There’s a popular misconception about VR where everybody tries to “fetishize the medium.” That’s what Ken Perlin calls it. Ken runs the future reality lab at NYU where I was a permanent fixture one summer before the tech was readily available to developers and consumers. We’re talking very early beta kits and we definitely went through phases.
There are three phases everybody encounters after first experiencing VR and then wanting to make their own content with it.
Phase 1 — “Holy shit, I need to make something in the first person!” Makes sense. You dawned this thing on your face and suddenly felt like you were really present in the immersive world, and you think, “A-ha! Virtual reality means I need to talk to the camera and treat it like a character and it would be even cooler if I could let the person move around and even pick up glasses and hold people’s hands, and – OMG – choose their own adventure!” But guess what? It’s not THAT cool. First of all, the beautiful feature of VR is that the viewer feels immersed in the environment. They just believe they are there without having to do anything. All they have to do is look around. And that alone is interactive. We don’t need to muddy it up with all other sorts of interactions. Because guess what? Picking up a glass of water in VR right now means pulling a trigger on your handset or — even worse — learning a bunch of complicated maneuvers which don’t feel anything like actually grabbing a glass of water in real life. Yes, of course it would be epic to create a two-hour experience like this Duke Dumont video. But the technology just isn’t there yet to maximize this effect.
Why does looking around in VR work so well? Because it doesn’t feel like you are interacting. Even though you are, it just feels like you are looking around. You are interacting with the virtual reality the same way you would interact with real life. The moment that something feels off or weird or foreign about the interaction, the moment that the illusion is shattered. If you are supposed to be picking up a glass of water, but instead you are pressing a button and moving your fist around with a controller in it, guess what? This doesn’t feel like real life. It feels hokey and gimmicky and straight up annoying for a lot of people. In game-world, okay. We’re used to using an Xbox controller to drive this car around. But if you’re truly trying to create an authentic VR experience, controllers will detract from the immersion.
Immersion = interactivity that feels indistinguishable from how we interact with real life.
Phase 2 — “Oh we have to make a horror / scary video because something really spooky would be awesome in virtual reality.” It may be. But it certainly doesn’t have to be. Just like you could make a whole movie from a POV shot as if the camera is a character, doesn’t mean that you have to make a movie that way. And most people don’t. There are thousands and thousands of movies on Netflix and thousands more to come, and you don’t need to be a mathematician to calculate that less than even 1% of these films are shot entirely in first-person. That’s not to say the one movie which is shot entirely in first person can’t be compelling. It certainly can. Likewise, there are a million genres — from romance to comedy to action/adventure — not every movie is a horror flick and not every movie is a war documentary. Both can be compelling in their own right for their own audience, and both would be awesome if made properly in VR. The fact that we have a 360-degree camera which allows for optimal immersion doesn’t mean we have to immediately use that device to scare the shit out of people. We certainly can, but please — at least try — to be a bit more original.
Phase 3 — the third and final phase of the early adopter creatives is where you graduate from pigeonholing the medium and begin to see it for exactly what it is — a much wider frame and a fuck-ton more immersion. Everything else is basic storytelling 101 and the gamut is wide-open for creativity and originality.
Unfortunately you can’t buy creativity nor originality. That’s why most of these executives at top companies are imitating what’s already been done or repurposing their existing assets to fit round pegs into square holes. And the results? Banality.
It’s overwhelming how much content exists which bastardizes the medium, doesn’t engage the audience, and doesn’t bring fresh eyes to the platforms.
I’ve gone through all three of these phases, and so have most of my colleagues.
We actually laugh about it, and often find ourselves falling back into these mind-traps when brainstorming. The important thing to remember is to constantly remind yourself to free your mind of any notions of what VR has to be. It doesn’t have to be anything. Except good. So make it good. And don’t try too hard.