you can; the less accurate
your alignment is, the larger pieces from the top board fall off which leaves you with a smaller
area for the next coming board that is now smaller.
There are also action adventure games with less abstract visuals whose gameplay is centered
around the character's change of scale. Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo EAD, 1985) is a classic
example in which the character's scale not only represents the power up mechanics and players
ability to do certain actions but also it affects whether you can navigate through certain roots or
not. In more contemporary casual games like Feed and Grow: Fish (Old B1ood, 2016), the whole
game is about eating the smaller, getting bigger while running away from the bigger to the point
where you are the biggest.
In some of these games, the scalable character is or becomes an abstract matter like a rolling ball
or a black hole, while the surrounding world remains fictional. In Katamari Damacy (Namco,
2004) you roll a sticky ball around which absorbs smaller props it collides with like toys and
furniture to its surface and progressively gets bigger than even cities and continents on the planet.
You should grow into a specific size within given time frames. The ball's diameter updated in the
UI keeps you motivated for the progress and is also a reminder of the pivotal role that scale plays
in this game. Donut County (Ben Esposito, 2018) is another game with a similar approach; you
drag a hole on the ground which can swallow whatever fits into its current diameter and as such it
gets bigger and bigger. Puzzles are simple and mainly around the order of picking things. Scale
mechanic serves the juicy and pleasant interactions in this game.
Change of scale in many of the mentioned games seems to have merely a satisfying effect, rather
than creating complicated puzzles. Part of this satisfaction might come from the gradual adaptation
of the camera view which automatically fits the enlarged or shrunken objects within the frame;
this as a result makes the surrounding objects and environments look smaller or bigger accordingly.
Such a change in viewing scale (field size in cinematic context) is not always automatic and
becomes the quintessential interactive element in many strategy and open world games. Sins of a
Solar Empire (Ironclad Games, 2008) is a great example; the epic dynamic range of the viewing
8
scale is central to the gameplay and aesthetics of this game. You can instantly fly from the god
view of an entire universe down to the galaxies, planets and even to the details of your spaceships.
Change of viewing scale is barely confused by the player with the entities' change of scale.
Viewing scale in all of the mentioned games so far plays a key role in shaping the boundaries of
the game world and setting the player's expectations as to what parts and items are interactive.
None of the mentioned games so far were first person perspective (FPP). Change of the viewing
scale in a FPP game (which offers the closest experience to VR) gets tricky somehow as it could
become the equivalent of the player's change of scale relative to the surrounding environment. I
hardly encountered examples that require the player change their size or embody different
characters of various sizes and abilities. Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012) was one of the few
examples; it is an action-adventure game set in a plague-ridden world. Among the ten different
powers available to the player, 'Possession' let's him hijack another character's body temporarily
and take actions stealthily. You can possess a rat body and enter into pipes and passages that cannot
hold a human body. 'Blink' is another power which is basically a teleportation mechanism that
incidentally has a strong place in VR navigation design. Change of player's scale is not as vital as
teleportation in this game, but it feels as cohesive to its designed world.
Among the Sleep (Krillbite Studio, 2014) is another FPP game which is centered around the
player's scale. It is a survival horror adventure game; you are playing as a two-year old child in a
nightmare quest for your missing mom at the risk of facing creepy atmospheres. The whole
weirdness of this game is in its low and wide angle perspectives which situates the player in a
peculiar relationship with familiar objects in unfamiliar proportions. This is a direct reminder of
another horror adventure game Little Nightmares (Tarsier Studios, 2017); it is not a FPP experience
but similarly puts a tiny child character in interaction with the exaggerated world of monstrous
creatures. It proves the psychological weight that scale manipulation could have which makes it
suitable for this genre. However, scale in both of these cases doesn't really lead to unique
challenges as much as it enhances imaginary engagements with their surreal environments and
characters.
9
Like the viewing scale, change of entities' size seems not to be exploited widely in FPP games.
The experimental game Scale (2012) by Steve Swink is one of the few examples. You have a gun-
like device with which you can scale all sorts of entities in front of you up and down; you can
change for instance a small toy house into a place you can walk in or shrink a monster down into
a tiny toy you can carry with yourself. Your navigation and progress relies on changing objects'
scale which in return allows you certain interactions with them. Scale of objects in Superliminal
(Pillow Castle, 2019) are changed in a very creative and illusive fashion (fig.4). For instance, you
pick a chess piece up which is close to you and start dragging it into different spots in various
depths of the room. While doing so, its scale automatically adapts; it gets smaller as it comes closer
and bigger when it gets farther. Since its relative-to-frame scale stays the same, you do not notice
that its scale relative to its surrounding is constantly changing, until you drop it. This means that
the scale mechanic of this game takes the advantage of both objects' scale and the viewing scale at
the same time.
Fig 4. Superliminal (Pillow Castle, 2019), Retrieved from: pillowcastle.org/presskits/superliminal/
To sum up, one common feature of all the mentioned games is that scale seems to be a very strong
asset to their explorative nature; by shaping unique structures of navigation it could effectively
contribute to exploration/adventure games. The invariably of scale in the physical world makes its
manipulation in the screen-based forms of representation evocative and meaningful. It is its
relativity which makes our perception always pendent to a reference; especially to our own body
in the real world and to the frame borders in the screen-based mediums.
10
Chapter 3 | Scale in VR
Unique narrative potentials of scale in VR started to become evident to me by going through many
different VR experiences, from less interactive 360 cinematic contents to fully interactive VR
games. I went through those experiences mostly in Phi center’s major VR events (Montreal), as
well as digital platforms like Steam, Oculus and Windows Mixed Reality. Those which harnessed
scale in some way were the most awe-inspiring ones to me. Dear Angelica (Oculus Story Studio,
2017) was certainly an exceptional narrative in that regard. It is a less than 15 min VR experience
unfolding in a linear fashion with some subtle interactivity. The cinematic and affective use of
scale in this work, made me ponder what other affordances scale could bring about in various
contexts and at different levels of interactivity. Before analysing this work in detail and other use-
cases of scale in VR, I will first argue over the fundamental differences between VR and other
screen-based mediums which affect the perceptual cues of scale. I will then segue into the
framework I used to study how as a result of these medium-specific differences, scale could
contribute to three specific forms of immersion. My case studies and experiments with scale in VR
are channeled under this framework.
One of the first significant changes that we notice when jumping into VR is the absence of the
frame. Scale in VR is no more relative to a frame as it used to be in the other screen-based
mediums, and is no more invariable as it is in the physical world. With the frame gone, it is once
again our own body which we intrinsically try to grab as the scale benchmark, but that is also
replaced by our virtual embodiment (avatar) whose scale is as flexible. Regardless of such liquidity
of scale, I found myself much more sensitive to scale in VR, and even minor misproportions of
things are clearly noticeable. Following are some of the technological/hardware particularities of
VR which make the experience of scale in VR so unique.
Framelessness of the medium
In a screen based medium, the size of an entity is not only determined by its proportions relative
to its surrounding entities, but also the viewing scale (FOV coverage) or size relative to the screen
frame. This relation has become something taken for granted due to the long history of interacting
through the mediation of the screen. The viewer intuitively ignores taking their own size as a
11
benchmark. This established literacy of the frame is precisely what keeps the audience feels safe
in front of the screen, no matter how gigantic that projected train on the screen is and how fast it
is running towards them. I found part of the reason why experimentation with scale in VR is still
uncomfortable to people is such naivety. However, an almost complete disappearance of the screen
frame makes the player always situated within the virtual space. Conversely, the screen interface
in a frame-based medium always situates the player outside the virtual world and even a first
person perspective (FPP) doesn’t help this detachment from the player character. In other words,
the frame is always a barrier in letting you embody the change of scale.
Fixed Hardware FOV
There is no adjustable FOV for the virtual reality camera very much like our eyes in reality (you
cannot zoom with your eyes). It is a given hardware specification which could vary for each Head
Mounted Display (HMD). Although the change of camera angle and field of view in non-VR FPP
games could provide the effect of the player's change of scale, it could hardly convince its illusion.
No Depth of Field Effect
Depth of Field (DOF) in the flatscreen mediums is a photographic effect by which objects at a
certain distance from the camera are depicted sharp and the rest are blurred out. Technically, it is
either a direct product of the lens’ optical behaviour when it is a pre-recorded image, or a
simulation of it when it is CGI. The importance of DOF lies in the fact that it is a depth cue which
helps the eye/brain with better evaluation of the objects’ distance and scales relative to each other.
The issue is that VR is actually an immediate emulation of our eyes rather than a mimic of a
monocular camera and all its optical effects. However, only HMDs which are equipped with eye
tracking technology are capable of emulating the eye's DOF, and most of them are not at the
moment. In the absence of DOF effect, atmospheric effects (aerial perspective) like haze and fog
could partly compensate for the lack of this important depth cue. They make objects in distance
look paler and less detailed and I found them especially effective for visualizing big objects in VR.
Virtual Interpupillary Distance
Interpupillary Distance (IPD) is the distance between the centers of the pupil of the eyes. It is what
grants us the stereoscopic view of the world. In reality, IPD is an almost fixed value for each person
12
and only changes a few millimeters based on whether you are looking at a distant or a close object.
In VR, its virtual equivalent (Virtual IPD) could be adjusted technically by modifying the distance
between either two virtual cameras in the 3D game engine, or two lenses of the stereoscopic
recording camera. The result is the illusion that your eyes, head and body is scaling up or down.
From my experimentation, the player's virtual height which imposes the angle of view, comes to
play an important role in conjunction with virtual IPD; it convinces the player's change of scale
and prevents the confusion of floating in the air. Virtual IPD is as important as FOV in creating
the illusion of player's change of size in non-VR FPP games. It also supplements an important
depth cue that is motion parallax
2
.
To sum up, framelessness of the VR, its fixed FOV, absence of DOF and accessible virtual IPD
undermine some of the established depth/scale cues of the non-VR mediums and instead spark off
new ones. As a result, the experience of viewing scale becomes quite unique in VR, and this paves
the way for designing VR-specific experiences. Nonetheless, it makes conversion of some non-
VR games like superliminal (Pillow Castle, 2019) challenging if not impossible. In this game, the
scale of the object automatically adapts to its movement in depth so that it always looks the same
size (relative to the frame). This way, scale change is temporarily masked by the viewing scale. In
VR, the virtual IPD makes the trick fail as it enhances our 3D spatial evaluation of the objects, and
hence does not allow their scale change to be easily concealed or confused with viewing scale.
Such fundamental differences also impact the camera viewing and framing conventions. For
instance, there is no extreme zoom effect in VR, and no isometric view to make you feel
dominating over the virtual world; also there is no physical division (i.e. a touch screen) to put you
in command and control position. Usually "Bird’s Eye View" and "God’s Eye View" are
interchangeably used in non-VR screen-based mediums. We could perhaps assign distinguishable
definitions to them in VR; It is our excessive scale and not our distance which grants us power
(God’s eye), and it is our distance from the designed stage that makes us feel floating in the air
2
Motion parallax is a monocular depth cue arising from the relative velocities of objects moving across
the retinae of a moving person. (...) It is perhaps easier to think of what motion parallax is by imagining
yourself as a passenger in a car looking out the side window. (...) The objects very close to the window,
such as the small trees planted by the highway, seem to rush by [and objects in distance appear to move
slowly]...” Retrieved from isle.hanover.edu/Ch07DepthSize/Ch07MotionParallaxExpl.html
13
(Bird’s eye). No matter how big or how far we get, we cannot get a real distance from the whole
virtual world (as long as the HMD is on).
In the following part of this chapter, I will cover some of the use-cases of scale in VR through the
lens of a specific model of immersion that helped me categorize these examples and do my early
experiments with scale under the same categories.
SCI Model of Immersion
As mentioned in the introduction, immersion has been one of the most debated concepts in different
disciplines of arts and media studies. Depending on the medium, many forms of immersion have
been introduced by various scholars. To study the role of scale in different VR narratives and
analyse its possible influences on their level of immersion, I needed an overarching model. My
concern was on the audience’ engagement in different narrative scenarios. Before introducing the
model I eventually used, I will first go through a few literature on the notion and types of
immersion in VR.
Katja Kwastek in Immersed in Reflection? The Aesthetic Experience of Interactive Media Art
(2016) refers to Virtual Reality merely as a form of interactive art, even though not all VR
experiences demand an intense participation (and hence are usually referred to as cinematic VRs).
To distinguish immersion of the interactive media from that of non-interactive, she draws upon
the notion of flow
3
which is a familiar concept in the discourse of game design. In doing so, she
somehow equates immersion with flow; aesthetic experience of the interactive arts (media)
consists of two essential counterparts, namely the reflection or aesthetic distance and the
immersive experience of the flow (83). She provides insight into the tension that exists in the
assessment of the reflection process (aesthetic distance), which is sometimes put in parallel with
and other times against the absorption. However, she doesn't directly allude to the fact that the
reflection itself could perhaps be conceived of as a form of immersion and part of engagement
3
Coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, experience of flow is a result of factors like: “focused concentration
on the action, loss of self-consciousness, merging of action and awareness, intrinsic motivation, clearness
and achievability of goals, and control over the situation” (Csíkszentmihályi in Kwastek: 69)
14
with especially critical arts/practices. Besides, there are plenty of immersive VR experiences that
don't rely on the notion of flow altogether and for instance create the engagement cinematically.
In The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality (Jerald, 2015), immersion is
distinguished from the sense of presence. It is described as something objective and related to the
characteristics of the technology, whereas the presence is the subjective experience of the
immersion and affected by the internal physiological state of the audience. According to Jerald,
presence in VR is created on grounds of four illusions, namely: being in a stable spatial place, self-
embodiment, physical interaction and social communication (45-49). Similarly, in the book
Understanding Virtual Reality (Sherman & Craig, 2002), immersion is categorized as only one out
of four key elements of the virtual reality experience, namely: virtual world, immersion, sensory
feedback and interactivity (6). Both of these books had been my very early references to VR and
among the first insightful sources for understanding the medium-specificities of VR. However,
these books and references alike approach VR from a scientific/objective point of view, and
consider immersion merely a technological byproduct of the medium, rather than a base for
evaluating the type and level of engagement of the audience in various narrative contexts.
