Photo by Alastair Green

Future Proofing VR

This is an extended version of an article I wrote for Campaign Magazine US published in April 2016.

Walking to work the other day I noticed two teenagers coming toward me. They were wearing the latest sneakers, cool sunglasses — the works. And they had their Samsung Gear VR positioned on top of their heads like a fashion accessory, baseball-cap style.

That might not be the intended use of a VR headset, but it made me smile. We’ve reached the point where Virtual Reality is not just evolving technically, but also culturally.

As new consumers receive their first headsets, I wonder: how much of their enthusiasm is directly because of a first-time experience?

Will people’s first experiences in Virtual Reality spur them on to dive deeper, and to stay longer?

First Steps vs Lasting Stories

It’s easy to think of the content we make today as temporary. After all, VR technology is new. It will change significantly in the coming years. And because it’s early days, many people haven’t even had their first VR experience yet.

My feeling is that even now at this early stage, just when VR is reaching a wider audience, it is critical to offer meaningful and lasting stories, whether that’s in 360 films or games.

“Everyone in the industry is nervous about overselling it … the VR industry really needs artists and wide-ranging creative engagement to make the technology fly.”

Ben Vickers, @benvickers_, the Serpentine Gallery

It is vital that we focus less on spectacle — and shift our thinking.

The content we make should not be seen as the cannon-fodder of ‘onboarding’, or as the byproduct of our own learning process. Like the cinema from the past 50 years — so much of which is still compelling, gripping and emotionally captivating today — we should design VR content to be a part of the long term virtual landscape.

Beyond the Wow

That means going beyond the wow factor only — and offering an engagement that will still be there when your user/viewer has gotten over their initial excitement.

I’m mainly talking about branded projects specifically, because technical innovation is often the key motivating factor in advertising campaigns adopting new technology. But VR innovation shouldn’t be just a gimmick for your ad campaign.

Now that VR is well and truly buzzing, your ad campaign can (maybe) create VR innovation, but along-side it, it must tell a powerful story or offer a rich experience for it to have a shelf life.

Limits In The Field

Doing this, in a meaningful way, is challenging. My teams and I are often too busy dealing with figuring out the basic production methodology to dive deeper in the narrative.

Having been out in the field shooting cinematic VR for over a year now, you quickly realise how complicated it really is. It’s true that you want to ‘use the full 360 degree space’ but that simply isn’t always possible.

With cinematic VR specifically, Everything feels flat and far away — the beauty and emphasis of cinema is hard to recreate with no depth of field to speak of, and no close ups. That means your project suffers aesthetically, but it also affects an actors performance — for example — in terms of non-verbal micro-communications. So much more important than we realise.

A photo taken in Honduras by Tom Elliott, during 360 filming for Water.org

And finally, experienced film crews as well as actors are still grappling with what the process of making VR requires.

“Shooting video is like hunting, shooting VR is like setting bear traps. You set it up, run away and hope you catch something.”

Ben Solomon, @bcsolomon

Live-stitching and streaming on-location are much discussed new technologies. But these rarely work in the field — they are not reliable yet, and require serious computing power — not to mention literally power, in places where often even that is not accessible.

Break Boundaries

Of course, VR films are a specific genre of content. Games are innovating in a very different way. Especially those from independent developers.

A frame from our R&D VR game, Storm

But in both forms of Virtual Reality — films and games — I disagree with many of the rigid rules people are creating for how to do VR ‘correctly’.

It is very natural for people who are trying to understand a new medium to do so by trying to create a bullet-point list of do’s and don’t. And we do want certain interactions to be standardised, so there is a consistent UX that creates familiarity and comfort — and doesn’t make you sick.

But it is too early for VR makers to be told there are rules you can not break.

“Let’s get weird with this new medium, spreading out our tendrils out into the majestic new possibility space until we find the places that are *truly* compelling, that let us as humans understand more about the universe around us, and help us discover more of our magical reality.”

Caibibio, @cabbibo

I don’t take the responsibility of crafting good, enjoyable experiences lightly. But I am trying to challenge myself to not stick just to what is easily marketable, or most convenient for the viewer.

We shouldn’t protect the viewer too much, but instead bring them into our process by letting them see early alpha and beta versions of our work —and encouraging them to play and find their own boundaries, or vocabulary.

VR is still young and it’s good to take a risk with the ultimate goal of really surprising people.

Who Is The Viewer

One way of doing this is for me to ask an important question at the start of a new project: “What role does the viewer have in this virtual world?”

Great storytelling in any shape or form is built on the same general foundation, but what is uniquely powerful about virtual stories is that we can give our audience an active role in them.

