The Evolution of Immersive Media
Immersive media is not new. Emerging technologies, such as VR and AR as we currently know them, are simply part of an evolutionary path making media more immersive.
Many commentators and industry professionals became cynical after the short life-cycle of Stereoscopic 3D, and are hesitant to embrace VR, calling it “another fad”. I see it differently, these technologies are simply steps within a much wider ecosystem, leading us towards what immersive media is to become.
From the Alphabet to the Goddess
One of my favorite books of all time is The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, by Physicist and Anthropologist, Leonard Schlain. It explores the links and impacts of literacy in opposition to iconography to cultures across history. Anthropology and early written/spoken communication is also the point where the journey of narrative storytelling towards immersiveness begins.
People are always looking for ways to draw the audience in deeper, whatever the media. Use of technology is one way in which storytellers have worked towards this goal. It’s not just about telling better stories, because the development of our cultural tools has not brought us better artists. It has brought us ways to better enhance the experience of consuming a narrative, allowing stories to be told in more immersive ways.
Early cultures enhanced the immersiveness of storytelling by adding moving images and other visual elements such as dance, performance, puppetry and illustrations (not to be confused with iconographic written language). From this came the media of Theater.
Taking the Script to the Screen
Well-documented early reactions to people seeing motion picture films, casts no doubt on the unprecedented jump in immersiveness for audiences, between theater and movies. From the early days of low frame-rate, black and white motion pictures, a minute-or-so in length, it was clear that people wanted to harness technology to take themselves deeper into new worlds and experiences. We added sound, smoother motion, and color. We began using special effects.
Beyond the Screen (Take 1)
The first 3D movies were an attempt to break the wall of the screen itself, merging the real and the narrative worlds. While movies took narrative to places theater couldn’t, it couldn’t bring those places into the same physical space as the viewer. Experiments in 3D, and early “4-D” experiences, blending the Film and the Ride forms of entertainment, attempted to take steps beyond a passive consumer model of media consumption.
Having Another Go At 3D: Beyond the Screen (Take 2)
The second generation of stereoscopic 3D used the accuracy provided by newer technology, to give audiences an immersive experience without the distraction of having to resolve primitive dual-strip and anaglyph projection methods. Adding to this, was digital surround audio and CG visual effects. Audiences had problems with this new-wave of 3D movies, they were underwhelmed and demanded something more radically improved than what they were getting. Autostereoscopy went into development, but the technology wasn’t mature enough when it first hit market, and again, audiences were unimpressed.
VR and AR
To be clear, these are not the same thing. They are simply lumped together in our lexicon because we have a collective emerging technology overload, and can’t bring ourselves to separate two media that we talk about in similar terms.
Virtual Reality is a world that we enter, through a headset and headphones. It is not part of our world. We have 360 degree 3D audio visuals, and can explore narratives through our physical movement. Augmented Reality is when the narrative enters our own world through graphics, holograms or other virtual media.
While VR is a natural extension of Stereoscopic 3D, AR is beginning to break down some of the barriers to its mainstream adoption. Audiences still don’t like having to wear large headsets or glasses, and VR in its current form is especially restrictive to people with visual impairments. VR is not easily shared with others, and humans tend to respond best when they can have experiences that are social. Augmented reality, as proven by basic applications such as Pokemon Go and Snapchat, feeds the need of consumers to be social. That’s why I see tech like Microsoft Hololens having more commercial success than the VR headsets currently on the market. That said, the other thing positively driving VR/AR is accessibility. 360 is thriving because it’s accessible (you only need an iPhone for the most basic 360 photos) and social (it was native to Facebook from very early on in its lifecycle).
Out of the screen and into your head
My colleague Boon Shin Ng has a pretty good theory of “what’s next” in the evolution of immersive media. I am convinced she’s right, and I have coopted it as an extension of my own theory. Using data to personalize content to the viewer is powerful, and as more data is being collected, the more useful it’s becoming. So beyond the screen, the only barrier left to narratives being truly immersive, is an ability to get directly in to the audience’s heads.
The amount of data collected on every individual is already so vast, that “the cloud” may in fact know us better than we know ourselves.
What’s even more compelling about this notion, is that the content we put online is our aspirational lives, not our real lives. To storytellers and advertisers, this is stronger than the truth. The personalized content delivered to you, through the media technology of the future, will be what you want to see, when and how you want to see it.
Currently we are exploring how to best tell non-linear narratives in VR/AR worlds. By using data about the consumer, rather than attempting to lead her through your narrative, you can preemptively know what her behaviors are likely to be, and adapt the content. While the story arc might remain consistent, the characters might change, or the dominant themes. Using this data can also help individual stories converge- my partner and I are very different, but Netflix knows what to recommend we watch on a Monday night.
What could be more immersive than media that feels like it’s gotten in to your head?
Evolution of Species
If we look at each technology as a point in the evolution of an entire “species” (which is “immersive media”), we can better understand and appreciate the value of every product, regardless of its Darwinian life-cycle. Failures (like Autostereoscopic 3D) are as necessary as great, disruptive successes (like motion picture film), because they are variances which lead us in the right direction toward the thing we all seek from entertainment: a compelling enough experience through sensory immersion, that we might “escape” in to the narrative of a great story.