Eventually I found the model introduced in Fundamental Components of the Gameplay
Experience: Analysing Immersion (Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005) an overarching framework through
which I could analyse engagement with VR contents of a wide range of narrative qualities. It is
not a VR-specific model though, 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). Each one could be accounted for a unique
narrative setting which will individually be explained in this chapter. I will investigate relevant
examples under each category including my own experiments with scale in VR. The key advantage
of using this model is that it evaluates the level of immersion based on how the experiencer
describes their engagement with the gameplay/content rather than how the mechanics and the
contents are designed. From there, I was trying to analyse all the VR (and non-VR) experiences I
encounter through the lens of the proposed model and see if/how the scale is central to any kind
of narrative engagement. First category is the sensory immersion which is somehow an entry point
to other modes of immersion.
15
Scale and Sensory Immersion
According to the SCI model, the sensory mode of immersion is tied to the technological capacity
of the medium in detaching the experiencer from the real world and wiring them into the virtual.
Attributes like higher resolution, frame rate, three dimensionality, level of rendering and texturing
details, and audiovisual qualities, which all increase the spatial immersion fall into this category
(Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005). The added spatial cues in VR intensifies this immersion. In that sense, VR
is arguably a next-gen technology and an important step towards an increased sensory immersion
when compared with prior screen-based mediums.
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 (fig.5). 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. Notably, I had not used any game engine prior to these experiments.
Therefore, another purpose of starting with isolated prototypes without concentration on any
specific content was to acquire the technical skills of using a game engine like Unity and its
programming language C#.
Fig 5. Experiment 1: PlanetS | I wanted to convey a museum-like setting where all the objects are hanging from the ceiling (except
for the sun) and orbiting with slow but different paces. Planets were arranged in a zigzag pattern which encourages the viewer to
approach them one by one.
16
I tried as much as my visualization skills and rendering capabilities of Unity allowed, to enhance
the texture, realistic look and spectacle with common techniques like Global Illumination (GI),
Ambient Occlusion (AO), particle effects for the Sun and some general post processing effects. A
little bit of fog was also added just as a depth cue. To remind the non-fictional context and the
accuracy of the relative sizes, I placed textual information (diameter in kilometers) above each
planet which gets visible when the viewer walks close to them. I also wanted to create suspense
before revealing the Sun, so I hid it behind a giant wall which opens up only when the viewer
approaches a certain distance from the Earth. To dramatize this gradual revelation I also added the
music track Alpha from Albedo 0.39 album
4
(Vangelis, 1976). The music was sliced in small audio
clips, each one triggered when passing by the planets one by one so that when the Sun shows up,
the music climax is also played.
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 is 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.
Realistic visualizations could serve both sensory immersion and simulation purposes. Even non-
fictional topics which merely rely on spatial simulations of natural phenomena of extreme scales
(micro or macro) benefit a lot from this type of immersion. Later I came across several educational
and documentary VR experiences which had cosmic themes. Orders of Magnitude VR (Filip
4
It is a concept album themed around space physics. Its title is inspired by the idea of a planet's albedo
(Wikipedia)
17
Vesely, 2020) is "An educational Virtual Reality experience which will show you our Universe at
many different scales." It visualizes a wide range of scales from the whole universe down to the
electron cloud, but rather in an artistic fashion. Another good example is Home - A VR Spacewalk
(BBC, 2017) which I had the chance to try at Phi Center. It simulates the astronauts' spacewalk
experience in an authentic way, and it was incredible and quite visceral to see our gigantic blue
planet beneath my feet.
The most inspiring example was the SPHERES (2018) by Eliza McNitt which I also experienced
at Phi Center in 2019 (fig.6). It consists of three independent chapters each about a specific subject:
1. Chorus of the Cosmos (about our solar system), 2. Songs of Spacetime (about the black holes)
3. Pale Blue Dot (about the big bang). The voice-over provides information about the subjects in
a poetic fashion but also sets a time-frame for each part. Audiovisual effects, rendering details and
haptic interactions have major contributions to the spectacle and sensory immersion.
Fig 6. SPHERES (Eliza McNitt, 2018) | Long black curtains and floating light rings from a dark painted high ceiling was making
the space feel infinite. The reflection of the lights rings in the large circular mirror at the end of the room was visually expanding
the space. Photo retrieved from: phi-centre.com/en/event/echo-2018-en
Creative use of scale also plays an important part; for instance, the first chapter visualizes the solar
system in a small scale while planets are within your hand's reach and you can interact with them
like a bunch of tiny marbles. But in the next chapter you are drawn into the center of a black hole;
until you embody it while drawing another star and a black hole towards you. And in the last
chapter you will again encounter the planets of the solar system, but this time on a much larger
18
scale. Installation design of this work was also bringing a level of sensory immersion to the
physical space.
Sensory immersion within the physical installation of the SPHERES reminds me of The Weather
Project (Olafur Eliasson, 2003), in which a giant illuminating sun seems floating at the far end of
the hall, surrounded by very tall walls reaching up a reflective ceiling. Patina Lee in Oversized Art
- Is Bigger Really Better? (2017) mentions that the immersive characteristics of its space make it
feel even larger than what it really is. She correctly highlights that in such installations, it is the
physical space which becomes the artwork itself that instead of being exposed to you is containing
and consuming you. So the vastness of both virtual and physical architecture of the space amplify
the sensory immersion.
When a large numerical scale is translated into spatial scale in VR, it could also bring about visceral
effects. Even before starting this research, I was intrigued by how scale was used in DeathTolls
VR (Ali Eslami, 2015) to send a poignant message. It sequentially puts you in several creepy
locations, in which a massive number of dead bodies are piled up around you. Each location
represents a tragic event and the exact number of deaths from a certain war or immigration
catastrophe. It spatially visualizes the staggering statistics which we are constantly bombarded
with by the news, and have become so numb to what they really mean. Once again, this work
demonstrates the educational capacity of VR through embodied understanding of scale.
Scale and Challenge-based Immersion
The second form of immersion in the SCI model is the challenge-based which heavily relies on
the interactions; It is created as a result of engagement with the challenges that need either or both
motor and mental skills to be solved (Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005, P. 45). The question here is in what
ways scale could become an interactive/playful parameter and be potentially part of the gameplay
mechanics in VR? How could scale bring VR-specific interactions and puzzles?
In the previous chapter, a list of some non-VR games was overviewed in which either scale of the
entities or the viewing scale are exploited as part of the interaction mechanic. It was also argued
that in FFP games in particular which are closest to VR, scale is barely used as an essential
19
component of the gameplay. As noted, Superliminal and Dishonored are among a few exceptions
whose gameplay are centered around the entities' scale and viewing scale respectively. Similarly,
Scale in VR could be approached from two different ways: 1st. scale of the surrounding entities
(individually), and 2nd. scale of the players' virtual embodiment (or whole surrounding
environment). After a brief overview of the first category, I will argue that the second category is
where the VR-specific interactions could be mined.
Scale of surrounding entities
Similar to non-VR interactive media, change of scale seems to have a more solid place in VR
graphic design software (like Google Tilt Brush or Oculus Quill) than in VR games. I noticed from
my personal experience that change of virtual objects’ scale in these software becomes as much,
if not more useful than their movement and rotation. To work on the detail of an entity, you pick
it up and then by moving the controllers away or close while pressing a button, you scale the object
up or down. Change of entities' scale per se cannot be considered an original and VR-specific
interaction though, and I found it very familiar and intuitive even to those who try VR for the first
time. One reason might be the fact that resizing entities like frames and panels on the screen-based
interactive mediums has become one of most frequently used actions provided in many graphic
user interfaces. Frames could convey additional layers of meaning in a virtual reality space though,
precisely due to the framelessness of the VR medium. I saw examples of resizable frames in VR
platforms like in Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) Portal. You can import as many panels and 2D
screens, resize and locate them wherever around you. You can also create your own Virtual IMAX
cinema and watch your favorite movies in VR with a similar sensory impact. I have barely
encountered examples in which the scale of the frames or any other individual entities somehow
contribute to the challenge-based immersion in VR.
In the research-creation project Liquid Perceptions (Milieux Immersive Reality Lab, 2019) which
I was involved in, using different scales was set as a predefined design constraint. The theme was
to critically demonstrate the interconnections between the goals we set and the balance of the
marine ecosystem in a multiplayer experience (fig.7). The non-VR players compete above the
ocean's surface for fishing more, and the VR player’s role is to clean up the mess (growing algae)
on the ocean floor (as a result of overfishing) before the situation is irreversible. We placed a
20
gigantic fish underwater, whose movement (fierce vs calm) is a symbolic representation of the
health of the ecosystem. In one of the iterations, we decided to also make its scale reactive; the
smaller and closer it gets to the VR player, the more critical the situation is. However, in the
playtest sessions, we realized that the players barely notice its scale change as they get so busy
with the cleaning mechanic
5
; they couldn’t recognize that it is the same fish. By keeping it big and
at the distance, the player was more constantly aware of its presence, and they were enjoying the
imaginary mood it is bringing to the environment. Since characters have a significant contribution
to the imaginative mode of immersion, I will focus on how their scale could leverage that
contribution after exploring the unique role the scale of player’s virtual embodiment could play in
designing VR-specific interactions.
Fig 7. Liquid Perceptions (Milieux Immersive Reality Lab, 2019) | We experimented with different physical interfaces like
horizontal and vertical touch screens as well as hand trackers for the fishing mechanic on the non-VR side. In the final iteration,
it is the pollution of the growing algae, darkness of the environment and the distance of the fish that indicates how bad the situation
is underwater (VR side).
5
We used different mechanics for cleaning the ocean floor, like gazing at the growing seaweeds or
shooting them with a light beam from the controller.
21
Scale of the player's virtual embodiment
As mentioned in the previous chapter, it is the viewing scale in the non-VR FPP games that makes
the player feel like they are small or big. Due to the altered perceptual cues of depth and scale in
VR, viewing scale becomes equivalent to the player's scale of virtual embodiment. The
"framelessness" and "virtual IPD" in particular let us have an embodied experience of being small
or big. Many of the successful VR experiences are just about embodying different beings of various
sizes. I will start with less interactive ones.
In the Eyes of the Animal (2015) and Tree (2017) by MIT Documentary Lab are the two examples
of this kind which I was able to try at Phi Center. In the former one, you embody a dragonfly, a
frog and an owl and get a glimpse of how other species sense their surroundings in different heights
of the forest. It has a mesmerizing point-cloud visual style and particles react to your hands
colliding with them. In the latter one, you embody a rainforest tree in a photo-realistic environment
and experience its growth from a seed to a towering plant. You can only look around and move
your branches by swinging your arms while you grow, but you don't have any control over your
height which increases gradually. This was making some visitors unsteady and wanting to sit even
though it was meant to be a standing experience. Interactions are minimal in both, and that is in
harmony with their central theme which is to bring you closer to nature and let you contemplate in
a solitary/meditative experience.
There are also multiplayer room-scale VR experiences which transform you into different
creatures, but also start to have characteristics of a game. Life of Us (Chris Milk & Aaron Koblin,
2017), Chorus (Tyler Hurd, 2018) and Flock (Object Normal & Holojam, 2016) allow up to four,
six and thirty players respectively. None of them contain solid challenges or puzzles but they all
take the scale into their playful advantage. In Life of Us, you and other players embark on an
evolution from a single-cell organism into a cyborg. The interesting part is that you can talk to
each other and your voice is altered according to your current scale and state. Change of the scale
and appearance happens simultaneously for all the players. But in Chorus each player becomes
one of the six female warriors, each with its own unique design and scale. You are sent off on a
22
musical journey in a fantasy world battling with giant beasts. The interesting part is that when you
are choosing your character/avatar at the beginning in front of a mirror, their scale is not yet
revealed to you. It is very surprising to notice your size differences only when the experience starts.
Another surprise is the epic-size of a non-playable tiger who also follows you in the journey. In
Flocks, all the players embody an abstract round-shape bird which occupies a larger radius than a
human physical body. This however, does not prevent players from hitting into each other
occasionally, and this is part of the fun. All you have to do is to move around and eat/hit the bugs
around you. Scale could have had a more vital role if for instance eating made the players bigger.
Scale of the virtual embodiment in the aforementioned examples is still something static and none
of them really utilize the potentials of scale as a dynamic interaction mechanic. Worlds in Worlds
(2016) by Goro Fujita is not a game but a 3D artwork which proves the potentials of a dynamic
scale. It is sculpted with Quill (VR painting software) and has a painterly look. There is a diorama
of a fantasy planet in front of you and by using both controllers (like in Tilt Brush) you can scale
yourself down into a smaller world crafted on a corner and go on like this repetitively into smaller
worlds. It gives you the impression of an infinite scalable canvas. The dioramic style of staging is
getting increasingly popular and has started to be a VR genre on its own. You embody a larger-
than-life character and interact with a miniature place and its tiny characters. GiantCop: Justice
Above All (Other Ocean Interactive, 2017), Down the Rabbit Hole (Cortopia Studios, 2019), The
Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets (Fast Travel Games, 2019) are among the successful VR games of
this genre. Although scale in these games is a central visual theme, the game challenges are not
about it really. Unlike Worlds in Worlds, scale in these games is not an interactive parameter either.
It puts the player in a rather imaginary engagement with the surrounding environment and
characters. This kind of engagement is at the heart of the next mode of immersion which will be
covered in the next section.
A Fisherman's Tale (InnerspaceVR, 2018) is one of the few exceptional VR games which exploits
scale as an interactive element central to the gameplay (fig.8). You notice that there is a diorama
of a room right in front of you. When its roof is removed, you notice that it is the maquette of the
same room you are in with the tiny duplicate of your own avatar which is mirroring your
movements. When you look up, you realize that there is also a giant duplicate of you above. It
23
reminds me of the short film Room 8 (James Griffiths, 2013) which is exactly based on the same
concept. You are put in interaction with a smaller/bigger version of yourself and your environment
in multiple views. Puzzles of this game revolve around figuring out how to make pieces small and
big so that they could fit into their right places. Taking objects from your surrounding space and
putting them inside the smaller room, or throwing them out into the bigger room makes them get
bigger and smaller respectively.
Fig 8. Fisherman's Tale (InnerspaceVR, 2018) | Uniqueness of this game is not only owing to the change of objects' scale, but to
the player's active evaluation of their own scale by being confronted with smaller and larger avatars of themselves. Image
retrieved from afishermanstale-game.com
Another great example which I more recently came across was the online VR game Half + Half
(Normalvr, 2020). There are eight gates in the open entrance lobby in which you start the game,
and each would take you into a different game. One of them is the hide-and-seek game which takes
place in an open playground covered with a bunch of play structures. The players are divided
randomly into hiders and seekers whose scale turns into very small and very big respectively and
in a swift transition. The very same space which appears to small hiders like a neighborhood of
puzzling and colorful buildings, appears to giant seekers only like a big maquette.
