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What If VR Requires a Whole New Language?

Last week, most of the buzz in the VR/AR space centered around the allegations that Magic Leap, a highly funded and secretive startup, was…not a great place to work, to put it mildly. But lost amid all the chatter was the fact that another groundbreaking piece was posted: Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr’s “Hollywood Has No Idea How to Deal With Virtual Reality.” The article, which is absolutely worth reading several times through, posits that VR filmmaking must be seen as something completely different than the traditional narrative film concept, because when you just layer VR on top of a regular movie, the results are clunky at best. The whole point of a film is that the writer and director are experts, guiding the narrative towards a conclusion that makes sense, and the viewer is a bystander and passive observer. That’s been the history of film for a hundred years, and it makes sense — but the problem is, that hundred year history hangs over a lot of current VR production.  

Take the 360 experience for “Fifty Shades Darker,” the second film in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series. In it, the viewer stands at a masquerade party and can look around, but can go no further. At one point, someone addresses you briefly, but the overall feeling is one of being left out of the action, standing in the corner observing while others have fun. For all but the most popular among us, it brings back feelings of being the wallflower at the high school dance — a feeling not many of us want to return to, virtually or in real life.

In contemporary film and TV, when characters break the fourth wall, it’s still seen as novel — in VR, it’s find of the whole point. The biggest benefits of VR go far beyond being able to imagine yourself being somewhere — a great piece of writing or a well produced video can do the same thing just as effectively. VR is about participating, letting the user drive the narrative and the momentum and creating something just for them.

This means that VR cannot just be another extension of current entertainment content; it must be thought of as an entirely new medium for storytelling. Some would argue that we haven’t had a wholly new medium since the smartphone; others would argue that we need to go even further back, to the dawn of the web. To simply bolt on a VR piece to an existing piece of IP is to tremendously undersell what it can do; to just remake a movie in VR shows a total lack of imagination.

Rather, VR requires a whole new language and way of thinking, one that will evolve over time as the medium grows and the way people consume it shifts. Right now the technology is still mostly tied to old ways of consuming media, but with advances in AR, we are rapidly approaching the Star Trek holodeck becoming a reality, and with it a whole new model for entertainment.

This piece is excepted from the forthcoming talk “Four Futures of VR and Entertainment,” to be presented at Game Developers Conference on Monday, February 27.