Future of Storytelling, Part 5

My final stop was Birdley, the most popular destination at FOST FEST. Birdley combines software and hardware to provide an enhanced VR experience. You lay face down on a cushion that moves dynamically with the help of hydraulic machinery. You rest your arms on movable “wings” which you use to fly around your chosen VR world. I was given list of global destinations printed on a well worn piece of paper. “Grand Canyon, please”.

After I strapped in and was ready to go, a fan positioned in front of me started up. I felt a pleasant breeze across my face. There was a direct correlation between my speed in the VR world and the intensity of the fan. Regardless of this added physical detail, I felt like I was suspended in a photograph. I looked around in every direction but everything looked flat. I flapped my wings and went higher. It seemed to me like I had made a mistake in choosing this destination. Why couldn’t I have said, New York? Maybe I could have flown over my apartment?

It was all a little disappointing. I wished there were more going on. I flapped around and flew in different directions trying to convince myself I was having a good time. I did this for what felt like a minute or two. Out of sheer experimentation (desperation?) I eventually twisted my hands forward on my wing platform. All of a sudden, the hydraulics below me came to life. I was angled down and forward. The fan whirred intensely and the light breeze became strong. I was falling towards the ground!

Canyon walls began to rise around me. I could make out a river below with green grass patches on its banks. I was getting so close to the ground I could make out details I could not see from my original height. This was magical. And then… my screen went black. The fan stopped. The hydraulics returned me to my level position. The words, “time’s up” faded on.

We often read how virtual, augmented and mixed reality are the future. Like any new technology, there are people who do not understand it, or care to. They will claim it is a fad, similar to trends they’ve seen come and go many times. I assure you, these people are wrong.

These technologies are not only our future, but they are our present. Human communication has gone through revolutions before. When Georges Méliès showed an audience in Paris footage of a train projected on a wall in 1896, people panicked at the sight and ran out of the theater. Like these terrified Parisians, we don’t have the reference points in our brains to fully understand the this new medium. Virtual reality producers are writing (and re-writing) the rules as they go along and seeing what sticks.

If you would like to try VR for your self, all you need to get started is a Google Cardboard and your smartphone. If you’d like to dig deeper, there are two science fiction books that get referenced often by all the major content producers in VR: Snow Crash and Ready Player One. These titles get handed out to all new employees at Oculus, but they’re hardly textbooks (I’ve read both and my recommendation is to skip Snow Crash and just read Ready Player One, it’s more fun and being turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg.).

For now, we’re stuck in the awkward stage. There are no best practices. Code something for Oculus, and you have to recode it for HTC Vive. The distribution of content is highly segmented. There is no one marketplace. While buy in from tech giants seems unanimous, convincing the general public is another matter.

If VR wants to connect with the general public, it must escape this common perception that it is only for geeks. VR needs to move out of its own way and sell stories, not technology. It is clear to me that the dream of virtual reality can be achieved today, but with caveats. Until VR can fit in your pocket and not make you look like a character in an H.R. Giger painting, it will be met with indifference by the general public. The problem with VR isn’t technology, it is branding.

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