What is it going to take to get you in this VR headset?
It’s not like Virtual Reality/360 Video proponents and researchers need to guess if people want it. For example, Dr. Carrie Heeter studied 787 people who answered a battery of questions about VR and found people were ready for the virtual ride. From how real an experience felt (some experienced VR before the survey) to how likely a user would be to enjoy a certain kind of VR content, it seems virtual worlds offer many use cases.
Toward the top of the list of possible experiences, participants ranked “Interactive Live Events,” “Interactive Arts” and “Science Fiction Story.” Ranking in the lower middle was “participatory drama,” “Science infotainment” and “Cultural infotainment.” Overall, the answers were a positive sign for storytellers wanting to use VR.
One thing: The paper was published in 1994.
What makes this era different? Potentially nothing, honestly. If entering virtual worlds is a step too far for people, VR will never be much more than a digital parlor trick. But one striking aspect of the Heeter study was where the researchers had to go to find their VR participants: BattleTech in Chicago, FigherTown in Irvine, ENTER 3-D exhibits at digital conventions. VR back then was a massive technological endeavor rooted in destinations, an IMAX on steroids. Not today.
As VR storytelling enters its second act, you will use it if the stories are easy to enter and offer something you cannot get any other way, but it must offer more than the wow factor.
“The novelty is starting to wear off,” says PAVR co-founder Alex Plapinger, responsible for the 360 story above.
“At the end of the day,” adds his partner Michael Ashton, “what you need to do is tell a great story.”
Is VR ready for the masses?
Sliding your smartphone into a headset, or plugging something into a gaming console, is a lot more accessible than VR 1.0. The same is true for VR creation. Many more people can try this time.
“A lot of people who are pushing the limits are individuals or small shops,” Laura Williams Argilla, Adobe director of Services and Workflows for Creative Cloud Video. “It’s not coming from the media-company-down, it’s coming from this desire-to-experience-up.”
The desire to try can go pretty high-end quickly.
“The first time I got my hands on a 360 camera I thought, ‘What can I do that’s different? What can I do that’s crazy?’” says Sara Dietschy, a YouTube vlogger and part of the 2016 Adobe Creative Residency. “So I decided to jump out of an airplane.”
The video was a success by most measures. Not only was a partnership with Samsung for a Vidcon event hosted by Casey Neistat, it has grabbed more than 4 million views. But for Dietschy, doing it was also a lesson it what does and does not work in 360 video.
“It definitely will make you sick,” she tells you at Adobe MAX last fall.
“It kind of did,” you reply.
“But it was fun, right?” she responds.
You don’t like heights, but that’s not so much the issue with the video. What Dietschy learned was that steadiness is the key. The camera was on the jump instructor’s head (she jumped tandem) and as he talks her through the experience, his head is moving. That’s a key lesson about all VR/360 camera work -- motion comes at a price.
“Once you’re being intentional about keeping the camera steady, you’re just falling vertically, so it’s not that bad,” Dietschy says.
When it costs a fortune to get it right, experiments like that are not viable but in this case, “you’re not spending tens of thousands of dollars,” Dietschy says. So the whole world becomes a VR laboratory.
At the same time, for the viewer, the whole world becomes bottled up in a set of goggles. Are you ready for that?
Won’t it isolate you?
“Some people like to bag on VR because it’s very secluding,” says Erik Rochner, a videographer who documents the natural world through VR, “but at the same time it’s very personalized. When it becomes a social platform, is it not going to be an isolating experience anymore.”
Whether immersion into storyworlds isolates you, or not, is a complex question. Research has found that immersion cues our empathy and lowers our barriers to new or different ideas. What you do know is that immersion into storyworlds is nothing new.
“I understand the arguments that you’d get trapped in this world and not want to live in the real world,” says Aton Sanz-Katz, a VR director for DreamWorks TV. “You can say that about television, you can say that about anything.”
