Virtual reality: the wild west; the new frontier; the land of opportunity. Barons, cowboys, outlaws and gunslingers all vying for their voice by rushing for content gold in this unbridled sphere of influence — but they are stumbling in the thicket of the emigrant trails. The path to creating virtual reality content has been identified, but has yet to be defined. Manifest Destiny.
Welcome to the evolution of story. The future of content creation and consumption. This is the proving ground and battleground for thinkers and tinkerers. The power has shifted to favor the entrepreneurial creators, both engineers and storytellers, who understand the complexities of a 360 degree universe — though few exist.
At first use, the viewer is momentarily fascinated by the virtual experience, but the content struggles to ignite and elicit lasting emotion. This is a sophisticated audience that processes multiple streams of information faster than ever before, and craves a deeper connection to the content that can be shared across social profiles.
The virtual experience is the new theatrical experience, whereby the 21st century viewer is unable to distract themselves with the second (and third, and fourth) screen. Here exists an outlet to control and capture their undivided attention. A new means for escapism.
But with this newfound power, storytellers must create a new form of media that completely immerses and entertains the viewer for the duration of the story’s exhibition. Herein lies the problem. Storytellers are riddled with the challenge of defining story and creating truly compelling content in virtual reality’s current state of nascence.
Conflation peppers the storyteller’s ideology in 360 video and virtual reality. The general public, and many virtual reality evangelizers and practitioners, do not differentiate the distinctions between 360 video and virtual reality. They are two distinct mediums.
360 video is virtual reality’s gateway drug, and is becoming ubiquitous with the Google Cardboard and Facebook’s promotion of the format. 360 video serves to ramp up consumer adoption in the market, lowering the barrier to entry, but will veer into its own niche as virtual reality and augmented reality advancements marginalize and cannibalize the medium.
Once storytellers existentially define their audience’s relationship to their content, they focus on the fundamental ethics and dramatic arc of their story.
In 360 video, multi-camera rigs (often stagnant) are utilized to record live action in a 360 degree realm, which gives the consumer a contained perspective to a location and its subjects. Virtual reality renders a world in which the consumer essentially operates as a natural extension of the creator’s environment, moving beyond 360 video, by enabling the viewer to explore and/or manipulate a malleable space.
In 360 video, the consumer functions as a passenger in the storyteller’s world; in virtual reality, the consumer takes the wheel. The storyteller directs the viewer’s gaze through this situational content by using elemental cues, such as light, sound and stage movement. The traditional notion of the fourth wall has been eliminated. 360 video and virtual reality present untapped storytelling models that are encapsulated by metaphysical qualities: existence and influence.
The rivers of Existence and Influence each diverge at separate deltas. For Existence, the viewer’s experience can be defined as Observant or Participant. For Influence, the experience is either Active or Passive.
In an Observant model, the viewer does not inherit a rigid identity within the story. Presence is only granted through the ability to observe the story, so the viewer remains in a non-existent state outside of the story. While this has been the status quo for the majority of filmed entertainment, its applications in 360 video and virtual reality inject newfound complexity into the viewer’s relationship to the content.
In its counterpart, the Participant model, the viewer’s identity is recognized within the universe of the story. This identity does not have to resemble the story’s predominant characters, but its existence is inextricable from the story itself. The virtual universe of the story responds to, and can be motivated by, the viewer’s digital existence.
In the Active model, the viewer is given a share of the storyteller’s power to affect the outcome of the story’s events. In this democratic mode of storytelling, the storyteller presents carefully measured and calculated choices to the viewer. Once made, these choices influence the story’s progression. The means of yielding optionality to the viewer converts the virtual experience into an interactive playing field, thus emboldening the content with causality.
In a Passive model, the storyteller maintains autocratic power. The traditional storyteller’s school of thought prevails, where the viewer is relegated to a rudderless vessel in the passage of the storyteller’s universe.
As seen in the above Punnett Square, Existence and Influence converge in four possible combinations: Observant Active, Observant Passive, Participant Active and Participant Passive.
Observant Active reimagines the experience by bestowing God-like decision-making power upon the viewer. The Active aspect is limited by a predetermined set of choices (nodes) laid out by the storyteller, by which the storyteller has construed a variety of outcomes. This already functions in certain forms of digital media, as seen in the increasing popularity of “choose your own adventure” types of stories.
