*This is the first in a series of stories focusing on a lovely little gathering in Banff called The Story Summit. I was invited there by the inventive people of AMPIA to cover the conference and I will be tweeting insights and photos from here, here, here, and here. Any questions or insights, email me here.
A blurry shot clears focusing on a majestic mountain view. It shimmers into sight as it is made out of mirrors. A rumbling sound can be heard off in the distance and begins to grow. As it crescendos, the mountain vibrates and then explodes into a billion beams of pure light. As the dust settles, there is a figure standing there. It is Ed Lantz, he has a phone to his ear. The voice on the other end of the phone is soothingly robotic. It speaks:
You are a co-panelist on the ‘What’s Next in VR and Audience Experience?’ panel. I was talking with a friend about this, and they said that VR will never take off as fully as it could because the experience is too intimate, to singularly personal to the viewer (headset wearer). My retort was that the same can be said for books, but they seem to be doing well. Do you have a view either way?
Your friend has a good point, but is also missing what’s coming in VR.
The VR experience is very intimate! This highly immersive format activates the user’s root brain – our body’s autonomic nervous system – including our sense of presence and vestibular response (sense of balance) which relies on our visual system. Cinema audiences know that they are safely removed from action on the screen. Cinema is a framed window from which we voyeuristically view scenes at arm’s length. VR, on the other hand, is a frameless medium. Viewers cannot turn away from the screen – the real world is completely opaqued out.
When a viewer is in the same room as a couple who is arguing, perhaps even standing in between the couple, the viewer’s emotional response can be very strong… their face flushes and they have an impulse to leave the room. Similarly, viewers can experience vertigo and a fear of falling when standing on a ledge or tightrope in VR. Another example is Nonny de la Peña’s piece called Syria, where I found myself standing in a busy street with men talking on one side of me, children playing, etc. A bomb suddenly exploded, people were screaming and I cried and had to take off the headset saying that no one should have to experience such horror. I previously had no such reaction to the HD render of the same piece.
These intense emotional reactions can either add to a story or unintentionally distract from it. And there can be unintentional fallout from excessively intense experiences as well. I believe that, under certain circumstances, people can be permanently traumatized in VR, just as they can in real life. Experiencing excessively intense horror, violence, sexual abuse and more could have lasting effects similar to PTSD.
With regards to the “singularly personal” issue, it is clear that future VR experiences will provide collective experiences in shared virtual spaces or metaverses with increasing fidelity and realism. We will embody avatars and have agency in the metaverse much as we do in real life. People will socialize, work, study, shop and have sexual relations in the metaverse. In my opinion, there is already a mass migration into cyberspace taking place in our society. When you pick up a mobile phone you are checking out of the real world to a degree and entering a cyber reality. When the metaverse can hold billions of people – the goal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – some of us, perhaps many of us, will prefer to live a significant portion of our lives in the virtual world instead of the real world. In the future, some of us may even choose to live similar to the movie The Matrix where our bodies float in an amniotic fluid with nutrients pumped in, waste pumped out and our nervous system jacked into cyberspace.
Think about it. In the metaverse one can have super powers, can craft our body however we chose, teleport anywhere instantly, and live out any fantasy regardless of how grandiose or taboo. On a sensory level we are only missing the sense of taste, smell and touch – and there are early VR systems for these senses hitting the market now. This is going to get very interesting…
Humans have an amazing ability to “project” themselves into stories and other worlds – as you point out, even when reading a novel. Metaverses will be so real and so addictive that people will not want to leave. Even the real world will be seen through AR glasses or contacts that will augment reality perhaps beyond recognition. Get ready for this… science fiction is turning into science reality. The children of today will live in a very different world from us.
Why stands out in my mind, given this possibility, is the question: just what sort of worlds do we want to create… and inhabit? There are limitless choices! The quality of our lives in the future could depend heavily on the quality of our VR and AR worlds. VR storytellers would do well to study positive psychology – the science of improving our quality of life by improving our quality of consciousness.
As the technology grows and prices come down, VR is becoming more available to the general public. What are some of the hurdles do you see, currently, with the tech side of this?
There are a number of hurdles to mass consumption – cost, technical performance, business models, content quality/availability and the unpredictability of consumer behavior are a few. On the technical side, headwear needs to get lighter, resolution needs to come up and head-mounted displays should operate in both AR and VR modes. Processors also need to be lighter and wearable. Being tethered to a computer is no fun. We also need tracking so we have bodies in VR – this makes a huge difference in our interactive virtual world experience. We’re probably a couple (tech) generations away from hitting all of these milestones in one product – maybe 3–5 years.
For you, what is the most exciting component of VR, AR and 360 contents that you see on the horizon? Is there something that will be available in the near future, or at least the next decade?
My area of expertise is spatial augmented reality – specifically, 360 degree projected environments for out-of-home group immersion experiences. Rather than wearing a headset, we create large dome screens that wrap around viewers, much like a giant IMAX screen. This allows audiences to experience virtual environments without head gear or controllers and to share that experience with their friends while they freely eat, drink and socialize.
With immersive VR, do you see the ‘concert’ experience changing? I mean, instead of people going to a concert, they may be able to just buy a ticket and tune into the performer in a more intimate setting? A very different performance experience for both audience member and performer.
Our 360 domes make ideal immersive live performance spaces. The 360 backdrop amplifies the live performance, enveloping the audience. We have provided immersive environments for a number of live performances – projection domes up to 200’ in diameter holding up to 3000 people. Audiences are dazzled. These performances can be captured and multicast globally into VR headsets as well. We’ll be demonstrating this for the first time at the NAB conference in Las Vegas this year.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that one never stops learning, no matter what their level of education or specialty. What is one thing you may have learned this year?
My biggest lesson this past year is a personal one – how to step into my power and ask for support. This includes support from capital resources, partners, stakeholders and more. Many of my colleagues have been funded to work in VR and have built very impressive teams while I’ve been feeling like a lone wolf. No more.
Lantz then ends the conversation by throwing the phone into the air and tornado kicking it half. A helicopter attempts to land behind him, but before it touches down, he tornado kicks it in half. He then lays down on the ground and immediately falls into a peaceful sleep.
Story Summit 2017, presented by AMPIA and Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, addresses new approaches to story-telling, innovating with technology and creating sustainable and innovative production and business models of media content. This gathering of North American media, entertainment and content creators brings together the most forward-thinking and knowledgeable industry professionals to share their experiences and ideas. Participants will gain the knowledge and understanding to enhance their creativity, transform their businesses, and engage technology in expanding and sharing content on new digital interactive multi-platforms. Story Summit 2017 is a must attend event designed for content creators, filmmakers, content owners, producers, directors, writers, gamers, visual effects artists, distributors, educators, and students. This gathering will encompass keynote speakers, panels, case studies, interactive workshops along with ample time to network and meet current and future colleagues and partners.