The rise of VR and the gathering trend towards richer, more immersive experiences is disrupting existing ideas around story-telling and audience engagement in profound ways.
In just a few years, the marketing and advertising industries have witnessed the rise of mobile and social media platforms at a scale that was only recently inconceivable.
Yet just as companies - and people - are coming to terms with the consumer-driven world of 24/7 information and immediate response, it would seem we’re on the cusp of an entirely new era.
In a recent address to delegates at Social Media Week NYC, Facebook’s global head of production, Megan Summers provided some valuable insights into the fascinating world of ‘spatial storytelling’ and its fast-growing potential to create truly immersive experiences that place users at the center of our stories.
“We are now moving from an age of information to an age of experiences” she said, stressing that very few of us can grasp what’s coming because we haven’t fully opened our minds to what’s possible.
This is demanding a complete rethink of how we market and sell products, but we’re also now seeing first-hand how these new influences are changing how people live's, as well as how they perceive themselves in the world.
1. Experiences in VR are increasingly harder to distinguish from real life
During her address, Megan described a recent experience at the renowned Digital Domain Studios in Los Angeles, whereby she was transported – via VR – to Mars and given the task of walking across an intergalactic gang-plank where she had to place a flag.
So, real was the experience, Megan – a sufferer of severe vertigo – related her feelings of intense fear.
“I didn’t think about what it looked like in reality I remember it as a real experience at the time and immediately broke out into a panic attack and started sweating.”
But perhaps more importantly, Megan noted that despite being aware of the fact she was in a digital studio in Los Angeles, she felt as though part of her brain had registered she’d gone to Mars. For instance, she has since noticed her symptoms of vertigo have become less severe after her VR trip into space.
You might think about this as a form of ‘machine learning’ for humans.
2. What will our stories and actions look like as we move from flat-screen to immersive experiences?
Megan delivered a quick history lesson on the film industry, starting with the transition from silent to ‘talkie’ films with the 1928 release of the game-changing Lights of New York, the first ever motion picture with sound.
From that day forward, a line was drawn in the sand whereby everything that came before would be known as ‘silent films’. Megan notes that the term is one of a growing number of so-called ‘retronyms’, which allow us to differentiate between two worlds where previously only one existed.
As it happened, the film was widely panned when it came out. But the Jeanie was now out of the bottle, and within a decade the silent movie industry was finished.
And just as all history is destined to repeat itself, it’s interesting to think of all the technologies available to us today: which will survive and which will die?
So, if we consider all the media we have at our disposal now, be it on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix and so on, everything must be flat and framed to exist via the flat screen. And now with VR our images can bend and move around us and places us in the centre of our stories and actions.
3. VR and spatial storytelling need to be considered within a ‘scale of immersion’
Imagine standing on a shoreline looking out and telling the story of the ocean & then imagine being in the ocean with the tides and the waves and telling the story of fish and coral.
It’s an entirely different story. Our media has progressively grown more immersive but not exactly with time and it’s really helps to think of media on a continuum or scale of immersion.
In the 60s and 70s we had the first rectilinear B&W box TVs in our living rooms, which of course evolved into the flat screen units we have today.
And many of us have fond memories of the original ‘view master’ stereoscope, which offered a glimpse of basic 3D by presenting two images taken slightly apart from each other to create a 3D effect.
Now, with 360 viewing on Google Cardboard or Samsung’s Gear VR we describe VR as an experience that envelops a user’s entire periphery. And as we move along this scale of immersivity were naturally moving further away from one way ‘transactional’ connections to towards having ‘experiences’.
4. The most powerful experiences are those that use all of our senses
Throughout her late teens and early 20s, Megan developed a debilitating hearing condition which resulted in her becoming almost entirely deaf. Given a camera by her partner at the time, she took to l photography, mostly capturing everyday people going about their business. It was life-changing experience, Megan recalls, having lost one of the key senses, but then channeling her energy into another.
