With the Kickstarter launch of the Oculus Rift, the world of immersive virtual reality was changed forever. It created the ability for viewers to be completely immersed as the video projected through the headset filled their field of vision, allowing them to turn around, move their heads, and explore the space as they would in the real world. Every major tech company in the world is now developing a VR headset of their own, including Google (Magic Leap & Cardboard).
The first content developers to jump on the second coming of VR were gaming companies, but many tech visionaries and a growing number of filmmakers believe that VR will revolutionize the way we watch movies. Oculus has hired Pixar veterans to launch it’s own Story Studio, and many major studios are investing heavily in VR content.
It may be movies, rather than games, that leads to mass market consumer adoption of VR headsets.
VR storytelling has the potential to be a huge market. Fortune and Digi-Capital forecasts the total size of the VR/AR market to be $150 billion by 2020, with VR/AR films (narrative content) being around 25% of that market.
However, just like the invention of film projection prompted a sea change in the way visuals were presented to an audience used to watching live performances on stage, VR filmmakers will need to write a new visual language to engage viewers. Many artists and filmmakers (Paul Raphael, Saschka Unseld, Chris Milk) are working on VR films and building software and platforms to produce VR content. The race is on to be the pioneers (and early winners) of a paradigm shift in the way we experience media and entertainment.
How do VR “films” differ from traditional movies?
Movies are experiences viewed from the perspective of the storyteller. In the case of movies, the storyteller is the director. Using the “frame” — the rectangle of the camera through which the movie is filmed; and the screen through which it is viewed — the director guides the viewer’s attention. She dictates what you look at, what you are meant to see and learn from each image. Cuts are a cue to the viewer that their attention will be directed elsewhere within the context of a scene. Techniques like cross-cutting & eyeline matching establish relationships between the characters and the scene; camera angles and shot framing are as much a part of the narrative as dialogue and action.
As Pixar veteran, now Lead Creative Director of Oculus’ Story Studio team Saschka Unseld says, film is a “dictatorship of the director”.
None of these techniques apply to stories experienced with a VR headset. When a viewer puts on a headset, she is immersed in the world of the story. Unlike traditional movies, which are experienced at a distance, through a “frame”, VR stories are experienced by being a part of the story, which is happening all around the viewer. When the viewer can look anywhere above, below and all around them, the director loses absolute control over what they see. Cuts and scene transitions have to be used sparingly and have to feel natural, to avoid breaking the illusion that the viewer is part of the story’s world.
New techniques, new cues, and a new visual language have to be created to tell stories that work within the constraints of VR. Creatively and financially, the opportunity is massive — now can we figure out how to use the unique qualities of VR to create truly engaging immersive experiences?