“We make sense of the world through stories but what we remember from the world is through experience.”

Karim Ben Khelifa, @KBenK

Having your viewer disembodied or invisible in a virtual story represents a missed opportunity; they should feel included — and be given a character to play, or a task to perform — to have a reason to come back for more.

Evolve With The Technology

In the meantime, Virtual Reality technology is advancing at lightning speed. All those shoot and post-production challenges are temporary obstacles. The next generation of Virtual Reality technology is already under way.

As the technology evolves, we’ll see less short spectacular ‘moments’ and more lasting journeys involving complex, meaningful interactivity.

The Climb, a VR mountain climbing game by CryTech

Our stories will integrate touch, movement, and more unusual tech such as speech-recognition. Or they’ll be inherently social, allowing users to share a virtual experience with others.

“Really successful technologies are just part of reality. VR is eventually going to be so integrated that we won’t even think of it as technology.”

Ken Perlin

The line between pre-rendered and dynamic VR is disappearing. And as VR makers we should be thinking of ways to extend our current stories in the near future so they can evolve as technology does.

The true potential power of VR experiences is that the story will know you’re there. And will react to you differently than to someone else.

And at that point, we have the end-goal — for me — which is cinematic storytelling seamlessly integrated in life-like reactive virtual worlds.

For those people creating VR today, at all budget levels, it is important to be aware of the technology that is around the corner. And it’s important to make sure your work is ready to be upgraded later to include something new.

Democratising The VR Space

On the opposite side of the coin, it’s vital to put today’s VR technology into the hands of a more diverse group of VR storytellers tomorrow.

VR is equated with empathy because it allows you to view the world from someone else’s point of view. No one could deny that this is a very powerful sensation.

And it is true that some of the most compelling VR experiences to date involve investigative journalism, films such as Clouds of Sidra or stories taking place in game-engines, such as Kiya.

Kiya, by Nonny de la Peña

Ultimately, the question on my mind lately is how we can get people to tell their OWN stories in VR? (I don’t mean this as an either-or. But in addition to.)

We need to make sure that VR as a technology is accessible to as many people as possible. And we need to make sure the technology needed to make VR, or the distribution platforms that exist for it, don’t become a barrier to entry for those people that really have a story to tell.

So that young kids, senior citizens, people in third world countries, or even refugees fleeing war can make and tell their own virtual stories.

“All the work I do is to challenge the dominant narrative and show Africa as a dynamic, nuanced continent. Through the immersive aspect of VR you can develop more empathy or understanding and challenge prejudices or misconceptions.”

Steven Markovitz, @stevenmarkovitz

We have to make a rich virtual universe of experiences made from many voices — in order for VR to be more than a niche playground made of tech demos with a limited shelf life.

New Dimensions — Exploring Virtual Reality in Africa

This starts with promoting the indie work that has depth and guts, not only the latest and greatest technical innovations in the VR scene.

Ultimately I guarantee you that the best content won’t come from the people with the most expensive cameras.

Open Source Your Knowledge

In addition to this, what is key for people working at the cutting edge of VR, is to share their learnings, and to open-source their work.

Like the web before it — the power of the VR community is the ability for us all to learn together, and to share with the world. So don’t hold your cards too close to your chest — the next, best VR experience might not be yours, but it will benefit us all.

This is important for a few reasons — from troubleshooting on-set, to creating interactive animations for the users virtual hands, or even, for example, the ethics involved in the process of how we work.

“There are people jumping on planes as we speak, heading to disaster zones with a camera. They’re not journalists and they might not operate under any code of ethics. Protocols and ethics emerged from journalism, as they have around documentary film-making. Those discussions also need to be had around this form.”

Lynette Wallworth

Making VR should not become exclusive to highly paid professionals. And the big studios, agencies, and especially venture-capitalists with money in their pocket can make sure that doesn’t happen.

Support stories that are brave, daring, and perhaps not commercially viable based on current standards.

Because the goal posts will move. And I guarantee you that the best content won’t come from the people with the most expensive cameras, or the biggest teams.

We’re Building The Future Of VR Today.

If you knew your VR project would still be viewed/played by people in 10 years time, would you make it differently?

The future of VR is heavily reliant on the content the industry is developing right now.

It is the content that makes an audience return, and that content needs to be diverse and multi-layered, and it needs to leave a lasting impression on the people with a new headset.

As we embark on the second generation of VR experiences, the content we aim to make should last longer than the first generation headsets will. And if we’re lucky, some of the best will last 10 years, not 10 minutes.

Anrick…

I am a virtual reality and interactive film maker, working at the intersection of storytelling and experiential technology.

@anrick
anrick.com