Agency In VR: From Passive To Interactive

Agency In VR: From Passive To Interactive
January 29, 2017
Cinematic VR at Sundance Film Festival, Photo by Hannah Tillson


Ashort four days after joining Unity Technologies, I was off to Park City, Utah, for one of the country’s largest film festivals. Can anyone think of a better way to start a new job? In addition to meeting great people and having an absolute blast, I loved Sundance because it is the first place I’ve seen high quality VR content being delivered to a non-gaming community. Between the seamless tracking and stunning graphics, these experiences are something that the virtual reality industry is proud to share with the world at Sundance.


Cinematic VR is no longer restricted to passive 360 video and pre-rendered CGI. We are now showcasing experimental content that has been rendered in real time using game engines, allowing the viewer to not just observe, but to interact and play a role in the story…in other words: to experience a sense of agency.


Agency-infused VR at Sundance:

Life of Us


Neither a movie or game: Life of Us by is a beautiful dream-like experience that you share with someone else. Throughout the story, you (aka, the main character) can make it your own by swimming, spitting fire and dancing as a robot in the future. You also have the chance to speak to your collaborator in VR with voice effects. In over 2 years of trying many VR experiences, I have never felt more embodied in the character I was playing than I did in this moment. Life of Us achieved enough control of the story, while also providing plenty of freedom and room for discovery for their participants. All I had to do was flawlessly swim, fly, and enjoy.



Asteroids! is the sequel to Invasion! by Baobab, except better because you get to personally interact with the adorable aliens throughout their adventures. The experience runs a little longer than most VR pieces, at 15 minutes, but I was so mesmerized by the pretty graphics and interactions that I didn’t want it to end.

The Price of Freedom


Another example of a great interactive piece, The Price of Freedom, by Construct Studiosallows you to become an agent completing a mission. You are able to interact with almost all the objects and drawers to look for clues, giving it a much more realistic experience and immersing you deeper into the story. There are also twists and turns along the way that make this piece thrilling and thought provoking.

Wonder Buffalo VR experience


Although not an official Sundance selection, Wonder Buffalo was being shown at VR on the Mountain, so I gave it a whirl. The student project out of USC, is a short experience to go along with the full movie — which is a coming of age story of a teen girl. The VR experience is complete with a psychedelic-feeling treasure hunt giving you clues about her personality. I was incredibly impressed by their technology stack. By using 8i volumetric video capture, along with spatial audio and programmed interactions, it was one of the more unique productions I’ve seen.



I didn’t get a chance to personally try Mindshow. But all of my colleagues and friends were raving about it. Plus: it was just named the #1 Interactive VR experience at Sundance by Verge, so I know it must be good. Instead of a traditional story, Mindshow is a virtual theater where you literally get to act as your character and make a movie. I’m definitely looking forward to trying this out with my friends after a few beers.


The 5 productions mentioned above were all made with Unity — but that’s not the main reason I mentioned them. Achieving interaction as a part of storytelling is no easy task, and something that VR creators are still exploring. Sundance was the first place I’ve seen this done well, specifically in the pieces above.


I was lucky enough to discuss The Role of Agency in VR alongside talented creators and directors whose work was being showcased at the festival. The panel featured Chuck Lee of Construct Studio, Cosmo Scharf of Mindshow and Winslow Porter, director of Tree. Below are a few key insights I took away from our chat:


Why give the user a sense of agency?


When you put a VR headset on someone for the first time, they will almost always have the immediate reaction of wanting to explore the space around them. Although 360 video and pre-rendered content is powerful on its own, the viewer still doesn’t have the ability to play a role in the story. With real-time rendering and interactions, the audience becomes a bigger part of the story — whether it be the hero, the villain, or sometimes, the victim. Allowing the viewer to taste agency and control will evoke more emotion in the story you are trying to tell. For example, in Tree, not only do you learn about the impacts of deforestation, but you experience it as a tree yourself. The creators are confident that telling the story in this way will create enough empathy to motivate us to take action to keep rainforests standing. Love it!


What is the biggest challenge in interactive storytelling?


People are accustomed to passively observing their content. From books, to theater, to modern day cinema, the viewers role in a story has always been to watch. Because receiving stories in this way has always been the norm, it can be a bit intimidating for the viewer to try an interactive piece, and a challenge for the storyteller to guide them through. The participant never wants to feel like they are making a mistake.


In The Price of Freedom, there were definitely times where I felt like I wasn’t doing it right (I tried it completely alone at the office prior to Sundance), but the challenge of solving the mystery made it more fun. There were also lots of clues and audio cues to guide me through the story, and secret “hidden” keys that luckily weren’t too hard to find.


Asteroids! had another way of solving this, by rendering little X marks on the the controllers when you didn’t have any interactions to do, so you were never confused. As soon as the controllers light up again, you know you have something important (maybe even heroic) to do.


Is interactive storytelling the future of entertainment?


Of course, we all agreed that interactive VR will unquestionably play a huge role in the future of entertainment, otherwise what were we even doing there? Even so, this branch of storytelling is a medium of it’s own — and won’t be likely to replace traditional cinema. I do envision that in the near future most households will have a VR set-up right next to their flat screen tv, but people continue read books even in a world of unlimited video streaming. Cinematic VR just gives us a whole new way to create, explore and experience stories with each other. Oh — and it sure is a lot of fun :)

Main Street @ Sundance, Photo by Hannah Tillson

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