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It's the CONTENT, Stupid - Part Two

The wine is more precious than the bottles.

Part One of "It's the CONTENT, stupid" addressed the VR ecosystem's current hardware-centric focus with the observation that nobody wants to "use VR." People want to be entertained, to shop, to assemble their furniture, to find a good place for dinner, to talk to their family, to create things. The technology is a means to an end.

Despite a slew of VR activity across the board, there is still far more attention being paid to the bottles (hardware) than to the wine (content). Nevertheless, despite the general understanding that the wine is more precious than the bottles, no vintner is going to produce a wine that cannot be properly stored and transported. Similarly, VR content creators are dependent upon VR hardware for distribution and monetization, while VR hardware companies require an engaging stream of content for market actualization. The VR hardware/software/content equation is a true chicken/rooster/egg conundrum, with players in each sector creeping forward while calculating where to step and whose hand to hold.

There has indeed been a spike in content production, ranging from the efforts of major-player initiatives such as Google's Spotlight Stories and Facebook's Oculus Story Studio, through VC-funded startups such as Baobab Studios and Penrose Studios, to scrappy independent artists and eager students. No matter the size or strength of the team, all VR content creators eventually grapple with the same opportunities/challenges intrinsic to immersive media: presence, POV, pathways, engagement and empathy.

PRESENCE

One of the most compelling (and highly touted) aspects of virtual reality is the feeling of PRESENCE: of being there. Yet this feeling of presence can be thwarted if not combined with AGENCY: the pleasure we feel when actively engaged in a fictional world. The folks at Oculus Story Studio refer to this disconnect as The Swayze Effect (after the star of the 1990 film GHOST) - the disembodied feeling that you are in the room, but no one acknowledges you. Matt Burdette candidly described Oculus Story Studio’s creative struggle with this dilemma, citing issues encountered while making the animated VR shorts HENRY and LOST.

HENRY is a charming, well-crafted, but conceptually flawed film about a lonely hedgehog who locks eyes with the viewer during key moments of the narrative. Powerful? Yes. Logical? No. Henry's problem (loneliness) is undermined by presence (yours). LOST more successfully justifies your presence by immersing you in a dark forest and then enticing you with an intriguing character that curiously checks you out. (SPOILER ALERT) The giant robot that subsequently towers through the trees, looking for its hand, is awe-inspiring - and the moment when it crouches down to examine you face-to-face is truly breathtaking - but then it's over. Like the Lumiere Brothers' seminal ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN, the visceral impact on the viewer is followed by... nothing. The VR medium is still evolving from spectacle to storytelling.

This isn't a criticism per se, but if VR content creators want viewers coming back for more of this nascent medium, we'll need to deliver on audience expectations of story substance.  Likewise, if VR films are to be viewed as anything more than "broken games" (my young nephew tossed aside Google Spotlight Stories' WINDY DAY after 20 seconds of frustrated tapping on my iPhone), we'll need to more effectively combine presence with agency. Fortunately, such efforts are underway in studios and schools around the world.

POV

Two key promises of VR content are the ability to go somewhere you normally cannot, and to become someone (or something) you definitely are not, changing your point-of-view and your "point-of-who." Somniacs' BIRDLY flight simulator combines virtual reality with sensory-motor coupling (and a simple but effective fan in your face), allowing you to enjoy the first-person, full-body experience of being a bird in flight high above San Francisco - complete with user-controlled flapping, rolling and diving. The feeling of flying is so transporting that story is irrelevant (a panic button is provided for those who find the experience more terrifying than therapeutic).

THE DOGHOUSE, a 20-minute cinematic VR film directed by Johan Knattup Jensen, offers a fresh perspective on storytelling by providing multiple perspectives: a husband, his wife, their young son, their teenage daughter and her boyfriend sharing an awkward family dinner. What makes THE DOGHOUSE revolutionary is not only that viewers can experience the story in the first-person as any of the five characters, but that perceptions of the story (which doesn't change) vary dramatically depending upon the POV of your chosen character.

Following our first viewing at the 2015 Future of Storytelling Summit, my group was asked who the main character was. We all raised our hands. When I watched the film from the POV of the father, I felt him to be a good-hearted bumbler, trying to hold his family together. But when I next watched from the POV of his teenage daughter, I saw him as an exasperating moron. All in all, there are five "truths" to the story. In this respect, VR has the ability to literally put you in the other person's shoes, something that is being explored not only by content creators but also by advocates of various social causes.

PATHWAYS

A common misconception of VR storytelling is that it fosters a directionless experience in which the storyline is lost (or fragmented) as the viewer wanders about the virtual environment. At the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, no less an authority than Steven Spielberg opined that VR might offer audiences too many choices, causing them to "forget the story." The misgivings of our greatest living old school director are understandable, as traditional direction is replaced by the art of "indirection" in VR.  Dictation gives way to suggestion and to the director's powers of persuasion. The misunderstandings of the general public regarding the "choose your ending" nature of VR storytelling are also understandable, but wholly unfounded. Infinite story choices are not only unsatisfying in the viewing, but impractical in the making. What we are more likely to experience going forward are VR narratives akin to the 2011 interactive theatrical work SLEEP NO MORE, which allows audience members to move freely through a complex environment, following a single character - or switching between characters - at their leisure. Though individual experiences vary, most folks ultimately come away with a common understanding of the performance (and more engaging post-performance coffee talk).

