VR is more than an Empathy Machine; it’s a Memory Machine

In 2014, I believed VR was an important new medium for storytelling and with an amazing team of talent, we created some of the first critically acclaimed examples of what immersive VR storytelling may be like. In the early summer of 2017, our team was abruptly disbanded. It’s been a challenge for me as the feeling of getting punched in the heart has taken some time to shake off. I’ve been thankful for the time it gave me to reflect and wonder: as proud as I am of the work, were we going in the right direction?

I now have a new direction. I’m still passionate about VR and the potential it has for delivering emotionally rich experiences; I no longer believe this medium is about telling a story. It is for so much more.

Chris Milk, a visionary creative working in VR, once said that this medium’s ability to transport and immerse makes it the “ultimate empathy machine.” I think he’s underselling VR’s potential.

Roger Ebert originally coined “empathy machine” to describe movies. Storytelling is about having the teller narrate, and the audience listens. Film and television have become the most popular storytelling media because the tools that define them, composition and editing, can so easily convey a complex order of events in an accessible and readable way. The film director shows the story on a big screen; the audience watches the hero’s journey from the comfort of their seats. When a story is being told well, the audience sympathizes with the hero but they don’t participate in the hero’s journey.

A lesson learned from making VR narratives

There are many excellent and compelling VR narratives that have been created in the past few years, but in all cases, I find myself questioning whether adding presence is an amplifier for a passive experience. It delivers a never before felt novelty, but as a storytelling format, it’s just not as effective as the mature media that already exist.

At Oculus Story Studio, we saw taking away framing as a tool in a VR experience as a creative challenge worth overcoming. We called this problem the tension between presence and narrative.

Henry the Hedgehog

My favorite example of this tension is from when we were working on Henry, a short story about a charming hedgehog who wants a friend to hug on his birthday. During the early development of Henry, we workshopped an animated storyboard in which we had a charming opening sequence where, through a series of fast-cut shots, you watch Henry excitedly and adorably prepare his home: he hangs decorations that stick to his quills; he carefully ties up balloons and a colorful piñata; he places a strawberry-sized birthday cake. The sequence lasted about 15 seconds in animated storyboard and effectively established context and the character of our hero.

When we started bringing the sequence into VR, we were hit with two show-stopping realizations. First, when we tried to copy the fast cutting from the storyboards into time jumps in VR, our audience felt like Henry had magical powers as he disappeared and reappeared around them. When an audience feels present, they have a different and underdeveloped expectation for how a narrative is fed to them. Second, thanks to some beautiful set design work, the storybook tree house in which Henry lived was so delightfully rich that our audience spent most of the first minute looking around at all of the detail that surrounded them. We realized that only after giving our audience some time to settle could we start telling a story without worrying about distraction.

We reworked the entire opening sequence, simplifying and elongating. The experience now opens in darkness with Elijah Wood narrating Henry’s desire for a hug and the problem of his spiky quills, making sure the audience understands the context before getting lost in the feeling of presence. After the exposition, we then bring up the lights with the audience sitting on a rug in a sunlit home that is already decorated for the party. After around 30 seconds of giving the audience time to look around, we cue a sound of something happening in the kitchen. Only when the audience member looks in the direction of the kitchen door does Henry emerge with the strawberry birthday cake.

A fan-made playthrough of the Henry VR experience

To make the story work with presence, we had to tease apart presence and narrative, giving time for feeling there and then time for relaxing into the story. In 3 minutes of VR time, we achieved the same effect as the 15 seconds of an animated storyboard. The rework dramatically improved the experience for the audience and taught us a valuable lesson in how to make VR narratives. Looking back, I realize that having to give idle space for presence and to slow down pacing for story was an early indicator that VR was not necessarily going to be a superior narrative medium.

I don’t kick myself for a bit of naivety because it wasn’t obvious until we tried. At the beginning of any new medium, it is always underutilized or misused. Just like the first filmmakers put a camera in front of a stage play, those of us early VR pioneers thought we should take away the screen but tell the same kind of stories.

So what is VR good for?

Empathy is emotional osmosis from a distance, where the audience can deeply sympathize with what other people are feeling, but they relate without actually engaging with the source of their emotions. That works great when you’re telling the story on a screen. What makes VR special is the ability for an audience to make choices, take action, and be there for what happens next. If empathy is how the audience connects and learns from passive media like books, theater, and movies, VR is a medium in which they can feel the consequences for themselves.

As I mentioned in a previous article, stories show all of us situations we’ve never been in; they give us views we’ve never had; they help us grow for the times in our lives when we may be challenged like our favorite heroes. With VR, developers can go farther than teaching through empathy. They can create new situations that the audience wouldn’t routinely face and have them take action that may have personal and emotional consequences. The audience could grow by adding experience to their lives they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten.

This is why VR has the potential to be more than an empathy machine; it’s a memory machine.

Instead of using the medium to tell our audience a story, I believe it’s about going on an adventure together! The stories we all accumulate in our own lives are the most compelling when they happen with others and most often with our friends. VR adventures are best as a social experience. Developers need to find a way to define a road worth traveling and a goal worth pursuing. A quest gives everyone in the party a common goal and it’s in the journey towards that goal that you create memories together. If we can capture that bond and excitement that comes from accomplishing something together, I think we’ll be closer to what will make VR work.