VR – What We Believe

Telling a story in Virtual Reality is a difficult thing to comprehend for artists and storytellers. There are many unknowns, and we tend to make it up as we go and see what sticks with audiences.

I've been working in the industry and following it for a few years. My thought life is constantly consumed on how can we do this well. 

Whilst there's no rule book, I've decided to make a belief statement.
Here are some of our beliefs at Evaro on what we think will work for the future of VR.

Note, this is only for narrative experiences, not games, educational, social or other applications.

Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Mobile VR can give anyone the ‘Wow' factor.

A smartphone and a piece of cardboard with some lenses is still breathtaking for someone experiencing virtual reality for the first time. Whilst we should all provide experiences for high end HMDs like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, we believe that the market over the next few years is with mobile devices. 

When you're crafting stories, think of ways that can take this new storytelling medium of VR and deliver a compelling experience in the most cost effective way possible. Even if that doesn't include all of the high end specs like 6 degrees of freedom.

It’s not about looking around 360 Degrees

That can get tiresome. Imagine doing that constantly for a 30 minute TV episode or a 90 minute film!

There is a honeymoon period in VR where you just want to look everywhere, but it is just that, a honeymoon. We believe the magic of VR lies with a term called 'presence'. The feeling of you being there with the characters, swept up in their story. After we establish this, then we tend to settle on 180 degrees for a scene.

We’re not making movies

The least compelling VR experiences are stories that you feel could be told better on a cinema screen where you have a whole repertoire of language and techniques tried and tested for over 100 years. We need to think outside the box, how we can utilise presence as a narrative tool.

We’re not making video games

Video games are very much about activities, missions, puzzles. You are the main character and can choose to go anywhere within the confines of the world. You are the driving force in a game and the same goes for players of VR games.  But, we believe that the thing that distinguishes a VR experience from a VR game is that you are not in the driver seat. In a way it’s a happy medium in-between a game and a movie. To do this, it’s about not making you the main character of the story like in a video game, nor is it about making you not a character within the story at all, like in film. For the most part, we believe that placing you as a secondary or tertiary character in a story feels about right.

Secondary or tertiary character

Say you are experiencing a VR princess story. There is a common village girl obsessed with the prince, whom she thinks will only fall in love with an aristocrat. You are a pauper in the kingdom, one of the many that she despises, and will do anything to get away from, to appear wealthy and follow her fairytale of marrying the prince. But the prince is a commoner at heart, and likes to head out at night in disguise and drink at the tavern with the village folk.

Suddenly there are many narrative scenarios where you, the pauper can be placed in. From the hard, everyday slog that the villagers endure, the friendly neighbourhood conversations, to the village girl and the way she treats you harshly, whilst revealing her ambition to become the princess, as she tries to weed out her true identity.

Then later you're in a tavern and you meet this scraggly looking stranger who loves to rub shoulders with the village folk. You discover this strangers is the prince in disguise. You watch as this girls' story slowly unravels and how she begins to treat you from dismissive to endearing, and embraces who she is to finally win the prince.

This is her story, but you experienced it and were a part of it. In VR, the story arc of how you relate to her, is just as important as her own story arc. 

Borrow from all storytelling mediums

We started telling stories around campfires, and moved onto recording stories in literature. Eventually we arrived at the amphitheatres of Greece and the theatres of Elizabethan England. Over a century ago film was invented which borrowed techniques from these mediums and other storytelling devices such as photography. Editing was invented, where cutting two pieces of film together conveyed meaning and emotion to the viewer. We took inspiration from newspaper comics and the visual art world and made the drawn image move. When the talkies arrived, dialogue from a rich history of theatre plays was borrowed and adapted to work for the screen. Slowly over time, filmmaking found it’s own voice unique to itself. It had borrowed from all these mediums yet found a way to make them their own language in cinema.

When we think about magical experiences or providing meaning to a location or sentence, our brains often think to movies. We have been in the grasp of films for our entire lifetime, which is why it has been natural to see so many VR stories mimicking films.

But we need to look beyond films to decipher the language of this new medium. How we use dialogue is not the same in films as it is in VR. We don’t frame a shot, we more or less set the stage. Perhaps for both of these disciplines we can look more to theatre for inspiration. What can we learn from video games and how they conduct a narrative and allow players into interact.

