Redefining the Axiom of Story: The VR and 360 Video Complex

Virtual reality: the wild west. The new frontier. The land of opportunity. Barons, cowboys, gunslingers, and outlaws are vying for their voice by rushing for content gold in this unbridled sphere of influence, but are stumbling in the thicket of the woodwork. The path to creating virtual reality content has been identified, but has yet to be defined. Manifest Destiny.

Welcome to the evolution of story. The future of content creation and consumption. This is the proving ground, battleground, for thinkers and tinkerers. The power has shifted to favor the entrepreneurial creators, both engineers and storytellers, who understand the complexities of a 360 degree universe, though few exist.

At first use, the viewer is momentarily fascinated by the virtual experience, but the content fails to ignite and elicit lasting emotion. This is a sophisticated audience that processes multiple streams of information faster than ever before, and craves a deeper connection to the content that can be shared across social profiles. The virtual experience is the new theatrical experience, whereby the 21st century viewer is unable to distract themselves with the second (and third, and fourth) screen. Here exists an outlet to control and capture their undivided attention. A new means for escapism.

But with this newfound power, storytellers must create a new form of media that completely immerses and entertains the viewer for the duration of the story’s exhibition. Herein lies the problem. Storytellers are riddled with the challenge of defining story and creating truly compelling content in VR’s current state of nascence.

Conflation peppers the storyteller’s ideology in 360 video and virtual reality. The general public, and many VR evangelizers and practitioners, do not differentiate the distinctions between 360 video and VR. They are two distinct mediums. 360 video is VR’s gateway drug, and is becoming ubiquitous with the Google Cardboard and Facebook’s indoctrination of the format. 360 video serves to ramp up consumer adoption in the market, lowering the barrier to entry, but will veer into its own niche as VR and AR advancements marginalize and cannibalize the medium. In 360 video, multi-camera rigs (often stagnant) are utilized to record live action in a 360 degree realm, which gives the consumer a contained perspective to a location and its subjects. Virtual reality is a rendered world in which the consumer essentially operates as a natural extension of the creator’s environment.

In 360 video, the consumer functions as a passenger in the storyteller’s world; in virtual reality, the consumer takes the wheel. The storyteller directs the viewer’s gaze through this situational content by using elemental cues, such as light, sound, and stage movement. The traditional notion of the fourth wall has been eliminated. 360 video and virtual reality present untapped storytelling models that are encapsulated by metaphysical qualities: existence and influence.

OBSERVANT ACTIVE

  • New form of story
  • You do not exist in the world, but act as a God-like decision maker with the power to contribute to, and dictate, a story’s outcome
  • You are without a rigid digital identity, but rather float amidst the content. The “active” aspect is limited by a predetermined set of choices (nodes) laid out by the storyteller, by which the storyteller has construed a variety of outcomes for the observer. This functions in certain forms of digital media, as seen in the increasing popularity of “choose your own adventure” types of stories
  • The storyteller explicitly intrudes on the user experience through freeze frames, narration, subtitles, and annotations; or, the storyteller covertly empowers the viewer’s gaze to follow a specific character’s journey
  • The storyteller controls an expository dialogue with the viewer
  • Glen Keane’s “Duet” (link)
  • Yoni Bloch’s “Pretend to be Happy” (link)

OBSERVANT PASSIVE

  • Any form of traditional media, be it narrative or documentary content
  • You do not exist in the world, nor can you influence the story
  • You watch dramatic or comedic events unfold in a procedural manner
  • The storyteller retains complete control of the action and information presented to the viewer
  • Gabo Arora, Barry Pousman, and Chris Milk’s “Clouds Over Sidra” (link)

PARTICIPANT ACTIVE

  • You exist in the world as a character or a story device, and have influence over your “own” story
  • The world acknowledges and addresses your existence
  • You interact with the world and are bound by its laws and underlying story
  • Your character has the ability to go off on a tangent, but the story will reset, adapt, or evolve based upon certain parameters. These parameters can vary according to the storyteller’s intended structure (rigid vs. free form)
  • Samsung and Ustwo’s “Land’s End” (link)
  • David Jones and Mike Dailly’s “Grand Theft Auto” (link)

PARTICIPANT PASSIVE

  • New form of story
  • You exist in the world as a character or a story device, but the story does not ask anything of you, or permit you to inform the course of events
  • You function as a silent bystander, or pure-recipient of action
  • For example, imagine you’re a juror, but lack free will and narrative voice. Sidney Lumet’s film 12 Angry Men comes to mind as interesting material for adaptation
  • Ilya Naishuller’s “Hardcore” (link)

Once storytellers existentially define their audience’s relationship to their content, they focus on the fundamental ethics and dramatic arc of their story. Their creative choices ultimately provide intrinsic meaning to the content, which can be individually inferred by the viewer’s perception.

360 video and virtual reality push the viewer into a symbiotic relationship with the story, providing a sense of agency and perspective that deviates from a century of cinematic consumption. In either the proximity to the characters and story, or the influence over the story, the viewer of the future will be required to engage with the content with unprecedented emotional connection and commitment. This heightened exchange between storyteller and consumer necessitates further exploration and refinement, fueling ideation and creation of content, be it user-generated or studio-produced.

The 360 video and virtual reality creators are wildly inspired to prospect, discover, and question the language of storytelling. This is the analog age, where early developments in story will transform the novelty of the virtual experience into authentic adoption. Consumers will then actively seek out the medium for elevated content, paving the path for creators to shape their definition of story in 360 video and VR. Virtual reality’s inherent grandeur is invention in story; a digression of theatre, not onscreen, but within screen.