Walking to work the other day, I noticed two teenagers coming toward me. They were wearing the latest sneakers, cool sunglasses — the works. And they had their Samsung Gear VRs positioned on top of their heads like fashion accessories, baseball-cap style.
That might not be the intended use of a VR headset, but it made me smile. We’ve reached the point where virtual reality is not just evolving technically but also culturally.
And as new consumers receive their first headsets, I wonder: Will their first experiences in virtual reality live up to the hype? Will those first steps spur them on to dive deeper?
First steps vs lasting stories
It’s easy to think of the content we make today as temporary. After all, VR technology will change significantly in the coming years. And because it’s early days, many people haven’t even had their first VR experience yet.
But even now at this early stage, just when VR is reaching a wider audience, the lack of meaningful and lasting stories threatens to hold it back. It is vital that we focus less on spectacle — and shift our thinking.
The content we make should not be seen as the cannon-fodder of onboarding, or as the byproduct of our own learning process. Like so much of cinema from the past 50 years — which is still compelling, gripping and emotionally captivating today — we should design VR content to be a part of the long-term virtual landscape.
Doing this is challenging. Many of the VR experiences created this past year feel emotionally flat.
With cinematic VR specifically, cameras lack depth of field, and you can’t do real close-ups because of stitching restrictions. So everything feels far away from you. Equally in VR games, the rendering limits of technology and device often still suffocate the emotional potential of storytelling.
It is true that creating a sense of presence — of being there — is a powerful experience for first-time users. But it is key that we give our viewers a sense of intimacy, too.
We’ll have to find better ways to connect the viewer and the protagonist. Whether it is fiction or factual storytelling, what will keep our VR audience coming back is a deep and lasting emotional connection.
Who is the user?
One way of doing this is to ask an important question at the start of a new project: "What role does the user have in this virtual world?"
Great storytelling in any shape or form is built on the same general foundation, but what is uniquely powerful about virtual stories is that we can give our audience an active role in them.
Having your user disembodied or invisible in a virtual story represents a missed opportunity; they should feel included — and be given an active role — to have a reason to come back for more.
Evolve with the technology
In the meantime, virtual reality technology is advancing at lightning speed. The next generation of virtual reality experiences are already under way. As the technology evolves, we’ll see less short spectacular "moments" and more lasting journeys involving complex, meaningful interactivity. Our stories will integrate speech-recognition, or be inherently social, allowing users to share a virtual experience with others.
And we’ll experience cinematic live-rendered virtual worlds, where the story is not only life-like, but knows you are there, and responds to you in real-time.
The line between pre-rendered and dynamic VR is disappearing. And as VR makers we should be thinking of ways to extend our current stories in the near future so they can evolve as technology does.
Democratizing the VR space
On the opposite side of the coin, it’s vital to put today’s VR technology into the hands of a more diverse group of VR storytellers tomorrow.
We have to simplify the hardware and software used to make VR and spread it far and wide, so that it’s as accessible as possible — and that young kids, senior citizens, people in third world countries, or even refugees fleeing war can make and tell their own virtual stories.
We have to make a rich virtual universe of experiences comprising many voices.
This starts with promoting the indie work that has depth and guts, not only the latest and greatest technical innovations in the VR scene.
We’re building the future of VR today
Ultimately, the future of VR is heavily reliant on the groundbreaking content we’re making right now. That content needs to be diverse and multi-layered, and it needs to leave a lasting impression on the people with a new headset.
As we embark on the second generation of VR experiences, the content we aim to make should last longer than the first generation headsets will. And if we’re lucky, some of the best will last 10 years, not 10 minutes.
Anrick Bregman is a VR and interactive film director at global production company, UNIT9. UNIT9 has developed over 40 VR experiences to date, with stories told from remote areas in Amazonia to the deserts of the UAE.