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Immersive Storytelling: Buzzword or Reality?

If you have seen the Steven Spielberg hit Back to the Future II then you will agree that many technological predictions made in the 1989 movie, when Marty McFly lands in October 2015 have come true; we have unmanned flying drones, flat panel, widescreen television sets mounted on walls with multiple channel viewing, video chat systems, hands-free video games, wearable technology etc. One image that captivated in particular, is that of Marty McFly getting ‘swallowed’ by a gigantic holographic image of a shark in a fictional Jaws 19 movie advertisement.

Well, Jaws 19 is yet to be released but what we saw there was depiction of the future that is certainly possible with the growth of Virtual, Augmented or Mixed Reality platforms, within this decade.

Many industries like Real Estate, Education, Design are already using VR and AR to improve decision making and customer engagement. Storytelling is also emerging as one of the early adopters of this platform.

What is Immersive Storytelling?

To put it simply, immersive storytelling is a computer experience that places the user as part of the story and enables the user to experience and sometimes interact with the scene in 360. It must be noted that it is not the same as watching a film wearing 3D glasses. The main difference being, 3D films give you depth perception in a single direction whereas immersive technology enables depth perception in all directions so you are completely immersed in the scene.

From 360 degree videos, as a basic non-interactive immersive experience to the totally immersive and interactive experience with 6 degrees of freedom of movement, immersive story telling can now immerse and engage the user spatially and emotionally way beyond the flat screens do.

Media and Tech industries are using immersive storytelling to make better communications and entertainment. Could the next major Netflix detective series be interactive? Or the next big sci-fi drama let you fly with the dragons? Here are some brilliant examples of immersive storytelling in action in this Guardian article. Media consumption has increasingly become on-demand and immersive platforms take on-demand personalized content to a whole new level.

Immersive storytelling is not only used for entertainment but also being used as a force for empathy and good. In 2015, the UN partnered with Unicef Jordan, Samsung and to create a virtual reality experience that would transport the world’s top decision makers to a Syrian refugee camp, so that they could experience the crisis first hand.

Experiencing something firsthand helps build empathy for your cause. Not surprisingly, VR as a platform for fundraising is already being trialed by a few charities.

No doubt, Virtual Reality is a perfect platform for delivering stories with greater impact that media outlets like the New York Times, Huffington Post, Time and CNN have their own in-house production teams that create and deliver 360 news content. Although, some purists may disagree on whether 360 video degree content is a real high fidelity Virtual Reality experience. According to Daniel Sim Lind of Diesel Immersive, a true VR story telling experience must create a “perceptual hack” that tricks the user’s brain such that they have a sense of presence in the virtual environment same as in the real world! Imagine walking down a plank suspended from a construction site 30 floors above in a virtual environment. Would you step out on it?

What does the future look like?

We have explored briefly how Virtual Reality is helping re-shape traditional businesses by providing an opportunity to experience depth and immersion that could really alter our perception. But wait, a company called 8i is working on technology that makes it simple to create high fidelity, photorealistic holograms of real people, they call it volumetric video, that is the hologram has both position and depth in a 3 dimensional space.

As the world moves beyond the flat screen, 3D holograms will enable us to experience human content and each other in the most realistic way, interacting with “very real” humans from any angle in a virtual world. This holds massive prospects for storytelling, be it cinematic or cause based. Add to this the improvements in haptics, adding touch feedback in addition to visual immersion inevitably creates an experience that blurs the lines between real and virtual worlds, makes you wonder, did you choose the blue pill or the red pill?

Who would be better to speak about The Future of Immersive Storytelling than John Gaeta, the creator of the legendary, Academy Award-winning visual effects for the Matrix trilogy. He believes that interactions with other humans and stories with human emotion are going to be key for the virtual reality medium and immersive storytelling to really take off.

A super secretive and highly funded startup Magic Leap, wants to take the immersive story telling experience to a literally magical level — enter the realm of augmented and mixed reality. They speak of whales suddenly leaping out of the gym floor and solar systems that can be held in the palm of your hand without the need for a VR headset or AR glasses. How they will achieve this is shrouded in mystery.

As with everything, there is a dystopian view of the future, with people questioning how these technologies will affect us physically, emotionally and psychologically, whether it would completely alter our realities? Ready Player Onean upcoming American movie, co-produced by Steven Spielberg, explores one such future where people use Virtual Reality to engage in various activities because the real world has become far too desolate. Technology, like time, has to move only in one direction, that is forward. How we make use of these advancements will come down to ethics and core human instincts. Of course, nuclear power and rockets can be used as force for good or evil, the choice is always ours, whether to take the red pill or the blue pill.

*This article is published on Virtual Reality Pop

Virtual Reality Pop is packed with news, analysis, and techniques about virtual reality, augmented reality, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, gear VR, steam, PSVR, daydream, 360 video and more.

Erick Tran
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