#740: Facebook/Oculus Head of Experiences on Immersive Storytelling

colum-slevinColum Slevin is Facebook/Oculus’ Head of Experiences, and I had a chance to talk about how they’re supporting independent storytellers in a quest of trying to discover some of the fundamental components of an immersive story. Slevin says that the production pipeline and iterative development methodology of real-time, interactive games has made it easier for the gaming community to adopt virtual reality technologies. The film industry has not only had to learn an entirely new set of tools but also they’ve had to figure out how to move to a more agile development process from the normal storytelling and character development process, and storytelling is a time-based medium where it’s harder to give up authorial control of the building and releasing of narrative tension. So we talk about how VR is a transcendent and transformational medium that has inspired Facebook to support more avant-garde storytelling experiments like The Under Presents, which features live theater actors that will be paid to interact with participants within this immersive theater virtual reality experiment. So I had a chance to chat with Slevin in Park City during Sundance after getting a sneak peak of The Under.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So right after I had a chance to see The Under, I talked to the Tender Claws team as well as with Piehole and Colm Slevin was listening into the conversation and then we had a conversation. Colm is the head of media for the experiences group at ARVR for Oculus slash Facebook. He often is in charge of bringing these latest projects to Sundance, really exploring like the future of storytelling and narrative. So storytelling I think is still a developing and unfolding undefined holy grail as to what does it mean to tell stories within virtual reality. And so for me in covering the virtual reality as a medium, this question of storytelling in VR has really captivated my curiosity and just wanted to experience as much as I can and talk to as many people as I can. And that's one of the big reasons why I like to go to Sundance, especially like the New Frontier. It's like the beginning of a new cycle of the year that's really setting that context and the stage for what are the new innovations that have happened over the last year. And so Colm Slevin and Jelena Rochesky at Oculus are really leading up their charge in terms of looking at these narrative innovations within VR. And so I had a chance to talk to Colm about this and about his journey and about the dynamic of these different tensions between gaming and entertainment and what story is and what it's turning out to be within virtual reality. So we'll be covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Colm happened on Sunday, January 27th, 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:47.572] Colum Slevin: Hi, Kent. I'm Colm Slavin, and I am the head of media for the experiences group within ARVR at Oculus and Facebook.

[00:01:56.590] Kent Bye: Great. So I guess when you say experiences, I think of like non gaming, but also like in the realm of entertainment. So like, how do you draw the line between what's a game and what's an experience?

[00:02:07.208] Colum Slevin: Yeah, I mean, that's the question of the hour, isn't it? I mean, we it's sort of like the most perennial topic we talk about is where is that line? And there was a time like I used to try to draw that line really crisply and say that, you know, you can define a game very crisply, actually, as something that incorporates agency, mastery and skill. And maybe some people often talk about the inclusion of a win state or a fail state and experiences as we define them are this much more a wide-ranging hybrid medium that incorporates aspects of game development and aspects of a range of different types of entertainment forms, cinema, theatre. you know, more immersive forms of theater, as we just talked about. But actually, more recently, I've become really reticent about trying to draw that hard line, because I think that one of the follies of the VR pundit class, which, you know, I would count myself in, like people who make VR for a living and create VR, is we have this tendency to try to create hard and fast rules. Like, we have this tendency to try to say, well, here are the five golden rules of creating good VR. And it's about comfort, and it's about not editing and it's not moving the camera, whatever we were saying at the time, I've been guilty of that and I've seen a lot of people at conferences talking about what to do and what not to do. And what I've found is that you learn a lot more from liberating the creative process, supporting developers that are doing radical weird and maybe fringe and interesting things, but then also really observing the user community and seeing how they respond to different things. But I think you have to start with that sense of being willing to have that sense of free fall about the experience. So, I'm sorry, it's a really long-winded answer, but I think it's really difficult to draw the line between those two things, because I think hybrid experiences are going to emerge like the under-presents that present slightly as something that you do require some skill to perform within it, and you do require some sense of agency and skill involved but it's also not a game, you know, so it's a really slippery line.

