VR Perspectives in Storytelling

Commander Riker searches for Data in the Holodeck, ST-TNG Enconter at Farpoint

Commander Riker searches for Data in the Holodeck, ST-TNG Enconter at Farpoint

What is an immersive environment?

Close your eyes.

Try to recall the dream you had last night. Were you inside or outside? Were you active or simply waiting for something? Were you somewhere recognizable and familiar, or were you somewhere otherworldly?

An immersive environment shares many similarities to experiencing a dream because you are experiencing that environment first hand, as if you were really a part of a new world. The difference between your dreams and a true VR space is that in VR you now have the capability of living in a world created by someone else’s vision. Your dreams may be your own, but now you can experience the dreams of someone else, anyone else.

Theater in history

Theater was our original stage in which we explored the dreams, the fantasies, the stories created by strangers. The format of theater performances changed drastically based on different cultures and different time periods, but always there was a desire to capture the audience in the moment. By plunging headfirst into the illusion on stage, audience members lost themselves in the process, and a connection deeper than spoken words was formed. This was a powerful moment, catharsis en masse, and so became something universally sought around the world despite surface level differences in culture and taste.

Theater, up until relatively modern times, was an interactive experience, with audience members signaling their feelings and engaging with the actors on stage. Shakespearean theater was originally performed ‘in the round’, where audiences surrounded a stage, allowing for a multifaceted performance playing with perspective and line of site. Varying techniques developed to enhance the story and draw out the moment when trembling audience members suspended their disbelief, and submitted to the moment.

Unfortunately, this interactive element to live performance was overshadowed by the mass appeal created by television and radio. Thousands could now passively participate in a story without leaving their homes, no longer a part of the community of audience members sharing an experience. This shift in audience engagement lead to the development of whole new story telling disciplines and technologies, all ultimately aimed at seeking that same moment where fantasy became the reality in the eyes of an observer.

The elements of engagement

If audience engagement from both more passive mediums like television and radio, as well as more active mediums like theater and live performance can cause audiences to suspend disbelief, what elements are fundamental to this feeling of engagement?

I believe there are three essential elements to any story (as opposed to the often quoted 5 Elements) which captures the imagination.

  1. Conflict
  2. Character
  3. Catharsis – A synthesis of Setting, Plot and Theme

Conflict is a natural state of being for all of us as humans. It can be represented externally as a conflict between individuals or groups, but also it can be represented internally when our own perceptions of the world do not measure up to what we are objectively experiencing. We all face conflict throughout our daily lives, whether we express or are even aware of these conflicts, and so a story which does not contain an element of conflict has no hope of retaining our attention.

Character is critical because it gives us something to relate to. Characters are models of ourselves, whether highly stylized and ritualized as is the case in many traditional casts from Chinese and Japanese theater, or more realistic and based on the types of individuals we come across in our own lives. Character represents the qualities we find in ourselves and our immediate loved ones, both the warmly familiar alongside the terrifyingly grotesque. If there is no human character to a story, we cannot simply emotionally engage.

Catharsis is a much deeper expression attempting expressing how we ultimately purge or cleanse emotion through the intensity of a shared feeling. We have a cathartic experience when place ourselves ‘into the shoes’ of the character on stage. We are creatures of our environment however, and we cannot make this connection when the environment itself does not match the mood being set. That leads to the final elements of story where we build our world, meaning, setting, plot, and ultimately, theme. When our world where a story takes place is believable, we can emotionally parallel the characters and conflicts that take place within. Where balance is upset, in that the emotional effort needed to identify with a character in a story outweighs the voice of our own personal common sense, we disbelieve the situation; our moment of fantasy is lost, ultimately leaving us feeling unsatisfied.

4th Wall Blues- Reminders that we are only pretending

The 4th wall -- the barrier between an audience and the story unfolding before and around us -- is a critical boundary. When we are reminded that we are only seeing a story, that we do not picture ourselves in the moment, we immediately lose the emotional impact of what is being presented. Many, many aspects of performance can break this barrier of engagement.

