Virtual reality: what works, what doesn't, and what publishers can do now

Virtual reality: what works, what doesn't, and what publishers can do now

We need to talk about virtual reality. Not since Homer Simpson’s electric hammer has a technology invention been under so much pressure to succeed. Many billions of dollars have already been spent producing VR glasses, VR app stores and VR content, but industry investment does not guarantee success as the echoes of 3DTV fading into the distance remind us.

The fascination of this new technology for storytellers is that virtual reality can immerse the audience in a way that no other medium can. A well-crafted virtual reality experience suspends our disbelief to the point where we not only believe the story, but we believe we are in it.

It has taken virtual reality a while to get this point. The first devices appeared in the 1830s - two photographs that tricked the brain into thinking it was a 3D image. The invention cycle accelerated through the 1960s with the first head-mounted displays, and then in the 1980s and 1990s, the first mainstream consumer VR headsets appeared. However, movies like "The Lawnmower Man" and "The Matrix" promised a quality of experience that the real world technology could not match, and VR disappeared from the market.

Now, technology has caught up and VR experiences are believable for the mainstream, not just those who want to believe.  Importantly, we have also become used to experimentation with video formats with the growth of YouTube, YouTube 360, Go Pros, cameras in our phones. With technology now working, and audiences primed to experience it, the stage is set for VR to prove itself.  The only missing piece now is for the creative industry to deliver the experiences that the technology can deliver and the audiences are expecting. 

Creative experimentation in virtual reality is like a Burgess Shale of film, with games, television and advertising companies testing 360 video, audio and interactivity. As I mentioned recently in my article on digital arts and culture, experiments are very useful for the companies experimenting, but should not be considered a sustainable publishing strategy. Audiences can be turned off new technologies rapidly, and if they judge virtual reality content on a series of hyped experiments, then the industry will take a sharp step backwards.

When Netflix started commissioning its original series, it learned from the experiences of Lilyhammer, and then committed to the series of House of Cards. This is the approach that needs to be taken with VR content funding – that is, not to commit to a bunch of experiments but rather one or two experiments and then a full VR series that is allowed to grow over time with a strong narrative, characters and all the elements that audiences expect in a story.

It is this strategy that we at To Play For believe in, and as a result today announced that we have picked up the VR rights to the exciting new trilogy from Amy Lankester-Owen, focusing on the first book Neuromod. The stories, aimed at the young adult market and set in a tense dystopian world, use mind fusion techniques to see inside characters’ minds. You can see how VR hardware can be used as the gateway into the ‘fusion’ moment, as the audience enters the mind, thoughts and stories of each character. Given Amy’s background in neuroscience, perhaps this is not as far in the future as it might seem…

From a production standpoint, we are using our experience in both 360 video production and 3D interactivity to create the Neuromod world. While innovation is occurring at an eye-watering pace, we are adopting Top Five Tips to define our approach to VR and to ensure that the story is prioritized over the technology. The Tips are:

1. It’s Behind You! VR is a 360 degree environment, but humans only have a field of vision of 114 degrees at a maximum. If there is action going on all around, the audience will miss the majority of it. Video games makers are used to free-range 3D worlds and are well versed in how to guide a player’s attention towards the key action.

Tip: Have a games company on your team.

2. Go slowly. Enough rollercoasters. When I am on a rollercoaster, or a BMX bike, or doing parkour on a vertiginous rooftop, I am really focused on what’s in front of me and do not look around. I look around slowly when I am on a relaxing walk, when I am sitting down, or when environmental details are very important, like a crime scene. 

Tip: Start the story slowly, and match the action to the medium.

3. Choose the genre carefully. VR is a very immersive environment in which you can create powerful emotional experiences.  Build on Tip #2; genres like horror, ghosts, crime, romance and character-driven stories will work well. Action games will work, but action videos will not. 

Tip: Match the genre to the medium. What works in regular video probably does not work in VR.

4. The importance of signposts. Audio is usually underrated alongside video, but in VR it is part of the interface – as important as a bright orange button on a website. Audio is the prompt that you should turn your head to look at something.

Tip: Audio design is the new UX and the sound designer should contribute to the vision as much as the director of photography.

5. Story length. At Power to the Pixel last year, Oculus’s creative head Saschka Unseld said that they were yet to create a VR project that engaged audiences longer than four minutes. That grew to ten minutes for the Emmy winning “Henry” but there is clearly room for growth. Interesting, VR games have much more longevity but have yet to match the 30 hours that is expected from a standard game. 

Tip: Plan the experience in short episodes until audiences are ready. 

This is the approach that we are taking. Not all these tips will suit all projects, and undoubtedly they will be refined as the market evolves. Mainstream VR is very much in its infancy, and feels like the birth of the app store. At that time, there was skepticism around the medium and the scale of the addressable market, however those who got in while there were only 500 apps in the store were able to build a fanbase in a way that is now impossible with over 2m apps to compete against. VR app stores still have small numbers of titles – the Playstation VR store launched with 230 titles – and many companies are seeing the opportunities and mid-term economies of getting in early.

As with mobile apps, the most successful VR projects will be those which treat it as a unique medium – not just film with added 360, for example. It will likely take only one title to make VR as a medium. It is our belief that building a project natively, rather than replicating previous media in this platform, will increase the chances of that project being the standout hit. History will tell, but if the projections are even close to being right, VR will impact storytelling across television, film, games and books in ways we can only begin to imagine.

Guy Gadney will be speaking as part of the Virtual Realities: The Market for Interactive Storytelling panel at the FutureBook conference in December. For more information and tickets, click here.