[00:04:08.209] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's why I asked it. I know it's a perennial question within the VR industry and I find that most people in the VR industry are either coming from the film and cinematic side and adding more agency to their normal storytelling practices or they're coming from the gaming side and trying to add these more narrative elements and that both the game developers as well as the cinematic center of gravity folks are both trying to add the body into the experience in the first time and figure out like, okay, now that we add the body, then how does that change? this relationship between this making choices and taking action and the process of character development and telling the story. So I'm curious to hear a little bit more about your own background in terms of what trajectory you're coming from and the lenses that you're looking at VR through.

[00:04:47.233] Colum Slevin: Yeah, so my background, you know, going way back from the beginning was in traditional animation, pre-digital, photochemical hand-drawn, animated features and production, technical departments in that regard. And I was always drawn to and fascinated by the application of technology in the service of story. And even in my early days working with exposure sheets and in-betweens and hand-drawn animation and paint and celluloid, that all felt like a weird mishmash of technology in the service of the creation of the illusion of life. And I got more passionate about that when digital came along in the mid-90s. became very interested in interactivity. So basically, I worked in post-production and feature film visual effects for a long time. Then I found my way into some interactive narrative type stuff. And what I realized, for me, VR has always been sort of a holy grail from that perspective because there are so many unanswered questions. It is such a fundamentally technological medium. And also, as a passionate movie fan and a passionate gamer, The idea of, I always say, like getting gamers interested in VR or shooting fish in a barrel, because from the first time I sat in an arcade cabinet and played that vector-based Star Wars game, I wanted to be in virtual reality, and I think a lot of people of my generation did. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I mean, I genuinely didn't think that technology would converge. in time. So that's what brought me to VR. That I love narrative, I love traditional entertainment, I love film, I love game development. I think that the buzzword of convergence that we were all kicking around for 10 years is suddenly becoming a possibility and a reality in this medium and that's why I'm here doing this.

[00:06:28.649] Kent Bye: Yeah, and as I've been covering virtual reality for nearly five years now, I've noticed that there's the process of the technological innovation, which is creating new possibilities for storytelling. And then the creators come in and then they push the technology to the limits as far as they can, and then they create these experiences. And then the audience has to then learn how to experience these new experiences. And then there's the distribution, how you actually get these experience into people's hands. And so all of those parts, I think we've been iterating over the last five years, but there's a little bit more of a stabilization of the technology. There's going to be new stuff with the quest, but for more and less people can develop experiences with six degree of freedom and maybe have a little bit more freedom to roam around. There's a pretty solid foundation technologically, but we're still, to me at least, it feels like exploring the potentials of everything that we already have. And it's at these festivals like Sundance and Tribeca and the Venice Film Festival and all these places where the artists and the creators are coming together and basically saying, okay, this is what we think is a really compelling part of this medium. And I think part of what I see what Facebook and Oculus are doing is trying to help curate and support and fund those projects that you're putting investment and money into those trajectories and potentials where you think there might be something there, at least to kind of prove things out. So I'm just curious to hear about that journey for you navigating that and how you even make sense of these different emerging genres that are coming out of this.

[00:07:53.550] Colum Slevin: Yeah, so Sundance is definitely the venue that we come back to year after year, where we are excited to see people who are pushing the boundaries and exploring, first of all, to see what they've done since last year, because it's very much a cyclical reconvening of a community, right? But also it's where we come to show the wares of the developers we've been working with to say, you know, here are some of the wild experiments we've invested in, as well as here are some of the sort of more classic narrative or documentary pieces that we're still leaning into as well. But I think that there's an interesting synergy between what you described, the film festival, community and the rhythm of the film festival, the idea of a film festival, that it gives developers a Petri dish and a litmus test to return to year after year. And it gives a venue like the New Frontier exhibit at Sundance the ability to evolve and just the platform that that team provide to innovative developers. It's become the de facto venue for innovative VR, very much as the New Frontier exhibit. And it's just really interesting to see people return here year over year and to see how their offerings and their experiences and their knowledge is evolving.

