I was recently asked on Quora how VR is going to affect story-telling, especially in light of Netflix and Oculus’ partnership (of sorts). Here’s my response:
Firstly, the Netflix deal isn’t for VR content, per se, it’s just for viewing that content in a virtual cinema (which have been around in various forms for a few years now). It’s highly likely that this will go on to cover 360-video content, but to be honest I don’t know how effective this is in the sense of true immersion. The problem with 360 content, is that is is parsed (interpolated) from a spherical body of normal cameras, each viewing the scene with binocular vision and stitching the content together with similar algorithms to that which provide panoramic views when you take several photos with a normal camera.
The effect is quite cool, but it is not the same as 3D graphical VR environments. The reason being, the depth cues and accuracy of 3D maps are far, far more accurate in a rendered environment and will continue to be way ahead in this regard for quite some time (by my estimation). Disney has created a very impressive model-from-video software, but it is still years away from the detail (and associated immersion) you get from a complex CGI scene. You can’t move far from the point the 360 video was captured without running into problems with detail, either textures or modelling (even with 4K and above, it’s just not going to work that well).
With that in mind, the stories written for VR fall into 2 categories:
1. CGI stories.
2. 360-video stories.
Both can be interactive films, but obviously CGI lends itself to VR entertainment much more easily. The only logical equivalent in 360-video is a choose-your-own-adventure style video, where your story branches at intervals along different plots routes via some user input.
They will have a lot in common, essentially trying to make the viewer feel as if they are either a fly on the wall or in some way integral to the action, perhaps a passive observer or an agent driving the plot. These will be true to both type, but I think the CGI-based interactive story-telling is the area where this medium really excels. VR is HUGELY impressive right now and it will be incredibly immersive in a few years.
Play Alien:Isolation in VR with the lights down low. Play it on a very high-spec PC with the latest Rift (when it’s out in 2016). Tell me you don’t shit your pants. You will, it’s terrifying. You aren’t looking at a screen where things are happening, you’re standing in an abandoned space station and you have no idea where safety is. Graphics, sound, low-latency head-tracking and your own sense of depth-perception combine to tell you you are there, in the hallway. It’s very pervasive. ‘Presence’ is the key term here. You’ll know it when you feel it and the Sevastopol station in A.I. is one of those places you’ll quickly regret feeling too immersed into. It simply has to be seen.
Motion is a key problem in VR stories at the moment. You can’t move too fast and you really only want to move forward or slowly in other directions. You get used to moving faster over time, but it’s a slow process of adaptation that future generations hopefully won’t mind as much. For now, I think fairly static stories will prevail. The idea that keeps coming back to me is that of a play (think Pinter or ’12 angry men’) where being fairly motionless isn’t much of an issue and feeding off the atmosphere in the room gives a new dimension on the story. There are increasing numbers of plays that take the audience on a tour of a building or area, effectively involving different groups at different times, this would work very well in VR considering the networking potential and ability to time key events with much higher precision.
To summarise: VR brings you into the action in a far more visceral way than even live action plays have done (for me, at least). This means we can happily re-boot an entire back-catalogue of stories which will benefit from the treatment without any particular need for amendment. If advantage is also taken of the presence-enhancing factors of VR (PEAs, motion capture, gesture inputs etc.) then that 2-factor immersion is a huge kick in the feels.