The key to build such unique-to-VR experiences is to make the scale dynamic and let the player
experience one single environment through different scales and vantage points. Other than games,
I found inspiring examples of museum-like VR experiences which treated the diorama of the space
24
like a main menu, and as a method of guiding the visitors and preventing them from getting lost in
the space. Virtual Bauhaus (Goethe-Institut, 2019) and Museum of Other Realities (MOR Museum
Inc., 2020) are good examples. By aiming at different spots on the miniature using the controller,
you will be teleported to different corners of the space. In MOR, you are also given the option of
choosing from three different scales of embodiment at any time. By taking the controller close to
one side of the headset while pressing a certain button, one of the three magic bottles appears in
front of you. Each bottle is filled with a liquid of a certain color representing one of the three
possible scales. By taking the chosen bottle close to the headset (like drinking), your scale is
changed immediately. Although it doesn't seem to be a very instrumental mechanic, it adds
significantly to the richness of the experience by just allowing visitors to walk through the same
museum space in various scales.
Experiment 2: Gates | Multiple Scales of Embodiment
The thought 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 (fig.9_Top). 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 (fig.9_Bottom).
25
Fig 9. Experiment 2: Gates (Structure) | Top: overarching outer structure which is visible through the surrounding columns of
the small room. Bottom: boundary of the play area at default scale is highlighted. I decided to remove the duplicated inner
structure at this point, as it was interfering with four gates that were now enough to define the boundaries of the small room.
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 that are facing towards the giant/distant sculptures you get as big and
teleported next to them. By entering those facing towards the standard sized sculptures, you get
tiny and teleported beneath them which now appear so gigantic. (fig.10) To be able to return back
to the original spot/scale I also placed four returning gates each positioned just a few steps behind
the teleported spots and as big as the player's current size. I also put the miniature duplicates of
these giant sculptures next to their corresponding entry gates. It was to punctuate the relativity of
the sculptures’ scale in relation to the player's size.
26
Fig 10. Experiment 2: Gates (Mechanic) | Left: when you are 30 times bigger. By stepping back into the large gate, you return
back to the default size. Right: when you are 10 times smaller and teleported beneath the sculpture which is only 2.5m tall when
you are in default scale.
The first thing I learned through the feedback I received from the colleagues and faculty was that
the change of one’s scale is not always easily recognizable. It is perhaps because it is a much less
familiar experience than change of entities' scale which as mentioned has been a common
operation in graphic design software
6
. One solution is to place some perceptual cues in the scene.
I populated the desert with palm trees and it was convincing. I also added audio cues; the sound
pitch/duration of the ambient music and sound effects gets lower/slower when the player gets big,
and vice versa when they get small. The initial scale of the player through which they are spawned
in the scene 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 masking it
behind a fade-to-black dissolve that was the case in this experiment. I tested that in the last
prototype which will be covered in the next chapter with other sorts of issues that were raised
implementing the idea of gates/portals in general.
6
It is perhaps for the same reason that they decided to include a scale bar in TiltBrush's GUI which appears
when you are changing not entities' but your own scale. It depicts a range of symbolic figures from a rat to
a dinosaur and tells which one of them your current scale is.
27
Scale and Imaginative Immersion
This mode of immersion mainly relies on the imaginary relationship with the virtual world and
empathetic engagement with its characters and their stories (Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005). It has
similarities to what is known as suspension of disbelief, which is a common term used in cinema
and linear storytelling
7
. Perhaps that is why the imaginative immersion is directly shared with
those who are only watching and not playing the game, similar to watching a film. Strong sensory
immersion could advance the suspension of disbelief, but it doesn't guarantee a sustainable
imaginative immersion.
Ermi and Mäyrä identify “Characters”, “Worlds” and “Stories” as the key elements of this type of
immersion, and I chose to focus on the first one. Character is arguably the strongest element which
contributes to the storyline and causal chain, but it is also a formal element which allows
investigation of scale. My aim is to explore how various scales of the character in VR could affect
our emotional responses in different contexts. By that, I mean different levels of agency and
interactivity of the characters which affects how we interpret their scales and engage with them.
Are they static or moving characters? if moving, are they interactive too? player or non-player?
how much of their movements is live and generative (driven by the player, AI-backed algorithm
or live acting), and how much of it is pre-recorded (pre-animated or performance-captured)?
Premised on these questions I will cover the following case-studies in three contexts, namely:
Static Characters in Spatial Narratives, Moving Characters in Linear Narratives and Player/non-
Player Characters in Interactive Narratives. My main focus will be on the second one (Cinematic
VR examples), because it is where the imaginative immersion usually dominates the other modes.
In that section, I will specifically explore the possibility of adapting the cinematic shot-framings
in VR, in the absence of the frame.
Static Characters in Spatial Narratives
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
7
It is when the audience intentionally switches their rational/critical thinking off in order to get emotionally
engaged with the fiction and create empathy with its characters (“Suspension of Disbelief,” 2020)
28
as interactive as a game. Life-like but not life-size works of the contemporary sculptor Ron Mueck
are perhaps the best examples of how manipulation of the character's scale could incite emotions
in a spatial experience (fig.11). I don’t recall any VR content of static photo-realistic characters
with different sizes, but it is quite plausible to imagine how effective translation of Muek’s works
would be in VR. His meticulous attention to details in his hyperrealist approach clearly enhance
the sensory and emotional stimulation.
Fig 11. Ron Mueck’s hyper-realistic sculptures | Left: less than 1m size Spooning Couple (2005), Right: approx. 5m Boy (1999).
Images retrieved from: theatlantic.com/photo/2013/10/the-hyperrealistic-sculptures-of-ron-mueck/100606
Patina Lee in her article Oversized Art: Is Bigger Really Better? (2017) considers the engagement
with oversized artworks related to the reference they make to an original and standard sized
version. Tweaking just one parameter [i.e. scale] of a realistic representation of something [ex: a
character] from the real world could create strange and sometimes uncanny experiences; and it is
the result of convergence of the familiar with the unfamiliar (ibid). 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 film score
8
. Scales of his figures contradict their gestures
and facial expressions; the bigger they are the more vulnerable and intimidated they seem to be.
Inspired by his works I did a similar experiment in VR. 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
8
Contrapuntal scoring is the juxtaposition of a footage with a music score which carries a totally opposite
emotion in order to elicit a unique and enhanced type of emotion (Beller, 2011).
29
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 (fig.12).
Fig 12. Self Portrait Photogrammetry | Left (default size): neutral pose and looking straight, Middle (small size): lying relaxed on
the floor looking up. Right (big size): sitting on the sofa, embracing my knees and looking down.
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.
Moving characters in Linear Narratives (Cinematic VR)
When the character starts to move in a linear narrative and cinematic context, temporal elements
which affect the pace of experience (ex: performance of the character) come to have equally
significant effects as the static elements (ex: visual appearance of the character) in shaping our
imaginative immersion. In other words, the temporal scale contributes as much, if not more than
spatial scale to this mode of immersion. In non-VR screen-based mediums, the camera partakes
vitally in shaping not only the spatial but also temporal scale of the experience. The camera,
especially in the linear narratives, is not only a window to the fictional world but is actually an
invisible moving character whose performance heavily influences the way we engage with other
characters. In VR, the frame is shattered and hence the camera is no more a separate entity from
the spectator. In spite of that, my main discussion in this section is how the camera performance
30
could be translated into VR; Is it possible to adapt the cinematic conventions of viewing and
framing using just the scale differences between the viewer and the moving character?
Translation of the Camera Performance in VR
The camera performance is composed of attributes like cuts and transitions through the process of
editing, and shot-framing through the optical behaviour of the lens. Cuts and transitions usually
convey the passage of time in cinema. In VR, cuts are typically interpreted as a spatial phenomenon
and perceived as displacement of the player in VR. That is why cutting is not as freely used even
in 360 cinematic experiences, as it could easily result in disorientation and discomfort of the
viewer. Pearl (Google Spotlight Stories, 2016) is one of the successful exceptions. Despite it being
full of ongoing cuts, you never confuse them with teleportation, as you are situated on the front
passenger seat of a car throughout the entire experience and the viewing angle is never intercepted
by these cuts.
Shot-framing in cinema is a compositional attribute which defines in what size and from what
angle the character is depicted within the frame. Technically speaking, shot-framing is a
combination of viewing scale and viewing angle. As mentioned earlier, the viewing scale or
cinematically known as the field size could range from the extreme close-up to extreme long-shot
of the character. Viewing angle ranges from low-angle to eye-level and then to high-angle shots.
Since Field of View (FOV) is something fixed and given in VR, there is no zooming operation to
achieve these shots and angles. Instead, the combination of our scale of virtual embodiment and
our distance from the characters could be applied, noting that our distance from the characters is
also affected by how big they are. The question is if/how the scale differences in VR could convey
similar emotions and meanings that shot-framings do effectively in cinema.
As an example, close-up shots are known for psychologically bringing the subject closer and
raising empathy with them. However, Mike Seymour in 8i-Putting People Front and Center VR
(2015) correctly affirms that approaching the holographic capture of the humans in VR while
performing is totally different than watching them in a large close-up shot on a flat screen. It feels
like you are intruding into their private space. He refers to Ashley Martin Scott who recorded
herself with 8i's volumetric capture technology while holding her baby and leaving her a message
31
for the future. She couldn't stop crying in the headset afterwards, not from a strong empathy with
the character, but from being able to vividly live a memory; by stepping back into her own body
and watching her baby at a passed certain age (Lauren Goode, 2017).
Dear Angelica (Oculus Story Studio, 2017) is still the best example I can remember from the linear
narratives in VR in which scale is exploited like shot-framing to convey different emotions
(fig.13). It is about a young girl named Jessica who is writing a letter to her late mother Angelica
(a movie star) while dreaming of her acting in her roles. You first find yourself in Jessica's room
and see her in standard human scale. I found this landing scale important in helping recognize that
the exaggerated scales in the following sequences are merely a form of expression, and prevents
you from confusing that it is a story of dwarfs or giants (fig.13_Right). Later you witness the battle
of Angelica with a huge dragon from different angles and scales in the epic climax of the story.
That is followed by an emotional sequence where she is lying on a hospital bed with Jessica
standing next to her; but this time they are illustrated in a tiny scale and positioned much lower
than your eye level which strongly expresses the illness of the mother and vulnerability of the
daughter. The point is that the scale of the characters in this work is never misperceived as part of
their appearance quality; it is the whole virtual world, or equivalently correct to say that it is the
viewer's scale that is changing.
Fig 13. Dear Angelica (Oculus Story Studio, 2017) | Fantastic visual style and music score of this work amplifies the emotions
elicited by the scale. Right: you are spawned in Jessica’s room on a human scale. Images retrieved from:
vrscout.com/news/dear-angelica-will-make-you-believe-in-vr-storytelling/
32
Experiment 3: Light Sight | Shot-framing in VR
I was curious to see how my reactions would be when encountering the humanoid 3D character of
the short animation Light Sight (2016) in different scales. I had created that film as part of another
research-creation in the context of linear storytelling and for the flat-screen medium. So that was
giving me access to the needed assets. The story revolves around performance of one character
which goes through a range of emotions. 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/full-
shot), 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 (fig.14).
Fig 14. Experiment 3 (Light Sight in VR) | Left: approximately equal size with the character, Middle: character is almost 50
times bigger than the viewer, Right: viewer is almost 6 times bigger than the character.
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. Adding a slight responsiveness to
the character in this scale/viewing angle would take the engagement with them to a whole new
level, making it feel like you are in a live theatre rather than watching a pre-recorded performance.
Henry (Oculus Story Studio, 2015) is a classic example in which the character is just looking at
you while performing. Timing of the character performance in Piggy (Google Spotlight Stories,
33
2018) is affected by where you are looking at. Lucy in Wolves in the Walls (2019) by Fable Studio
is not only aware of your presence but also interacts with you occasionally. She is described in
Fable's website as a virtual being whose performance is backed by AI.
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. This is
especially effective for emotional stories. The Rose and I (2016) by Penrose Studios has been one
of the very first non-interactive stories I experienced in VR at this scale. It has a low-poly aesthetics
with a smooth and polished animation. There is no specific plot though; you just walk around a
lonely cute character on a small floating planet on your eye-level who makes friends with a rose.
Their next VR piece with the same size relationship is Allumette (2016) which has a more fleshed-
out story and this time with a stop-motion look animation. The story is inspired by Hans Christian
Andersen's sad story The Little Match Girl (1845). This work proves how effective dioramic
staging is, in psychologically bringing the characters closer and narrating emotional stories.
Actually, I found the dioramic scenography to be facilitating the imaginative mode of immersion
in VR stronger than in any other scenarios. As mentioned earlier it has started to become a genre
on its own in both interactive and non-interactive VRs.
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.
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The central theme of several non-interactive experiences which came early to demonstrate the
uniqueness of VR were all about putting you in front of a giant creature. Jurassic World:
Apatosaurus (Felix & Paul Studios, 2015) is a classic cinematic VR example in which a giant
dinosaur wakes up, leans forward and comes face to face with you. In theBlue (Wevr, 2016) you
are under the ocean on the deck of a sunken ship when a huge whale approaches you and looks
straight into your eyes. Lost (Oculus Story Studio, 2016) puts you in direct contact with the giant
robot character of the classic animation The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 1999). None of these works
puts the small spectator in relation to not only the giants but also to the normal-sized characters.
In other words, such scale difference is not employed as a form of cinematic expression akin to
how shot-framing operates. Perhaps for that to be accepted comfortably by both the audience and
the author as a form of communication, the sensory impact needs to be softened a bit, and this
eventually happens if people start to get used to the medium.
Player/Non-Player characters in Interactive Narratives (VR Games)
The imaginative mode of immersion goes hand in hand with the challenge-based one, especially
in games where the progress of the narrative relies on our agency as the players and the objectives
that we pursue. Regardless of how big or small they look, the imaginative engagement with a
Player Character (PC) and Non-Player Character (NPC) in a game is not precisely the same as
with a non-interactive character in a linear cinematic narrative. In the interactive context, the
illusion of character’s aliveness is also affected by the quality of their real-time responsiveness. In
VR games, because of the fact the player is always situated in the character’s world, interaction
with PC and NPCs has some unique differences with non-VR games.
