Fighting Stage Fright
Imagining an audience in their underwear no longer...
For a large proportion of the population, public speaking is a loathed task. The anxiety many feel before public speaking can range from uncomfortable to downright paralyzing. This fear is often dismissed as something that is easily surmountable and not all that serious. The common public speaking advice “imagine the audience in their underwear” is reflective of that. There is only one real solution to solving this anxiety, exposure therapy and practice, and more practice, and more practice.
VR is the perfect solution to this problem. With a rich VR environment, we can emulate (or even exaggerate) what it’s like being on a stage. In VR you can practice reading from a script and presenting to a captive audience that is staring at you. The primary benefit of doing this virtually is that you can practice in a low-stakes environment.
There is already a commercial VR product with a similar ethos to our project, Ovation. Ovation has a more corporate application and feel, but we wanted to create an equivalent, open source, experience that anyone could play around with.
One of the things that is hardest to deal with when speaking on a theater-esque stage are the spotlights. It’s easy to look into them and get blinded, so we emulated that experience using the Kronnect Volumetric Light package. This allows for the user’s sight to get washed out if their eyes move upwards. This trains the user to keep their eyes on the audience instead of up towards the ceiling. The spotlights also follow the user around the stage. So if they want to practice a TED Talk style presentation, where moving around is encouraged, the user cannot escape the lights!
In our experience, one of the most awkward portions of any public speaking exercise is trying to quiet the audience down before speaking. We made sure to emulate that experience here. Before the user starts reading their script, there is a background noise of murmuring voices that can only be silenced through microphone input. As the user starts speaking, the crowd slowly quiets down and eventually goes quiet.
Scripts and Audience Scanning
Another key part of public speaking is learning how to balance reading your script and looking at the audience. In our demo, there are two ways that a script could be read, either through a piece of paper on the lectern or through the teleprompters flanking the lectern. The physical script on the lectern can be generated by uploading photos of your notes/script, and a text file can be imported to scroll on the teleprompter.
In order to incentivize the user scanning the crowd, we implemented a mini-game where red balls appear over certain parts of the audience. To make them go away, the user has to look at them and they will gain one point. The balls will spawn all across the audience to put the user’s head on a swivel in order to give attention to the whole crowd.
A Large Audience (with moving eyes)
The last feature, and arguably the most important, is having a lifelike audience. Stage fright stems from interactions with people and being perceived by a large audience. In this demo, the setting is a packed theater with every seat occupied by an animated human model found in this people pack in the Unity asset store. The audience also tracks the user’s position on the stage, so the eyes follow the presenter. It feels like they’re being watched very intently while presenting.
When building our stage fright simulator, we aimed for certain parts of realism, meaning an accurate setting and similar sensory experiences that often make public speaking unpleasant. This is right up VR’s alley. The stage fright simulator, took a video game-like experience and applied to something useful for day-to-day life.
This demo is available for you to try using this Github link, or you can watch a live demo of a brief presentation to get a feel of how this works!
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