360 Storytelling: VR's True Calling

As virtual reality continues to draw ever-greater media attention and industry focus, consumers have bought in to the idea that its precipitation will be an evolutionary moment for gaming. Though one cannot doubt the serious hype, excitement, and innovation surrounding VR when it comes to gaming, I contend that video games are merely VR’s proof of concept. Video games like Counter-Strike, Half Life, and even the original Doom, all allowed players to explore a 360-degree virtual world, albeit from the comfort of a computer monitor. So while VR headsets are likely to dramatically increase the immersion and enjoyment of virtual worlds which are already 360 in nature, this will not bring wholly new experiences into the fold. Rather, following a similar path to the role computers played in modern music production, VR’s introduction to the mainstream will likely allow consumers to simply do in gaming what has already been possible from the start - just with more gusto and complexity. That complexity may be meaningful, especially to early adopters, but how complex can gaming become when the best-sellers include titles such as Candy Crush and Words with Friends?

Worse yet, many gamers may quickly lose interest or even be averse to adoption. Indeed, video games can tell rich and vibrant stories, but the focus on winning as an interactive experience means that the gamer is immersed with a far different goal than, say, a cinema fan who is watching a film. Outstanding linear media (music, TV, films, books) is often drenched in nuance, depth, and surprises that keep the viewer intrigued, whereas gamers can find similar levels of such narrative tools to be a distraction. Today’s VR early adopters who are interested in gaming are also more likely to be interested in competitive play of some form or another. Ultimately, I believe this means that a game’s storytelling potential in VR comes at the cost of fewer people playing the game, which is basically the worst thing ever for the startups that are currently looking to disrupt this medium.

I believe that the future of VR is in 360 Storytelling.

What do I mean by 360 Storytelling? I mean, specifically, the aim of storytelling in which the viewer can change their viewing angle freely, but not their physical perspective. So, while you can move your head freely to see new imagery and hear new sounds, you cannot walk to the other side of the room or climb the ladder three feet to your left. To fully facilitate physical movement in VR scenarios, the average consumer will need to radically redefine their environment’s layout and, especially in the case of apartment dwellers, part with other belongings to become part of the l33t VR crew. Humans have never been lazier - do we really think this is going to succeed? This holy grail of the VR gaming experience is not nearly as cheap or as attainable as the proliferation of 360 visual media.

This accessibility has not gone unnoticed by brands and publishers. Though hobbyists have been in the space for years, evergreen media companies are catching on quickly. My company, Littlstar, is a leading distributor and producer of 360 video and related technologies on the web. We host professionally-produced media from major studios such as ABC Networks and NPR. Yet, we also host things like this. The appeal we have with professionals and hobbyists alike is not due to our belief that 360 video will allow fans to become more intimately engaged with their favorite storytellers, or more immersed in the viewing experience. Rather, our success can be attributed to our understanding that this new media format must be capably explored by fans and capably utilized by storytellers. That is why we, unlike any other VR company today, host any and all kinds of 360 media, ranging from immersive VR visual experiences to 360-degree photographs. We host and distribute media that is compatible with any and all platforms, ranging from the high end HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift headsets, to web browsers, mobile apps, and set top boxes. Our commitment to audience reach and reliable playback on all devices has made us the leaders we are today. Since when was content not king?

All of this is not to say that games won’t be an important and lasting component to the VR ecosystem. I can easily imagine a world of VR flight simulators, race car driving games, and hyper-realistic recreations of board games like Operation, Battleship, and Risk. I am certain that there will be some fantastic new innovations in the VR gaming space as time goes on. However, after all is said and done, these are fleeting experiences, similar to today’s infamous cache of VR porn productions. (No link provided for that type of VR media - you’ll need to Google that one yourself!)

Chances are that events will unfold over the next two or three years that will require me to totally revise what I wrote above. For example, it is not far-fetched to imagine a new kind of 360 media being birthed from the next couple of years’ experiments in this new field. Perhaps 360 storytelling that also includes moments of interactivity or user input to personalize each experience - a kind of virtual aleatory! Frankly, who really knows what the future holds? For this reason, we ought to keep on dreaming! The impact that 360 and VR headsets are about to have on the media world, and therefore our lives, is going to be enormous, and it would be absurd to think that we know where things are headed for certain. However, given the information and the experiences I have had thus far in my career, I find it relatively probable that 360 video will overtake VR gaming as the industry’s main focus - if this has not happened yet already.