Moss (Polyarc, 2018) is an exceptional VR game in which you emotionally engage with a tiny
little character in a puzzle platform game setting. Besides the mesmerizing design of the dioramic
world, it is the special connections you make with the player character that immerse you
imaginatively. You are given the role of the Reader with a masked face avatar who can see his
reflection on the river's surface beneath. You interact with the environment, but simultaneously
and with the other controller you move a little anthropomorphized mouse named Quill; that is why
this game is also described as a blend of first-person and third-person perspectives (fig.15). Aside
from its gorgeous animations when you are moving her, it is the authenticity of her performance
35
when you don't control her that makes you recognize her as a small living creature. You always
want to protect her and she is aware of your presence and reacts to your actions; you can pet her
and heal her injuries by taking the controller close to her; she looks up and shakes hands for you
and greets you with cute gestures. Interestingly, even when you are just controlling her like any
other well-animated player character, say Ori in Ori and the Blind Forest (Moon Studios, 2015),
engagement with Quill still feels much more intimate. As if you are requesting rather than forcing
her to move. Perhaps it is because being situated in the same virtual world as she is, takes you
away from the command and control setup of sitting in front of a screen.
A similar relationship between the player and this time a gigantic non-player character is
established in The Last Guardian VR (2017) from Team Ico, which is just a VR demo for the
original title. You are the Boy who will need assistance from a towering dog-bird character named
Trico to be able to navigate some areas and solve some puzzles (fig.16). Despite the strong visceral
impact that the whole massive architectural scenery imposes in this game, your encounter with
Trico is not merely a sensory one. This feel of affection comes from the fact that Trico is the
player's companion across the whole game and not a monstrous boss, and thus it's colossal scale
does not function as a threatening feature but an element of trust and safety. Here also you pet and
feed Trico, and emotional attachment to it seems to be even stronger for those who played the
original non-VR game. In addition to its polished animation, its seemingly autonomous behaviours
and responsiveness to your presence grants Trico the illusion of life. The creator of the original
game Fumito Ueda states that, "Trico is driven by its own instincts, and the player must figure out
how to harness these to complete the game's puzzles" (The Last Guardian, n.d.). The studio is
famous for creating games like Ico (2001) and Shadow of the Colossus (2005) which showcase
vast architectural settings and gigantic characters for higher imaginative immersion. VR seems to
be a perfect medium for the designers of monumental architectures and huge characters.
36
Fig 15. (Left). Moss (Polyarc, 2018) | Framelessness of the VR brings you closer to the PC (Quill); the fact that you are playing
another role simultaneously (Reader) makes Quill feel like an NPC simultaneously. Image retrieved from: roadtovr.com/moss-
psvr-review-the-opening-chapter-of-an-adorable-adventurer/
Fig 16. (Right). The Last Guardian VR (Team Ico, 2017) | massive scale difference between you and Trico does not function as a
cinematic vocabulary, but it is not also to evoke visceral reactions only. Image retrieved from: playstation.com/en-gb/games/the-
last-guardian-ps4/
To summarize this chapter, VR-specific experiences take into their advantage the particularities of
the medium like the absence of the frame and changeable virtual IPD. I discussed that such
differences make the perceptual cues of scale and depth more spatial and accurate. This brings
about an intensified sensory immersion, but also makes VR a suitable medium for spatial
visualizations and simulations of massive scale phenomena. Virtual embodiment is another
byproduct of these unique perceptual cues which could facilitate the challenge-based immersion;
by making the player's size dynamic and providing interaction with one environment in multiple
scales, VR-specific gameplays could be achieved. In the last part, my main focus was on the
cinematic VR contents; I mainly argued that the size differences between the experiencer and the
characters could have the same function as the shot-framing in cinema and elicit similar emotions.
I observed that dioramic staging in VR operates like a close-up shot in bringing characters
psychologically closer and stimulating empathy. The visceral effect of facing big characters
outweighs the emotional engagement typically. Encountering characters with similar sizes as yours
could be uncanny and potentially uncomfortable as it feels more physically intimate. When scale
becomes a dynamic attribute, the landing scale matters as it registers the actual size of the
characters. Regardless of the characters being static, moving or interactive, the framelessness of
the medium puts the experiencer in a closer relationship with the characters that are a vital formal
element of the imaginative immersion. Consequently, controlling the player character in a third-
person VR game is potentially more empathetic, as they are more likely recognized as independent
37
living beings rather than an extension of your controller. Also Interacting with NPCs in VR could
be more imaginary as you literally step into their imaginary worlds.
Chapter 4 | Remediation of Pardeh-Khani (7Pardeh)
As mentioned in the introduction chapter, the aim of this research-creation was not only to explore
and experiment with the affordances of scale in VR. Another goal was to prototype an experience
with facets of linear, spatial and interactive narratives which could meaningfully utilize these
affordances. As opposed to other experiments, I was more concerned about the narrative content
and a solid theme at this stage because my intention was to turn this prototype into a stand-alone
experience and make it potentially sharable to a wider range of audience beyond the academic
context.
I started to consider Iranian traditional art and culture as the main source of inspiration from the
early stages of the research. This was not motivated by a nationalistic interest nor was it merely
for the richness of the long history behind that culture. I find this inclination mainly a response to
the questions of cultural identity which was especially kindled after my recent migration to Canada
where this research was started. I was trying to answer different questions like: what stories am I
more comfortable to tell as an Iranian designer/storyteller in a culturally diverse setting? What
stories are the local audiences of various cultural backgrounds curious to know about? The thing I
knew for sure was that no matter how important the stories of indigenous communities in Canada
are, for instance, or how relevant the topic of racial discrimination is in the North American
context, I did not find myself comfortable nor eligible to touch upon these issues, at least as a
newcomer. Moreover, despite being an Iranian, I am still unfamiliar with plenty of
historical/cultural contents from the region and I have been looking for a chance to explore them.
Exploration of Iranian Historical/Cultural Facets
Iranian culture being a very vast ensemble, I had to narrow down the scope of my investigation
and respond to questions like: what aspect of the Iranian art and culture are we referring to? what
point of time in its long history and what geographical spot in its varying plateau/boundaries? how
well could the chosen content benefit from the VR medium-specificities? would it offer any VR-
38
ready narrative content? how would the outcomes of my case studies and experimentation with
scale in VR come to nourish the chosen subject? could scale have any unique contribution to the
imaginative, challenge-based and sensory engagement with the chosen narrative?
I started with a broad exploration of different facets and periods of the Iranian art and culture. My
initial idea was to approach the spatial, interactive and linear narratives separately and supply them
from different sources of inspiration, i.e.:
- Iranian architecture and the social interactions within.
- Literature, paintings, poetry and dramatic arts (including Iranian cinema and music)
- Different historical periods and dynasties, pre and post Islamic resources as well as
contemporary history
Soon I decided to focus merely on the architecture for its capacity in encompassing all other forms
of art and hosting/shaping different social and cultural activities. When it comes to designing
virtual spaces, architecture becomes a vital ingredient especially when the 3D graphics dominate
the aesthetics and visual presentation of the space. The significance of the spatial design in 3D
games is elaborately explored by Michael Nitsche in the book Video Game Spaces: Image, Play,
and Structures in 3D Worlds (2008). He compares the abstract space in verbal narrative with literal
space of the 3D games in particular, and correctly states that in the context of video games "the
creator becomes a spacemaker or narrative architect and the player an explorer and conqueror of
the space" (20).
Nitsche explains the role and significance of space to the sense of presence
9
in the virtual worlds
at three levels, namely: personal, social and environmental presence. According to him, real-time
architectural walk-throughs are examples of presence at the personal level, even though the
interaction is limited only to spatial navigation. He considers that the effective visual presentation,
dramatization of the space and higher level of interactivity enhances this form of presence. Social
presence achieved when the space is shared with multiple people in multi-user experiences or when
there are sorts of communication with non-player characters. Environmental presence is when the
9
He describes presence as a subjective feeling of "being present within a video game space as a result of
an immersion into the content of the fictional world" (203).
39
virtual space reacts to the player's interaction and traces of these interactions are left in the
environment (205-209).
The spatial design becomes even a more prominent question in VR. From my experience, the first
question that the VR player asks intuitively when putting the HMD on is "where am I?" Before
asking "what my role is?" Or "who these characters are?" It is worth reminding that one of the
primary objectives of the research was to examine how a linear/cinematic narrative could be
unraveled in the spatial experience of VR. This objective was pushed aside along the
experimentation with scale in previous prototypes. Now the aim was to first choose a traditional
architecture, and later design the interactions and integrate a linear story in accordance with the
particularities, functions and activities associated with that architecture.
I started to realize that most of the architectures that had grabbed my attention belong to the Safavid
era, which is fairly recent in the Persian history (1501-1722). Safavid dynasty is known for its
significant cultural impacts on the region even up to this date. There have been many art and
architectural accomplishments in this period and Iranian architecture is often identified with the
remaining buildings of this period. The architectures I explored that flourished during the safavid
empire include: Khanqah
10
, Mosques, Madrasa, Bazaar, Zoorkhaneh
11
, Qahveh-Khaneh
Qahveh-Khaneh (traditional coffeehouse)
Among all candidate architectures I found Qahveh-Khaneh (literally translated as [traditional]
coffeehouse) the exact place I was looking for. They are believed to appear during the Safavid era.
Qahveh-Khaneh(s) used to borrow their architectural style and aesthetic features from all other
aforementioned buildings. They were not places solely dedicated to drinking tea, coffee or playing
board games, but were also meeting places for intellectuals, artists, poets, and government
officials. The nature of activities happening in Qahveh-Khaneh were diverse, from artistic and
social to religious and political; and this makes it a perfect resource for exploration of a variety of
narratives. The fact that it used to host the oldest form of dramatic performance in the history of
Iran known as Naqqāli made this decision even easier. In Naqqāli "The performer the Naqqāl
10
Place for Sufi rituals and gatherings
11
Place for traditional form of athletics which is a combination of martial arts and spiritual trainings
40
recounts stories in verse or prose accompanied by gestures and movements, and sometimes
instrumental music and painted scrolls" (UNESCO - Naqqāli, Iranian Dramatic Story-Telling,
n.d.).
Naqqāli is considered the forefather of the Iranian theatre and dramatic arts which started to lose
its popularity as a result of fast pace globalization of the broadcasting media, namely radio and
TV, and is now on the verge of extinction. Naqqāli was inscribed on UNESCO's List of Intangible
Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2011. All this makes the remediation of this
whole ritual even more meaningful as a global matter of concern. One effective way of contributing
to the preservation of an intangible heritage with an analogue nature is perhaps converting it or
adapting facets of it into a digital media content. This could be considered a step in securing it as
an entity of a "digital heritage" which accordingly to UESCO is "made up of computer-based
materials of enduring value that should be kept for future generations."; even if they are important
enough to be preserved at a group or community level (Concept of Digital Heritage, 2019).
It is the versatility of VR in reviving both Qahveh-Khaneh and Naqqāli that makes it an ideal
digital medium for this translation. But before delving into the first prototype of Qahveh-Khaneh,
I will explain why my focus is on one specific form of Naqqāli which is Pardeh-Khani.
Pardeh-Khani
Among different forms of Naqqāli which were practiced in Qahveh-Khaneh(s), a pictorial form
known as Pardeh-Khani (literally translated as reading off curtains/screens) was the most popular
one; the Naqqāl (reciter/narrator) stands in front of an approximately 5×10 feet Pardeh (illustrated
curtain usually made of burlap fabric) and tells the stories while acting the painted characters. They
draw the audience's attention towards different parts of the Pardeh with a cane. It is sometimes the
back-and-forth acts and dialogues between morshed (experienced Naqqāl) and bache morshed
(assistant performer) that guides the audience's attention. Although Pardeh-Khani was not always
performed inside the coffeehouses, it was so tightly associated with it that the style of Pardeh's
paintings was commonly referred to as "coffeehouse painting style" (Lashkari & Kalantari, 2015).
41
The contents of the paintings are typically categorized into two main groups; they were either
religious/historical (usually about the incident of Karbala), or mythical/epic and mostly taken from
Shahnameh (Book of Kings). In terms of composition, paintings were sometimes "single frame",
depicting only one character or a single event, and this gave them a less narrative and more
decorative function. On the other hand, "multi-frame" Pardehs had a comic-like layout and were
composed of several frames of different sizes which were illustrating multiple events usually about
one main character. Frames’ borders were sometimes clearly visible but more often blurred and
intertwined with other frames. Although traces of interest in naturalism is evident in coffeehouse
painting style, it also borrows from the conventions of Persian miniature, one of which is the
flatness of the paintings; that is to say, various scales of the figures and frames was to portray the
significance of specific characters rather than being a representation of perspective and optical
depth (Azizi, 2017).
Pardeh-Khani was overshadowed by the advent of cinema in Iran during the 1900s, and towards
the late twentieth century it was almost completely forgotten. One could argue that a colorful and
culturally-charged screen was replaced by a neutral silver screen; or in other words, the canvas
(technology per se), emancipated from the content, partly for the sake of mass-production, started
to be confused with and celebrated as a medium
12
. The pace of such technological colonialism was
so fast that it left no time for Pardeh-Khani and cultural species alike to adapt. Although there
have been sparse attempts to adapt contents of Pardeh-Khani like stories of Shahnameh in form
of animation and video games, I couldn't find any evidence that Pardh-khani itself is remediated
within a new medium or is taking any advantage of the new technologies. I borrowed the term
“remediationfrom Bolter and Grusin (1999) who define it as “the representation of one medium
in another” (45), which is a vividly common practice in digital culture. In other words, my goal
was not only to adapt the stories which used to be recited in Pardeh-Khani but to incorporate and
represent Pardeh-Khani itself as a content in VR. Pardeh-Khani is considered an important
cultural heritage to the majority of Iranians regardless of their pre or post Islamic cultural ties. I
found it a right narrative choice for this prototype not only for the aforementioned reasons; but to
12
Although this research has proved me the unique communication affordances of VR as a "medium", I
never bought into expressions like "VR is an empathy machine" or "VR will be the next big thing" which
seem to be advocating VR for being a magical "tool", independent from how well the narrative content is
crafted for it, and what subject it is communicating.
42
remediate Pardeh-Khani in VR is to render a (traditional) screen-based medium into a (cutting-
edge) screen-on-your-face medium, and this in itself has been an intriguing inquiry for me.
