One of the most debated subjects on VR is its similarities to established mediums such as film, gaming and theatre. We believe that VR has elements which can be taken as influence from all of these areas, but ultimately, it will have its own rules.
Every story has its own world where the narrative takes place. For visual mediums, this world has a huge impact on audience appeal. Directors are tasked with bringing the world alive and creating somewhere engaging for the script and action to unfold.
Film, theatre and VR all treat that world differently. Film is reliant on the window into that world. Audiences look through the screen into the world, keeping at a safe viewing distance from the action happening there. Directors take advantage of this window, using techniques that break the physical rules of the real world (cutting, time lapses, montage etc). This window has been played with for dramatic effect - when the girl comes out of the screen in the Ring horror movies, it brings the story back to the audience and whether or not they are now in danger. However, most of the time it’s never really a consideration as to whether the audience is part of the experience - the story unfolds whether or not they are present or even engaged.
Forrest Gump isn’t about the run into the audience - the screen is a safe window for the audience
Traditional theatre can still be considered a framed experience; the audience sit slightly removed from the actors, and the story unfolds within the confines of the stage. The live nature of theatre allows directors and actors to play with this effect - actors can address audiences directly during the performance and even come down into the seating area. The divide between the narrative world and audience world is blurred but not fully merged.
Immersive theatre companies, such as Punchdrunk, have been pushing the boundaries between audience, story and actors. Their productions often take place in entire locations, with the audience members free to roam around among the actors and watch what parts of the story they choose. The audience experience is more interactive; they are free to take their own journey and engage with the areas that they wish to. However, despite being able to inhabit the same world, the audience are required to wear masks for the performance which still draws an invisible divide between actor and viewer.
Sleep no More by Punchdrunk
VR is arguably most similar to the immersive theatre experience. By putting on the HMD, the audience instantly inhabit the narrative world. It is possible here to emulate experiences developed both in film and theatre. As in film, audiences can inhabit the viewpoint of a camera (without any physical limitations), and be taken on an impossible journey around this space while watching the story unfold. As in theatre, audiences can inhabit the viewpoint of an audience member - one which the actors may or may not interact with. The audience can also have autonomy over their own experience and choose to view the path that appeals to them most.
VR takes this one step further. For the first time, the audience can directly embody a character and either role-play as part of the story or watch the story through someone else’s eyes. This opens up brand new possibilities for experiencing a story - if you are watching from someone else’s eyes, can you also hear their thoughts and understand their feelings? Dancing by Myself by Jane Gauntlett explores this very successfully. If you are roleplaying as a character in the story, perhaps there could be elements of interaction brought into it - similar to some of the explorative techniques the video games have been developing. Could the characters interact back with you?
How will the audience react to situations once they are directly involved? In Ctrl, we had some surprising reactions from the audience - viewers felt directly implicated in the story caused by a strong sense of presence. There’s a risk that involving the audience directly into some situations may change the way they react. How quickly will funny (because it’s happening to someone else) become not funny (because it’s happening to you). How quickly will scary (safe because of the distance) become too scary (because the audience feels directly threatened)? The term “empathy machine” has been thrown around a lot in regards to VR without much real proof of concept, so it really remains to be seen exactly what VR will do for content.
Ctrl by Breaking Fourth
Jessica Brillhart recently did an article on presence in VR and involvement of AI in narratives. Once AI gets to the point that viewers cannot tell that it’s been pre-programmed, this again opens up such huge possibilities for interaction. Every viewer could experience their own individual story. Huge steps forward are being made in being able to bring live elements into VR. Theatre has a certain kind of magic derived from knowing that this is not a pre-recorded performance, everyone is physically inhabiting the same space and reacting live to the situation. Bringing that into VR will be an incredibly powerful experience.
The audience and narrative world are intrinsically linked. Wherever the audience exists and however the audience are involved, needs to be carefully considered by content creators, playing a huge role in how the content is perceived. There will always be some audiences who want to sit back and be told a story, or who want more and will feel the need to take control of their own experiences. Embodiment and presence comes with responsibility - both for your virtual self and your experience, and while this won’t necessarily appeal to all viewers, VR gives us such a great opportunity to play with this new technique and work out exactly what the potential is that it offers.