Geometrical Hong Kong
An Immersive and Interactive Virtual Reality Tour
Interactive Narrative Design |Individual Project
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
In a nutshell
Geometrical Hong Kong is an interactive virtual reality (VR) documentary that provides the audience with an immersive touring experience of the less-known but visually stunning and highly functional architectural design of Hong Kong public housing estates.
Striving a balance between narrativity and interactivity has always been a problem for directors who hope to embrace the virtual reality trend. How to avoid only showcasing only the technology without much content or simply transplanting linear storytelling content within conventional media onto the VR platform is the hardest part.
Geometrical Hong Kong allows the audience to navigate a series of buildings in a first-person view by changing positions, both inside and outside the buildings, while listening to brief audio introductions of the architecture.
When people think about Hong Kong, the first mental image popping out in their mind are always the Victoria Harbor and sky-high architectures. It was the case for me even before I came to the city for a one-year study.
During my stay, I had been trying to discover the different facets of Hong Kong apart from its amazing city skylines. It is a multi-cultural city that is full of character, variety, and interest. One of my favorite thing about Hong Kong is the unique mix of old and new, especially the dense, monochromic yet highly functional public housing estates.
As a journalist turned designer, I’m always keen to find stories and deliver them to my audience. "I should let more people experience and appreciate the beauty of the public housing estates in Hong Kong" — that’s the initial momentum of my design.
To find a new medium to better tell the story, I decided to go for Virtual Reality or VR for its immersive feature and tried to break the bonds of linear storytelling structure. Meanwhile I added interactions as another layer. This is a fresh attempt to make the audience active and the story "alive".
The research work of this project can be mainly divided into three areas – content design, interactive storytelling and technical feasibilities.
I. Content Design
1. The History of Public Housing Estates
Public housing in Hong Kong is a series of mass housing programmes through which the government provides affordable homes for lower-income residents. It is now an important component of the real estate market in Hong Kong, as nearly half of the population residing in some form of public housing.
The public housing policy could be traced back to 1954, after a fire in Shek Kip Mei destroyed thousands of shanty homes on the Christmas Day of 1953, leaving more than 50,000 people homeless. The accident prompted the Hong Kong government to begin constructing homes for the poor.
Since then, the government continued to build public housing estates to accommodate the booming population. According to the Housing Authority, as of 2017, there are more than 170 public rental housing estates consisting of over 760,000 flats, providing homes for over 2 million people.
2. Geometrical Structure & Design Philosophies
The urban planning of Hong Kong and the design philosophies of its public housing estates are heavily influenced by French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who proposed the concept of "A contemporary city of three million inhabitants" in 1922. His objective, according to himself, was "by constructing a theoretically watertight formula to arrive at the fundamental principles of modern town planning".
Le Corbusier’s design philosophy has made a huge impact on Hong Kong’s public housing estate programs. Most public rental buildings in Hong Kong adopt a modular design which sharply reduces both the cost and time of construction.
Concept of "A Contemporary City" (Photo source: thecharnelhouse.org)
Typical public rental building complex in Hong Kong
3. Field Trip
Before kicking off this project, I have already visited some of the oldest public housing estates in Hong Kong. Inspired by their different geometrical structures, I decided to segment my story based on the shape of the well inside the buildings – round, square, rectangle, perhaps more to discover.
II. Interactive Storytelling
1. What Is Interactive Storytelling
There is no consistent definition of interactive storytelling. It can be seen as a way of telling stories enhanced with technological, social or collaborative interactive features. It is a way to offer a new experience to the audience that is adapted to their behaviors. New forms of interactive storytelling have been stamped with many different labels: non-linear, interactive, transmedia, and more.
New forms of storytelling have greatly redefined the author’s position. It requires the author to acquire what Chris Crawford, a famous game designer calls "second-person thinking", which is the ability to anticipate the audience's motivations and reactions when they face choices. To realize this empathetic creative style, storytellers have to enter a multi-dimensional writing space.
A 3D multi-dimensional writing space
2. Narrative Structure
To create an interactive story, there is always a balance between narrativity and interactivity. When the balance is tweaked just right, it will create the perception of great "gameplay". Audiences will be able to feel that they are part of the story moving forward according to the author's will, while still have the control of getting to steer.
To tell a non-linear story, I choose a fold-back structure which is often used in game design. Users have choices, but the branches of their choices eventually all lead to the same place. This structure keeps the number of branches to a manageable number.
