Presence & Storytelling Are in Conflict

The Challenges of Interactivity in Narrative VR Storytelling

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Today, our VR film “The Rose And I” announced that it will be making its World Premiere in the New Frontier section at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Additionally, we’re showcasing a mobile preview titled “Rosebud” in our Gear VR app called ROSE, also launching today.

ROSE introduces an interactivity method called “Touch Orbit” (“Torbit”) to emulate certain aspects of positional tracking for Gear VR. The introduction of viewer interactivity marks a significant departure from our prior work, “The Rose And I”, and it breeds some interesting philosophical questions around interactivity and narrative in VR. This refers to a fundamental issue of VR creation, which is the conflict between Presence and Storytelling.

The term “Presence” in virtual reality can be broken down into several technical specifications–field of view greater than 110 degrees, resolution higher than 1080p, framerate higher than 75 fps, motion-to-photon latency below 20 milliseconds, pixel persistence below 2 milliseconds, among many others. But it can also be captured in a simple phrase: the unmistakable feeling of being someplace else.

A high quality VR experience (of which there aren’t many that exist today) has the potential to deliver Presence. However, this poses a challenge for VR storytellers–a challenge that can be captured in another simple phrase: Presence and Storytelling are in conflict with each other.

For me, it came as a small surprise when I experienced this firsthand. When we’re in the cinema or sitting around the campfire listening to a story, our minds engage in a certain way. When we truly engage with a story, we begin disengaging with physical stimuli around us that aren’t germane to the narrative. We watch–the train is seconds from hitting the passerby, the gangster is reciting a Bible verse before pulling the trigger, the Millenium Falcon enters hyperspace. If someone in the theater sneezes or if a cell phone goes off, we are jolted out of the experience.

When we’re experiencing things in reality–when we’re fully present–rarely is our brain engaged in the same way than when we’re told a story. For example, think about your daily morning commute–on the train, in a car, by skateboard, on foot. We experience the sights and sounds as a present individual, but we don’t feel like we’re being told the story of our own commute outside of our own bodies.

A similar thing happens in VR. Presence means that we’re viscerally transported to another world, but because we inhabit this other world so completely, it is difficult to tell a story in the classic cinematic, theatrical or campfire sense. To enhance storytelling, we might conduct tricks such as darkening the stage or darkening areas behind and to the side of us, but this consequently decreases the sense of Presence.

While Presence and Storytelling are not necessarily inverse functions of each other, they appear to be in conflict. The deeper question that this conflict brings up is the question of Point of View–who are we supposed to be in the VR experience? This Identity Question is a lot harder to answer than on first inspection.

I’m interested in seeing the implications of ROSE’s Torbit mechanism on VR storytelling in general. Though the underlying narratives are similar, viscerally “The Rose And I” and “Rosebud” feel like very different experiences due to the breaking of the wall between Presence & Storytelling. Perhaps a day will come when breaking that wall feels as natural as a dolly shot or a cinematic close-up does to us today. But there’s a lot more to do, and it’s going to be an exciting journey.

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VR Isn’t Inevitable (Bake the Pie Before Eating It)

And the one speck of food That he left in the house
Was a crumb that was even too small for a mouse.

Then he did the same thing To the other Whos’ houses
Leaving crumbs much too small For the other Whos’ mouses!

- “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss

The first time I experienced Virtual Reality (VR) Presence is something I’ll never forget. The term “Presence” in VR can be defined by several technical specifications, but it can also be captured in a simple phrase: the unmistakable feeling of being someplace else. I first experienced Presence in the fabled Valve “Room”, a 95 Hertz, fiducially-tracked prototype that made up for its lack of conventional aesthetics with the most incredible 15 minutes of VR I had experienced until then. I’ll never forget how naturally the words “This is going to change the world,” rolled off my tongue as I took off the headset. I’ve dedicated my life to help accelerate this amazing new future since then.

VR has this curious quality — many who see it become instant believers in the technology, and several of those in turn become active evangelists. We want to show it to our Moms, our Dads, our significant others, our children. We believe. And we want others to believe as well.

But just because we believe that something is inevitable doesn’t make it so. The pithy motto of Founders Fund’s “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” sums up this school of thought quite nicely. The inevitability we ascribe to the ascendency of virtual reality could ironically make it tougher for VR to take off.

