How VR is Going to Change Storytelling

Andrew Cochrane's keynote on narrative in virtual reality reveals some key elements of an exciting medium in its infancy.

Maurizio Pesce, Creative Commons 2.0 (, Flickr

Virtual reality is very much a brave new world: still firmly in its infancy in terms of technology, application, and availability. The opportunities presented by VR are difficult to fully grasp, mostly because we’ve yet to fully uncover them. But they are many, and as Andrew Cochrane, Digital & New Media Director of Mirada Studios, said in a keynote at the annual FMX Conference yesterday, while VR isn’t The Matrix quite yet: “We are living through an unbelievable moment in history.”

Cochrane’s keynote, titled “Creating Narratives for Virtual Reality,” focused on the narrative opportunities for VR and, more specifically, how we must change our approach to stories for them to work inside of the headset.

Where We Are

Cochrane emphasizes that where we’re at with virtual reality right now is akin to the very early days of film, when a few-seconds-long clip of men boxing in 1891 was an impressive feat. We’re at the stage of nickelodeons and Muybridge and primitively constructed visual narratives, because creators and audiences are still trying to find the best ways to use the medium.

But Cochrane also points to the 1905 film The Black Imp from Georges Méliès. It was a huge leap in filmmaking, despite the fact that there was no earth-shattering advancement in technology. It was all application — figuring out how to use the tools available to tell a story that was evocative and a dramatic departure from what was basically an extended GIF in 1891.

That, Cochrane says, is where we’re at with VR. We have technology and it’s going to get a lot better, but we don’t have to wait for it to get better to make it meaningful. That’s where creating narratives in VR becomes important — it’s not frame rates and resolution that are going to make VR impactful, but the experiences that people are going to have inside of headsets that will forever change the way that we perceive stories.

What We Talk About

When we talk about VR, we have the awful habit of clumsily shoving a bunch of different things into one broad category. In reality, VR is a number of different things that don’t necessarily fit into neat boxes. Cochrane breaks it down into three categories: 360-degree video, immersive cinema, and “true VR. He explains that the last term is effectively meaningless because “true” VR doesn’t exist yet. But, for the purposes of this conversation, it comes down to what we might think of as interactive VR that gives the audience agency.

360-degree video is something we see a lot of in Google Cardboard apps — essentially a camera set up to capture an entire 360-degree environment like a stadium, the cockpit of a fighter jet, a museum, or a lookout at a national park. It often gives viewers what Cochrane calls an “impossible perspective.”

While immersive cinema also has the 360-degree component, the element that sets it apart is a first person intent.

“Immersive cinema is one in which there is an intentional first-person narrative being told, being created,” Cochrane says. “When you put on a headset, you are in a narrative world, you are in a story.”

And that’s where things get really interesting.

Immersive cinema is designed to give us the feeling that we’re in the story, even though we might not be able to move around or affect our environment. The cameras are at person-height, characters talk to us and we have a character, ourselves. Cochrane uses the example of a Mirada VR experience for the FX show The Strain. “You do exist,” he says. “You’re not being ignored. You’re actually being addressed and, later, attacked.”

How We Create and Think About Narrative in VR

“Storytelling is dead in VR,” Cochrane says. It’s a word that doesn’t have any meaning in virtual reality because the medium isn’t about “telling” the audience anything, it’s about creating experiences. And so he says that words like “narrative” and “story architecture” and story worlds” are more apt.

In most of the traditional art and storytelling forms we have now — film, music, books, television, theater — it’s up to writers and directors to determine what you’re seeing, what you’re paying attention to, what you notice. In VR, that’s not the case. Audiences will be able to look around and focus on different parts of the world. And that changes things.

Cochrane points out that whenever someone puts on a headset, they’re immediately filled with a bunch of questions: Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I? Can I move? Who is that? It’s up to the narrative creators to answer those questions quickly so that the audience is paying attention. He stresses that the audience is the key element and that no matter how flashy and impressive and complex your story is, if the audience isn’t at the center of it, it’s meaningless.

“[I]f the audience is not literally the most important thing in that story that you’ve created, all of that is for naught. It’s a waste.”

Once it’s established that the audience is the centerpiece, we start to think about directing attention, and Cochrane says that this where other mediums come into play. Just like cinema wasn’t photography or vaudeville — but a medium that stole from both — VR is going to steal from a number of places: haunted houses, game design, cinema, and amusement parks.

Cochrane points out that video games are excellent at directing attention, cinema gives us light and effect cues, and amusement parks are experts at what he calls “on boarding and off boarding what is bringing us into a story, giving us a character, and, once the ride is over, ushering us back into the real world.” He uses the example of Star Tours at Disney amusement parks.

There’s also room for narrative in “true” and social VR, though. It’s not just immersive cinema that gets in on the narrative action. “True” or interactive VR will rely on user choice and reactive environments, but the full-body interactivity and immersion is going to make for new and complex narrative developments. He uses the Aperture Robot Repair experience for Vive as an example of narrative in interactive VR.

However, Cochrane points out that it’s important to note that this kind of VR doesn’t yet have a real consumer base. While consumer headsets are shipping, it will likely be years before they’re a real part of the entertainment paradigm on a mainstream scale.

Where We’re Going

Though we’re a long way from Cochrane’s “matrix,” he makes it clear that we don’t have to wait for significant advancements in VR to make experiences meaningful. Working through these narratives and finding ways to bring experiences and stories into the headset is going to change narrative permanently, and that starts now, in 2016. What’s more, there’s exciting technology coming in the form of light fields and parallax rendering. While they’re wildly different (and somewhat complex) concepts, they boil down to making VR more interactive, more real, and more impactful.

It’s clear that while we’re still miles away from a VR headset in every house, VR is here to change everything, and perhaps the most important thing it’s here to change is the way we tell experience stories.