One question I’ve received a lot over the past year often takes the form of a binary: do you like the film side of VR or, like, the video game stuff…? This question bugs me on a number of levels. Firstly, it tries to put forward a choice that only exists outside of virtual reality. Even worse though, this mindset holds VR back from its creative potential in a very real way.
Such thinking is of course understandable. We can’t really comprehend something without relating it to something else we know. For example imagine right now, in your mind, something you’ve never experienced before. You can’t do it.
So it is when a new medium appears. When film first came out, we could only understand it in terms of theatre. In fact, early films often feel wrong because they aren’t taking advantage of the cinematic grammar that would later be invented. The camera does not move, shot cuts aren’t used effectively, it simply feels like they are trying to film a theatre piece. Well, this is essentially what they were trying to do, because they hadn’t yet understood the significance of film as its own medium.
Now look at VR. See any parallels? People are trying to understand it largely in terms of two mediums we already know: film and video games. One is interactive, one is not. One is made with code, one is made with camera. One is experienced in a communal setting, as an event (i.e in cinemas), the other is played online or in the home. These divides are not as rigid as I’ve made them out to be, but they still exist in a very real way. In VR however, these divides are truly fabricated.
VR is a purely digital medium, anything can be altered or changed or combined as we see fit. In order to create content for a rapidly evolving media landscape. The fundamental question is not how does VR change film, video games, etc., but rather, what kind of experiences do we want to create, and can VR help us do that. Maybe the story you want to tell doesn’t even need VR, and that’s ok! Innovation is great, but when it becomes a cult-like obsession, we risk using the wrong tools to express ourselves.
It took film decades to come into its own, but I believe with VR we can accelerate that process, given the right mindset. The first step is to dispel false divisions like film vs. video games, in place of better questions like passive vs. interactive, linear vs. non-linear. We shouldn’t be talking about a VR film or VR video game. We should be talking about VR experiences (see gif above).
How does one approach something like this though? For myself in a recent project, I started off with my objectives: what my story was, what feelings I wanted to communicated, what atmosphere I needed. After realizing this story could be told very effectively through VR, I then constructed the world I wanted through Unity 3D. Within this world, I interspersed photographs and video from the real world, which again, was an important aspect of the story I was telling. Finally, rather than construct my experience on a strict passive vs interactive dichotomy, I instead gave a limited interactivity to my users. This interactivity could change the world they saw around them, but would not speed up, slow down, or change the story they were hearing. This is but a small example, but shows it is possible to create something which is neither a video game, nor a film, but rather a native VR experience.
Ultimately, I believe we need to get to the essentials of what kind of experience we want to provide the spectator. In answering this, we may realize that what we want to do has nothing to do with VR at all. That’s alright, VR isn’t the be all end all of media. VR is however, a very powerful medium with huge amounts of unrealized potential. If we begin to build powerful stories that take full advantage of the specificities of VR, then we will have truly changed this medium from a bunch of novelty goggles, to a portal into another world.