"It's good to be the King" History of the World Pt. 1, from the master Mel Brooks

Most importantly, we do not want to remind the audience that they are being shown a story. We want them to place themselves into that story so that everything else fades away, and they live in the moment. Technology and tools are the biggest problem, where our tools for engagement are not used carefully, they create unexpected distance between the audience and actor, breaking any connection that may have been built. Only break the 4th wall when you intend, never by accident.

Achieving true immersion in storytelling

For VR, the magic presented by the medium is that the barrier between audience and actor can be reduced to its lowest possible threshold to date. Somewhat ironically, this is made possible by advancements in technology and tools which in many ways are far more complicated than anything that has reached mass market appeal thus far.

In VR, your perspective on story can be as intimate as desired. This may make some audiences uncomfortable at first as they are forced to emotionally connect with someone else’s world. Overtime however, the connection is established despite the nature of the story.

Interaction is a critical part of this, and is the major distinguishing factor between 360 video and fully interactive VR environments. The challenge with interaction however is in the tools themselves. How controls function, how you move within your environment, and what you are supposed to do within someone else’s world must be carefully planned and guided. If it is not, then frustration sets in quickly, and the 4th wall is broken.

True immersion in an environment must be intuitive, which means giving us the flexibility to react to our environment on instinct. Despite what you may think, this intuitive response can be achieved with the level of technology we have available now, but it must be carefully designed into any experience. Numerous examples exist from the last year which show how easily one can lose oneself in a VR environment when controls are well integrated into an experience, as well as when controls are poorly considered.

Buying in to the experience

If you have ever read a novel and found yourself lost in the pages then you are capable of immersion as I’ve discussed it. If you have ever watched a particularly engaging film and then had a dream about it that night, you are experiencing the type of immersion storytellers have aspired to from the earliest human memories. VR is simply the next step in this medium where we can tell our tales. It is not simply a technology, and certainly not a gimmick. The foundations of VR storytelling have the power to make future platforms like the ‘Holodeck’ on Star Trek TNG an engaging reality. Now is simply the first step in our historical journey to better live the fantasy we desire.

"Real holographic simulated evil Lincoln is back!!!" Malfunctioning Holodeck scene, Futurama

"Real holographic simulated evil Lincoln is back!!!" Malfunctioning Holodeck scene, Futurama

VR from HK to LA

HK to LA.jpg

I’ve spent the last year introducing VR to creative agencies and brands across the pacific, from Hong Kong to Los Angeles.

It should come as NO SURPRISE that nearly everyone has at best little experience with VR. Even the early adopters I’ve met with have often only had limited exposure to the medium, and subsequently base their opinions on a very narrow cross-section of experiences.

Let’s level the playing field now…no one has experience in VR comparable to its most closely related fields of Digital Media, Film, Animation or Video Game production. The industry is still far too new to have developed anything resembling a track record, at least not from a marketing perspective.

“YuMe surveyed more than 800 US individuals between the age of 18 – 54 to understand current attitudes about and potential demand within the immersive technology space, and to better understand potential advertising opportunities. What the survey found was that 86 percent of respondents had heard of VR but only 29 percent had actually tried any form of VR. Of those that had tried VR, 63 percent felt it was the ‘next big thing’.”

Immediately after our first few prospective client pitches, we learned NOT to trust someone when they said they’ve ‘tried it before’, and as quickly as possible put them into a headset for a demonstration.

Why do we do that?

The thousands upon thousands of articles being written in this field have already started to shape opinions faster than consumers can access the technology. Everyone has their agenda, so articles take on all shapes and sizes as they seek to bring people onboard with their predictions for how the industry will shape itself over the next decade.

No company, especially independent studios, can fight that tsunami of self-interest…but there is something that CAN…well-crafted VR EXPERIENCES SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES!

Understanding the Medium

VR is a Medium, not a Technology.

This is the mantra I hammer into everyone I know for good reason. First, as humans we painted on caves, then skins and leather. Finally, paper entered the picture followed by film, which lead to creation of animation and motion pictures, opening a whole new realm of possibilities to capture the hearts of people looking for something beyond the experiences of their daily life.

Computer technology quickly changed the shape of many parts of these industries, introduced the concept of interactive stories through video games. All this history searched for that fleeting moment when one loses oneself in the fantasy, ultimately laying the foundation for VR.

