Secret Location has been working with virtual reality for four years and it still feels like just the beginning. It’s hard to tell what will stick around and what will keep changing, let alone what traditional media could be ousted by innovative new VR.
Their latest project is a groundbreaking step into the collision of TV and VR: a Syfy hybrid called Halcyon, which launched on Sept. 22. It’s a police procedural about the fictional (or not-so-fictional) future of VR and virtual crime.
Commissioned by NBCUniversal, the series’ 10 traditional episodes will air on Syfy’s TV channel and websites, and the five VR episodes are watchable with an Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear app.
Putting digital (and the audience) first
A lot of what the industry has seen thus far has been VR as extensions of TV or video games, but not as much bridging the gap between the two. Syfy approached Secret Location early last year, wanting to break the trend of incorporating digital content into a television show after it was created. Knowing SL’s strength with narrative, they asked them to pitch ideas that were digital first.
Secret Location’s creative director Stefan Grambart came up with the original concept for what would eventually become Halycon: “The scene is virtual, but the crime is real.” Halcyon writer Mike Heneghan and story consultants Benjamin Arfmann (director of Random Stop and Halcyon’s live-action episodes), Marty Flanagan (SL’s associate creative director at the time) and Stefan (creative director for the VR episodes) developed the concept from there.
The idea grew immensely, but they wanted to stay realistic about what audiences would be comfortable consuming, as VR is still very new to the average consumer. SL went on to work with a crew to shoot both types of episodes and developed the VR app.
Two formats, one narrative
Set in 2040, Halcyon is about a leading VR company with the same name who has moved on from headsets to actually implanting virtual reality chips into users’ brains. When the company’s CEO is killed, the show follows Detective Jules Dover’s investigation into what could be the first virtual murder.
The team decided early on to stick to a linear story. Like many video games, interacting with the VR episodes would allow you to move the narrative along without changing the plot. You are immersed in it, uncovering clues and questioning suspects like an episode of Law & Order, but keeping the story standard allowed us stay within the restrictions of filming a regular TV show, while also maintaining a connection between the episode formats.
Accessing the virtual world
To catch a TV-only viewer up on the VR episodes, SL made recaps that tell you what suspects and motives you’ve missed. They kept it snappy and informative, hoping to catch up the people who don’t have access to VR without boring those who do.
Sitting on the couch beside your partner while you both wear headsets isn’t ideal, so VR would have a long way to go before it could threaten the existence of classic TV. In combining the best parts of TV and video games, Secret Location wants to enhance the viewing experience instead of completely changing it, by giving you the chance to be a part of the story.