A fold-back narrative structure
3. Case Study
There are many new approaches toward interactive storytelling in different fields, most are in games, news, and documentaries. Below are some examples of various categories.
News & Documentaries
Using fully immersive experience that combines images and text on a backdrop of 360-degree video in a highly unique microsite.
Bangui a Forgotten Crisis - Action Against Hunger
Using fully immersive virtual reality and gaming technologies to give people the sensation of being "on-scene".
Hong Kong Unrest - a 360° Virtual Reality Documentary
Interactive drama action-adventure video game Heavy Rain
Hong Kong Unrest - a 360° Virtual Reality Documentary
III. Technical Feasibilities
1. Video & Audio Content Creation
For shooting 360-degree photos and videos, I chose a consumer grade camera, Ricoh Theta S, for its decent image quality and acceptable video quality. If there were a higher budget, Nokia OZO or GoPro Omni could yield better quality footages.
The audio content consists of spatial ambient sounds and pre-recorded voice-over narrations. The sound design is critical to a VR documentary since the audience can always be guided by directional audio cues. To realize this, I employed the technology of Dummy Head Binaural Recording for an immersive and realistic spatial audio experience.
Ricoh Theta S 360° camera
2. VR Application Creation
As a designer with limited coding knowledge, I chose the web-based VR application creation tool InstaVR because it does not require any programming basics, and it has a good compatibility with most state-of-the-art VR platforms. Currently, I have already published the app on the iOS App Store and users could play it with a third-party VR headset.
User interface of InstaVR with hotspot created
I want to create an immersive way of telling stories that enables people to explore in first person view and navigate in a natural way.
"A Guided Virtual Reality Tour"
A 360-degree image to be imported to the VR creation software
Unlike the conventional filmmaking process, I adopted an iterative prototyping approach borrowed from interaction design to provide an ideal experience for the audience. Each round of prototyping begins with the narrative structure to decide which spatial locations to be included. Then the footage was captured, and an interactive VR application was created. I conducted three rounds of testings in total and each time I adjusted the narrative structure, information architecture, choice of medium for content presentation, and interaction methods based on their feedback.
The narrative structure after two rounds of prototyping & testings
Testing & Feedback
According to the feedbacks, I found out that the overall the documentary offers a refreshing and satisfying experience. Audiences enjoyed immersing themselves in the virtual world and compared it to gaming experience. Some interesting findings:
A pattern was observed – "explore the game map" first and then revisit every location for a detailed exploration
Spatial audio greatly increased the sense of presence
Most audiences did not notice the difference of image resolutions between 360-degree photos and videos (caused by the device limitation)
A common wish is to have more freedom of movement and control such as walking around and interacting with people in the environment.
User Testing Protocol
- What is the relationship between you and space?
- What is your order of navigation?
- Which is the most immersive scene?
- When did you feel less immersed?
- Can you draw the building out and tell where your standing point is?
- Does the voice-over in the introduction part help you understand the background, or harness the feeling of immersion?
- Would you prefer photos or videos as scenes?
- When you are at the home menu where you select the shape, would you like to hear or see the question?
- Which is the scene you stayed for the longest time and why?
- Where else do you want to explore but can't find a hotspot?
- When you are at the outside scene, do you know which building you came out from?
- Is the way of transition between scenes acceptable?
- How would you like to go back to home menu?
- What do you want to know about this public housing estate?
- If I give you some extra information by adding voice-overs, would you prefer automatically playing or having the right to control the switch?
- Do you have any other expectations toward the overall experience?
Drawings of the most impressive scene from users
Final Design of Narrative Structure
Limited mobility and simple interaction method are two major weaknesses of my design. Users cannot walk freely in the scene since the environment is captured by a camera but not built by a 3D modeling software. By using Unity, I could potentially solve this problem. The interaction method is still simple which is limited to staring. This could be further developed by changing the VR creation tool to add more sensory systems.
Contribution to the Field
I consider my work as a new model for architecting a VR experience, which I call it an interactive spatial exploration in lightweight VR.
I believe my production model will benefit those artists with good cinematography skills but no programming background in creating their own VR content.
幾何香港 | Geometrical Hong Kong
Published on the App Store for iOS devices
The artwork has been accepted for inclusion into the CHI 2018 Art Exhibition in the Virtual Reality Lounge venue.
Poster, postcards, stamps