The State of VR Cinema (circa 2016)
Imagine you could go anywhere, or do anything. It sounds like a futuristic sales pitch, but it’s about to become a very familiar tagline. 2016 is the year of the headset. Virtual reality, the increasingly common public vernacular for describing 360° immersive content, is hitting the market en mass, fueled by the $600 release of Oculus Rift. Facebook jump-started the contemporary virtual reality movement (also known as VR) when they purchased the headset maker in 2014. Together with YouTube, the Internet video giants made 360° content browser accessible over the past year, effectively leading the charge on a new content medium that creatives are starting to explore.
It’s like winning a ticket to join Charlie at the chocolate factory. The allegory comes with a warning though: tread carefully. Early adopters take great risk. The overzealous producer who jumps into a field for no reason other than that it exists at all could find themselves with a failed experiment, or worse, an embarrassment.
When it comes to funding, advertisers have traditionally enabled many of the most ambitious, experimental, and sometimes outrageous ideas that creatives dream up. Yet the rise of insight and stats driven decisions fueled by big data, coupled with the economic unease of the late 2000’s, has led to a leaner and more risk-averse industry.
Which begs the question, is this the moment for brands to invest in VR?
Right now, we’re in gold rush mode, and the first producers out of the gate will get the most attention, at the most risk. There is a flood of 360° content being created, but as a storytelling medium — and especially as a wide berth communications platform — it’s still an unproven space. Most 360° content can be viewed on mobile or via the browser, but the experience is limited, akin to shining a flashlight in the dark or looking through a window. But it’s primarily meant to be viewed on on a headset: VR is expanding our definition of responsive design and forcing us to create responsive content that can map out across mediums, and this poses the first challenge to achieving the ROI that marketers covet.
Among the hurdles facing the technology, virtual reality asks the consumer to cover their eyes and obfuscate their real world vision. On November 8, 2015, the New York Times, in partnership with Google Cardboard, made a splash and introduced the masses to VR news stories, providing audiences with immediate and ultra-realistic insights into world events. Goggles have not worked out so well for 3D televisions, however.
Still, it’s an exciting moment for the creative — an opportunity to do something that has never been done before — and that alone should be reason for brands to take this seriously. We haven’t just been given a new set of tools, we’ve been given a whole new playground. One of the first VR experiences that really got me excited about the platform’s storytelling ability Gentleman Scholar’s Truffle Pig. You put on the headset and it immerses you in an animated world. Your eyes tell you it’s real. The rest of your senses are lost in the real world. Your brain doesn’t quite know how to respond, so it goes along for the ride, and it’s like you’re really there, in an intricately illustrated world. Is this how Roger Rabbit felt when he left Toontown? It blew my mind.
It’s not cinema. It’s astral projection.
As convincing and awe inducing as the experience was though, it was incomplete. Our current implementation of VR — without tactile physical response and extra sensory input beyond the visual and audio spectrums — is limited. There are companies working to create 3D spatial microphones and headphones that map sound across distances to enhance the reality of the experience, but it only goes so far without touch, smells, and tastes. When you put on that headset, you’re entering a sensory displacement chamber that suddenly deposits you in two places at once. If we plan for that though, if we build the experience with that limitation in mind or make it central to the narrative, it could create quite an adventure.
At it’s best, VR may be one of our best methods of inducing engineered feelings on a targeted audience. That is where the potential for this technology exists for brands.
However, there are still fundamental differences of storytelling between VR and traditional cinematic content that create challenges toward achieving this goal. While VR shares many structural elements with cinema — both are visual, both tend to employ moving images and sound — the immersive experience in fact creates a medium unto itself. Whereas cinema is a passive experience that engages and immerses the viewer in stories by reaching out directly to the imagination, virtual reality is an active experience attempting to trick the viewer into believing they are experiencing what they are seeing and hearing.
In essence, cinema caters to viewers, whereas VR courts users.
The distinction is paramount when considering a communications medium for the purposes of marketing and mass influence. Cinema is a carefully controlled medium that carries well-honed messages, whereas VR is an interactive environment in which the user chooses where to look and what to see.