[00:09:07.314] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, when you look at film, there's certainly like Hollywood and mass consumer films, the blockbuster films. And then there is still the independent arthouse films that are big. Major cities may have one arthouse theater or maybe a couple if it's really big. But it seems like looking to the evolution of VR that there's perhaps a similar big mass consumer types of experiences and maybe like room for that avant-garde artistic experimentation that's happening. And I'm just curious to hear how you think about that in terms of the different projects that you're looking at and, and trying to encourage the innovation that may be coming from that avant-garde that's really trying to push the edge of what's possible, but it may be a little bit more weird in a smaller niche market, but recognizing the importance of that in order to maybe come up upon a, an innovation that may be eventually fed into the mainstream.

[00:09:55.236] Colum Slevin: Yeah, I think one of the key tensions we have to balance is, here's what I take it back to, like one drum I beat all the time that we talk about a lot is the fact that capable and passionate and experienced game developers were in the pool in VR before anyone else was, right? Because for two reasons. One, the tools of creation were native and familiar to them, like real-time engines were familiar. And second of all, the language of design, there was a shallow learning curve for them to develop compelling interactive games in VR from where they began, whether it was mobile, or console, or PC, or whatever. And the same can't be said for the narrative and film community. They were starting from a significant deficit in terms of the learning curve for the tools. But more importantly, the 100-year maturation of the language of film is at a point now where you can't just transpose that onto VR. So I think what's necessary and what you see a lot of people doing, like the Tender Claws team doing, and other developers we work with, is you have to lean into experimentation. You have to lean into things that seem out there. Like when the Tender Claws team and my colleague Elena first brought up the idea of The Under Presents in its first incarnation, I was literally like, wait, what? And you're going to do what? Okay, so it's going to be live actors with a narrative that resets, and you're going to be able to control time. It was bonkers, but it touched on a couple of hypotheses that we're really interested in pursuing, including social co-presence and responsive live performers that was too exciting to ignore. I think the tension we have to balance in general in this field is what you said is true, is that there's the potential for these arthouse experiments, and there's a potential for giant blockbuster four-quadrant experiences. And right now, there's far more of the former than the latter in narrative VR. And I don't think those things live separately right now. I think the reason for the experimental content and the fringy content you see is you're trying to galvanize that spark of something you've never seen before. Like I think we make a common cyclical error in VR where we think we've found the key. Oh, the trick to creating compelling non-games content in VR is 360 video or it's documentaries or it's whatever it might be. I just don't think we've found it yet and we're searching for it and I think we'll look back at a certain point down the road and we'll say, hey, remember in 2018 when that first immersive really big immersive theater piece popped up at Sundance and it started this snowball. But I think, you know, revolutions, they don't happen abruptly. They happen, I feel like sometimes they happen incrementally and they accumulate. And suddenly you look back and you realize, oh, we're here. It happened.

[00:12:45.445] Kent Bye: Well, yeah, I've been seeing the collision path of immersive theater in VR for quite a long time I mean I saw sleep no more back in 2011 That was way before I got into VR when I bought my rift on January 1st 2014 so it seems like that a lot of the narrative practices that are being developed in immersive theater are not only doing this most sophisticated experimentation of what's possible with spatial storytelling but but also in some sense it's cultivating this audience that is wanting to have those immersive experiences and I feel like that there's something about the cross-section of that immersive theater audience and how they're going to perhaps take to some of these immersive experiences within VR that may be a completely different demographic than the gamers who have already been early adopters of the technology. Maybe they have these PCs and they're very much into this high agency. And so Bandersnatch just came out on Netflix, which is starting to do this interactive narrative. And so we're starting to see these streaming services see how they could drive engagement and really center a very specific experience in the viewer as they're using these narrative techniques to have them be reflective upon what's happening within their own body, which I think was really interesting for me to see what's happening even in Banner Snatch, but that there seems to be a slow building of organic growth of the ecosystem of those demographics and audiences, and that more and more I'm seeing a drive towards immersive experiences, activations with Westworld at South by Southwest, of people going to Comic-Con, people going to PAX, and wanting to have these visceral experiences, and that it seems like the VR and the Quest may be providing a technological roadmap to bring in these audiences and provide these experiences to them.