Rochner's vision of storyworlds that socialize us is the future. For now, it is ahead to the past: Socializing might happen when we enter big, shared VR experiences, just like in the 90s.
Take the Ghostbuster Experience, a “hyper-reality” immersive world that opened at Madame Tussauds in Times Square last summer. Developed by Sony Pictures and The Void, it has not only become a tourist destination, it has inspired some of today’s cutting edge VR storytellers. Such as the team at 30 Ninjas, which produced the Doug Liman-directed VR series “Invisible.” Founder and CEO Julina Tatlock says President of VR Lewis Smithingham might be Ghostbuster Experience’s biggest fan.
“He went ... five times?” Tatlock asks.
“Six times, actually,” Smithingham replies.
“I went once with him with my family,” Tatlock continues. “There’s that argument that’s there a social event path for this. To not just play it in your living room, but to go to the full event. Why do you pay that extra money to see Tom Cruise in a movie theater? The reason is you’re going to see something, feel something, that you can’t replicate in your living room.”
If VR is going to capture a wide audience, it might isolate you at times, it might join you with groups other times.
“VR has a place, because it gives that same feeling of wanting to experience something outside of yourself,” Sanz-Katz says. “It’s not just a movie, it’s an experience.”
Integrating your realities
Or, and this is very likely scenario, it will be less about story worlds and more about the physical world embedded with stories.
“I think it’s going to merge into Augmented Reality,” Dietschy says. “I think 360 and VR will be a thing, but I don’t think it’s going to be mainstream until AR merges with VR.”
For a YouTuber, the realities are already blended.
“In 2D, I feel like I already have these relationships with people I haven’t met,” Diestschy says. But imagine a future where, “instead of pulling up YouTube, you just [walk into their room] which is interesting and kind of weird and scary.”
It is strange to think about, but it follows a trajectory that digital life in general is on. The integration of the world of information and the world of bodies means both that we enter stories and stories enter our world.
But it’s also important to remember that not every story will demand VR, as Chris Gernon of Fugitives TV reminds you.
“It’s a choice to make for storytelling [reasons], never for VR’s sake,” he says.
Meanwhile, back at Adobe ...
You look back to the beginning of this series, talking to the Adobe Creative Cloud team who pushed for new tools to tell VR stories. They are talking about the pushback that inevitably followed.
“We kept hearing,” says Laura Williams Argilla, Adobe director of Services and Workflows for Creative Cloud Video, mimicking the classic know-it-all voice, “it’s going to the next 3D TV.”
3D TV was all the rage a few years ago, like VR was all the rage a few decades ago. Saying something won't work is, often, the easier bet.
Bronwyn Lewis, Adobe product manager for Video Editing, remembers at a major broadcasting convention hearing the same sentiment as Williams Argilla.
“Really?” Lewis heard. “You have VR customers on stage? That’s just a gimmick.”
But the team kept building the tools. Why?
“The experience is so different. I have never seen a 3D movie that I felt like I was really there,” Williams Argilla says. “The closest I ever came was Hugo, because the environment was part of the story. But up until then, it was just things flying at your face. I don’t need that.”
“Do you mind if ...” interjects Brian Williams, senior computer scientist for Premiere Pro at Adobe, who is conducting a VR editing demo on Premiere Pro, while you all talk.
“No!” Argilla Williams jokes.
“I just want to quickly show him something,” Williams responds, “then you can talk while it’s actually processing.”
“I’m kidding, Brian,” Argilla Williams says, the kind of jousting real camaraderie engenders. Anyway, Williams Argilla knows you understand. If VR storytelling takes off, it’s because we want to feel like we’re fully there.
“So one of things, when we go into the export stuff ..." Williams carries on, "we have to insert special metadata into the clip so that YouTube and Facebook will automatically do the right player ...”
Which is Williams' way of telling you: Let the consumers decide whether they want VR. Adobe is going to help creators make it.