VR and AR are much-discussed in the publishing industry – but few publishers have found a way to translate the new tech in a way that works for books. Stephanie Riggs, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, thinks she knows why.
An internationally recognised director, producer, creator and speaker whose immersive experiences with Disney, Google, Facebook, Refinery29, Carnegie Mellon, Yale, and NYU have lead the evolution of the VR field, Riggs has just released The End of Storytelling: The Future of Narrative in the Storyplex. The book outlines the history of storytelling and illustrates why familiar storytelling techniques used in books, film, and theatre do not translate very well to new mediums, such as VR and AR, and often leave audiences a little disappointed. Instead, she suggests that we need to stop looking at storytelling in this square box of a book, a stage, a screen and, instead, change the way we think of narrative using these immersive technologies.
We asked her to talk more about the impact of her ideas for the future of books.
Why doesn’t traditional storytelling (such as we find in mainstream books) fit well into VR and AR?
Three fundamental traits of immersive technology undermine the traditional process of telling stories. The first is the absence of a frame. Books are framed by their pages. Theatres by the proscenium. Televisions and computers by the screen. The frame separates pre-scripted content from our naturally interactive reality. And it is ubiquitous. When we work in immersive experiences, the frame disappears, disrupting our expectations of where to look for content. That’s why when people over the age of about twelve experience VR for the first time, they stare straight forward in the headset rather than looking around the world.
The immersive quality of being within the content rather than separated from it, creates the second reason why traditional storytelling doesn’t work in VR and AR: the sensation of presence. A 1998 study by German researchers Regenbrecht, Schubert, & Friedman brilliantly described the differences between how our brains process increasingly sensorial mediums: “When we read an article about a narrow suspension bridge, we would rarely experience any sensations because of the mentioned height, but we have a clear mental model of the described space. When we see the bridge in an action movie and we look down to the bottom of the valley together with the endangered protagonist, it is likely that we feel fear because of the height. However, when users have to walk over that bridge in a virtual environment, many of them will experience physiological symptoms and sensations of fear, because they have a sense of actually being there.”
Finally, authorship itself evolves. Interactive technology supports scripting more akin to gaming than novels. These worlds are able to deliver content that responds to the actions of guests rather than a singular plot line. As people adapt to the first two traits of immersive technology, the absence of frame and the sensation of presence, it will be generative scripting that ultimately demands that writers reconceptualise how a narrative is constructed and evolves the future of our stories.
What does a story need if it is to work well with immersive technologies?
I have seen many traditional screenwriters, authors, and playwrights try to write scripts for immersive experiences using the same techniques that worked for them in their native formats. It rarely creates an experience that is easy for guest in VR or AR to follow or interact with. There are awkward transitions between plot points and interactivity, and guests don’t know where to look because they’re not accustomed to being surrounded by their story. This is one of the reasons that I wrote The End of Storytelling: to share the lessons I’ve learned through decades of working with narratives in immersive environments that can help traditional storytellers “think immersively.” For a story to work well in immersive technology, we don’t start by writing a script. We start with a concept of what we want the guest to experience and then design the flow of interactions based on the psychological experience of the guest.
What do you see as the main challenges facing book authors and publishers who want to exploit these new media?
The technology itself presents a formidable challenge. We lack industry standards in software, hardware, methodology, and even the language we use to describe working in interactive mediums. However, the most significant challenge comes from ourselves. When traditional creators work with immersive technology, they tend to fall back on the well-established paradigm of “storytelling” rather than doing the hard work to understand how and why this medium is different than classical (pre-immersive) mediums.
What do you think are the main opportunities for the book trade in terms of exploiting VR and AR?
Today’s immersive technology readily lends itself to augmenting existing publications. AR isn’t widely and consistently used, so it’s a great time to explore how what’s on the page can come to life and experiment with out-of-the-box ideas. In the long-term, if we are able to reconceptualise what a narrative is and evolve it beyond just storytelling, the possibilities are endless.
Do you think it’s important for the book industry to harness these technologies or should it stick to the (very different) more traditional reading experience?
The craft of writing powerful characters, moving narratives, and mesmerizing sequences has, for the most part, eluded creators of immersive experiences. Often times, they are so focused on what the technology can do that the story suffers. I believe that there is tremendous opportunity right now for collaboration between the book industry and the immersive industries.
What other emerging technologies do you think have the potential to disrupt the book industry in the next few years?
Going back to your first question, machine learning and artificial intelligence have the potential to profoundly disrupt how authors construct narratives and how guests experience stories regardless of whether the interface to the story is a page, a headset, or a mobile device. I’ve been collaborating with several colleagues on this challenge, and the future that lies ahead of us is incredible!