Learning How to Tell Stories in Virtual Reality

Cultural history, design constraints, new opportunities for storytelling, and the importance of a fresh perspective

Back to the Future

To understand the context of where we are now, let’s go back to that excellent decade of baggy jeans and mall rats, Beanie Babies and AOL — the 90's. Across America, virtual reality video games started to appear in arcades, and as gamers got excited, Hollywood took notice, releasing a dearth of sci-fi movies with various visions of the future and potential uses of VR, from law enforcement training to psychoanalysis and human enhancement.

As a generation of future engineers and designers came of age enthralled by these ideas, and there was a shared cultural understanding of what VR looked like, the movies produced during this time resulted in one of the biggest influences of what we expect from VR today.

Look familiar? Oculus Rift likely drew inspiration from Hackers (1995)
While the VR tech in Lawnmower Man (1992) is a bit extreme, the headset looks like many on the market today

Fresh Ideas

So why are we hearing so much about VR now, when it’s been around for a couple decades? Essentially, the tech itself is catching up to that 90’s dream of VR, and has finally improved to a point that makes it much more user-friendly. The key breakthroughs in recent years have been improvements in positional tracking that can now track where you stand in 3D space, and advances in rich input allow you get your hands and body into the experience. There’s still a ways to go with both the hardware and software to make it a more comfortable experience, such as finding ways to combat motion sickness, before it will really hit the mainstream.

While Hollywood provided some inspiration, the reality today is that we still don’t really know what wide-scale, habitual usage of VR will look like. Instead of getting caught in preconceived ideas and assumptions, we can benefit from the concept taught in Zen Buddhism of “Beginner’s Mind” — being open to fresh ideas, approaching VR as beginners, and exploring the endless possibilities of the platform.

One preconceived idea is the term “virtual reality” itself.

While the industry begins to create more VR and AR products and experiences, and it becomes more mainstream, companies will brand their VR/AR products and users will refer to those product names. People don’t say “I’ll search the internet on my smartphone” — they say “I’ll Google it on my phone”, and no one is confused by the meaning or the mediums. The need for technical terminology will go away and shift to a focus on the successful VR brands.

A New World for Stories

The function of VR and AR is world creation, which comes with a host of new possibilities and questions familiar to game designers — what types of worlds do you let people create? How do you mediate with content? What are the rules of that world? VR allows for complete immersion, and done right, gives users agency to explore and feel actively engaged with the experience.

With storytelling in particular, we’re used to passive, one-way experiences — you watch a movie or read a book, and you may enjoy it, but you’re not effecting the outcome (notable exception is the OG ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ interactive book series). Storytelling in VR (story-enabling? storyworlds?) opens up new opportunities for users to choose their own path, grab objects, change the scale, look in all the corners, and feel like they’re in control of the experience.

Of course, there remain social constraints around VR — it’s not very cool to hang out or walk around wearing bulky headsets.

We remember how Google’s experiment with AR glasses were scorned for being ugly and invasions of privacy, but it was an important test of the social acceptability of new tech. Snapchat’s Spectacles will be another intriguing test, as the video-recording sunglasses were so successful in limited release pop-up vending machines, they’re now available for sale online.

Will VR ever be actually useful, or just for fun?

While entertainment is an obvious field ripe for VR — with game designers creating immersive worlds, storytellers writing interactive narratives, and adult entertainment companies dreaming up ways to get you in the action— there is also a plethora of opportunities in fields like learning and medicine. When VR can move beyond entertainment and provide real-world value, that’s when we’ll likely see the tipping point from trend to a tool used by the masses.

Education as we know it could be radically improved with the use of VR. You could sit in on lectures taught by esteemed professors on the other side of the world, kids can get hand-on experience dissecting frogs (with no real frog guts to deal with), and workers can have realistic job training simulations for complex work like repairing a Boeing 737. By being so immersed in a virtual world, you can also create habits and benefit from the long-lasting effects of something you did, not just something you learned about.

VR can help surgeons practices techniques on virtual patients, and AR headgear is already allowing experienced surgeons and specialists to assist on complex procedures in real time. Medical patients can benefit from virtual experiences as well. A great example of this is highlighted in the excellent book SuperBetter, which describes the 3D virtual frozen ice world in the game Snow World, created at the University of Washington, that helps distract patients undergoing treatment for severe burns. In clinical trials where patients wear VR headsets and explore ice caves and make snowmen, the immersive VR pain distraction was more effective then morphine at reducing pain during the most excruciating part of burn treatments, while their wounds were being cleaned and redressed. This allowed for more aggressive treatments and quicker healing times for those patients as well, bringing serious real-world benefit.

A patient plays the immersive VR pain distraction game ‘SnowWorld’ during burn treatments

Having a virtual identity opens up new opportunities for expression and exploration for people limited by their physical identity — be it age, gender, health, or location. By experiencing things from a new perspective, there’s also greater opportunity to build empathy, such as to help doctors understand what a patient with dementia is going through, or to help designers create experiences that will resonate with their users.

While it may be another 10 or 20 years before VR is widely used and really accepted by the masses, there is plenty of room for exploration by designers and content creators to find ways to solve problems for people in new, tech-enabled ways, and for engineers to work out the kinks of current VR tech. With a new generation of kids being born now that will be the designers and engineers of that future, by 2037 we’ll have even more great ideas then the 90’s sci-fi movies for the future of VR.