Filmmakers Dominik Stockhausen and Philipp Maas described this in an interview for No Film School. “Since the audience always wears this headset and they are literally inside the movie at every point, not only psychologically but physically, the body starts to feel spaces that only exist in this virtual world,” Stockausen said, describing the way that imagination begins to paint the physical environment around the viewer. This changed the duos approach to shooting and how they told their story. For instance, they changed their point of view to resemble a disembodied ghost in an attempt simulate the passive experience of cinema, and as Stockhausen recounts, “people who had never seen VR were looking all over the place, and they didn’t get it. So we had to stretch it out into longer shots and slower editing.”
Other VR experiments have toiled with sound design and light effects to direct a user’s angle of view toward manipulated points of edit egress intended to simulate cinematic cuts and control where the viewer is looking on the other side of the edit. And while software could be used to alter the clips that load on the b-side of an edit based on the direction the user is looking to ensure some directing of the viewer’s experience, this has yet to be done effectively and would likely require a massive amount of data and processing.
Therein lies a dilemma for communications intended to influence audiences toward a specific result. The VR audience must either be corralled like a herd of sheep to follow the message — which is antithetical to the medium itself — or we must release control and create an experience, not a script, that imparts our messaging on the participant, which involves a level of risk that could be too much for some brands.
For the risk-takers, the trendsetting advertisers that have built their brands on being at the forefront of cultural innovations, virtual reality is the new medium begging your presence and threatening to run off without you if you don’t join now. There can be a great upside to being the first: in 2010, Google and Arcade Fire made a splash with meta-data driven storytelling with the Wilderness Downtown interactive music video; Red Bull Media House solidified it’s growth from an energy drink to adrenaline pumping cultural phenomenon with risks like partnering with GoPro to capture a man diving to Earth from orbit, and using combinations of drones, camera cars, GoPros, and GPS to showcase the otherworldly flying moves of the Red Bull Air Force. They’re already active in the VR space.
However, for the more traditional brand that emphasizes engagement statistics and ROI, it might be better to keep a close eye on the evolution of VR and wait for the medium to mature before making a first foray into the space.
In the short term, virtual is better suited for in-store displays and events than mass consumer communication. VR headset manufacturers are making an admirable effort to integrate the technology into the real world through partnerships with retail brands. Take the Samsung Gear VR, for instance, which is powered by Oculus. You can’t walk through a Best Buy these days without spotting somebody wearing one of the striking white headsets, waving their arms wildly something only they can see. You’ll find the Samsung Gear VR set at Toms Shoes locations as well. The brand’s Venice, CA flagship shop has a dedicated seat for people who want to take a virtual trip to Peru to meet people who are benefiting from the extra pair of shoes donated around the world as a result of purchasing a pair of shoes from Toms. The experience reportedly cost Toms around $250,000 for production.
As of writing, however, virtual reality is still a niche medium. Consumer reach is limited by player accessibility and availability, though many have proclaimed 2016 as VR’s breakout year and the Oculus rift could become the year’s must-have holiday gadget. Oculus is also just one of many players being released this year. The market is crowding quickly, with Google, HTC, Sony, Microsoft, and even Zeiss getting in on the action. If it weren’t for the fact that it requires a headset that covers one’s vision with the goal of removing you from the real world, it would be a foregone conclusion that VR would be the next revolution in content technology, following in the footsteps of cinema, television, and the gaming consoles that came before.
Or, as Max Levy put it for The Atlantic, “In exchange for the superpower to instantly transport you anywhere you can imagine, virtual reality asks that you place a headset over your eyes, blinding you to your immediate surroundings.”
It’s also worth noting that the potential for VR goes well beyond narrative, and in fact, it’s strongest applications may leave narrative behind entirely. GoPro just announced LiveVR, a VR streaming solution. Imagine locking a live VR station on a beautiful beach. What if there were a meditation app that allowed users to plug in for live relaxation any time of the day? Or what if a remote island, such as Fiji, for instance, were to provide users with a gateway for experiencing five minutes of pure Fijian beach bliss to encourage tourism?
Entrepreneurial brands and filmmakers are fervently building stories and testing the capabilities of this new medium, but there is still time to capitalize on the its first iterations and claim a spot in the list of pioneers seeking new ways to interact with audiences. Make no mistake, while it does involve an element of risk, the current VR market presents a unique opportunity to make a splash at the outset of a new form of communication that could strengthen or establish a brand’s image of innovation in the consumer mind-space.