Furthermore, eventually having had her hearing fully restored, she felt a sense of awe and greater appreciation of how powerful all the sense is when they’re all working together.
But imagine what’s it like to unleash our imagination and go to places we can’t ‘physically go? Imagine being a drop of blood coursing through a human body, or a drop of oil in a high-performance engine.
In this new world, we acquire new senses and new abilities that come from being at the center of an immersive experience. This is what it is like to experience VR in its full, so that whether it’s Mars, or the top of Mt Everest, we can go anywhere and be anything that our imaginations allow. The implications for education alone are massive. Now we have kids that go to school in the Bronx able to visit the Grand Canyon for the day, or to experience life in a Syrian refugee camp.
5. The relationship between presence and agency has acquired new meaning
To properly understand what’s really going on in VR there are two very important concepts that need to be grasped first: Presence and Agency. The first relates to the director, and the second relates to you.
When she decides what story, she wants to tell, her entire goal is to invoke empathy and transport you to some place and have you forget you are watching a film.
This is especially important with 360/VR because if you don’t feel you are there and if things change and you don’t feel they are right the experience will be disrupted and lose its value and purpose. It’s the director who needs to give you this sense of presence as she transports you to where her eyes are.
Once your new world has been created, you then bring your sense of agency, which can include many things about you; your personal history; your relationships, likes and dislikes. At this point you decide where and what to look at.
No longer can the director say where they want you to watch. They can’t say close-up, pan or time-lapse, or this is what this person gets to watch. The environment is dynamic and changes with you.
It’s this intersection between the presence of the director and agency of the participant that is where the story happens. Furthermore, within this new world everyone’s experiences are different and unique.
6. VR and spatial storytelling drive empathy, and can transform key genres
Most of the time when you have an experience on a headset you remember it as a memory vs a piece of media and that memory is based upon what you bring as well as what the director brings.
In a recent Ted Talk, Professor Jeremy Bailenson, director of the communications department at Stanford University describes VR as an ‘empathy machine’.
However, Megan notes that VR can be applied to any number of different genres and applications.
Below are six of the most talked about.
For marketers and creative content creators this opens a new world of possibilities in terms of imagining and guiding the viewer’s experience.
For instance, if the story is about a young child then the camera will be low where a child’s view point is so you’re constantly looking up at adults. Likewise, if it’s a bug crawling up somebody’s leg then that’s where the camera will be. The sense of presence is constantly being augmented.
7. As technology evolves we need to create experiences that are even more ‘amazing’
Marketers are always asking whether people will want this or that message or experience.
But a more important question to ask, is ‘Will my audience be amazed?’
Megan uses the example of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel which can never fail to inspire awe and excitement as visitors are transported via beautiful art works to another world.
Using a more frivolous example, the countless millions of people who visit Disney Land Park each year automatically adjust their sense of agency so that talking animals and fairies are accepted as real within the moment.
So, what happens next?
Whether we realise it or not, the world is quickly moving from an age of information to an age of experiences.
Everything we think we know about sales and marketing, how to engage audiences and sell products and services is going to be turned on its head as these new story- telling principles get applied by more and more people.
No longer should we only think of marketing, sales or any other sort of messaging as a purely symmetrical two-way transaction between creator and audience.
Rather, it’s about creating stories and experiences that place the audience at the center of different worlds that are far more nuanced and personal, as well as being fluid and dynamic.
And with the rapid rise of VR and 360 technologies, and with a plethora of cheap cameras now available to experiment with, our ability to create these worlds will be limited only by our imaginations.
As marketers and social media professionals we are working in a time of great transformation
providing opportunities to create the most amazing and powerful experiences, while constantly raising the bar in terms of how people create and experience stories.
Of course, we won’t always be right, and we’re all sure to make many mistakes along the way.
But it’s critical that we all get out there and experiment, trying new things in this new digitally-immersive world and see what happens