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.