Letter to the trade: small stories, growing fast

Col du Binckhorst, by sndrv, CC BY 2.0

In October 2015, the New York Times launched its first immersive VR application, creating an new kind of journalism that suddenly, jarringly, placed viewers alongside the children displaced by the Syrian conflict. Viewers were transported from reading about a tragic event far away, to struggling with surges of empathy for migrants as apparently close to them as their own families. Yet despite journalism’s embrace of augmented and virtual reality, it might seem easy for book and magazine publishers to dismiss this as a tech-obsessed flirtation with gadgets. That would be a serious mistake.

The New York Times VR launch was transformative. NYTVR was the most successful and most downloaded app in the media company’s history. Suddenly, people around the world started picking up the cheap Google Cardboard sets, originally developed as a kludge to frame a smartphone the proper distance from one’s face, and found themselves thrust into the amazing worlds this bricolage of software and hardware made possible. And in just over a year and a half, over 5 million cardboard sets have shipped, and there have been over 25 million Cardboard app downloads.

When new types of storytelling emerge, we try to frame them in familiar terms. That’s certainly been the case with virtual reality. Even a December 2015 editorial in the Times was quick to make a favorable comparison with cinema, proclaiming that VR was not just an empathy machine, but a “vehicle for enchantment.” And since VR’s most obvious media sibling is film, it’s not a surprise that the Sundance Institute in January 2016 was swamped with over 200 VR submissions in its New Frontiers category, eventually showcasing 30 of them to wide acclaim. The Institute featured VR in panels such as “The future of screens” and “Adopting genres to virtual reality” — suggesting an urgency that cinema “get VR.” It’s no surprise that many entrepreneurs creating app startups in the VR space, such as vrse, either come from film backgrounds or are actively working with the film industry to develop new content. As Variety noted in a Sundance review, in 2016 the VR conversation shifted from a focus on technology, to the story.

Although many of the new VR experiences are disorienting of one’s sense of where one is, and what is around one, all to an amazing effect — these productions have been fairly short. They are immersive, but only for brief periods of time. Yet as early VR artists struggle with a new form of storytelling that is not really film, definitely not opera, and certainly not stage play, productions are slowly growing in sophistication and duration, becoming more familiar with the tolerances and capabilities of both participants and the medium.

But one thing that’s new about the introduction of this art form, particularly in contrast to earlier epochs in modern cultural history such as photography and film, is that VR production was born accessible. A simple version can be made by anyone with a smartphone, using applications such as Google’s Cardboard Camera to stitch together scenes into an immersive perspective. Story Spheres is a similar new app that enables anyone to add dialogue or a sound track to a 360 degree “photosphere.” More consumer tools are emerging every day.

Ebooks and immersion

Book publishing has yet to untangle its own path into more immersive environments. After years spent exploring enhanced editions of ebooks, storytelling’s leading edge are works that seemingly transform the phone into the book itself, integrating graphics, sounds, and network services such as geolocation into the narrative. Yet as Tom Uglow of Google’s Creative Lab has noted of their innovative ebook partnership, Editions at Play, even here much of this development serves to create a bulwark against the erosion of the literary form, remaining “more about writers and the power of words and narrative than anything else.”

Slowly, interactive ebooks and comics are becoming more entrancing, creating novel arts that take advantage of mobile capabilities to present alternative story threads under the control of readers, with layers of audio, video, and text creating mood and shaping outcome. Startups like Oolipo are working with experienced crossmedia authors like Kate Pullinger to build more deeply immersive stories. Already acknowledging VR as an alternative experience, Oolipo is factoring in VR outputs to the publishing platform they are building. It is entirely possible that enhanced ebooks will ultimately be the Neanderthal to VR’s Homo sapiens.

Tentative forays by ebooks into interaction might seem to many trade publishers as random sets of interesting experiences, worth dabbling in, but not necessarily indicative of anything larger. And, as the Creative Lab case highlights, they require intensive, close collaborations between authors, programmers, and UX designers. There has never been any constancy of the tools used to create, much less read, interactive or multimedia books. Many software tools have been used to produce them, and they have required just as many different computers and mobile apps to read them.

Similarly for ebooks, many pieces had to come together to make Kindle something more than a cool gadget, including years of steady investments in supply chain logistics and automation. Amazon married a (proprietary) ebook format with an online marketplace for the distribution of extensive inventory, with an affordable reading device. The November 2007 launch of Amazon’s Kindle singlehandedly reshaped the nascent ebook market.

Notably, this platform synergy of production, distribution, and consumption has never existed for enhanced books — and while Google’s Editions at Play is available on the Google Play store, the number of titles is small and the effort required to produce them is high. And this is where it would be easy to make a very big mistake in evaluating new immersive VR experiences.

VR’s Kindle

Because this is not the case for VR. VR is the first medium in a long while that combines a rich set of catalysts, enabling a quick explosion of significant new art. First, there is a complete range of tools available for creating VR imagery, ranging from smartphones already in the hands of consumers to a growing number of complex high-end specialized cameras on motorized mounts. Second, the software applications forging together images, sound, and narrative effects into an immersive whole, incorporating viewer agency, are becoming widely available, often for free. Third, the hardware for enjoying VR experiences is already in people’s hands: their smartphone. And finally, just like Kindle, there will be at least one widely available platform, with a tremendous amount of content available.

Google Cardboard. And later, perhaps Facebook Oculus, and Apple’s iWorld, or whatever they will choose to call it. Already, almost every software production tool is capable of outputting VR that will run on Cardboard. Google’s early mover advantage in this space could potentially be just as telling as Amazon’s foray into digital reading. It’s no accident that the primary investors in VR hardware are the major technology platforms: Google, Facebook through its Oculus VR acquisition, and most recently Apple — all competing against each other in this new landscape for entertainment.

So, for publishers, the choice is not whether to ignore this new art form, because it is not “book-like,” or instead to dabble in a few exploratory rich creations with select partners. Rather, the choice is whether to embrace an entirely new artistic medium and aggressively attempt to understand it, help a new group of authors create works of both fiction and non-fiction experiences for it — or to watch that medium emerge anyway and become an engrossing, ubiquitous form of entertainment and education, subtracting time away from traditional books, and sitting in the same merger of technology and media interests that we see with film, video, and TV.

Time to make a choice.