The capacity of VR to support all the narrative strata that exist in the ritual of Pardeh-Khani could
make this translation multilayered. Pardeh-Khani is a location based experience which involves
both interactive and linear narratives. It takes place in Qahveh-Khaneh. It is not a fully
predetermined performance, and its pace and subject of the stories could be affected by real-time
factors such as the average age and gender of the audience and also the improvisations of the
Naqqāl. Regardless of the spatial compositions of Pardehs' illustrations, the stories are typically
unraveled in a sequence. Such already existing narrative frameworks provide enough material to
start with and there won't be a need to establish them individually and from scratch.
As mentioned before, the significance of the spatial design decisions in any VR experience
encouraged me to begin this prototype by concentrating on the architecture of Qahveh-Khaneh.
1st Iteration: Typical Qahveh-Khaneh
The first step of the prototype was creating a low detail 3D model of a typical Qahveh-Khaneh so
that I could experience it in VR and evaluate the overall impression of the space and its proportions.
After a vast visual exploration, I found a very useful research describing the architectural elements
of the places used for traditional performances in Iran by Rahmat Amini, Jalil Kalil Azar and Vahid
Moini (2012). The paper begins with the types of Qahveh-Khaneh and various forms of Naqqāli
including Pardeh-Khani, and is followed by an overview of the standard architectural features. At
the end, a floor and section plan of a typical traditional Qahveh-Khaneh with its essential elements
is proposed (fig.17).
43
Fig 17. Typical Qahveh-Khaneh Plan | 1) Hashti (porch before the main entry door), 2) Takhts (carpeted benches for the
customers), 3) Sardam (a raised platform on which the Naqqāl stands and performs the story), 4) Decorative indoor
pools/fountains, 5) Pantry, 6) Reception counter, 7) Small outdoor garden/courtyard, 8) Taqhnamah (arched facade) 9) Skylight,
10) Decorative tile works.
I used this plan as the reference for the first iteration of the prototype (fig.18). SketchUp was used
to build the model and then it was imported into Unity. A number of single-frame paintings (as
placeholders for the final artworks) were scattered between the columns and behind the dining
benches, and also a larger multi-frame painting was placed over the Sardam (stage). Then the scene
was lit with the natural/sun light and the Global Illumination (GI) was baked. I also added some
atmospheric effects like fog which I found especially effective in VR in enhancing the sense of
depth in the absence of adjustable depth of field (previous chapter). But it also contributed to the
impression of age which perfectly matched with the overall mood.
44
Fig 18. 1st Iteration Qahveh-Khaneh | I did not want to spend time on texturing at least at this stage. Just so as to bring the color
scheme of the brickwork which was a common material used in Qahveh-Khaneh(s), a standard shader with a warm diffuse color
was assigned to almost everything.
As for the interactivity and navigation, I used the SteamVR SDK and its teleportation mechanics
which has become one of the standards of navigation in VR. You simply set predefined points or
areas where the player can teleport to. If the player's HMD has six Degrees of Freedom (6DoF
13
),
they can also walk within the limitations of the physical room. I placed one teleportation point in
front of each Pardeh (fig.18_Right) and some other ones near the entrance where the outdoor
garden is located. I have explored other types of navigation mechanics for traveling long distances
in different VR apps, but found no other method as convenient as teleportation so far. Although I
don't get motion sickness easily, choosing alternative ways of movement like gliding over the floor
or flying via hand gestures reduces the time I could stay in VR. This factor was even more severe
for the majority of the playtesters. Also, the reason why I preferred the teleportation discrete points
over the teleportation continuous areas was to minimize the navigation confusion and make sure
no Pardeh will be missed by the players; it was also to have a better control over the staging (Mise-
En-Scene) of the narrative on each spot.
13
It means not only their rotational but also translation movements are tracked.
45
I also began testing a basic logic and motivation behind the navigation. I dimmed the brightness
down on the main (multi-frame) Pardeh by turning off all the spotlights shooting at different parts
of it. They turn on one by one as the player teleports to the points designated to each single-frame
Pardeh; eventually all the surface of the main Pardeh will be illuminated when the whole story is
unraveled. The linear story of Pardeh was not chosen yet at this stage but an assumption was that
each single-frame Pardeh will be an info panel of one single character whose role in the story will
be elucidated on the main multi-frame Pardeh. The spatial mood in this iteration was well received
by the colleagues who tested it; lighting, coziness, Pardeh illustrations and the curiosity they
stimulate, feeling of the virtual fresh air in the backyard were all among the aspects welcomed but
the players. I tried to carry them along the next iteration. However, the goal was not just to simply
replicate a typical Qahveh-Khaneh with an accurate simulation of its features. In fact, the perfect
symmetrical layout, predictability of the architectural circulation, modest and monotonous sizes
of Pardeh do not invite the exaggerated/unreal experience that VR could afford. At this point, I
was envisioning three levels for the whole experience, namely: pre-VR (real/physical installation),
virtual Qahveh-Khaneh (surreal space), and Pardeh (fictional/dreamy space).
Fig 19. Mind Maps: Experience Levels | To be able to trace the links between the narrative layers/concerns, I started drawing
graphs and mind-maps
46
I was contemplating the possibility of reconciling these levels with the three layers of Pardeh-
Khani narratives, namely: Qahveh-Khaneh, Naqqāl and Pardeh. On top of this, I have been also
attempting to leverage the three modes of immersion (sensory, challenge-based, imaginative)
addressed in the previous prototypes with a creative use of scale (fig.19).
The new questions were: first, how the architecture should be revisited in a way that the scale
could contribute more strongly to the sensory/spatial as well as interactive/challenge-based
narratives. As mentioned, the idea was not just to replicate a typical Qahveh-Khaneh, but to
appropriate it for narrative particularities that VR could afford. Second question was whether from
the abundance of linear stories which used to be recited by the Naqqāl, there are any stories that
take advantage of scale. A third question was how and if there should be any interaction with
Pardeh.
M.C. Escher
I have been exploring a diverse range of artworks/styles that could inspire manipulation of
Qahveh-Khaneh but also correspond to the medium-specificities of VR. The surrealist works had
grabbed my attention already; they are essentially about encountering familiar things in unfamiliar
settings. Exaggeration/manipulation of scale is an important form of expression in this style. VR
is perfectly capable of fulfilling the unreal and subjective quality of a surreal artwork in an actual,
explorable architecture. Other than Dreams of Dali (Half Full Nelson, Goodby Silverstein and
Partners, 2016), I hardly found any VR experience with equally bold reference to this style; the
prominent sensation of this experience is when you face those two towering sculptures adapted
from Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus (1934) and gigantic elephants from The
Elephants (1948) at distance. However, it is not really an architectural experience and also the
scale is not employed as an interactive component that could contribute to any challenge-based
immersion.
I found the works of M.C. Escher and Relativity (1953) in particular a key inspiration; most of his
works have surreal qualities and many of them like Relativity are geometric and architectural as
well. At the beginning, Relativity just seemed like a perfect liaison; a dreamy Qahveh-Khaneh that
could bond the cultural story of Pardeh-Khani with the narrative affordances of VR. In hindsight,
47
there are two distinct characteristics which make Escher's works satisfy the objectives of this
prototype.
First, Escher was significantly influenced by the aesthetics of Islamic art/architecture and its
geometric decorations. Tessellation which allows for an infinite/fractal repetition of patterns is one
of the main visual characteristics of many of his works. Tessellation is the core technique used in
cuerda-seca
14
that has been a dominant feature of the Iranian architecture especially in the Safavid
era. It also found its way to Qahveh-Khaneh architectural decorations. In Relativity, it is a
multiplicity of orientation that generates an interlocking pattern. Affected by Moorish style of
architecture, arched gates/roofs are another signature of many of Escher’s drawings including the
Relativity.
Second, Escher's works are full of visual illusions and sometimes depict what is referred to as
impossible architecture. Ewan Wilson (2019) in The Impossible Architecture of Video Games gives
a simple definition of them: "dream-like structures that push spatial logic to its breaking point".
Impossible architectures are not plausible to be constructed due to the technological limitations of
the time, or because they simply defy the physical laws of space (Wilson, 2019). No matter if they
are futuristic or oriented towards the past as Wislon categorizes them, they are usually epic in their
scales. He is right in asserting how effective video games are in experimenting with impossible
architectures, and this is even more true for VR. Metamorphosis and what we can refer to as
impossible transformations are the other features which Escher's illusive drawings are based upon.
Relativity could be explained as an impossible architecture that hosts impossible transformations.
Movement and orientation are intertwined together in a whimsical way, and this justifies the
integration of scale as a third parameter of a playful navigation.
Combination of these factors makes Relativity an ideal inspiration for creating a labyrinth
architecture that welcomes Pardeh-Khani and an illusive experience which VR could afford.
14
Cuerda seca (Spanish for "dry cord") is a technique used when applying coloured glazes to ceramic
surfaces. (retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuerda_seca)
48
2nd Iteration: Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh
I started reproducing Relativity in SketchUp. It felt like a cropped drawing of a larger space, so I
mirrored the model in all three axes. The result was a symmetrical space consisting of eight
repeating parts (fig.20). Then I started breaking the symmetry by adding a slight variety in the
openings and doorways on these repeated modules. It already felt huge and complex and created
the “wow” effect when tested in VR. Then I bonded all the pieces together by adding larger
architectural elements like arched gates of different sizes and bridges of various widths.
Fig 20. 2nd Iteration (Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh) | I was constantly rotating the whole space like a Rubik's cube in order to
make the placement of added elements architecturally meaningful in different orientations.
I started bringing paintings (placeholders) from the previous iteration into this model. Disabling
the shadow cast on the paintings let the sunlight enter from all the surrounding openings and
generate interesting lighting patterns after being intercepted by multiple layers of architectural
elements. This as a result has yielded the sensory immersion and was the first thing appreciated by
the playtesters (fig.21). Next I added some dining benches on different locations. I noticed later
that a bench and a dining table is also depicted in Relativity which makes its space feel functionally
closer to Qahveh-Khaneh. To revive the mood of Qahveh-Khaneh even further, I started adding
motifs from Iranian/Islamic geometric patterns to the handrails. Pointed arches were iconic in the
Iranian architecture and I used them especially for the largest gates at the center. I also added Siyah
Masqh which is an Iranian style of calligraphy around these central arches. Since the player
inhabits different scales of embodiment at different points of time, such details also act as scale
cues and help the players better understand their current size relative to their surrounding
architecture (fig.22).
49
Fig 21. Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh (Without Details) | The new space offers significantly more spots/openings for placing
paintings with a large variety of sizes in all orientations and on all the floors.
Fig 22. Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh (Architectural Details) | I did not anticipate how effective handrails will be in mitigating the
fear of height particularly around the narrow bridges on the higher levels, and especially for those with more intense visual height
intolerance.
Despite that, there have been comments in different playtest sessions regarding the dominance of
Escheresque over Qahveh-Khaneh aesthetics. For some, it feels like a meditative/cathedral-like
space. One reason might be the absence of any texture except for the Pardeh illustrations. But this
was an intentional design decision in order to enhance the visual contrast and bring attention to the
illustrated curtains so that finding them becomes easier for the player. Also the fact that the textures
will be seen in different scales would require additional technical considerations; perhaps a
50
dynamic texture resolution corresponding to different scales and distances of the player. There are
features that I have already considered but not implemented yet which help revive the mood of
traditional Qahveh-Khaneh; these include but not limited to: Indoor pools in different orientations,
outdoor gardens that will be terraces in this prototype, limited touches of textures like Kashi-Kari
(tilework) and brickwork around Pardeh(s), and Persian carpets which used to cover the benches.
Another critique was that the space felt static at this stage and could feel more alive if there were
animated visuals. I found even the flickering glitches on the shadow edges helps. Adding a slight
wind effect to the pool, particles, curtains, plants, as well as adding animated crowd and ambient
sounds could all bring life to the space but they have not been the priorities of this iteration.
Navigation mechanics
Deciding for a proper locomotion style and refining the navigation mechanic was a main concern
in this prototype. Aside from the fact that locomotion in VR is still a challenging topic, the spatial
characteristics of this project brings some additional challenges. Since the target audience of this
prototype are not only youngsters and/or gamers, I have been looking for a locomotion method
convenient to even first-time users of VR. It would have been ideal to be able to walk around and
navigate all the space by foot in a physical space as big as the virtual one. However, the existence
of all those levels/staircases as well as the changeable scale and orientation make this replication
ironic; as this would mean construction of an impossible architecture on a one-to-one scale.
Recently I came across the article “Literature review of locomotion techniques in virtual reality”
(Cherni et al., 2020) in which 22 types of locomotion methods in VR are explored. I don’t intend
to go through all of them but to simplify, they could all be located on a single spectrum from the
most natural, which is to walk around physically, to the most unnatural, which is to teleport.
Walking around gives the player a continuous update of its coordination whereas in the
teleportation player's movement is discrete and usually requires least physical effort. In the middle
of the spectrum fall methods which call for some sort of movement-in-place (like Arm Swinging)
using joystick or more sophisticated peripherals (like omnidirectional treadmills). At the end of
this article, they propose a comparative table where all these styles of locomotion are rated
according to a number of criteria, namely: “the presence in the virtual environment (i.e., immersion
sensation), ease of use, control precision, spatial orientation, self-motion sensation (i.e., sensation
51
of controlling the movement), tiredness, motion sickness, adaptation for large virtual environments
and adaptation for virtual reality interaction” (Cherni et al, 2020). Physical movement and
teleportation have the highest scores in this table respectively. A combination of these two has
created the core mechanics of navigation in this prototype for the exact same factors, even though
I have also been experimenting with the controller's input for the scale-change mechanics in some
iterations.
Clara Fernández-Vara in Labyrinth and Maze: Video Game Navigation Challenges (2007) tries to
distinguish a maze from s labyrinth and subcategorize it as a form of it; as opposed to classic
labyrinths whose purpose is only to stretch the distance and consequently delay and direct the
traversal, mazes are more complex as they are multicursal containing branching paths. As such,
mazes are more welcomed in game design as “navigating them already constitutes a challenge
which can be further amplified by obstacles along the path” (74) She correctly asserts that solving
the navigation puzzle of a maze becomes especially harder and more disorienting when the player
has no complete view of the circuit (top-down view). It is simply because the experience of the
space is fragmented (point by point or screen by screen) and the player has to make a mental map
of the whole structure (75). She concludes that the [liquid] properties of the digital media could
bring about additional challenges through unfamiliar/unreal spatial configurations when the space
becomes “dynamic, unstable and ever-changing” (76). In that sense, the Escheresque architecture
of this prototype is intrinsically a labyrinth, and it could turn into an intricate/dynamic maze when
multiple orientations and scales of embodiment also become integral parts of the navigation
puzzle.
