In the earliest days of television, no one had quite figured out the complicated new medium and the earliest TV programs reflected that. Many were just a camera pointed at people doing a radio show. It takes time to understand and create new stories in a new medium.
It may sound silly, but today’s commonly accepted practices around establishing shots and flashbacks were once clever new devices in film and television storytelling.
VR is the next evolution of visual storytelling. And it brings new challenges that storytellers will need to work out. With VR you can’t control what someone chooses to look at, or in what order. Most people in VR seem to look up and to the right first, then behind them. This is what makes storytelling content so tough to create and manipulate for marketing and advertising purposes.
Google Zoo, Google’s creative think-tank, recently coined the term storyliving, which describes how the user interacts with a company’s brand or message through the experience they have while immersed in VR. It goes beyond traditional storytelling and captures the idea that engaging audience in VR requires interaction between the content and the user. Let’s break it down:
Storytelling vs. Storyliving
Think of storytelling as if there is an author or a director setting you in a story, and pushing you along a single linear path.
Storyliving is similar to video games in the sense that there will be paths to choose from, and depending on what path you choose, will ultimately change the end-destination of the narrative you’re set in.
What people think about when they dive into VR
Where am I?
When you put on a VR headset, you’re immersed into a new environment. VR experiences are sensory-heavy, which means you approach every move while engaging with any senses being tapped into.
Whether this be looking towards a noise, a light, or a figure, you’re learning that you have control. You’re beginning to familiarize yourself with your surroundings and you’re eager to explore, to see what this environment has to offer you.
What am I?
In any virtual reality experience (VRE), you become an avatar of yourself, or a digital body in which you live and act within. Google Zoo highlights the ability to shapeshift because it can expand the typical limits of VR, and it allows you to shift your mindset and actions based on the reality of your new body.
So, what makes storyliving so attractive?
Being able to participate
In Google Zoo’s study, they found that people are curious about everything they can see in VR, regardless of whether it’s something they can interact with; the curiosity is there to drive the question of whether it’s tangible for them.
According to Google Zoo, “VR utilizes interactivity to deepen the sense of immersion into something wholly different: participation.” People want to be able to interact, or “participate” with their virtual surroundings, and storyliving does just that.
VR content allows you to enter a space where the real world is muted, which neutralizes any emotions that exist in real-time so you can react to the content in front of you. Google Zoo noted “For study participants with busy personal or professional lives, this offered a sensory-rich space to experience solitude and connect with a specific set of emotions.”
With this, there is also the aspect of emotional vulnerability. Consider facing your fears through VR, something that is actually used in practice by some doctors. By putting on the headset, the user is accepting the unpredictability of the content and allowing themselves to be vulnerable to what they could see while being in virtual reality.
So how is VR changing storytelling?
Traditional storytelling is primarily about painting a picture and having your user see exactly what you want them to see. The power of VR and the methodology around “participation” that users embrace is exactly what is changing about storytelling.
No longer can you make one single item the centre of attention in a scene. Everything in VR must demonstrate meaning for the user to have an effective and impactful experience.
Based on findings from Google Zoo, as well as additional sources within the VR space, there are two questions that need to be defined before creating new content, especially for effective storytelling:
(1) What do you want the user to see, and
(2) how do you want the user to feel? This seems obvious, but these questions are powerful because they answer what kind of experience you’re creating for the user, which is the ultimate goal behind VRE creation.
What do you want your user to see?
Re-phrased, this is asking what kind of feeling do you want to leave with your user? Do you want a lot of details for your user to pay attention to, or a blank slate with few items so there’s more emphasis on the narrative aspect? Does the scene achieve the message you’re aiming for? Does it achieve the perspective you wanted to communicate? Is there anything distracting in the VR experience that you need to consider before letting users view?
How do you want the user to feel?
What kinds of emotions are you trying to achieve with your scene? Is your content graphically sensitive? Does it play on fears, induce tears, make people smile? Ultimately, how do you want the user to feel when they take the headset off?
The Google Zoo Storyliving research is fascinating because it highlights a reality VR content developers need to face: we need a new storytelling language for this new medium. New ways of thinking about our stories will bring them into 360-degree focus and push the imagination forward.