VR: the promise of a voyage into the heart of the story

A quick overview of the key issues in immersive storytelling, from the viewer's and the creator's perspective.

In a little over a year, the emergence of creative VR projects has deeply disrupted the digital entertainment landscape. Although virtual reality isn’t a new process, all the necessary conditions (artistic, technological and economic) seem to be gathered for VR to stay, and not be just another flash in the pan. While some worry about a Gartner hype cycle all over again, others feel both creators and audiences are showing enough enthusiasm for VR to revolutionize film, videogames, television and the web. In other words, the stuff that has been taking up most of our brainwidth and time over the years.

What exactly are we talking about here? Does the term “Virtual Reality” still apply when most projects are merely 360° videos in which the audience is kept passive? On the other hand, mobile VR (mostly 360° video that can be watched on a smartphone tucked in a headset) could well be the gateway to mass adoption, as most of us won’t be shelling out over 600 bucks for an Oculus – and $1,000 for a high end PC capable of delivering a graphic-heavy experience.

Mobile or tethered?

Watching people get carried away by the Cardboard or other low-end headsets like the Homido seems both ludicrous and stimulating, as they’re really nothing more than cheap lenses mounted on a plastic shell. Basic VR headsets only costing between $5 and $60, it is not surprising to see major media brands such as the New York Times jump on the immersive bandwagon with dedicated apps.

These container apps are gaining traction as content platforms, or to put it simply, as channels. Just launch the app and pray that you remembered to turn on airplane mode. Interactions remain limited, but sensations are definitely mind-blowing, from experiencing the intimacy of a private performance in Patrick Watson’s home studio to fulfilling one’s dream of flying as a bird over Manhattan.

The overlapping of technology and content has enabled Samsung to release the first consumer VR headset to wide acclaim. The mobile GearVR headset designed for Galaxy Note smartphones will cost you around $100 (add another $700 if you don’t have the phone). Innovation isn’t cheap: the GearVR comes with dedicated apps and content, and the ability – inside some content – to trigger interactions using only your eyes. This might seem like a detail, but it’s a revolution: since the early days of interactive creation, this is the first time the viewer doesn’t need a controller to interact with his environment. All he needs are his eyes.

The upcoming launch of high-end tethered headsets featuring hand controllers (Oculus, Vive and Playstation) will undoubtedly push the envelope, as videogames are the most likely contenders in the field to bringing VR into our living rooms. And our bodies inside the stories.

Back to Dinosaur Island

Back to Dinosaur Island – Crytek

Live action or animation?

The way we interact with the environment depends on the nature of the images used to create the experience. To put it shortly, images are either shot using cameras or computer-generated. Reality shot in 2D or 3D using camera rigs that look like spider’s eyes, or virtual worlds designed like in videogames.

Whatever the texture, both environments share a common axiom: the unfolding of the story around the viewer, whether it’s the daily life of a teenage girl in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, or a dinosaur coming at you in a digital forest. In the first case, you’re limited to rotating your swivel chair, without any interaction. In the second, you’re dropped in the heart of the story and have the ability to act, and run for your life.

For now, VR is being used as an all-encompassing term for most immersive experiences, regardless of the image quality (blurry in one case, crisp in the other) or the level of motion sickness (pretty high in both). The fast advances in technology will likely make experiences seamsless and comfortable in the near future. 360° cameras capable of shooting in 3D are already here, heralding a promising future for live immersive broadcasts.

Active or passive?

It all comes down to one axiom: the place of the viewer inside the story. The good thing is that it’s nothing new. But VR could well mark the end of the all-passive viewer hypnotized by a screen or a frame, whose presence does not affect the story in any way. From now on, storytellers will need to make space for the onlooker and give him a role, otherwise turning him into a neck-turning ghost.

The grammar of film and television is also being challenged. Storytellers will need to make good use of look-to-camera, sound and visual cues to invite the audience to look in the right direction and if possible, to act at the right time.

Beyond the technological and format-related aspects – that will eventually be solved soon enough – the really exciting part is that we are on the verge of realizing some of our biggest fantasies: breaking the barrier that remains between the stories and us; living the dream of ubiquity; finding refuge in fiction when reality becomes unbearable; and extend the limits of the world as we see it, to feel it in ways we still largely ignore.

Header image by moominsean

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