In 360 video, the consumer functions as a passenger; in virtual reality, the consumer takes the wheel.
To employ this technique, the storyteller explicitly intrudes on the user experience through freeze frames, narration, subtitles and annotations. Or, the storyteller covertly empowers the viewer’s gaze to follow a specific character’s journey. The storyteller controls an expository dialogue with the viewer.
Some examples include Yoni Bloch’s Pretend to Be Happy, in which the non-existent viewer renders change within the story through thoughtfully placed graphic overlays. Glen Keane’s Duet employs a more subtle approach, as the viewer’s gaze dictates the progression of the narrative.
Observant Passive has long been the standard model for filmed content. The viewer does not exist in the story’s universe, and cannot impose any influence on its events. The viewer simply watches dramatic or comedic events unfold in a procedural manner. As such, the storyteller retains complete control of the action and information presented to the viewer.
The history of film is predicated on this philosophy of storytelling. Observant Passive content easily crosses over into 360 video and virtual reality, as seen in Gabo Arora, Barry Pousman and Chris Milk’s Clouds Over Sidra, and Mac Cauley’s The Night Cafe. It does not imply the viewer’s digital presence or give the viewer any influence over the story.
Participant Active features a transformative combination of Existence and Influence. The viewer both exists in the world as a character or story device, and has influence over the experienced story. The universe acknowledges and addresses Existence, as the viewer interacts with the world and is bound by its laws and underlying story.
A character has the ability to go off on a tangent, but the story will reset, adapt or evolve based upon certain parameters. These parameters can vary according to the storyteller’s intended structure (rigid versus free form).
Samsung and Ustwo’s Land’s End presents a minimalistic take on the viewer’s interaction with story, and as a character within it. Participant Active has flourished in the arena of video games, like Grand Theft Auto, in which the user’s digital persona evolves within and along the universe of the game.
Participant Passive is a relatively new form of story in which the viewer exists in the world as a character, or a story device, but the story does not ask anything of the viewer, or permit them to inform the course of events. The viewer functions as a silent bystander, or pure-recipient of action.
The definition can be muddled if we were to look at films like Annie Hall or House of Cards. In both, the protagonist breaks the fourth wall by opening up a line of dialogue to (not with) the audience. When Frank Underwood turns to the camera, he addresses the indistinct audience, not the viewer as a character or a story device within his world.
The Participant Passive quadrant provides ample room for experimentation. For example, the viewer could toggle vantage points or perspectives in a crowd while watching Godzilla destroy a city.
360 video and virtual reality push the viewer into a symbiotic relationship with the story.
Sidney Lumet’s film 12 Angry Men comes to mind as interesting material for adaptation, if the viewer were to be imagined as a juror who lacks free will and narrative voice. Ilya Naishuller’s first person POV high-octane action film Hardcore has the main actor billed as “you” the viewer. In Guy Shelmerdine’s Catatonic, the viewer inhabits a wheelchair-bound patient being pushed around the psychiatric wing of a 1940s-era hospital. In Supergravity and Terror Film’s The Chosen 360 video experience, the viewer is strapped to a chair while paranormal events unfold in the room.
Once storytellers existentially define their audience’s relationship to their content, they focus on the fundamental ethics and dramatic arc of their story. Their creative choices ultimately provide intrinsic meaning to the content, which can be individually inferred by the viewer’s perception.
360 video and virtual reality push the viewer into a symbiotic relationship with the story, providing a sense of agency and perspective that deviates from a century of cinematic consumption. In either the proximity to the characters and story, or the influence over the story, the viewer of the future will be required to engage with the content with unprecedented emotional connection and commitment.
This heightened exchange between storyteller and consumer necessitates further exploration and refinement, fueling ideation and creation of content, be it user-generated or studio-produced.
The 360 video and virtual reality creators are wildly inspired to prospect, discover and question the language of storytelling. This is the analog age, where early developments in story will transform the novelty of the virtual experience into authentic adoption. Consumers will then actively seek out the medium for elevated content, paving the path for creators to shape their definition of story in 360 video and virtual reality.
Virtual reality’s inherent grandeur is invention in story; a digression of theatre, not onscreen, but within screen.