[00:14:20.753] Colum Slevin: Yeah, no, I think that's right. I think what excites, on the one hand, a slightly sort of more local or micro level, what really excites me and all of us about the Quest is the untapped potential it unlocks for creators. Like, it shifts the design paradigm very fundamentally for them, where they're no longer thinking about basic things like, I have to think about the fact that the user has a cable attached to their head. I have to think about the fact that I don't want to occlude the sensors, or I don't want your hands to not be visible to the sensor. So the untethered form factor of Quest, I think, is a small revolution in itself, which is really remarkable. I think the larger point you're making, I do think, I have this thesis that, like, totally anecdotal and off the top of my head, but basically, the theatrical box office, as we all know, has been dwindling over the years, right? Film is by far my favorite creative medium. I love going to theaters, but I'm in a minority. It's not that films aren't being made and aren't compelling, they're just not necessarily showing in theatres, so people don't go outdoors. There's too much friction for them to go enjoy that. However, people are going to see Sleep No More, and they are going to Two-Bit Circus, and they are going to The Void, and they are visiting these immersive locations that offer these sometimes experimental, sometimes blockbuster, but these like fundamentally immersive and personal experiences to people that I think has struck a chord, as you say, beyond the early adopter or gamer community. Everyone understands that contract of, I'm going to go to a place and I'm going to be treated to a time-boxed but immersive environment and an entertainment experience, whether it's an immersive theater piece or a theme park. So I think there's something there in VR that that combination of a persistent social experience and a tailored narrative of some kind is really intriguing and differentiated and will get you out of your living room. Having said that, how exciting is it that there are passive entertainment on your television that is interactive? Like, I didn't think that would happen in my lifetime either. I think that's amazing. And I think it contributes to the whole thing.

[00:16:25.602] Kent Bye: You know, at the Oculus Connect 5, I had a chance to do the Dead and Buried quest experience where they told me not to run around, but I didn't hear them. And I was like running around and they told me to stop eventually. And so, but I was actually really surprised to see how well it tracked, but Dead and Buried is mostly a game. And I think of that type of location-based entertainment experience with the quest as something like the equivalent of a laser tag or some sort of co-op. Adventure that you may have with space. I think it's gonna open up new possibilities. But in terms of narrative I'm just curious to hear your thoughts if you think that there's gonna be like an emerging location based narrative within the context of virtual reality where you're actually locomoting through space or if that's something that you're thinking about strategically in terms of trying to have these places and locations in different cities that are could start to feature as a distribution platform a physical location for people to come in and start to experience some of these things that may not be just a game, but they may have more of a narrative component.

[00:17:23.000] Colum Slevin: Yeah, I think that's certainly an intriguing possibility. I think, you know, one of the really killer parts of the Dead and Buried experience to me was the spectator mode. The fact that people were having almost as much fun watching you perform and run and duck and cover and play as the players were having in the arena. And that scales the potential of the experience pretty immensely because it feels less like a solitary or a confined experience. But I think, yeah, the potential for narrative is enormous. The analog to laser tag is a no-brainer. It's great. And everyone understands that connection. What I think is really exciting is the idea that there is an undefined experience out there that we're all grasping for that would incorporate some kind of evolving or tailored narrative that would respond to your behavior, but also your friends and your preferences and the things you like to do that you bring that with you to the experience in a way and it responds to you. Now I'm just making stuff up. But I think the path there to me is that, as I was mentioning earlier, I've worked in, I've been really lucky to work with a lot of really talented creative people, both in episodic television, in feature film, in game development, and now in VR. And the one thing that I've really noted and the thing that I've taken away is Sometimes when we can't get out of our own way to try to find the next step, it's because we're mired in this idea that we've got this X many decades of experience in this medium and I know what success looks like. I worked in mobile games for 10 years and I know this is what success looks like. Create a gameplay loop that's going to keep people retained, whatever it is. And you leave on the table the fact that there's a certain percentage of your experience that's value and a certain percentage of your experience that's baggage. And I think when things really fire in all cylinders, you get a team like Tender Claws who show up with none of the baggage and just all of the value. And they're hungry and curious to learn. Samantha and Danny on the sort of technical and development side are hungry and curious to learn from the piehole team on the immersive theater side and nobody's saying well you can't do that and nobody's saying well that doesn't make any sense because how are we going to get players to come back if we do that and everyone's sort of coming together to do something that is unexpected and risky and scary but they sort of lean into an embrace and I think that's the potential is that if we can recognize what part of our experience is value and what part of our shared experience is baggage, then you can do remarkable things and end up in a place where suddenly we've got shared social narrative experiences that are evolving through AI.

