atypical reality

Exploring the narrative potentials of an immersive environment

This research project by Lena Panaita considers how a storyteller might employ virtual reality (VR) in the creation of an immersive narrative that communicates an experience of both conscious and atypical consciousness (near-death experience). As VR has been shown to heighten levels of empathy in journalism, the study aims to harness its potential in the creation of a new form of graphic novel narrative.

Panaita’s novel orchestrates images, words, space, time, sound, immersion and interaction inside three-dimensional 360-degree space to achieve an enhanced level of empathy with the reader. As an artistic inquiry, the study emanates from a post-positivist paradigm and the research design employs autoethnography supported by heuristic inquiry.

Autoethnography combines different aspects of ethnography and autobiography, and explores personal experiences in connection with others. It uses self-reflection as a means of understanding a wider range of social, historical, cultural, and political conditions.

VR is currently changing the way we tell and ‘read’ stories. In this realm, a viewer can become a witness ‘inside’ a story, and gain a special, subjective first-hand perspective, rather than a third-person view. To convey the near-death experience this project uses virtual reality’s inherent disadvantage as an advantage, allowing the viewer to be present in a scene and at the same time not have a physical body, to show what it might feel like to have an out-of-body experience. The study utilises a new form of storytelling where VR technology is used to enhance a sense of immersion and empathetic response. It seeks to create an immersive, detailed environment that allows a reader to be inside both the thinking and world of a character.

By using Oculus Quill to produce the imagery Panaita was able to illustrate and animate material inside virtual space. This approach differs from conventional 3D experiences because work is completely rendered inside VR. Drawing in VR can be relatively challenging because the process induces motion sickness (or cybersickness), and eyestrain, headaches, dizziness, disorientation, oculomotor discomfort, and nausea, (ranging from low to severe levels).

Given that drawing inside VR often requires scaling imagery up or down, passing through walls and floors, or flipping the environment, recovery from periods of immersion may range from hours to days. Only with time, does adaptation to the environment occur. The design faced an additional challenge relating to the optimisation of the file size and its complexity. This is because the technology is still developing and for work to be uploaded onto Quill Theater, the file can only have a limited number of triangles and draw calls. This limitation restricts the VR visual because the design requires both simplified shapes and animation.

Centre for Design Research
Te Kura Toi a Hoahoa
School of Art and Design

Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau,
Auckland University of Technology


Susan Hedges
Mandy Smith

Authors are responsible for obtaining permission to publish images or illustrations with their papers in CDR; neither editors nor publishers of CDR accept responsibility for any author’s/authors’ failure to do so.

© Centre for Design Research, AUT University 2021