How Virtual Reality Is Revolutionizing Storytelling

A new paradigm emerges for truly immersive storytelling

Storytellers have always been true magicians, transforming pure imagination into timeless tales that make incredible worlds, mythical heroes, and impossible fantasies seem believable — and real.

Storytelling sorcerers have also been at the vanguard of the latest communication techniques and innovative technologies, weaving their spell with oral epics and poems in ancient times, gripping readers with printed books and novels, and most recently, enthralling audiences with today’s CGI-enhanced movies and cinematic and interactive video games.

Now we are witnessing the dawn of a new era of storytelling, this time using advanced virtual reality (VR) technology. VR is a software-generated environment that immerses participants into a simulated world so real that it instills a sense of presence within this virtual setting. Virtual reality promises to change forever how we experience electronic entertainment — along with computer simulations, gaming, education, social media, travel, medicine, real estate, ecommerce, and more. Virtual reality technology will also enable storytellers with an arsenal of new techniques to bring their imagination to life, and transform fantasies into believable tales.

The challenge of creating a simulated, immersive and realistic computer-rendered world is in convincing participants of their presence within the virtual environment and making it seem utterly real. However, achieving this is a technological feat that necessitates advances in both computer hardware and software, and a “re-understanding” of how human senses truly work.

The complexity inherent in our perception of and interactions with the natural world is astounding. Visual and auditory stimuli blend to provide knowledge about the world around us — what objects are, where they are located, their color, how fast they are moving, and more. A simple everyday pleasure such as stopping to observe a rose and contemplate its grandeur is not easy to replicate from a sensory perspective.

Nevertheless, the experience of complete immersion in a hyper-realistic scenario is within reach today, thanks to recent advances in VR technology. By harnessing the graphics power of modern computing systems, sophisticated motion-sensing, and high-resolution head-mounted displays (HMDs), VR technology is now capable of generating simulated worlds where users can to manipulate, explore, and interact within a virtual environment.

Movies offer a great opportunity for VR storytelling. Currently, investment banker-turned-film producer Jonah Hirsch is using VR on a project to tell the story and re-create the experience of the Wright brothers’ first flight. Hirsch and James Knight, one of Hollywood’s leading visual effects and motion capture experts, are collaborating with Smithsonian’s top Wright brothers historians, Dr. Tom Crouch and Dr. Peter Jakab, to bring their dream to life.

Using VR, people will be able to able to walk around, pause, rewind, and see the historic flight from different vantage points where it all began on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk. Their goal is to recreate the most accurate two minutes of history ever viewed in a virtual experience — right down to minute details of the aircraft, including which side of the battery the ground cable is connected — with every detail thoroughly researched and reproduced.

“Never before in the history of cinema has six months of production been devoted to creating two-minute piece,” says Hirsch. “Even Spielberg takes small liberties on his historical films for the sake of a great story — but we could not, as we had one mission and one mission only: to recreate history as it was.”

VR technology is also actively transforming the computer gaming industry. The game creators of Crytek were early to recognize the massive opportunities enabled by VR, and have been developing their industry-leading CRYENGINE game development engine to produce advanced visual gaming experiences and new storytelling techniques using VR.

“We see the potential of a new media and immediately start imagining stories that we can tell with it,” CRYENGINE Creative Director Frank Vitz explains. “That leads us to the development of software methods, animation tools, and rendering modes that feed back into the storytelling, and the next thing you know, we have what already feels like a full game. It’s ‘just a tech demo’ but it feels like a glimpse into a whole new world. That is what inspires us. When we see people’s reactions to the demo, their thirst for more, well, we know that we are on to something big.”

Hardware manufacturers play a leading role in accelerating technological advances that enable the indispensable sense of “presence” sought by VR developers like Crytek. Developing advanced computing and graphics processors to render high fidelity imagery at high frame rates with low latency is vital to achieving presence.

Another great example of innovative VR storytelling is underway at General Electric, where scientists working with top researchers and institutions around the world are discovering new insights about the brain previously not possible. New tools that enable visualizing brain anatomy and function can give us all new insights and a better understanding of treatments needed for brain illness or injury.

Combining the latest VR technologies with powerful computing and graphics capabilities, GE has created a portal into the human brain, enabling anybody to enter, view, and explore the brain in ways never before possible. The Neuro VR Experience enables an interactive understanding of how GE scientists are exploring creative new ways of visualizing how the brain works.

“Visualizing the human brain in intricate detail in virtual reality is no easy feat,” says Katrina Craigwell, Director of Global Content and Programing at GE. “It takes an incredible amount of computational horsepower to create the virtual world and ensure that you’re completely comfortable interacting within it. To power the experience, we’re using next-generation GPUs to deliver the exceptional graphical detail we want, as well as LiquidVR, a technology to ensure that the virtual world feels every bit as responsive and natural as the real world.”

The capabilities of today’s VR technology are very good — but they still not have reached their full potential. Researchers working with computer hardware and software development, game design, human optics, and neuroscience are striving to further the VR experience. Their goal: to dissolve the last barriers to achieving true immersion, make a VR experience indistinguishable from reality, and create a new paradigm for the storytelling of tomorrow.