[00:19:55.044] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about the options for distribution and funding for the creation of this more narrative experience content because my observation is that over time there's been a waxing and waning of the digital agencies and the interest in 360 video and that if anything it's on the downturn and It's been challenging, I think, for independent creators to find their funding resources, especially if there's not a market to be able to sell these different experiences to, and that you have the gaming market, but then those either the SteamVR, it's very difficult to launch more of a purely narrative experience on there, or Even on Oculus Home, I think it tends to be mostly video gamers that are experiencing these different games. So there's other things like 5Port and itch.io and then YouTube, but none of them are necessarily got enough of a critical mass of an audience that's really going to sustain. Independent creators to be able to really make a living at pushing forward the medium on a consistent basis So it seems to be people doing these passion projects and then with the cycle of the film festival putting out these prototypes and experiments But that I'm not seeing as many people who are able to make a full-time living off of just creating these types of experiences and so just curious how you see that larger ecosystem and what what you're thinking about in terms of distribution and other potential solutions to make it more of a viable venture for people to dive into and

[00:21:16.017] Colum Slevin: Yeah, no, I think it's a really good point because it's really interesting and fun to wax passionately about the potential of the medium, right? And I do that a lot. We do that a lot. The fact of the matter is, as you stated, the third component to the fact that game developers had a handle on the tools early, They had a handle on the design language early. The third leg to that stool is there was a business model exhibiting itself for games pretty early and it's showing good healthy signs for game developers who are in the space. The fact that the form for narrative content experiential content is still evolving and is still something we're searching for and pursuing speaks to the fact that there isn't a clear business model there. It's not firm. So the approach we're taking is it's a huge priority to us to identify business model opportunities for these creators and to figure out ways that this can be a self-sustaining ecosystem as opposed to, you know, a supportive ecosystem. And the basic approach that we're taking now is a sort of a hypothesis-driven approach. You know, we explore a range of ideas and think about, well, what does it mean to have an experience that straddles a number of different surfaces? You know, an experience that is maybe a combination of a location-based experience and a new headset experience. Maybe there's a location-based component that drives people to the headset. Maybe there's a mobile device component that drives people to the headset. But that the headset experience is differentiated in some way. So, what we're doing is, you want to move beyond guesswork. And you want to move beyond purely passion-driven decisions around a partnership with a team like Tender Claws. But, you know, what you land at is developing a series of hypotheses around. I think there's a potential for an episodic model. I think there's a potential for creating. The thing about The Under Presents, for instance, is that that experience is sufficiently varied and generative and surprising that it can bring people back. And I think there's potential there for Ongoing engagement and retention of users that isn't about well, I got to log in again because I have to mine Currency for my my farm or I have to you know, I want to go on a raid and I'm gonna go with a bunch of people it's more about I want to learn more about this world because this world seems to be responding to me and that's just interesting and So it's about finding those creative hooks that will bring users and players back together and help the overall experience and ecosystem scale and also give developers an incentive to continue to push that content out so that it doesn't just The biggest challenge with narrative content in particular is narrative content is traditionally something that is beginning, middle, and end. You consume it and it's gone. Because The Under Presents is a world. It's not just a story. It's a narrative that threads through a world. It's really about finding a framework and, as I was saying, a design paradigm. that will lead people to spend heretofore unusual amounts of time in the headset and keep them coming back and incentivize them to want to pay for that.

[00:24:30.018] Kent Bye: And so for you, what are some of the either biggest open questions that you're trying to answer or open problems that you're trying to solve?

