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Why VR Needs Serialized Content Right Now

After a series of conversations with indie VR shops in recent weeks, it seems safe to say that many of them are suffering from “feast or famine” syndrome when it comes to work. Often a brand or content owner will come to them with a great idea and a tight deadline, expect them to execute on a VR experience, pay them, and then disappear for months — if they ever come back at all.

It’s not that the content these shops are producing is bad. In many cases, it’s ground-breaking and high quality work. Rather, it’s that no one has figured out how to move VR beyond one-off activations and into a world where content is rolled out in a regular, serialized fashion. With the launch of its “Netflix for VR” subscriptions, HTC has started to move in this direction. If you’ve forgetten by now, Netflix spent plenty of time giving people access to one-off experiences (DVDs) before making the leap to serialized, streaming content.

But even outlets like the New York Times, which consistently produces high-quality 360 content, doesn’t seem to create anything that will keep a viewer coming back over an extended period of time. If someone is interested in 360 video on police raids, to use a recent example, they might not be interested in a piece on travel, or fashion. There’s no real reason for that person to keep investigating, as the pieces are usually pretty brief and don’t end with a cliffhanger.

Part of the reason people get addicted to podcasts like Serial or TV shows like The Americans is that every episode tees up the next one, often leaving the audience in suspense at the end. But in VR, almost every experience is self-contained. And the way the funding pipeline works, it can often take months (if not longer) for a second episode to be rolled out. By then, many viewers will have lost interest or forgotten the story altogether.

The other issue is that VR content often lacks compelling characters that users want to follow. I’ve seen a number of deeply moving and affecting VR pieces, such as Discovery VR’s “Under the Net,” that have left me wanting to know what happened to a subject, but I can never find the next step of their journey.

One thing that kept earlier consumers listening to radio programs and consuming television shows at the same time each week was that serialized character story arc. While those of us who consume a lot of today’s TV might look back at early sitcoms and laugh at the hackneyed plot lines and situations, characters stayed the same over the course of the season and viewers invested in them.

VR could also allow viewer investment to reach much deeper levels, because the viewer could have some say in the direction of the narrative. There are plenty of people still angry about the end of Lost, for instance, but it’s a lot harder to be mad about how something turns out when you have a hand in controlling the outcome. This would also lead to repeat viewing, as users would want to take different paths and see how the endings changed.

There are some plans for serialized VR content to debut this year, although none of those have been made public as of yet. When those details arrive, it will hopefully prove to be compelling and addictive programming that can drive more people into headsets. Podcasts had their breakthrough moment with Serial; now it’s time to VR to come up with something that will draw people in over the course of a season and become water-cooler conversation. If VR simply remains a series of one-offs and experiments, it will have a hard time breaking through into the mainstream.