Honing the Rules and Restrictions
In the absence of gravity where all horizontal and vertical surfaces could be walkable, visitors
could easily lose their direction. The visual intricacy of this maze-like architecture leaves the
player puzzled and this is welcomed for the challenge-based immersion it creates. Still some
limitations were needed so that the navigation becomes less overwhelming and more
comprehensible (fig.23).
52
Fig 23. Navigation Possibilities | I was trying to figure out the possibilities that circulation on different levels, orientations and
scales allows.
I regarded the orientation which I started modeling Relativity with as the main side, and one of its
lowest levels as the ground floor where the experience starts off. Then on the same side/level I
designed the Sardam (stage) with the largest recessed opening behind it reserved for the main
(multi-frame) Pardeh. Also, among six available orientations, I limited the navigation only to two
sides (fig.24_Left). As a result, navigation design started to become more manageable and
henceforth I was working only on two unique spaces (instead of six), each consisting of several
floors. Of course all the six sides could be exploited for a more complex narrative perhaps in the
future iterations. My attempt at this point was to make different spots on these levels recognizable
(like landmarks) and give them a sense of place.
Fig 24. Navigation Rules | Left: Orientation limited to two sides, Right: Scale range limited to 3 sizes.
53
I limited the number of possible scales for the teleportation points down to three: default (1), small
(0.1) and big (4) (fig.24_Right). A wider range would have made the change of scale more obvious,
but the available headroom provided only three spots for the maximal 4 times scale. However,
scattering an infinite number of small teleportation points is possible, and even the handrails' top
surfaces could become walkable bridges. Potential spots for hiding tiny Pardehs were explored. I
started populating all the levels (of the two chosen orientations) with teleportation points (of the
three defined sizes) (fig.25). I was constantly checking them in VR to evaluate which ones have
better vantage points and which ones have to be removed. The whole idea was to arrange these
teleportation points in a way that the player is indirectly guided towards the Pardehs in a
meaningful sequence. The linear story of Pardeh was still not selected and there was no logic as
to where/when the player needs to be transformed. My attempt was to create a flexible system by
which the navigation could be choreographed manually for whatever story comes in the future
steps.
Fig 25. Teleportation Points | I have envisioned three types of teleportation points for this experience: connecting points where
the circulation is branched off, ending points on which the player encounters with the main narrative Pardehs, the curiosity
points which carry the player to supplemental stories/spaces.
At this stage I had already started exploring the potential stories and communicating with potential
artists who will be painting the chosen story on the final Pardeh(s). Meanwhile, this iteration of
the prototype was presented and playtestested at quite a few in-person and public sessions to the
faculty and cohorts. I will first go through some of these playtests and the feedback I received, and
then will report the modification I have been doing to the navigation mechanics. At the end, I will
54
explain how the Pardeh story was chosen for this prototype and how I am still integrating the
2D/3D artworks developed for the chosen story into the space.
Playtests
In a VR show/tell event coordinated by Milieux institute during summer 2019, around 30 people
experienced the prototype at this stage, many of them members of Technoculture, Art and Games
research center who had tested VR before. I had a brief conversation with each person during and
after the experience. Overall, the level of engagement was quite high. "I can stay here forever…"
was a frequent comment and although no linear sequence was there to follow, many could easily
stay for 20 minutes. Having access to multiple teleportation points was welcomed. People were
curious to know about the illustrated characters on the Pardeh(s) and their stories, but at the same
time did not want to be restricted to a certain path. Some people just enjoyed wandering around
purposelessly and getting lost in the labyrinth. Others preferred having an objective to follow.
Some were trying to keep track of their navigation trajectory and remember the spots they already
traveled to. They were looking back to see if they could find the previous point they were just
teleported from. It is easy to lose the track especially when teleporting a long distance while scale
and orientation are also changing. I considered two solutions: 1st. To differentiate the already
checked teleportation points with a slight change in color/look. 2nd. To add an onion-skin effect,
that is to add a ghost avatar on the previous spot which disappears immediately. It could be with
or without a particle trail connecting the previous point to the current one. First solutions have
been tested and second is planned to be implemented in the upcoming iterations.
I noticed having multiple vantage points over one single Pardeh from different levels, orientations
and in various scales encourages moving physically and taking different postures. Many players
tend to approach the limits of the virtual floors, bend over the handrails and discover hidden points
and Pardeh(s) they might have missed (fig.26). They were even inclined to climb over the virtual
staircases when they were close to them. It is true that the quantity of staircases in this architecture
prompts using them somehow as means of vertical navigation. However, considering the
technological limitations I didn't find any feasible method that could make such a physical
interaction possible. I have tried VR experiences in which you can glide over the staircase virtually
via joystick while physically being in a stationary position, but they felt very uncomfortable to me.
55
For now, I avoided placing teleportation points very close to staircases. Of course they still play a
significant role in leading the player's eye to different floors.
Fig 26. Teleportation Laser-Beam Collision | Making surfaces collide with the teleportation laser beam encourages players to
stretch and move their bodies even further so that they could aim for more teleportation points exposed to the laser beam. It
turned out to be frustrating to some as the collision was preventing them from teleporting to the visible points behind the wall.
Later that summer I was invited by Najmeh Khalili-Mahani, one of the faculty members of TAG,
to share my research-creation to a community of seniors who participated in “PLAY-D-PAIN”
research project under the “Serious Games for Seniors” courses
15
. Less than 10 people in their 60s
tried it and for some, it was their first-time in VR. They were fascinated by the historical/cultural
dimension of it and were even more eager to follow Pardeh narratives. In order to make them feel
more comfortable we had turned it into a sitting experience by providing them a rolling chair at
the center of the physical room. It was interesting to see them wanting to stand on their feet and
walking around after a few minutes (fig.27).
15
The aim of this course was to bring scholars/designers from different disciplines together to develop a
personalized approach to researching chronic pain, mainly through the use of new technologies including
Virtual Reality. (http://media-health.ca/serious-games-for-seniors/)
56
Fig 27. Playtest Session (Seniors) | Engagement of the whole body is one of the things that VR could be celebrated for and I have
been trying to include interactions which promote that. But limitations of the physical room started to be a real hassle as I moved
forward and I had to consider that all the time.
It is noteworthy to remind that Pardeh-Khani used to be a sitting and a much longer experience
for its audience especially when performed in Qahveh-Khaneh. Since serving food does not seem
like an option at least when in VR, virtual benches have no longer any functional use. By removing
some of them which were occupying valuable navigation spots, space felt more like a museum.
Since joining the interactive and linear narratives together has been a secondary question of this
research, I have already had an eye on the museum as a metaphor; a place where spatial, interactive
and linear narratives usually come together. Museum of Symmetry (NFB, 2018) from the early
stages and Museum of Other Realities (MOR Museum Inc., 2020) later have been two inspiring
VR pieces with the same reference. Not to mention that VR has already an important place in the
museums and exhibitions, and is usually treated as an installation art. As mentioned before, I have
been envisioning the ways I could design the pre/post VR sections of this creation (the waiting
times) as the intro/ending levels of the whole narrative. Many of the good examples of VR
experiences I had at Phi center utilized the exhibition space effectively by bringing the mood and
elements of the virtual into the physical, so that the transition between these spaces becomes
smoother. The sci-fi look of the VR HMDs and controllers had made me consider altering their
physical appearance inspired from the props associated with Qahveh-Khaneh, so that they better
match the digital content.
However, towards the end of this program we were introduced to the research-exhibition as a
method of sharing in-progress research-creation projects. This caused shifting priorities. Thereby,
I started concentrating on the creative ways I could communicate the process during the pre/post
VR sections rather than finalizing one polished VR experience (fig.28). Of course the exhibition
strategies and the steps I took were also affected by the global pandemic when the physical
exhibition had to be cancelled.
57
Fig 28. Research Exhibition (Maquette) | I started creating a physical diorama of the space with scale figures so that visitors would
be already engaged with its architecture before jumping into VR. This would have put into an immediate comparison the rigidity
of the scale in the physical space with its malleability in VR.
Revisions of the Navigation Mechanics
There have been some common issues I noticed in the playtests regarding the navigation
mechanics that I tried to address in different iterations. The default visibility of all teleportation
points caused frustration sometimes, especially for the novice players who were repeatedly trying
to teleport even to the points behind the objects, without noticing that the collision of the laser
beam is stopping them. The other common issue was the size of the small teleportation points
which made finding them uneasy and aiming the laser pointer at them even harder. Most
importantly, change of scale was not always perceivable, especially when the scale difference
between current and target teleportation points is little. It is partly due to the nature of teleportation
which makes all the transformations occur in a blink of an eye (a default fade to black). It is exactly
this jump-cut transformation which makes teleportation the safest in regard to the risk of motion-
sickness. The fact that change of embodied scale is something totally unnatural makes the brain
easily confuse it with the change of height. That is why teleporting to the large scale points was
less comfortable to some people as they suddenly felt they were hanging in the air. Despite that, I
found some of these misperceptions become less severe by spending more time in VR, as if the
brain gradually registers these unusual transformations as natural. One general solution to the
mentioned issues was to extract the change of scale out of the teleportation mechanics and make
it separately controllable by the player. Also, by making the visibility/accessibility of the
teleportation points depend on the size and location of the player, the navigation path towards
Pardehs could be choreographed indirectly. The players will still have the agency to discover and
58
make their own path. Another advantage is that there won't be any need to detect the tiny
teleportation points, as they become visible only when the player is turned small. In order to make
the transformation change more evident, I also decided to make the transitions visible and examine
different animation speeds to see if I can come up with a safe tolerance.
Interactive Scale_Iteration_1
16
One idea for isolating the scale-change as a standalone mechanic was to make use of the arched
gates as scale portals and scatter them around the space. Three types of gates were conceived:
Default-size gates which either turn you big or small; Large and Small gates which turn you back
to the default size (fig.29_Left). Actually, this experiment was very similar to the gate experiment
I covered in the previous chapter, but with visible animation transitions. We also limited the
number of accessible teleportation points, using trigger areas (fig.29_Right).
Fig 29. Scale Mechanic (Iteration_1) | Left: Scale Portals. The gates are one-way, so that you only interact with the ones that are
at your current size. Right: Trigger Areas. Each box collider is assigned with a list of teleportation points which are accessible
only if you are within its boundary.
When we tested the result, we noticed that the visible transformation is less problematic if the
animation speed is either very slow or relatively high. The in-between ranges could easily lead to
motion-sickness and in case of any lag in the graphic performance this becomes even more critical.
The visible change of orientation felt the most jarring one. I also find scale animation harder to
accept when it happens simultaneously with your physical movement which was the case in this
iteration; a perfect simulation of vertigo. Also when I tested this mechanic in the Escheresque
Qahveh-Khaneh, I realized that the visible animation of movement and rotation in this complex
16
This iteration was implemented with the help of Gerald Alvarez, one of the undergraduate students in the
Computation Arts Program we started implementing this idea. This task was given as one of the assignments
of his independent study course which I co-supervised during the summer 2019.
59
space will most likely drift the players through the virtual objects which is not something desirable.
The other major issue we noticed was the high probability of hitting the boundaries of the physical
space so quickly, and finding yourself stuck in a corner of the room. Also the mislocation of the
pivot point was more likely when teleportation occurred far from the center. One solution would
be to guide players back to the physical center using some audio-visual cue, each time after passing
through the gates, or even block the teleportation unless the player is back to the physical center.
But this solution contradicted with the one-way nature of the gates and meant walking back into
the gate you just passed through with a different scale.
Interactive Scale_Iteration_2
17
In response to the mentioned issues I started another iteration. I decided to put aside the concept
of gates (scale portals) and make the scale change happen on the spot using the controller’s
joystick. It is very much like and in harmony with the teleportation mechanic itself. We reverted
back the visible animation transition to the fade-to-black jump-cut for the teleportation (movement
and rotation), but kept it visible only for the scale change with a controllable speed multiplier. The
list of accessible scales and teleportation points are now set on each teleportation point
independently (instead of gates and area triggers) (fig.30). We also defined a radius tolerance
around the physical center beyond which the teleportation will be inactive. They can still walk
around and interact with the surrounding environment especially when they encounter the
Pardeh(s), but will need to walk back to the center before heading towards the next point.
Arrangement of the teleportation points and accessibility that each provides to the next points
could be choreographed in a way that players are implicitly guided to explore the whole space
before completing all Pardehs' stories. Although this iteration of the navigation mechanic has been
closest to what I planned for thus far, it has never been tested in public yet mainly due the
pandemic.
17
This iteration was implemented with the help of Mahdi Sadri, a Tehran-based indie game developer.
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Fig 30. Scale Mechanic (Iteration_2) | You need to get back to the physical center to be able to teleport. Once you teleport, you
can choose between three unique scales that your current teleportation point allows via joystick (up-down). Your landing scale on
the target point is always equivalent to your current scale; if you are small, you are teleported to the small size of the next point,
which is not necessarily the same as the previous point’s small size.
Temporal Structure
Beyond the architecture of the virtual Qahveh-Khaneh and its navigational rules, another objective
was to create a goal and motivation for its spatial navigation. This could be addressed by replacing
the proxies I used in the previous iterations with a series of Pardeh paintings that depict a clear
story to follow. After all, the linear stories of Pardeh were the essential components of Pardeh-
Khani and following them was one of the reasons why people visited Qahveh-Khaneh in the first
place. Introducing the linear story also helps framing a temporal structure for the whole experience
that had been missing in the previous iterations. However, since the free and open exploration was
very welcomed by the players, I still considered this as an option in the navigation design. Another
objective at this stage was to harness the cinematic use of scale, with a special attention to the
characters of the story in the service of the imaginative immersion. An ideal story would of course
facilitate the use of scale.