[00:24:40.067] Colum Slevin: I mean, the big questions we're trying to answer are some of the rusty old ones we've talked about for a long time, like what's a story? You know, we have this very deep-seated cultural belief that stories are universal and they're ancient and they keep people coming back. And I think that's true, but the question remains, what is a story in this medium, really? So that's an area of exploration that I think is really interesting, is what does narrative mean? I think another big question is how do you create persistent and responsive and intelligent characters? You know, how can virtual characters, you know, we've short-circuited this with The Under Presents because they're real people and they're performers and they're responding to you in a way that feels very fresh and unexpected. But how are synthetic characters going to evolve in this very immersive and believable medium in a way that's going to feel welcoming, interesting, and engaging for humans. It's a story and character. I mean, it's such a cliche because it's where I come from, but I don't think there's anything more important than that. Because transporting you to places you can't otherwise go, you know, the sort of fundamental promise of VR is a beginning. And then, you know, what are you going to do when you get there? What kind of story are you going to be told? And what sort of creatures and characters are you going to interact with? I think is a huge... fascinating sort of Pandora's box of stuff. So those are the sort of big things we wrestle with. On a day-to-day basis, it's all the basic stuff. It's the reducing and minimizing the friction that users have to grapple with to get into the headset. And then on the flip side, It is simplifying and eliminating the friction that developers have to deal with for ingest and creation and distribution and just creating that. And then ultimately the flywheel of the business model is something we think about a lot.

[00:26:38.018] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual and augmented reality are and what they might be able to enable?

[00:26:48.080] Colum Slevin: You know, I think that, I just always feel like such a dork when I say this, but I think it's a transcendent medium. Like I always have. I mean, the first time I put on a DK1, I couldn't believe where I was. And I couldn't believe, I mean, I said this earlier to you that I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. And Nate Mitchell came to the place I was working and he showed us a headset. And I remember sitting there thinking, oh my God, it's here, it's real. And then when I look back on the fidelity and the quality of those first experiences, it seems like 100 years ago. It wasn't 100 years ago, it was a short couple of years ago. So I think the medium has the potential for transcendence. You know, there have been other technological breakthroughs. I worked in stereoscopic film for a while, right, because I worked in visual effects. I remember at the time there was a moment when we all thought, oh, this is going to differentiate the movie going experience and people will pay more for tickets and why wouldn't you want to see movies in 3D and pretty quickly what you started to realize was Yeah, actually it's not you know, it's not that it's not a transformational technology. It's a gimmick I'm going to get yelled at for saying that by former colleagues, I'm sure, but it is a gimmick to me, right? That's not what VR is to me. Like every day I see something in VR that blows me away and makes me think, you know, how did they think of this? Where did this come from? So I believe, you know, cinema was the defining art form of the 20th century. It existed because of the collision between art and science. It existed because people would push technological boundaries and then creators would respond by putting those technologies to use and to tell stories. I think the ultimate potential for VR is a hundred times that. You know, that this technology, once these possible experiences start to unlock and start to unravel, I think the sky's the limit. So we don't really know. Like, I feel like I'm dodging your question. I'm really not. But I think it's fundamentally a transformational and transcendent medium. And I think that it's going to be ubiquitous. And it's not a matter of if but when.

[00:28:47.693] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:28:53.237] Colum Slevin: Keep doing what you're doing. We love our developers. We love the Tender Claws team. We love all of our community of developers that we work with from day to day. And we're here to help.

