Why Tell Immersive Stories?

Overview Gary's Book Club author's Lakshmi Sarah and Melissa Bosworth summarize what they discussed on the CTA Stage during CES 2020.

We wrote Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality with the goal of sharing some of the processes and stories of VR and AR projects. Some of the many questions we delved into were: How did they begin, how were they made, and what impact did they have. This is an excerpt from Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality.

In the course of writing this book, we’ve spoken with creators with all sorts of backgrounds, from journalists and filmmakers to artists, educators, coders and activists. The one thing they all have in common is that something about the lure of immersive storytelling drew them in so powerfully that they were willing to take a risk to bring their projects into reality.

To the skepticism point: There are some creators who, when asked why a person or organization should be working on immersive stories, answer simply that this is where media is going, whether you choose to participate at this moment or not. If that is in fact the case, asking whether a story should be told in immersive media may soon make about as much sense as asking whether a story should be told on the internet. That is, if this is how stories are published and consumed, then it’s more sensible to ask how to make an important story work in immersive media than it is to ask whether a story should be told in immersive media at all.

That said, while it’s exciting to see stories that don’t obviously lend themselves to immersive media being told in this way — and we highlight some of those in this book — most creators are still thinking about it in terms of stories that fit a certain set of criteria in order to tap into VR and AR’s particular capabilities, and to reach audiences in new ways.

In our interviews, we asked each creator how they came to be telling stories in immersive media, and why they felt that particular stories needed be told in this way. We grouped their responses into some broad categories to help us understand the strengths and potential of immersive storytelling.

 

Perspective and Building Empathy

A major motivator for many creators is to tell an important story in a way that makes people care. With immersive media, the idea is to make an experience feel real by putting the viewer in someone else’s shoes, or someone else’s environment, or by tricking their brain into feeling like they really experienced something.

This potential for creating empathy by simulating direct experience is therefore one of the most compelling — and most hyped — reasons for using immersive media. While claims relating to the power of the “empathy machine” may be a little overblown, there are plenty of examples of stories that leverage this capability in powerful ways.

 

Ripe for Experimentation

It’s important to remember that, while there’s plenty to learn from research and existing projects, there’s also an enormous amount of room for experimentation in immersive media. And this course of discovery can only move forward if creators continue to take risks to create powerful immersive experiences.

We all know when we see something good: It moves us, makes us think, teaches us something, or helps bring us together. And someone has to try it for us to find out whether it works. We’re looking forward to seeing what comes next.

In the near future, many creators expect to see more volumetric experiences and mixed reality projects, as well as interactive forms of choose-your-own-adventure and potentially adaptive storytelling. Or, as Kevin Tsukii of Emblematic Group puts it, “it won’t be as isolating as 360 video on your face.”

 

Moving from Stories to Experiences

The challenges of telling a story within an immersive environment are still being worked out. There are improvements and advances to be made from creation and production to accessing the final product.
Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, has been a skeptic of VR’s use for narrative: “It’s not storytelling,” he says. “People have been trying to do [virtual reality] storytelling for 40 years. They haven’t succeeded.”

Ultimately, we don’t know what the future holds. As Nigel Tierney pointed out, predicting how we engage with YouTube, pre-YouTube: “No one would have said that it was going to be filled with reaction videos of opening boxes.”

“The power of immersive journalism is in creating experiential pieces,” says Marcelle Hopkins. “What we traditionally call a story becomes an experience in which our audience can witness, explore, discover and feel. It’s a compellingly vivid and visceral way to learn about the world.”

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