AGENCY: The second of two essays about Virtual Reality

Without a strong narrative, Virtual Reality experiences become tedious, and audiences will go do something else.

Without a strong narrative, Virtual Reality experiences become tedious, and audiences will go do something else.

One of the reasons photography continues to hold the imagination of millions of users is that it pretends to stop time. It captures a moment of our fleeting lives and in a variety of technical ways it present opportunities for that moment to be shared. Whether printed on paper or transmitted over cellular networks, photographs defy time and space.

A staple conversation between young sweethearts is the heartfelt sharing of dreams. In these impossible spaces that feel so real behind our closed eyes, we know we cannot easily return, nor can we invite our friends and relatives to share. In sharing dreams, we try to turn experiences that never happened into streams of words that somehow convey what can't be adequately conveyed. Everybody who's had a vivid dream understands the challenge.

Photography is a means for sharing dreams. It's a way of conveying experience for people who didn't experience what the photographer experienced. Movies – – now refracted into uncountably kaleidoscopic forms of video – – are essentially an extension of this process. First simply presented as scenes of things that an audience might not otherwise encounter, movies rapidly evolved into narratives. Those narratives continue to appeal precisely because most people haven't lived the lives or experiences of the stories being told.

Virtual reality is the latest expression of this trend. An emerging technology, virtual reality and its close sibling 360° video amplify the promise for audiences to be immersed in experience and stories for which they might not otherwise have opportunities. 

This is a technology that has been evolving for several decades, but only recently started to emerge as a viable, mainstream format. More to the point, it's currently one of the hottest topics in terms of professional productions and audience interest. Virtual reality gleams like the future standing just outside your front door.

While this technology promises enormous potential, its current execution holds limited appeal. Just like early cinematic experiences of houses afire and trains seemingly heading right for the audience had very short shelf lives, virtual reality currently trades in vicarious experience. No doubt it's cool to dive safely with sharks in a shark cage simply by wearing VR goggles, but after a few of these video translocations, a viewer has to wonder, “What else can it do? Can it tell me a story?”

The amateur answer is, “Of course!”, but it turns out that's not so easy, or at least not so easy to do well. That challenge is fundamental to immersive, 360° experiences. By giving viewers direct agency over their experiences, narrative choices available to directors and producers and writers and performers get diluted. When audiences can look around without clear direction, the clarity of messages suffer. Not everybody is a storyteller, so it's unrealistic to expect that everybody entering an immersive world will find the best ways to extract what matters in that space. The reason we turn to documentarians and journalists and musicians and theatrical performers is because we are asking them to focus our attention on singularly important moments. VR tells the audience that it’s okay if they miss what matters; it tells audiences that they know what to do. VR presents a world of potential distractions rather than a refinement of clear intentions.

No doubt many will disagree with this assessment. If you read the essay in this space last week, you'll know that we’re excited at developing new voices in this exciting new space. But even with the excitement of new creative languages, it's important to assess things honestly. The technology will evolve and we intend to continue being a part of that evolution. But VR also underscores one of the most important creative questions anybody should ever ask of themselves: just because something can be done, does that mean it should be done? There's tons of exciting creative work to be done in the space. Artistically, VR offers spectacular possibilities. But any declarations about whether this emerging format is about to overtake all other formats needs to be reconsidered. Rather than saying this is the next big thing, I believe it is, instead, a cool new thing. Who knows what it will become when it grows up? Right now, however, it's in its infancy, and to become anything useful it requires attention, care, and regular consideration in terms of its path through life.

@michaelstarobin            or      

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