Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Alphabet Soup – Can Virtual Reality Transform Storytelling?

Rift headset image © Oculus
Alphabet Soup logo by Paul Morton
Nick Cross writes:
Virtual Reality (VR) has arrived. Again. Quite honestly, VR has “arrived” so many times over the last 30 years that it’s easy to be cynical about the technology. But this time, with the launch of the Oculus Rift headset, we’re promised that things will be different. With VR headsets also arriving this year from Sony and HTC, it’s clearly a cool new technology that kids will want to try out. But how might VR affect storytelling?




Computer scientists have dreamed for the best part of a century about a system that would allow a human to be immersed in a totally realistic fictional world (arguably, the novel already did that rather well, but that’s a different discussion!) Author Stanley G Weinbaum was one of the first to imagine a VR system in 1939, but since then, sci-fi books and films such as Neuromancer, The Matrix and Inception have shown us successive visions of what it would be like to fully enter a virtual world.



Early VR rigs suffered from being bulky and slow, with a high level of lag when the user moved around or turned their head, thus destroying the illusion of reality. VR also struggled with the display technology of the time, unable to offer a high enough visual resolution to convince the wearer that they were truly somewhere else.

Early 1990s VR System (photo by Skydeas)

Step forward the new wave of VR headsets, which promise to do away with these technical limitations. The Oculus Rift, for instance, weighs only 500g and offers Full HD resolution with a 90 Hz refresh rate – which is a better specification than many TVs. Technology reviewers seem to agree that the experience is extremely impressive. Unfortunately, the device still makes you look ridiculous, but I guess you can’t have everything!

Photo © Oculus

Gamers are the core audience that Oculus and other companies are focusing on at launch. This is not surprising given the high cost (both of the VR hardware and the computer needed to support it), and the predictably antisocial nature of the virtual reality experience. But VR companies would love to go mainstream, and this is where they need to look beyond games and embrace other VR “experiences.” Fictional material that tells a story is an important plank in this content strategy.

I recently watched a documentary by Martin Scorsese about the early days of cinema, in which he said that it took some 25 years to establish the basic grammar of film-making (framing, camera movement, editing etc.). Despite being a theoretical medium for many years, practical VR is in a similar situation where no-one is sure what its storytelling grammar should be. This is, of course, wildly exciting for those experimenting with it, but rather confusing for its potential audience.



It isn’t even clear at this point whether you can write or illustrate for VR in a conventional way. The creative disciplines involved seem much more like filmmaking or video game design. The entertainment (i.e. non-games) launch slate for Oculus Rift supports this theory, firmly centred as it is around family-friendly interactive films. There’s Henry, the story of a hedgehog who loves to hug, created by ex-Pixar creatives. There’s Invasion! a VR animated series about cute bunnies saving the Earth (!) created by Eric Darnell, director and writer of the Madagascar movies. And there’s Lost, the whimsical tale of a night-time encounter with a giant robot, also directed by a Pixar alumi (Saschka Unseld). Unseld gives a fascinating insight into the challenges of VR storytelling grammar in a blog post on the 5 lessons he learnt while making Lost.



So far, it seems that VR stories are leaning heavily on the conventions of existing media, and that they are simply a different way to experience an existing narrative, rather than a whole new way to tell stories. Experts such as Pixar’s Ed Catmull have warned that VR may not be a suitable medium for linear storytelling, because it allows too much agency on the part of the viewer to look or move in the wrong direction at a vital moment in the story.


Avatar director James Cameron was more unequivocal, calling VR “a yawn.” He continued by asking:

“What will the level of interactivity with the user be other than just ‘I can stand and look around?’ If you want to move through a virtual reality it’s called a video game, it’s been around forever.”

Although the prospects for fictional VR stories are unclear, non-fiction storytelling looks likely to have a brighter future. One of the key advantages that VR has over other media is how strongly it promotes empathy, by literally putting the viewer in the shoes of another person. VR documentary experiences that already exist include 360 degree immersion in a Syrian refugee camp and a multi-viewpoint reconstruction of the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has enthusiastically talked up the prospect of virtual field trips for students to visit other countries. This is presuming they live in rich First World countries that can afford the expensive tech, of course...



VR is an exciting technology, but we probably won’t know for years whether it’s a true game changer or just another flash in the pan like 3D TV. In the same way as we’ve seen with app design and development, the enthusiastic early innovators may give way to broader multi-disciplinary teams, who are then able to widen the storytelling experience into something that’s acceptable to a mass audience. But I still can’t see it catching on in the same way that mobile devices have - you think it’s dangerous crossing the road while looking at your smartphone? Try it with VR goggles on!

Nick.



Nick Cross is an experienced word juggler, Undiscovered Voices winner and 2015 honours recipient of the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for fiction.

Nick's most recent children's short story Transition Day can be found in issue 13 of Stew Magazine. He also blogs regularly for Notes from the Slushpile.

2 comments:

  1. Another excellent article Nick. Of course now we all just want to throw on a headset and see for ourselves. I wonder if we could organise an event where it would be possible to sample all that's available?

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I did wonder about that - VR is a challenging thing to describe, because it's such a multi-sensory experience. None of the videos or static images really do it justice.

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