“The Great Train Robbery” (1903) was the one of the earliest narrative films, one that told a story. It was a 12-minute long film about four bandits who try to rob a train (du’h!) and are killed in the ensuing shootout. The film is remarkable for two huge reasons:
- The film was the first story ever told on film. Until then, audiences were used to live plays or musical theater. Much like the state of VR movies today, film in the 1890s was used to show public or sporting events, scenes from everyday life, or slapstick, all filmed using a stationary camera with no cuts. “The Great Train Robbery” also was the first to employ editing techniques like cross cutting, multiple locations, and even rudimentary special effects.
- The popularity of “The Great Train Robbery” was ultimately responsible for the creation of the film industry, and for televised entertainment once the television and broadcasting were invented.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets are about to enter the mainstream in a big way. Games, video communication, and geo-located overlay services are obvious applications for VR/AR headsets, but one major area whose potential is still largely unexplored is entertainment — specifically dramatised entertainment like films and TV shows.
The VR industry needs its “Robbery” moment. A well-crafted story with engaging characters that is told in a way that uses the advantages of immersive VR.
“The essence of dramatic storytelling: fully developed characters placed in a world designed to test their strengths and play on their weaknesses, to force them not only to face themselves as they are but to push past what they thought were their limits and be reborn, a new self. Or fail and die.”
— The Essence of Drama, Karen Woodward
We know one thing for sure — Good stories, well told, work in any medium. Audiences will engage with a good story regardless of whether it is told using photo-realistic holograms, or with sock puppets. All that changes is the storytelling — the medium by which it is told, and how effectively that medium is used in the service of the story.
Experiencing a movie through a VR headset adds certain limitations — viewers are immersed in the “reality” of the movie’s universe, so quick cuts and sudden or jerky camera movements could be disorienting and even create health issues. Points of view (seeing through a character’s eyes) cannot be switched easily because the viewer has their own perspective and is experientially a part of the movie’s world. We have long been used to a visual format that conveys information in terms of shots that direct our attention and tell us what to see; that is no longer possible in the world of VR.
What we gain however, is a lot more valuable in terms of telling a story — we gain presence.
Presence — The perception in the user’s mind that the virtual experience is real. The greater the user’s suspension of disbelief, the greater the presence achieved.
The more senses engaged, the better the presence
Movies and television are more popular than radio, gaming is more engaging than watching movies. VR and AR have the capability to go beyond any kind of content experience we have seen so far, engaging visual, auditory, and haptic (touch) senses. Virtual environments within the story could respond to speech and gesture inputs from the viewer.
When watching horror movies, engaged viewers often yell at the screen to try and get characters to change what they are doing (presumably to save them from impending doom). In a regular projected movie, nothing comes of this — but in a VR experience, user input could alter the scene or the story to some extent, bringing the user further into the experience.
For instance, in a monster movie, as a monster is advancing towards the characters in our story, the monster could turn towards the viewer and move towards them if the viewer screams or gestures wildly. For a viewer that does not scream, the monster would continue on its path towards the characters. For the viewer that screamed, you now have a different experience that was triggered due to their voice action. To get the story back on track, the characters could do something that gets the monster moving towards them again.
In a comedy, or even in a dramatic scene, characters could directly address the viewer, maybe even respond to something the viewer says to some extent. When this happens in movies today, it’s called “Breaking the fourth wall”.
This takes a VR experience out of a pure consumption experience to one that involves some elements of gameplay, but that’s part of what differentiates a VR experience from a traditional movie experience. The immersive nature of VR means that the viewer is a part of the scene, and a truly “present” viewer will react to events in the story. Ignoring those reactions completely will only decrease their “presence”. Creative writers & directors will include the viewer skillfully in the scene without breaking the ongoing story.
In a VR experience, there is no fourth wall.
“Robbery” changed the entertainment experience in 1903 for viewers used to live stage plays by adding locations, editing, and special effects — things that could only be done on film. VR films have to change the viewing experience to play to its own advantages.
Please respond with your suggestions on how our senses could be further engaged through enhanced storytelling experiences. In Part 2 of this post, we'll look at some more techniques to increase viewer “presence”.
Update: Kelli Marshall pointed out that “L’Arroseur Arrosé” (1895), or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” was actually the first narrative film, not “The Great Train Robbery”, which came out in 1903. Post updated to reflect that error. Thanks, Kelli!
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