VR – Start With “Why?”

I’ve been working in the stereoscopic medium for quite a while now, and I can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about with VR. I keep hearing the familiar refrains we’ve all heard about 3D: “what makes you think 3D is here to stay this time?” only this time, we’re talking about VR. I first looked at VR at the TED2 conference in Monterey, California in 1991. Virtual Reality was the wave of that version of the future, although as you can imagine, the images were crude, the latency was unforgiveable, and the overall experience required leaps of faith to even consider the real possibilities of “why”? Hmmmm.

Flash forward nearly 25 years, and although we’ve improved some of the technical issues and we now have hundreds – possibly thousands – of people developing content for this new medium, we are still left with the same fundamental questions asked long ago.

Near the top of my list of questions is “do people really want to interact with their entertainment beyond gaming?” For a short time, perhaps yes. For a two-minute demo at a trade show or industry event, definitely yes. But to sit and watch a feature-length film wearing a cumbersome collection of headgear for the eyes and the ears while interacting along the way through the story?

No thank you. NO.

At a certain point, we all hit the wall and find that we’d rather sit back and observe, find a point of view that we either agree with or disagree with, in effect give us a chance to understand another person’s creative intent. The primary interactive choice people have is the POWER BUTTON. You never want to remind them of that.

We want to be entertained. We want to be told stories and to be taken on journeys that stretch our imagination. We don’t want to author those experiences, we don’t want to play camera operator and director for two hours, in effect, we don’t really want to work that hard for our entertainment. I’m all for interactivity, that’s what makes gaming exciting, that’s what makes the time fly by while we mindlessly surf the web, but interactivity doesn’t have to apply to everything we do. It’s OK to relax and appreciate what is presented to us rather than feel the need to change it, improve it, or destroy it at every interactive opportunity.

I’m not at all surprised by the surge in the popularity of VR. I really hope that some groundbreaking new experiences come from this frenzy of development. So far, it’s lots and lots and lots of the same stuff with different coats of paint applied with the same paintbrush. It’s truly the Wild West – there are no standards, no rules, no boundaries – and that in itself is very exciting.

Unfortunately, most all of the content I’ve seen thus far caters to those with the attention span of an over-caffeinated gnat. Interactive moments abound! Look here, now look over there! Look up, look down! Look all around! Wondrous yes – for about a minute. The best pieces I’ve seen are the ones that take you on a journey with limited interactivity. The interactivity itself needs to be hidden, it’s not the point of the experience – it merely supports it.

I attended the Producer’s Guild VR panel recently, and I heard over and over the claim from each of the VR developers that they were fundamentally storytellers. Current content notwithstanding, that’s an important goal, although I think it will continue to be a challenge as long as people try to create INTERACTIVE! versions of cinematic stories. That’s similar to the ongoing struggle in stereoscopic 3D where storytellers are looking for those moments that can only be enhanced by 3D, and I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of the leading storytellers in the field, all of them eager to find new ways to engage audiences within three dimensions in a linear format. Many of them have found ways to achieve that goal, but it’s not been easy. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

So far, all of the “storytelling” I’ve seen in the countless VR demos out there is missing the answer to the fundamental question of “why”? These experiences are far more analogous to games than cinema, and those differences are still very much in need of exploration. Let’s answer the “why” question. Why would I want to interact with this story? Why does interactivity improve the story? Why should the story have to be presented in this way?

Answer the “Why?”, then, and only then, do I think we’re on to something big…