It is all about the storytelling, no one wants to spend time doing something they haven’t emotionally invested in. What types of tales do you enjoy? What world do you live in when you daydream?

VR gives you a platform to explore the creative in a deeply personal way, making you forget where and who you are for that fleeting moment, diving into your own chosen fantasy. To a person, online marketers and social media influencers recognize this need to craft the story fit for a VR experience.

Jesse Stay, Futurist and Author “Brands need to be getting ready — by end of 2017 VR and mixed reality will be much more mainstream, and all brands will need to have experiences built and ready for this.…The world around each customer is now the brand’s canvas.”
Stewart Rogers, Journalist, Analyst and speaker for Venture Beat “So the time for VR marketing is now, not in the future…Brands can leverage the opportunity through amazing, emotional content. Whether as a trailer experience injected ahead of another VR movie or game, or a branded mini-experience within a related property, through product/brand placement, or a fully created and owned piece of original content, brands can no longer wait to see if VR is becoming the next big thing. It already is.”
Tamara McCleary, International branding expert and top 1% of Social Media influencers “Brands can spend a lot of money chasing new technology and not getting results. The goal is creating “a more personalized connection between customer and brand…”

The Challenge- No Fear

Realistically speaking, most marketers understand this now, and maybe even personally are willing to try. The problem they face is buy-in at an institutional level. How can they explain all of this to their boss when even they really don’t fully understand?

Luckily the medium itself is simple once you take your first few steps. The jargon can be confusing mainly because a standard has not yet emerged, but there are a few common formats you can still make yourself aware of.

  • 360 Film and Photos: 360 media can come to you in two forms, either still photographs or videos. These are produced almost the same way your familiar digital media photography and videos are produced, the only difference being you can capture every angle around you in 360 rather than a single lens focus point. There is now even a VR Photography Association established to explore this medium globally!
  • Animated VR: These VR experiences use the same tools that Disney and DreamWorks use when they animate their spectacular films. The only difference between ‘Moana’ and a ‘Moana VR’ experience for example is that in VR you would be inside the Moana world. See Google’s Spotlight Stories heartwarming VR animated music video ‘Pearl’ to understand the power of this new format.
  • Hybrid: Computer animation and 360 digital media can be blended together as needed. Imagine stepping into the world of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ where you are standing next to the famed cartoon bunny in the real world setting of the film, and you can understand the capability. Watch the shark to see what I mean.
  • Interactive VR: These VR experiences use the basic tools from Video Game production to create environments you can interact with in VR. Grab a controller and move around at will, the production techniques are the same as those utilized by Sony, EA Sports, and Ubisoft when they release their hit titles into the gaming world. Conan O’Brien shows it best when he took Team Coco into an interactive virtual world!

Producing VR is similar to what many brand representatives are already doing on a daily basis. The skill sets required of a comprehensive VR production team are more demanding than a traditional media production studio because they are much broader, but this doesn’t effect your marketers or your brand.

The most important consideration you have is to think through your creative. Understand your customers and what you want to convey to them. What is your story, and why does a VR experience enhance that emotional connection your customer will have?

You Want Examples? I got Examples!

This has been happening throughout 2016, and there are already many experiences to choose from. Want to see some VR experiences? You can experience them from your own computer and YouTube. Each of the below examples has over 1 million hits on YouTube, and represent interesting takes on 360 storytelling. I’ll bet you weren’t aware of who already jumped onto the VR bandwagon!

  1. NYT Fight for Falluja (2 million views)
  2. Qantas and Tourism Australia (4 million views)
  3. Gorillaz 360° (9.3 million views)
  4. Colgate (11.5 million views)
  5. Lipton Tea (6.6 million views)
  6. Fiat 'A Whole New Spin' (1.5 million views) 
  7. Philippines Tourism (3 million+ views)
  8. Richard Branson's Virgin Media House Party (3 million+ views)
  9. Summer in Dubai Tourism Promo (20 million views)

When you open these links, simply use your mouse to click and drag the camera angle left, right, up or down as you desire! If you look on your phone through the YouTube app, you can just move your phone around yourself to see all the different angles, or better yet view with your own VR device!