The museum/maze-like space of the Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh furnishes the display of
multitude of stories which could be unraveled at once, in multiple sessions or even in alternative
versions of the experience. It was a quite common technique by the Naql to leave the story
unfinished so that the visitors are motivated to come back the next day and listen to the rest of the
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story. My attempt, at least for this iteration, was to have a story that could be completed within a
one-take comfortable VR experience; which I found to be around 15-30 minutes. Another question
was to choose whether I want to insert a popular story that used to be narrated in Pardeh-Khani or
adapt and shape my own story. It was common for the Naqqāl(s) to recite both mythical (pre-
Islamic) and religious (post-Islamic) stories but often not together. Some Iranian audiences find
themselves preoccupied with only one of these themes and this is partly rooted in the
cultural/political dichotomy that still exists in the Iranian society after the Arab conquests (7th
century). One of my initial concepts was to come up with a story which intertwines both themes
in a critical fashion while touching upon some of today's Iranian socio-political accounts. But soon
I decided to put this idea aside for the sensitivity it induces and the time it requires to be fully
developed.
Shahnameh: Story of Haft Khan_e Rostam
I decided to use a popular story from Shahnameh (Book of Kings) which is one of the most
important Persian literary works and a significant reference for Pardeh-Khani performance. It is
the world's longest epic poem written by a single poet Ferdowsi who started writing it in 977 and
completed it in 1010 CE. It consists of 62 stories written in over 50000 couplets divided in three
cycles: Mythic Age, Heroic Age and Historic Age respectively. The second cycle is the longest
one which contains tales of the most famous figures of the book like Rostam (Romanized as
Rustam) (Mark, 2020). Stories of Rostam have been recited frequently in the Naqqāli as well.
The tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab is one of the best-known stories from the book and is also my
favourite one, but it is not so simple nor short enough to be covered within the time span I
considered for the experience. Finally I decided to go for the story of Haft Khan-e Rostam
18
(Rostam's Seven Trials) which has been a popular Iranian folktale and a common subject of Pardeh
paintings. Rostam, the persian hero accompanied by his unique horse Rakhsh embarks on a heroic
journey of seven stages in order to free Kay Kavus (King of Persia) and other Persian paladins
18
The word “Khan” in Haft Khan and Qahveh-Khaneh are not synonyms, although they have a similar root
which is “Abode” or “House”. It is usually translated as level or stage, trial or labour for Haft Khan. In
Pardeh-Khani, it has a different root and meaning which is “Reading”.
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from Div-e Sepid (White Demon) who has imprisoned and blinded them in Mazanderan (land of
demons)
19
. (fig. 31)
Fig 31. Rostam’s Haft Khan | It consists of 7 distinct events which occur in a chronological order.
It is a quite straightforward story with a simple causal chain, therefore the visitor could engage
with the plot quickly and follow the narrative without need for a lavish introduction. Besides, its
seven distinct segments facilitate its spatial composition over multiple Pardeh(s) within the
architectural space. More Interestingly, the story of Haft Khan is full of characters of various sizes
well in line with the other objective mentioned above which is to exploit the dramatic capacities
of scale in relation to the characters and in the service of the imaginative mode of immersion
(fig.32).
Development of the 2D Artworks
There were some questions to be answered at this stage; How many number of Pardeh paintings
would be sufficient for the story of Haft Khan? What type of Pardeh (single-frame or multi-frame)
should be used? What visual style would be appropriate for Pardeh paintings? Should we restrict
the style to the coffeehouse painting style? How many characters does Haft khan have and how
are their appearances and sizes described in the original text of Shahnameh and illustrated in
different publications? I started responding to these questions in conversation with Maryam
Tabatabaei, a Tehran based illustrator who later joined me in Montréal as an artist in residence to
collaborate in developing the artworks. We were exploring how the stories of Shahnameh and Haft
Khan in particular used to be illustrated in different versions of the book and Pardehs throughout
the history. Based on that, a key step was to make a character sheet (fig.32) and to sketch out rough
thumbnails and storyboards (fig.33).
19
For more information please see https://www.bl.uk/learning/cult/inside/corner/shah/synopsis.html
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Fig 32. Character Sheet | White Demon, Dragon, Azarang Div (2nd & 3rd from the left) and Lion and Dragon (1st & 4th from
the right) are respectively the largest characters in this story and we tried to exaggerate their sizes even more.
Fig 33. Early Thumbnails | We still needed to estimate the required number of Pardeh(s)
The initial idea was to divide the story into as many as possible number of paintings in single-
frames (single shots) and keep the multi-frame type of composition only for the largest Pardeh
which summarizes the whole story. (fig.34_Left). It was only the look of this main Pardeh that we
decided to keep more faithful to the traditional coffeehouse painting style; rich in color and texture.
In contrast, we wanted other Pardeh(s) to be monochrome and less detailed (fig.34_Right).
Fig 34. Pardeh Aesthetics | Left (Main multi-framed Pardeh): Focal point of the canvas was usually reserved for the main part of
the story which was depicted larger. Right (single-frame Pardehs): We took inspiration from the aesthetics of monochrome
lithography which was a common method for print editions of Shahnameh.
The main Pardeh will act like an itinerary plan or a main menu that shows which parts (Khans) of
the story are completed and what is left to be continued. It won't have any color at the beginning,
and it is by the completion of each Khan that the corresponding part of it turns colored. We also
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wanted to have the character's poses and facial expressions more exaggerated than what they used
to be in the coffeehouse painting style, which were more static/symbolic. All this was to make the
stories of each Pardeh visually more expressive and easier to understand.
We soon realized that we would need around 60 Pardeh(s) to be able to cover all seven Khans.
We noticed that drawing each event separately on a single-frame Pardeh wouldn't be very
appealing in terms of composition, especially with a low level of detail. Besides, going for 60
detailed Pardehs would have meant meticulous labor for the artist, but also for the player who
would need to follow the paintings, exploded in very small chunks around such a complicated
space. So we decided to compact all 60 single-frame Pardehs into only 7 mixed-frame Pardehs
each devoted to one single Khan (fig.35).
Fig 35. Single-frame Pardeh(s) | (3 out of 7) We decided to color only one portion of each Khan; the frame which best demonstrates
the essence of that Khan. It is the combination of these colored shots from each Khan that makes up the composition of the main
Pardeh.
The location of the main Pardeh was already decided (largest frame behind the stage) but picking
the right spots for seven Pardeh(s) was critical as it directly affects the navigation. This decision
was also a prerequisite to finalization of the composition of each Pardeh, since the existing frames
in the space have different sizes and proportions. At the end, we selected seven frames which have
a variety of sizes and proportions and are located on spots with best vistas but also those which
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encourage the player to move through different floors, orientations and scales. We intentionally
placed the first Pardeh (Khan) close to the player's initial spawn point so that discovering it
wouldn't be a hassle at the start. The remaining spots are still left filled with the proxy paintings,
but the plan is to replace them with some bonus paintings which reveal side narratives about the
characters.
Development of the 3D Artworks
One of the major questions I have had even prior to choosing the story of Pardehs, was how the
player would interact with these Pardeh(s) and the characters of the story. As discussed in the
previous chapter, imaginative immersion is affected by the style of representation of the characters
and their worlds. Also, the level of interaction with the characters affects how we perceive their
scales and what kind of emotions would potentially be elicited. For instance, it makes a world of
difference to see a giant painting of Div-e Sepid (white demon) on the 2D canvas of Pardeh, or we
see him start appearing inside the same 3D space we occupy with a pre-animated cycle, or we find
him aware of our presence in that space and is chasing us wherever we go. As mentioned
previously, I have been conceiving of multiple levels/spaces for the whole experience, namely:
pre-VR real/physical space, three dimensional and surreal space of Qahveh-Khaneh, two
dimensional and painterly surface of Pardeh(s), three dimensional and fantasy space of the story
itself (world of shahnameh). Even before choosing Haft Khan, I have been envisioning a smooth
transition between these spaces. The idea was to offer different intensities of interaction for each
of these spaces; from a more reciprocal and playful interaction at the beginning to a more linear
and cinematic engagement towards the end. I have also been exploring the possible styles of
representation for each of the spaces, and examining how characters could travel back and forth
between these spaces.
Many different VR projects were explored and I tried to categorize their visual style based on their
aesthetics especially in regards to their characters. I came up with six most commonly used styles
which could be categorized in three broad groups: 3D Volumetrics, 2D/2.5D Billboards, and 3D
vectors/strokes (fig.36). My goal was to allocate samples of each three styles within the three levels
of the experience (excluding the physical space). For instance, 3D volumetric style is in harmony
with the 3D space of Qahveh-Khaneh, 2D billboard style is what the two dimensional surface of
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Pardeh craves for, and 3D vector style is well in sync with the fantasy and dream-like space of the
story.
Fig 36. Visual Style Options | key inspirations for these visual categories were respectively: Museum of Symmetry (NFB, 2018),
Facebook 3D Photos (responding to viewing angle), Dear Angelica (Oculus Story Studio, 2017), Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel
(VRTOV, 2016), Allumette (Penrose Studios, 2016)
Before reviewing some of the experimentation I did in regards to the interaction possibilities with
Pardeh, I will first go through the decisions and steps we took to develop the 3D vector look of
the story world with the help of Maryam. The idea was to create one distinct 3D artwork for each
Khan which will be revealed as a reward or checkpoint after the story of that Khan is completed
(fig.37). It was also the 3d artworks that I wanted to use as the main material for implementing the
concept of scale as cinematic shot-framing. Similar to the main 2D Pardeh which is composed of
all colored frames, we also decided to have a main 3D diorama which is a composition of all 3D
art works (fig.38). One objective is to put into comparison the differences of the way we perceive
the scale of the characters in a 2D and 3D composition of a single story right next to each other.
Also we wanted to transcend one of the limitations that conventions of Coffeehouse Painting style
used to impose; it was not common to draw the protagonist much smaller than the demon
(fig.38_Right).
Fig 37. 3D Artworks | Each 3D artwork is the 3D equivalent of the colored frame of the relevant Pardeh.
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Fig 38. 3D Artworks (Main Composition) | We tried to exaggerate the scale differences especially between Rostam and Div-e Sepid
in the 3D artwork of the last Khan.
One of the first decisions I needed to make was to choose a VR painting software and make a
working pipeline that would also be convenient to the artist. I started exploring the available tools
which offer the 3D aesthetics we were looking for, like Oculus Quill and Google Tilt Brush. I
started examining the Quill because of the keyframe animation tools it provides. It is the software
that was developed for the Dear Angelica project whose aesthetics has been our main visual
inspiration for this part of the experience. I tested importing sample animated artworks from Quill
to Unity, but the jerky and stop-motion look of the animation did not feel cohesive with the 3D
space of Qahveh-Khaneh. I found Tilt Brush, on the other hand, way more intuitive and easier to
work with especially for 2D artists like Maryam who are generally first time users of VR too. Also
Tilt Brush provides a wider range of dynamic brushes with animated strokes which gives the
drawing a sense of liveness even with non-animated characters. The open-source Tilt Brush toolkit
makes almost all the brush shaders available and ready to modify inside Unity which is not
something possible via the Quill plugin. This was particularly useful as I was considering testing
dissolve effects similar to those used in Dear Angelica for the appearance of the 3D artworks.
Using the character sheet as a reference, I started making low-poly 3D armature/rig of all the
characters we encounter in all 3D artworks. Then with the advice of Maryam and reference to the
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colored frames of each Khan, I posed the 3D armatures inside the 3D animation software (3Dsmax)
and exported them to Tilt Brush. These armatures acted as a 3D guideline for Maryam over which
she could better draw and rather sculpt the brush strokes (fig.39).
Fig 39. 3D Armatures | Rigged armatures make possible animating the characters on a loop in the next iterations; now we could
export the Tilt Brush strokes which are actually 3d meshes back to the 3D animation software and skin them to the same rigged
armature, animate them and send the animation back to Unity.
Interaction with Pardeh
I was initially thinking of designing unique puzzles for each Pardeh and making their solutions
essential to the progression of the story. I even found out later that this idea also resonates well
with the story of Haft-Khan; it would put the Player in seven different challenges in parallel with
the seven labors of the protagonist Rostam. Several experiments were done for the possible ways
we could approach both 2D and 3D Pardeh(s) interactively. My priority was given to more VR-
specific and embodied interactions which ask the player to walk around and/or interactions which
somehow trigger the change of scale. The key concept was to shatter the flatness of Pardeh's 2D
surface somehow while interacting with it; to make it behave like a portal through which either the
characters of the story would extrude out off the canvas or the player could walk into the story
world, or a combination of both. I started getting visual inspiration from different non-VR artworks
at the beginning (fig.40).
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Fig 40. Blend of 2D/3D Space Inspiration (Non-VR) | Left three: The Future Was Then (2016) solo exhibition by Daniel Arsham,
whose central theme is the wrecked or liquid 2D surfaces. Image retrieved from: dezeen.com/2016/02/29/daniel-arsham-scad-
savannah-college-art-design-installation-future-was-then-eroded-walls-snarkitecture/ | Right two: works of Shintaro Ohata which
blend the 2D and 3D spaces together by pulling the characters out of the canvas; left: Good morning, world (2013-2015), right:
swing against the sunset (2018). Image retrieved from: yukari-art.jp/en/artists/shintaro-ohata
I will briefly review two of my experiments revolving around the same idea. In the first one, I
divided the painting into layers in a cut-out visual style and make them respond to the player's
movement; they extrude out and move forward only if you walk towards the painting. The closer
you get, the smaller and closer they become (fig.41). The richer the background layers are, the
more effective this idea will be. By giving each layer a distinct speed ratio, they would stay at
different depths and the parallax effect is created. The other experiment was mainly Inspired by
Art Plunge (Space Plunge, 2018) which I came across more recently; the 2D painting is literally a
portal to the 3D artwork. By stepping through the canvas, it fades out and the 3D artwork appears
simultaneously (fig.42).
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Fig 41. Interaction with 2D Pardeh (Left) | Only the character was cut out in this test. I attached a particle spawner behind the
moving layer in the form of persian calligraphy so that its movement is accentuated.
Fig 42. Interaction with 3D Artworks (Right)
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| We noticed that to make this idea work, the 2D and 3D artworks need to have a
similar level of detail so that their dissolve becomes unnoticeable. It was not the case for our artworks especially after we
decided to make all 2D Pardeh(s) multi-frame paintings.
However, for a number of reasons I decided to keep these ideas aside at least for this iteration; first
of all, as mentioned earlier, the physical boundary of the room-scale VR imposes some limitations
for such interactions. More importantly, the maximum 30 minutes one-take experience considered
for this iteration, started to make this idea unfeasible. The complexity of navigation is already
taking up enough time from the whole experience, and more diverse/complex interactions means
more practice time and perhaps dedicated introduction tips. One of the things endorsed by the
seniors who are a portion of the target audience for this project was the simplicity of the
interactions. Besides, as mentioned earlier, my concentration for this level of the experience was
on the dramatic use of scale in relation to the characters and in contribution to the imaginative
rather than challenge-based immersion. So I kept the encounter with Pardeh and its characters
more linear/cinematic, and the design of interactions with them somewhat incidental/juicy.