The reasons we get excited about augmented and virtual reality (what we’ll collectively call “mixed reality”) is not because we believe it’s the next incremental trend on the level of e-commerce or the like. It’s because we think it has the potential to be the next major computing platform on the level of the mobile internet or the personal computer. If we graph computing platforms of the last 60 years and their adoption rates, starting with the Mainframe, an interesting trend emerges. The mainframe (1MM), the minicomputer (10MM), the PC (100MM), the desktop internet (1Bn), the mobile internet (10 Bn). The rise of every major computing platform generated ten times the number of users as the previous one.

Computing Cycles of 20th & 21st Centuries

While this paints a very rosy picture for mixed reality, it is far from inevitable. New computing platforms only come along once every few decades, and the eventual forms these platforms take are often unpredictable. If you told a random stranger in the early 2000s that a phone would become the next computing platform, you would have likely been laughed out of the room. In the spring of 2007, I still distinctly remember sitting across the table from a C-level executive of one of the biggest cell phone makers of the time who was scoffing at the recent announcement of Apple’s iPhone. Today, that company is no longer still in business.

The existence of VR is thrilling, and I feel lucky to be a small part of this vibrant community. But the danger of over exuberance can lead to disappointment, and we must be prepared for the fun and long road ahead. The expected launches in the coming year of several major headsets–the Vive, CV1, and Morpheus, to name a few–are incredibly exciting for the industry. The Gear VR today is already showing us concrete realities of what the burgeoning mixed reality ecosystem could look like. The promises of Hololens and Magic Leap are further enticing. It will be key to ensure that artists, hackers and developers alike can grow with this ecosystem and eventually fuel their creativity practically and artistically.

Right now, the metaphorical mixed reality “pie” is small — and isn’t fully baked yet. As a community, we can choose to behave in one of two ways, which time will tell. First, we could choose to be territorial and narrow-minded, somewhat like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch. However, the VR ecosystem is so currently small that there wouldn’t be much to gain if one tried.

Alternatively, my hope is that we remain open and share. We should recognize that we must bake the pie before we can eat it. And this pie is so complex with so many ingredients that it will take hundreds, thousands, millions of enthusiastic chefs to make it.

To that end, Penrose is today releasing the Beta version of our Developer’s Cut of the VR Film, “The Rose And I”. We hope you enjoy watching it as much as we had fun making it. We are fortunate to have  an incredibly talented team of artists, storytellers and hackers on “The Rose And I”.

I’m delighted that we can share our small part in moving VR as an art form forward. If even only a few can see this film and feel some fraction of the magic that I felt when I first discovered Presence, then we will have done our small part in baking the pie.

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Oculus and Storytelling

There is a myth surrounding one of the Lumière brothers’ first films in 1896 of a train arriving into a station. The astonished audience, not accustomed to watching a moving picture, ran to the back of the room in terror at the oncoming train.

Whether or not this tale is true, it highlights the profound way in which a new art form can interact with the primordial human psyche. Rarely do we see radically new formats emerge, but we recognize them when we see them. As one of the earliest users of the Oculus DK1, it was apparent when I first put on my Rift that I was quite literally looking at the future. Storytelling in virtual reality is still in its infancy, but it represents an exciting new medium of artistic expression. It is a revolutionary departure from the moving pictures of today.

While these developments will naturally take time, the acquisition of Oculus by Facebook is exciting news for VR storytellers. It is a historic day, and I’m proud to be a part of the incredible Oculus team. I look forward to playing a part in realizing this next great sea change in storytelling.

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A Lesson

This week, we are releasing the final cut of Divided Families to the wild via a preview screening at New York’s Korea Society.

This has been an incredible multi-year journey for the 115 people who have worked directly on this project, the dozens of divided families we interviewed and the hundreds who have contributed to our fundraisers and Kickstarter. This moment could not be more timely. North Korea is increasingly in the global psyche, whether in the form of perennial nuclear threats or bizarre rants from faded athletes.

Life moves quickly along, and certain markers give one the chance to reflect on lessons learned over the years. Here is one related to Divided Families.

I once heard the founder of a multi-billion dollar startup say that in colleagues, character matters more than intelligence or any other factor. This made sense at the time, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until working with people as fundamentally good as the folks at Divided Families. While I have found that money is often not the primary motivator for some of the best people, at least at a startup, one has equity and its promises to help convince someone it may be worthwhile investing their talents. But given the spotty financial performance of most independent films, financial incentives are rarely a large part of the recruiting equation.