Marketable presence is the key

You can basically place movies into two categories, commercial and arthouse. Commercial films tend to focus on genre and spectacle with a beginning middle and end, whereas arthouse focuses on experimentation, open ended plots and plays around with what’s to be expected. (Ofcourse many films fall inbetween these two extremes.)

In VR, we believe the commercial equivalent would be something we call marketable presence. Just like when you’re sold a commercial movie, you have some expectation of what it’s going to be. This is a monster flick, I expect to see giant monsters fighting for 90 minutes. The same goes for commercial VR experiences. This is a bird flick. Expect to fly and soar to new heights. This is a supernatural thriller. Expect for your presence to not be what it seems. This is a magical fantasy, expect your presence to have untapped potential. This is a sci-fi, get ready to be artificial intelligence. This is a romantic comedy, expect to be a wingman/girl or the third wheel.

The other category of arthouse will share the same heartbeat as it’s film counterpart, but could best be described as the world of dreams, where presence isn’t necessarily defined. You may embody different presences at different moments. You may be inside of a presence and then float out of it and watch your character/avatar in third person. It will all revolve around breaking the convention of presence. There may be editing and hard cuts, or thoughts floating out of a mind in written form. You may be in the pore of a skin and then scale up to be larger than the planet. You might embody an inanimate object such as a toothbrush, there may be scenes that move the camera around to provoke nausea and then sooth it by settling the viewer.

And then think of all the exciting combinations where people will flock to a commercial genre piece where the arthouse spirit is smuggled in, pushing the envelope of what people thought possible in VR.

It’s a game for Animators

Most of the live-action footage that’s been consumed in VR has been underwhelming (Miyubi an exception). It lacks the magic of cinema. We don’t know how to light a scene yet, many multiple cameras don’t stitch together perfectly yet to create a seamless image and most of the footage is monoscopic, meaning everything you see has no depth to it, dampening the immersive effect.

I could go on with a list of other technical limitations, but I’ve never been one to care much for tech specs. The one thing that I can’t live without, and that I find shooting 360 film lacks is a close connection with the characters. Everything always seems just a little too far away. I’m a sucker for the close up shot and the way it engages empathy with the viewer. 360 video just isn’t there… yet. But it will be. 

The beauty of the animated world is, for one, cartoon characters have larger eyes and faces than humans, meaning that at distance we can have a close connection with them and their emotions. Also there is no limitation as to how close or far away from camera the characters can be. VR is a brave new world, and currently it’s for animators. I would bet on the next few years for VR animated experiences to be the most consumed.

The camera rigs I'm sure will catch up very soon. 

They say sound is 50% of a movie, it may be even more in VR

In storytelling terms that is. How do you ensure that someone has understood your narrative when they can look anywhere at anytime. We believe that dialogue, sound effects and music play an even more important part in VR than in movies. There was once a booming industry of silent films, I doubt there’ll be one with silent VR.

Augmented/Mixed Reality is the new social storytelling medium

When we talk about Augmented/Mixed reality, it’s about information being layered on top of reality. Those smartphones that run our lives, they’re going to be obsolete. 10 years from now will look very different. Once AR glasses as trendy as a pair of ray-bans, can scan your environment and layer on information such as google maps arrows directing you where to turn as your driving, or a text message appearing.

Virtual Reality will be big, but Augmented/Mixed Reality will be much bigger. It will have more applications for every day and just like the apps and games on your smartphone, we’ll be dealing with an exciting new market to explore new ways to tell stories. We believe that the mediums will be very similar in the way stories are told, but there are a few differences to consider.

For one, the scale of characters has limitations. In the VR world, you might be the same height as cartoon characters. When there characters come to your world in AR, think of it as your toy box coming to life.

I think the stage play is something to be borrowed from even more with an AR experience as we treat sets as cross-sections.

The exciting thing with AR, if you gather in a room with several people, they can all sync their glasses and watch the same experience from different vantage points. It won’t have the 1 on 1 intimacy that VR has, but we’ll be back to sitting around the campfire and telling stories. 

Craig Rutherford