Posts published in 2015

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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