[00:29:03.265] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much. Cool. Thanks, Kent. So that was Colin Slevin. He's the head of Media for Experiences group at ARVR for Oculus slash Facebook. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, it seems to me that there's more open questions than answers still at this point in terms of what storytelling and virtual reality looks like and what it is. And I think that for me, it was fascinating to go through the under and then to listen to the creators talk about it. And then to kind of go into the more business side is like, what are the deeper motivations for why this is interesting for Oculus to be supporting these really weird combinations of live immersive theater with virtual reality? It's like, it's really interesting to see how there's some fundamental aspects that they're trying to figure out. Like retention within virtual reality is a big problem because you go through an experience and then you have this expectation loop in your mind for what's going to happen and then you you have that satisfied in the sense like what is the thing that's going to actually make you come back day after day to be engaged with these different types of experiences and I think the approach that the under is taking is like to create the story world that has these live elements and that the world seems to be reacting to your participation and so you actually feel like you're engaging in some sort of dialectic or a dialogue and you're exploring and trying to learn about this story world. And so that seems to be some combination of things that are going to make it really compelling for people to come back time and time to this specific type of experience. And I think that's kind of what they're trying to figure out is like, what are the elements that are going to really resonate with people to bring them and be engaged with this communications medium? And so to me, there is this tension between the commercialization of VR, which is trying to create experiences that are going to be safe. They're going to be engaging enough to be able to operate at scale and to be able to sell enough of those units to be able to actually make a living within the industry. And I think that this is something that the film industry had been dealing with for a long, long time. And it's a big reason why Robert Redford started the Sundance independent film movement. It started as a lab where he would just get his Hollywood friends come and just like be creative and to create something that was outside of that commercialization system. They wanted to be independent and actually focus on the narrative and the story rather than what was going to be profitable. And so because of that, once they started writing these scripts and making these films and they're like, okay, now we need a place to actually show these things that we've been creating, that is from a completely independent mindset. And so the independent film movement started out of Sundance with both the creation of that content through the Sundance labs. and then through the showing of that content through the Sundance Film Festival. And so I think it's very appropriate that the Sundance Film Festival is really facilitating and pushing the edge of what the future of storytelling is continuing to be, that someone outside of that commercialization that comes from the industry, what I think is fascinating is that they have Facebook that's actually investing in these types of weird art experiments that are really supporting these creatives to be able to push the edge of what's even possible with narrative and storytelling within virtual reality. So they're basically going to be footing the bill for paying these actors and to support this type of development. And this would never exist outside of the, you know, it just would be not feasible. It just costs too much money. And I think eventually we're going to see a lot more of this, especially when people see how compelling it is. And I think you already actually start to see this happening a little bit within Rec Room as well as within VRChat, where there's people that have the tools to be able to do these improv interactions, but I'm not sure if they have the same ability of narrative design and world building that I think that The Under is bringing. And I think it's gonna take it to the new level of, okay, this is what it means to design a world and have these types of interactions within it. So a number of other points that came up here is that Colin was saying that there's the gamers and the film community. Like the gamers had two huge advantages. One is that the tool set was completely native to them. They're already using Maya, Blender and pipelines for real-time game engines of Unity and Unreal and you know, basically like their entire like production pipeline was already real-time and already interactive And so like when VR came along it was like, okay Well, we'll just sort of drop this plug-in within our unity project and then BAM all of a sudden you're a 3d immersive real-time environment That was a video game that was experienced through a 2d screen is now all of a sudden a VR experience and then Obviously, there's a lot of things that you have to start to design these real time environments from the ground up with the VR in mind. And I think the gamers have had a lot easier time doing that because they're just already familiar with all the entire tool set to be able to do that. But the other big change is that it's an agile iterative process that the game developers have already been doing. And that film and narrative designers are not used to that in terms of like the software metaphors. You have waterfall development where you write the script, you have pre-production, you produce it, and you have post-production. That is a very linear process that has many different people that are involved in making that happen. It's a pretty predictable timeframe. It's like building a house with a blueprint and you just go and you make it. And it's now all of a sudden you're asking the narrative designers to adopt a completely different philosophical framework for how narrative gets designed, which is that You try to make a minimum viable product as early as you're possible. You have players that are testing it. And so it's like this real time iterative process that now all of a sudden you're trying to take this language, which is film and character development, that is very time-based and actually is more well suited in a lot of ways towards this development that is more waterfall because it's a time-based medium and you want to have complete control, authorial control over that. And so you're asking the narrative designers to let go of that authorial control, but also completely change the way that they usually develop these different narratives by moving from a waterfall approach into a more agile and iterative approach. And I think that is a couple of big reasons why we've seen that it's been taking longer for this discovery of what these narrative conventions actually are. But I also think that there's different dimensions of making choices and taking action, which is the active presence and mental and social presence that is the center of gravity for