Encounter with the Div-e Sepid is the only exception as I have been thinking of giving the player
the role of Rostam in the last Khan and let them battle with the demon. The challenge of the player
20
Done in collaboration with Mahdi Sadri
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would be to find the right teleportation point which grants them a scale bigger than the Div so that
they could defeat him.
In the current state of the piece; when you approach each Pardeh, the story of the depicted Khan
on that Pardeh is unraveled with a voice over which is in sync with the parts of Pardeh that are
peeled off the canvas and fly towards you. They disappear with a scale-down transition (like a
zoom-out effect) one by one. Meanwhile, the whole scene is gradually darkened, and when all
frames of the 2D Pardeh are gone, its 3D artwork is revealed with a simple scale-up transition
(like a zoom-in effect). While a summary of that Khan is quoted, the 3D artwork is shown from
multiple angles and scales (dioramic to a large scale).
Remaining Steps: Performance of the Naqqāl and Other Agencies
I have ended up spending most of the attention of this iteration to the role of the player and their
navigation through the space, as well as 2D/3D representation of the Pardeh characters (especially
Rostam). However, there have also been some important questions regarding other agencies and
the possibility of having multi-player engagements of all the characters; for instance, how the
Naqqāl should perform the stories in this remediated version of Pardeh-Khani? Should they have
a visual representation in the virtual space or their vocal performance would suffice? If/how
visitors/crowd or even Ferdowsi (the poet himself) could come to play a role? And if these roles
could be interchangeable in some occasions between the player, Naqqāl and characters of the
story? For instance, would the player be able to narrate as the Naqqāl sometimes?
We should remember that Pardeh-Khani used to be a live performance and a shared social
experience for its audiences. I have been envisioning the possibilities of integrating facets of
participatory experiences like live-theatre and multiplayer games, which both have started to hold
a prominent place in VR. Social VR platforms and online VR games started to make even more
sense after the global pandemic, and I personally started enjoying the social VR games like Half
+ Half (Normalvr, 2020) and platforms like Rec Room (Rec Room Inc, 2016) during this time.
Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh has the potential of leveraging the dynamics of a multiplayer
experience; it offers a space which could be experienced by multiple people at once who could
interact with each other playfully at different scales. It is quite plausible to think of it as an online
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VR social platform very much like Museum of Other Realities (MOR Museum Inc., 2020), where
visitors could login and gather on certain occasions and enjoy the live-performances of the
Naqqāl(s) (who have distinguishable visual representations), and follow different stories/paintings
which could also be updated in each event. However, designing for a multiplayer/online VR
experience brings up a whole new set of technical challenges (hardware/software/design) well
beyond the scope of this research and the duration of this program.
One of the final steps I took for this iteration was working on the proxy voiceovers for the Naqqāl
without any visual representation. Although Naqqāl(s) used to be men most of the time, I am still
figuring out how to go about the gender and language. So far, with the help of my spouse Simin
Farrokh Ahmadi, who has been involved in production of several VR 360 documentaries in
Montréal and has voice acted in some, we created prototype voiceovers for each illustration. The
plan is to eventually have both Farsi and English versions selectable at the beginning. For now, we
used English for the narration of each Khan and few summarizing couplets in Farsi when the 3D
artworks appear. We took the English translation temporarily from heritageinstitute.com (K. E.
Eduljee) which I found to be a rich resource about old Persian history. And we took the Farsi parts
from the popular podcast series of Amir Khadem, PhD in Comparative Literature from the
University of Alberta who has narrated several chapters of Shahnameh so far.
For syncing the text to every frame of each Khan, I imported the pre-final drafts of all Pardeh
paintings as well as the proxy voice-overs to video editing software (Davinci Resolve) and started
cutting and editing. (fig.43) I also added some sound effects and ambiance, even though most of
these effects were used to be produced by Naqqāls themselves. I wanted the pace of narration to
be fast enough so that the total narration time doesn't exceed the 20-minute limitation. Hence I had
to sacrifice some parts of the text which are not so crucial. Also we realized that the tone of the
Middle-English translation becomes a bit hard to follow especially when narrated by a non-native
English speaker, so we decided to simplify the text as well.
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Fig 43. Voiceover Timeline | This is the timeline of the first Khan. The audiotrack of each part of the painting is labeled with a
different color. My attempt was to keep the total time for all the Pardeh(s) approximately the same.
Chapter 5 | Conclusion
This research was pursued in response to two main objectives: 1st. To explore what narrative
affordances the unique perception of scale in VR could bring about, 2nd. To prototype a culturally
charged VR experience which encompasses spatial, linear and interactive narratives and utilizes
scale in all these facets. In the 2nd chapter, I discussed the rigidity of scale and its perceptual
relativity in physical reality: I explained that it is our own body size as well as the presence of
standard-sized artifacts which come to assist us in how we perceive the scale. Then, the
significance of the frames as scale references in non-VR mediums was highlighted. I surveyed
some of the non-VR screen-based games that employ the notion of scale in some way. I observed
that scale has benefited the explorative nature of the reviewed games.
In the 3rd chapter, I first outlined some of the technological specificities of VR. I argued that it is
the absence of frame as well as the absolute liquidity of objects’ scale, but most importantly our
own virtual size which afford narrative possibilities unique to VR. I examined how scale could
leverage three modes of immersion, namely: sensory, challenge-based and imaginative. Then I
studied a variety of VR cases which have exploited scale in one way or another. I overviewed my
own experiments with scale with regards to each type of immersion. I argued that the inherently
more sensory and spatial immersion of VR makes confrontation with massive entities more
viscerally impactful. This is also what makes VR a suitable medium for spatial visualization of
natural phenomena of micro and macro scale. My second argument was that scale is barely
exploited in VR as a dynamic/interactive element, or as a central component of the gameplay. The
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key takeaway was that VR-specific challenges could result from being able to interact with one
single environment in multiple scales.
My third argument was that in order to study the possible contribution of scale to the imaginative
immersion, the narrative context and level of interactivity of the characters should be taken into
account. My focus was on the characters as they are the most essential formal element of the
storyline. I analysed the effects of encountering them in different sizes and in three narrative
contexts; spatial (gallery), linear (cinematic) and interactive (game). I observed that the static
characters with photo-realistic details in merely spatial experiences could provoke uncanny
feelings when they are small or gigantic, or when they are normal-sized but familiar (3D scans of
yourself).
I continued with an emphasis on the importance of the camera in mediating our engagement with
characters, especially in non-VR cinematic narratives. Since the camera is not a separate entity
from the viewer in VR, I explored how the cinematic language associated with the camera
performance could be translated into VR. Given that, I examined three different scale-relationships
between the viewer and the character as the equivalences of three ranges of camera shots; medium-
shot, close-up and long-shot. I learned that engagement with the characters with similar sizes to
our own, feels more cognitive than emotional; it could also feel uncomfortable if they are humans
with photo-realistic appearances. The most empathetic engagements are when the characters are
much smaller and staged in a dioramic setting. This size-relationship functions pretty much like a
close-up shot in bringing us psychologically closer to the character. Although encountering large
scale characters could potentially operate like a long-shot, it is mostly used to astonish the viewer
in front of the massive creatures. It is because the visceral impact of such encounters in VR still
dominates other emotions. Perhaps by getting accustomed with the sensory effects of VR, this
scale-relationship could be exploited further for communicating other feelings. I noticed that the
scale of virtual embodiment that we enter the experience with (i.e. landing scale) affects how we
register the characters’ actual size as well as our own default size. Overall, there were only a few
cases in which scale differences between the viewer and characters were used dynamically like
how framing operates in cinema.
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I also reviewed two VR games with strong imaginative immersion which revolve around a small
player character (PC) and a gigantic NPC respectively. I found that controlling a small character
in VR is totally different than moving them on a flat-screen medium. Because of our inevitable
virtual presence, PCs are more easily perceived as independent living beings, rather than our own
avatar. Hence our relationship with them would potentially be more empathetic. Simply put, I
noticed that characters in VR become our imaginary friends more easily as we are literally situated
in their imaginary worlds.
The key takeaway from these explorations and experiments with scale in VR, is that the creative
manipulation of scale of the experiencer's virtual embodiment could bring about spatial
experiences, gameplay mechanics and cinematic syntaxes unique to VR. It could create
unprecedented connections with other virtual characters of different sizes. Change of viewer's scale
in VR seems to have an equivalent weight of editing film in linear narratives, and it will have a
definitive role in shaping various genres of VR games as well. That said, it is only the sensory
impact of the scale which has been exploited the most in VR thus far.
As explained in the 4th chapter, I decided to go for the Iranian traditional culture as the main source
of inspiration for developing a stand-alone prototype which benefits from the notion of scale. I
elaborated on how I eventually focused on the Pardeh-Khani (a screen-based form of storytelling).
Firstly, because its remediation in VR is considered a contribution to safeguarding an intangible
heritage which is even recognized by UNESCO as one of endangered cultural species. Secondly,
because Pardeh-Khani already consists of spatial, linear and interactive dimensions which makes
it an ideal subject matter to be translated into a VR experience. M.C. Escher’s Relativity was a key
inspiration for manipulation of the Qahveh-Khaneh (coffeehouses wherein Pardeh-Khani used to
be performed). Illusive/surreal as well as geometric/spatial complexity taken from this work led to
creation of a labyrinthine space which could perfectly host Pardeh-Khani, but also justify a more
playful use of scale. At this stage, the main attention was given to creating, playtesting and revising
the navigation mechanics. The goal was to make scale contribute to the sensory immersion in the
space but also position it as a central piece of a navigation puzzle. The proposed mechanic asks
the player to change their scale of embodiment frequently in order to be able to follow the linear
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story of Pardeh. This in return would give them the chance to experience the space in a myriad of
vantage points too.
With the plan of making it an average 30-minute experience, the story of Haft Khan_e Rostam was
chosen, for its simple plot and cast of characters of different sizes. Most importantly, it was chosen
for its seven distinct Khans (sequences) which allowed dividing and scattering it around the space.
At the current stage of development, there are seven illustrated Pardehs in mixed-frame
compositions and various sizes and proportions, each devoted to the story of one Khan. All the
frames are monochrome except for the larger frame of each Pardeh which depicts the key event
of the illustrated Khan. Seven distinct 3D artworks were also created for each Khan which will be
revealed as a reward after completion of that Khan. There is also one largest 2D Pardeh which is
a composition of all colored frames from each Pardeh, and one dioramic 3D artwork consisting of
all seven 3D artworks. They both function like itinerary 2D/3D plans which display what parts of
the story are completed. They also provide the occasion to compare our perception of a 2D and a
3D composition of a single story in two different styles and scales.
This is an ongoing project and there are still remaining steps to be taken and some important
questions to be answered. For instance, the method of representation and performance of the
Naqqāl (narrator) deserves a particular attention. A considerable care was given to the spatial
design for its importance in any VR experience. The navigation mechanics also took a good
number of iterations to meet the challenges generated from being a room scale VR experience.
However, a crucial aspect of Pardeh-Khani experience is related to the imaginative engagement
with its story and characters. Characters are static at this stage of the prototype, and the Naqqāl is
a pre-recorded voice over without any visual representation. I am still considering putting them in
different levels of interaction with the visitor. For instance, 3D artworks could start to have an
animation cycle after finishing a certain number of Pardehs, and at one point Rostam would seem
to be aware of your presence and finally in the last Khan, you embody Rostam and battle with the
Div-e Sepid (White Demon).
The complexity of the Escheresque Qahveh-Khaneh as well as the fact that Pardeh-Khani used to
be a live performance with social dimensions, makes the project crave for a multiplayer version.
77
Therefore, turning it into a social VR platform especially in the time of pandemic seems like a
legitimate step to consider for the future. It is not foreseeable to showcase neither the prototypes
nor the final iteration in gallery settings. The upcoming plan is to disseminate the whole research
context, questions and process online, perhaps partly on Mozilla Hub. It is a widely accessible
online platform even for non-VR users. Unlike a normal website, it allows designing a virtual
exhibition consisting of rooms like hyperlinks. Although its technical limitations and performance
considerations don't allow sharing the experience itself, it could be curated like a physical research-
exhibition for sharing the contextualizing material as well as the creation process. For the
experience itself, Steam and/or Oculus platforms are considered to be used to share the last
iteration after finalizing everything in one scene.
VR is still considered a technology that is not mature nor accessible enough, and a medium whose
communication language is not set in stone yet. This research-creation contributes to researchers,
designers and narrators who look for better understanding the particularities of this medium and
unique narratives it could afford when compared to non-VR mediums. This project also raises
awareness about the marginalized traditions of storytelling through the lens of new technologies.
It shares challenges of, and proposes possible solutions for remediating a screen-based experience
in VR.
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Cited Works
- A Fisherman's Tale (InnerspaceVR, 2018)
- Albedo 0.39 (Vangelis, 1976, Track 6)
- Allumette (Penrose Studios, 2016)
- Among the Sleep (Krillbite Studio, 2014)
- Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus (Salvador Dalí, 1934)
- Boy (Ron Mueck, 1999)
- Chorus (Tyler Hurd, 2018)
- Dear Angelica (Oculus Story Studio, 2017)
- DeathTolls VR (Ali Eslami, 2015)
- Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012)
- Donut County (Ben Esposito, 2018)
- Down the Rabbit Hole (Cortopia Studios, 2019)
- Dreams of Dali (Half Full Nelson, Goodby Silverstein and Partners, 2016)
- Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel (VRTOV, 2016)
- Feed and Grow: Fish (Old B1ood, 2016)
- Flock (Object Normal & Holojam, 2016)
- Floor Burger (Claes Oldenburg, 1962)
- GiantCop: Justice Above All (Other Ocean Interactive, 2017)
- Good morning, world (Shintaro Ohata, 2013-2015)
- Half + Half (Normalvr, 2020)
- Henry (Oculus Story Studio, 2015)
- Hijimi Museum of Literature (Tadao Ando, 1991)
- Home - A VR Spacewalk (BBC, 2017)
- Ico (Team Ico, 2001)
- In the Eyes of the Animal (MIT Documentary Lab, 2015)
- Irrational Exuberance: Prologue (Buffalo Vision, 2017)