Legendary Disney animator turned VR content pioneer Glen Keane presented an elegant take on the balance of choice and story in DUET, one of the first Google Spotlight Stories. In lunch conversations while working together on TANGLED at Disney Animation Studios, Glen confided to me that he was looking for a way to bring his love of drawing to bear on digital storytelling in a more satisfying way than sketching animation notes over 3D scenes. Though Glen's subsequent departure from Disney was met with some wailing and gnashing of teeth, I was excited by the prospect of what an "uncaged" Glen Keane would bring to the animation medium. From the creation of DUET to his embrace of spatial drawing with Google TiltBrush, Glen hasn't disappointed.

In DUET, Glen and the Spotlight Stories team devised a "double helix" of intersecting story lines that loop through key interactions and arrive at a final resolution between the two protagonists. The viewer is free to follow either character exclusively or to alternate organically between them. The story doesn't change, but the experience of it does. Furthermore, Glen's adaptation of traditional wipes and shifting perspectives effectively counters the "video shell" phenomenon that so often characterizes cinematic VR and that might be expected from a hand-drawn VR experience. For a film that has a baby's first step as its catalyst, DUET is itself a masterful and engaging first step.

ENGAGEMENT

Audience engagement is essential to any compelling storytelling experience, and the challenge of engagement is nothing new. In many sectors of the current VR gold rush, there is a misplaced faith in the engaging power of the technology itself. The whiz-bang "wow" factor of the latest hardware may be good for initial curiosity viewing, but this is more likely to result in a one-night stand than an engagement. Technology may be intriguing, but only content can be truly engaging.

Proof positive has presented itself in the form of POKEMON GO. Although POKEMON GO constitutes AR instead of VR (see this WIRED video for a quick primer on the differences between VR, AR and MR) it also constitutes a classic case of engaging content: clever, compelling and "lo-fi" ("lo-fi" in the sense that you don't need anything other than your smart phone to enjoy it). VR hardware companies placing big bets on consumer demand for pricey, clumsy head-mounted displays (HMDs) should heed the pervasive power of an IP that has people quitting their jobs, wandering into neighbors' homes, getting shot at and interrupting U.S. State Department briefings - armed with nothing more cumbersome than their phones. Granted, the resonance of POKEMON GO is fueled by nostalgia for a beloved franchise, but it is sustained by a smart, simple, addictive app that should serve as a model for every developer hoping for mass market success.  This is NOT to suggest that VR developers simply mimic the gameplay (as is already happening in China), but rather that we put more thought into achieving engagement in fundamental, non-hardware-dependent ways. A compelling foundation is essential.

EMPATHY

Behind-the-scenes videos from VR content studios are approaching self-satire, with obligatory shots of viewers (mostly employees) wiping tears from their eyes as they remove their HMDs, stirred to the core by the immersive viewing experience (or perhaps just suffering from eye strain). Self-promotional histrionics aside, virtual reality is indeed imbued with the potential to elicit deeply empathetic responses from viewers. Chris Milk has famously characterized VR as an "empathy machine," and his recent cinematic VR films CLOUDS OVER SIDRA and WAVES OF GRACE, produced in collaboration with Gabo Arora, deliver on this claim.

CLOUDS OVER SIDRA presents the wrenching story of a 12-year-old Syrian girl who has spent the last 18 months of her life in the desolate Za'atari Refugee Camp. Experiencing the film in VR - sitting on the carpet with Sidra as she speaks to you in her room, standing in a makeshift soccer field surrounded by refugee children - subjects you to a transporting emotional experience unlike any other. The magnetic pull of immersion into Sidra's world is complemented by the inverse shock of finding yourself back in the comfort of your own room when it's over. Notably, the impact inspires action: UNICEF has found that the rate of donation for refugee relief doubles among those who watch CLOUDS OVER SIDRA.

WAVES OF GRACE is a meditation on the ravages of Ebola in Liberia that poignantly and powerfully augments information with emotion.  Standing in the slums of the Liberian capital, at the foot of countless graves and amid children orphaned by the disease, the 360-degree view immerses you in the tragedy in a way no news report could.

PARTING THOUGHTS

The recent advances in VR technology have been nothing short of remarkable, and you can't fault VR hardware companies for plying their wares. Yet it's important to keep in mind that the wine is more precious than the bottles: “It’s the CONTENT, stupid,” And while content that stimulates our senses is often hardware-specific, content that touches our hearts is usually hardware-agnostic.

I’ve met more than a few fence-sitting creatives who have said that they are "waiting for VR to catch up" to their ideas. But artists from Leonardo to Lasseter have always driven the technology. Our creative involvement is crucial to the growth of VR as a substantive medium of expression and entertainment. The efforts of budding VR auteurs like Eugene Chung, whose team at Penrose Studios is writing its own native VR authoring tools for the creation of ALLUMETTE, sets a proactive example. The only way we're going to see VR blossom as a medium is if artists and filmmakers steer the ship. And there's plenty of open water.

Kevin Geiger's picture

Kevin is the author of AWN's Reality Bites blog, his musings on the art, technology and business of immersive media (AR, VR, MR) and AI. You can find Kevin's website at www.kevingeiger.com and he can be reached at holler@kevingeiger.com.

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