a game. And the center of gravity of a film is the sense of embodied presence, as well as your emotional presence. And so emotional presence being like the constructs of narrative that are playing with this building and releasing tension. It's like the cyclical building and release of stress, these obstacles that come up that have to be overcome. And that's the essence of the character development and the story that's evolving over time. And then on that, you're going through like an emotional roller coaster with these different characters as they're experiencing time. And the embodied presence is that you're actually putting your body into the experience for the first time. And I think that this is where theater has been really using spatial storytelling. things like Cirque du Soleil or live theater where you actually see the physical bodies moving through space, you also get this sense of embodiment where you're being asked to imagine a lot of things within your mind, but you're getting so much of what the story is based upon how the actors are physically moving their body around. And so there's a sense of embodied and environmental presence, as well as with this emotional presence that is the center of gravity for these stories and narratives. And you're asking it to introduce the agency and the social dynamics of communication and making choices and taking action. And you're kind of like blending these two things together. So for me, that's at least how I've been thinking about this line between what is a game and what is an experience. And for me, it's a little bit of like, what's the center of gravity? Are you asking people to make choices and take action? Or are you asking them to receive their sense of embodied presence and emotional presence? And that all experiences have those different dimensions of active presence and mental and social presence, as well as embodied presence and emotional presence. And you're trying to, in some ways, figure out how to blend all those things together. And so at the end, Colin was like, OK, what is a story? What is a narrative? And so you're taking those perspectival centers, which is like your ability to experience these different qualities of presence. And then you're being asked to introduce these different elements of character and plot and context within that. And so for me, I see that the story is very related to the dynamics of the human experience. And so then you have to come up with some sort of philosophical framework for what the full expression of the human experience is. And I think that actually is a open question within the philosophy community. Like if you were to ask a philosopher to define the boundaries of the human experience, I think They'll be able to talk about free will and the philosophy of mind and be able to talk about perception and the way that we view the world and emotions. And it's like basically all of these different subdomains within philosophy that in some ways have to be fused together with some sort of underlying philosophical framework to make sense of all these different dynamics of our mind and how we make choices, our agency and our free will, and how do we decide to take action in the world and exhibit our different behaviors. the way that we take in all this information and perceive it and make sense of it, and then our whole emotional dimension of our body and how those things are kind of all fused together. So for me, there's elements of the quality of experience, the content of an experience, the context of the experience, and then a story that's unfolding over time. And I've given some keynotes and workshops on what I see those four fundamental components of the human experience. And I'll be releasing some of those keynotes that I've been making last fall and winter. But for me, that's a little bit of what I'm finding is those questions that column is asking is, What is story? Well, in some ways, story is the boundaries of the human experience. And then you're asked to then define what the boundaries of the human experience are. From my perspective, I think that VR is actually providing an opportunity to create these experiential design frameworks that actually have to answer that question as to like, what is the boundaries of the human experience? And then once you answer that, then you're able to actually test it by creating these different experiences. So I actually think there's going to be many different models for the boundaries of the human experience because it is a qualitative thing that is so broad. It's actually very difficult to pin down into a very specific thing. But I do think that the philosophical community has also been trying to take a waterfall approach and breaking into these different silos. And I think the big task is to move into more of an iterative design approach that you're trying to take all these different component parts and sort of blend them together. And something that's a little bit more of a simple but lean, easy to understand design framework that allows you to create these different experiences where you can test your different theories of experiential design. So the business model is not been proved out for a lot of these narrative experiences. There's certainly an existing business model for games and those have been able to thrive, but that's one of the things that column is trying to think about is like, okay, how do we think about these business models that are actually going to sustain these types of experiences? Is it a world that you're creating? Are there different episodes? Are there different seasons? I think actually, if you look at what's happening with Fortnite, they're having these different seasons and these different narrative elements that are happening with the context of this. Battle Royale world and there's different elements that are gonna be bringing people in to be able to have different experiences like they just had a concert by Marshmello who I think there's like 10 million different people that were in the this virtual world watching a concert in fortnight and you know they kind of took away all the guns and then people just went to go experience this concert for like 10 minutes and had like 10 million people that were watching it which to me is amazing that's like showing that these types of models of these battle royale experiences where they've created a world and you're, you're doing some basic interactions, but they're trying to introduce incremental changes to make it interesting and novel to keep you coming back. And I think that type of model is probably going to be what happens within virtual reality as well, is that you have these worlds that you're creating, maybe something like the under. And that if there's enough interest in novelty that happens within that world, as it changes over time and people get to learn about it, is that going to allow people to come back over time and keep experiencing it as these new content that's being developed and released? Is it going to be compelling enough to bring people back? And I think that is likely going to be one of the business models that we're going to start to see within virtual reality. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

More from this show