What is immersive storytelling? The frontier of virtual reality

by Candice Witton

A storyteller’s ultimate goal is to fully immerse the audience in the universe of their story, and it’s no secret that technology rules when it comes to immersive storytelling. Content producer Candice Witton directs her gaze towards how marketers need to embrace good old-fashioned storytelling when they venture into new tech territory.

Unless you’re a fan of virtual reality (VR) tech, you might have missed the news: Facebook are planning to release an inexpensive wireless headset later this year. According to the Bloomberg story, the headset could “popularise VR the way Apple did the smartphone.”

The audience for immersive technologies has been small, but is growing rapidly. According to the AOL 2017 State of the Video Industry Research Study, 52% of Australian consumers engage with 360° video at least once a week, 31% expect to watch more videos in VR and 22% of consumers already engage with augmented reality (like Pokemon Go) more than once a week.

The kind of data trackable via these platforms is already staggering. Heat maps can track eye movements, ‘gaze through rate’ and motion-based interactivity.

Creatively, the field has no frame and few constraints. While traditional storytelling methods can garner an enormous amount of empathy in the audience, the ‘experience’ of immersive storytelling has agency. It’s these factors – growth, potential data, creative scope, and audience participation or agency – that mean it’s time for marketers to get very, very interested in immersive storytelling.

In the beginning, there was reality

We’re always looking for new ways to connect to audiences, and this trait is a very human one.

The Ancient Greeks used tragedy and comedy to explore what it meant to be human. Composer Richard Wagner’s 19th century concept of Gesamtkunstwork attempted to synthesise all forms of art into one great work. His operas ended up being a precursor to modern cinema. In the 1920’s, Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre broke the ‘fourth wall’ and spoke directly to audiences, flooding them with lights and even rearranging sets in full view to make people engage with theatre in new ways.

Humans are constantly redefining the best way to tell great stories. Immersive storytelling is not an exception. It breaks conventions and tears down the fourth wall, allowing the audience to be directly involved in the story. No other medium has the potential to provide the viewer with a fully-immersive narrative-led experience.

Immersive technology needs an immersive story

In the 1950’s, Western Australian Martu man Nyarri Nyarri Morgan had his first exposure to Western culture: witnessing one of the Maralinga atomic tests.

Nyarri’s story is told in Collisions. Hailed as the “first VR film in history to use a broad palette of cinematic techniques”, Director Lynette Wallworth used drones and 360° filming to create a totally immersive experience, sharing the vision of Nyarri.

Made in partnership with the World Economic Forum, Collisions was the inaugural film of the Sundance Institute New Frontier/Jaunt VR Residency.

“Sundance is interested in narrative, so they really want to know: can narrative exist in this form?” says Lynette. “What might traditional film-makers be able to do with the technology?”

As a result, Nyarri’s story has travelled all over the world. It was screened at the UN General Assembly Committee on Disarmament Meetings. The next day the UN voted for the first time in favour of a global ban on nuclear weapons.

Functional and transformative experiences

Pushing the boundaries of tech in service of storytelling is the New York Times. In 2015 they shipped a million of Google’s disposable virtual reality Cardboard headsets to showcase their VR app. In 2016 they sent out 300,00 for online subscribers. According to senior editor Sam Dolnick, in five or ten years, “they’ll be making movies about this moment, and people looking through Cardboard will be one of these ridiculous laugh lines that signals how silly and naïve we all were.”

An immersive concept from car maker BMW was one of NYT’s first big branded VR campaigns. If you’d ever wanted to be in a Bond car chase, get Fast & Furious or join the crew of The Italian Job, you could do it virtually – in a Mini.

In Backwater, filmed in 36 video, the audience joined the crew behind a diamond heist, following them from the docks and riding along as part of the action. The idea of the VR film was to provide more than a functional experience selling a demo, but also to get the viewer to feel how exciting life could be with a Mini.  

“We decided with Mini to create two narratives, two films, and include the car and the product, but not make it a product demo,” says Lee Nadler, marketing communications manager for Mini USA.

The short film premiered through the New York Times’ virtual reality app, which was downloaded more times in its first four days than any Times app before it.

Simulacra and simulation

You are walking along a craggy cliff-face. The wind is blowing through the awesome vista in front of you. You take one small and precarious step that triggers some rubble to fall. Suddenly the rope bridge beneath you begins to shake. Your heart rate goes up and you struggle to remind yourself you’re not actually crossing the Dolomites in Italy.

You are in fact participating in the Merrell TrailScape, a product demo so immersive and realistic audiences have emerged with their knees shaking. Described as a ‘4D motion-tracked, multi-sensory experience’, TrailScape was showcased at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Participants walked along a stage set that is mapped to the virtual experience. The motion capture allowed the audience to explore the mountainside, with tactile elements such as rope walkways and shaking wooden planks, bringing another level of immersion to the VR experience.

Merrell wanted to appeal to their thrill-seeking audience, and the best way to sell an experience facilitator (i.e. a pair of hiking shoes) is with a great experience. Their aim was to get people to want to get outside and do it for real.  “We feel our purpose is to be a catalyst and outlet to get to the outdoors,” says Gene McCarthy, Merrell President. Merrell’s TrailScape integrates the adventurous nature of the brand with a powerful user experience.

The 360° experience dream

StartApp’s Director of Virtual Reality, Ariel Shimoni doesn’t have delusions of grandeur when it comes to VR’s place in the MarTech universe. He is realistic when approaching brands, advising them not to expect a million conversions a day. Instead he suggests how advertising can live inside virtual reality spaces, and coexist alongside traditional storytelling.

“That is a massive challenge when approaching distribution in VR,” says Ariel. “I guess you can think about this as two roots, right? You can create your own standalone experience around your product, or your brand, or whatever creative you created; put it on some sort of distribution platform, and wait for people to download this experience, or experience it somehow out of their own will.

Love the idea of VR, but just can’t justify the cost? Check out our interview with VR Expert Ariel Shimoni on the economics of VR-first advertising.

“Alternatively, you can put in on YouTube as a 360° video, and hope that people go there and put on their headsets and switch to VR mode. It sounds very cumbersome and not a very straightforward experience. But there is an alternative, where when you bundle your ad experience within an existing VR experience – so the user is already immersed in VR when the ad appears – that’s a more kind of ideal scenario. That’s where I want to see most of my ads running.”

With great tech comes great responsibility

There’s no denying that immersive storytelling is here to stay. Next year, 24 million virtual reality and augmented reality devices are expected to be sold. According to journalist Nick Statt, the possibilities of this technology are infinite.

“Marketers see the possibilities too, and this time when they blast our retinas with immersive new ad formats, the messages will be harder to escape than ever,” he wrote for The Verge.

Marketers must place storytelling at the core of their immersive technology strategies. The final frontier will be telling brand stories in a way that does justice to the scope of the technology, and its ability to make us look differently at what’s real.

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