Earlier in the year, at the Samsung Developer Conference, I attended a session on VR where Eric Darnell, the chief creating director of Baobab Studios explained the difficulties of storytelling in VR. Baobab created a computer-animated VR short interactive movie called “Invasion,” where a bunch of aliens come to take over Earth.
Instead of being populated by humans, Earth has only two citizens — two white, fluffy, super-cute bunnies — and the viewer is one of them. When the storytelling becomes interactive, you sometimes lose control over the pace and composition of the story, but the team at Baobab was able to come up with a technique to inspire the viewer, through sound and visual clues, to follow the path they wanted.
Interactivity brings an extra layer to the story; this can be good or bad. Darnell talked about a scene where there are aliens in front of the viewer while the other bunny is behind him/her. This was fun for some, as they felt they were really in the story — they could “feel” the bunny’s presence behind them. However, others were stressed by the experience, as they were not sure whether they should look in front or behind.
Even more interesting was how viewers reacted to one tested story ending, where the other bunny dies. Killing the bunny triggered much stronger feelings than it would have done in a regular movie. You are in the story; you are the bunny’s companion, yet there is nothing you can do to save it. You can see how this must be much harder on children — and adults, for that matter— I cried watching “Pete’s Dragon”! — than a traditional screening, even a 3-D one.
VR experiences might be virtual but the emotions they triggers are very real
What makes the emotions even stronger is that the child will be completely “alone” in this world, and taking the headset off for a few seconds might not be the first thought. If you think of those instances where you are wearing a VR headset along with headphones, you can easily see how what we call “immersive” can turn into a terrifying experience for a child. The quick TV channel switch when something inappropriate comes on, or the burying of the face in the armpit, will not work, as parents will be left clueless as to what is happening inside the headset.
Because of this, I believe that VR content aimed at minors, young children in particular, calls for more stringent guidelines so that once the concerns for any physical risk will go away, and they will, we do not forget about the emotional and psychological impact VR could have.
Of course, children are not the only segment that could find VR experiences too immersive. Like for many other platforms before VR, sex and violence are big sellers for both games and content. While it might not be down to platform owners to determine what is bad and what is not, I believe there is a duty that lies with app store owners and content publishers not to censor but to warn. Not an easy discussion to have, and one I am sure we will hear more about in the future.