(see also: ghost story)

the sensation of having no tangible relationship with your surroundings despite feeling embodied in the virtual world

The phrase was coined by Story Studio and the name is a reference to actor Patrick Swayze who played the protagonist in the 1990’s film Ghost. In the film, Swayze’s character dies and returns as a ghost to help his wife solve the mystery of his death. The effect observed by Story Studio, looks to describe the struggle of affecting a virtual environment and the people who occupy it when no observable feedback from the world is being received.

Solutions to the Swayze effect are not straightforward, as the feeling of presence is made up of a number of sub-categories: active presence, emotional presence, embodied presence, and social presence, and all these subcategories are also influenced by: the technology capabilities of the HMD and the realism of the virtual world.

Story Studio note:

…acknowledging the viewer can create a considerable gap in connecting with the story and action.1

and that…

…acknowledging the viewer is powerful but can contradict the intent of the story being told.2

1. Burdette, M. ‘The Swayze Effect’ Story Studio Blog Website.
2. Burdette, M. ‘The Swayze Effect’ Story Studio Blog Website.

If active presence is not achievable due to limitations in the technology e.g. the HMD doesn’t support hand controls or track body movement, then one solution to counter the Swayze effect is to tailor the narrative to suit it.

For instance, if the experience limits the experiencer from physically interacting with the world, then the story should look to mirror this by creating fictional reasons to justify the limitations and maintain plausibility. Perhaps the character is a hostage and bound to a chair. In this scenario the story provides an explanation to why the experiencer is unable to physically influence the scene.

Or perhaps the story demands that the character is required to be passive because they know a secret, making the experiencer silence logical. As Rob Morgan notes in an interview for the Voices of VR podcast:

I found personally this process of implication, this process of getting you secretively involved, or that you have some dire thing that you’re holding against everybody, or that something is amiss, something like saying “Just act normal”. There’s no more evocative sentence in the English language than “Just act normal”. Because the minute you say it to somebody their whole behaviour, their entire relationship to reality, changes.3

3. Morgan, R. Storytelling in VR: Ambiguity and Implication in 1st Person Narratives Voices of VR. Podcast

Recommended Listening

Voices of VR by Kent Bye
#339: Storytelling in VR: Ambiguity and Implication in 1st Person Narratives