VR reality check: in praise of the lazy audience

Digital storytelling keeps promising to put the audience in control. But as viewers, how much do we really want that? And is VR content really ready for prime time?

Interactive storytelling has been around for decades, mostly driven by non-linear narratives that tend to confuse audiences rather than giving them more freedom. Of course, videogames do a pretty good job at putting players inside the story. Or inside the action, to be more precise. Over the past 10 years, a whole scene of digital storytelling dubbed ‘transmedia’ has attempted to convince us viewers that being in control is the new norm. It’s not.

Interaction and choices are interesting additions once the preliminary excitement has kicked in. But let’s face it, most of the time you don’t feel like being the pilot. You just want to enjoy the ride.

Now might be a good time to take a look at what’s happening in the budding VR & 360° entertainment space.

Catchy headlines such as “Will VR kill film?” or “VR will be bigger than TV in 10 years” keep popping up everywhere, fueling the hype train, which is precisely what the creatives at work in the field do not need. VR is a promising new medium, and before making pointless predictions about its future, great care should be taken about its present. Especially if we hope to convince general audiences to embrace it.

Having worked for the past 20 years in entertainment — and being an active promoter of new forms of storytelling — I’m still convinced traditional movies and TV shows are doing a much better job at pulling in the viewer into the story.

The wow effect of immersive entertainment is real. Anyone who has had the chance to try VR will confirm the potential of it as a totally new medium. We keep hearing today’s VR is like the early stages of film. If the analogy sounds right, it’s also totally misleading, as our digitally-driven entertainment world is being built over the existence of film, radio, television and videogames. As viewers, we will be expecting a lot more than L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat.

Let’s set pricing issues aside and focus on what VR most needs right now: compelling content and convincing delivery systems, to grow from an experimental medium into a full-fledged entertainment experience.

 

The User Experience? So far, pretty much a turn-off.

360° video and mobile VR are touted as “the gateway drug to mass adoption”. Really? The current experience of mobile-powered VR is nothing short of painful. Because smartphones are multi-tasking portable computers that weren’t originally designed for headsets. If you want to try out some of the most interesting immersive content available for Cardboard-like headsets, you’ll likely need to:
onemanband

– download one app per experience (who does this?)

– if the app is only a container, get ready for hefty downloads of the content itself, provided you have that kind of storage space on your phone

– find the right viewing settings for each app once your smartphone is tucked inside the viewer (good luck with that)

– remember to turn airplane mode on, or get bombarded with notifications in an immersive version of pop-up hell

– wait, is your phone even charged? Real-time 3D will likely have you plug in your charger and not feel so mobile any more

– Ah, you’ll also need headphones. Now you’re all wired up again.

High end, tethered VR systems do deliver a much better experience, as the headsets are designed to perform only one task. But the current cost of this first generation is rather prohibitive for the end consumer hoping to enjoy the promise of VR.

Let’s wait for the consumer versions of Oculus, Vive and PlayStation VR to really find out who managed to crack the plug-and-play experience, with easy file management systems and a polished operating system. Users will want products, not promises.

The Content: in search of directors

If the user experience is rather unsettling, the grammar of immersive content is still in its infancy, adding up to the relative failure of delivering more than just spectacle-driven entertainment. I can’t help thinking this medium has also a lot to accomplish in terms of narrative and direction before appealing to wider audiences.

If 2016 is “the year of VR”, it’s most certainly Year One in terms of content. You may want to read an interesting wrap-up piece about Sundance and VR/360° pieces failing to deliver.

“The more damning issues that were common across the films: the need to make me, the viewer, take on the additional burdens of director and cinematographer.”

Death Becomes Her

The 360° Syndrome

Are we, viewers, expected to twist our necks to find clues about where the story is going? Getting immersed in the discovery of an unfamiliar world can be fascinating. But the fascination quickly wears off if you don’t feel guided at some point.

Possible directions may lie in the longer history of videogames, some of which have achieved the magic of delivering experiences at the crossroads of gaming and movies while putting the audience inside a storyworld using very simple cues.

Journey is one of them, one that brilliantly drops the player in an unknown world with no instruction manual, no tutorial level, only visual and musical cues that serve as an invitation to start a journey of discovery, during which the subtle but ubiquitous presence of a director can be felt.

Journey

Journey (thatgamecompany) – directed by Jenova Chen

VR storytellers, it is your duty to take us by the hand to usher us into these new storyworlds. To open doors, to raise questions, to make us laugh, shiver, sweat, jump in our seats, think… and confuse us, if you will. In one word, entertain us.

Immersive entertainment needs more “auteurs”, creatives with a clear vision of the medium, willing to tackle a fact that will never change: we will always be lazy audiences — at first. To get stimulated, we need both form and substance. Story and telling. Things making it worth to don a headset and give you our full, undivided attention.

Header image: Couch Potato by ptooey (Flickr)

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*Opinion
2 Comments on this post.
  • VR Notes #6 | Mike Cane's Atomic Supermen
    16 February 2016 at 21:23
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    […] VR reality check: in praise of the lazy audience […]

  • Dejan
    22 February 2016 at 11:40
    Comment / Commenter

    Love this article. While the fillmmaking and VR storytelling is still in its infancy, the medium does look appealing. However, it’s more and more difficult to create stories in 3D. There’s no cinematography and your audience is literally walking on your movie set. It’s up to the director to find and place these limitations.

    At Viar (Startup company from Central Europe) we have been hearing how tough it is to create an Immersive videos. I’d love to invite VR producers (if that’s ok to the website editors) to a private alpha for a VR editing platform in the making: goo.gl/InTNlP

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