In that light, the high level of talent and integrity in the Divided Families team is remarkable. The shared vision to help Korean divided families who have been separated for over half a century has fueled our drive for years. While there have been many bumps (and learning lessons) along the way, I’m proud to have contributed my part to bring this film into reality.

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Universities Should Be Investors, Students Should Be Startups

This piece was published in The Wall Street Journal.

In my adolescent years, my single mother started two businesses and worked a third wage job in order to raise my younger brother and me. Eventually, I started working in these businesses—one of them was a restaurant—to help my family through difficult times. Every weekend, I would wake up well before dawn to open the restaurant and work 12-hour days among the grease and fumes. Many years later, I would go on to Harvard Business School, where I learned about things like the 4Ps and 5Cs, before joining a venture capital firm, where I got used to sizing up markets and entrepreneurs in my sleep. I learned quite a lot about businesses and startups in these institutions (unlike many people in tech, I’m a true believer in the value of an M.B.A.), but I can say that I learned a lot more about entrepreneurship when the stakes were my family’s ability to put food on the table rather than getting a good grade.

There is a reason why “entrepreneur” etymologically comes from antique French words that mean “to undertake.” When it comes to subjects such as entrepreneurship, people learn much more by doing, rather than from lessons in a classroom, and the idea of it becoming an undergraduate major is a funny prospect. In the last half decade, the world has teetered back and forth from financial ruin, and in these turbulent times, central bankers, heads of states, hedge fund managers and pundits alike talk ceaselessly about navigating “the new normal.” Increasingly they’re pinning their hopes of global economic recovery on real innovation driven by entrepreneurs—after all, venture-backed companies account for 20% of US GDP. I’m of the belief that teaching our youth to become entrepreneurs is essential, as entrepreneurship is one of the keys to our economic future. However, a formalized undergraduate major would be a silly way to foster the startup spirit.

In one of my computer science courses in college, I was struck by a quote from a celebrated computer scientist who was asked whether he would like his children to study something as pedestrian as computer science at a university. His response was “no” because he wanted them to get a “real” education first in something like physics or mathematics. In an era where computer science sits near the top of the intellectually egotistical undergraduate food chain, this sentiment seems vaguely quaint, but there’s something to this feeling as a whole. What, I wonder, would this person say about his children majoring in something as “lowly” as entrepreneurship?

Some observers praise the German model of education, with its panoply of trade schools and universities that allow people to train rigorously in their chosen fields from a relatively early age. Similarly, we should teach aspiring entrepreneurs by letting them do. Some argue that students have much to gain by going through the formative years of college, but I say if they’re intent on higher education, then let them study subjects such as theoretical physics or mathematics or history, which are better suited to these settings. Don’t waste their four years studying something that is better taught outside of a university.

In fact, there is already a better model that exists for teaching entrepreneurs — by allowing them to start their own businesses. In this sense, universities have a lot they could learn from entrepreneurs, rather than vice versa. There is endless debate on the bubble in higher education—the notorious Thiel Fellowship delights some and rankles others. But this debate is not peculiar to our era. Even the seminal libertarian Milton Friedman, writing in the 1950s, argued that one possible solution to the problem of stale competition among universities was this: instead of universities taking tuition, the government would partially subsidize and allow each university to take an equity stake in the human capital of the individual, thereby motivating the university to produce graduates with high earning potential. In essence, each student would become a startup.

While Friedman’s ideas are difficult to implement for many reasons (imagine what would happen if we let Wall Street trade derivatives on our children?), his ideas are essentially being enacted today as youth of various stripes decide to sell equity stakes in their ideas as they try to build their businesses, raising money from venture capital or the relatively new asset class of startup accelerators.

Ultimately, I believe that creating a formalized undergraduate major in entrepreneurship is a step in the wrong direction. I have nothing against higher education—some of my best memories, best friends and lasting lessons have come from my years in college and grad school. There is nothing wrong with people who want or need to develop and grow through their years sheltered in these institutions. But for those intrepid enough to know they’re entrepreneurs from an early age, allow them to learn from the best teacher of entrepreneurship that we have: real life.

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