Virtual Reality redefining the language of visual story telling

Story telling has always played a valuable role in human existence. Historically, this medium has been communicated in many forms; auditory, theatrical, written, visual arts like painting, television and film. Through these means, storytelling has been used as a means to pass on learning, culture, experiences and knowledge helping us make sense of the physical world in which we live.

Digital technology has allowed the medium of storytelling to offer new options never available in the past. One of these technologies, Virtual reality, offers a perspective that could transform our previous understanding to the intent of a linear story's focus, impacting existing imposed barriers as we extend our reach into virtual space.

What is virtual reality?

Wikipedia defines virtual reality (VR) typically refers to computer technologies that use software to generate the realistic images, sounds and other sensations that replicate a real environment (or create an imaginary setting), and simulate a user's physical presence in this environment. Virtual reality storytellers are charged with molding experience itself into story, using a new language that none of the previous storytelling tools have prepared us fully for. Stumbling through this new landscape of this mysterious medium, the challenge becomes, how do we tell a story for the audience when the audience is present within it?

Single Image Virtual Experience Stories

Every virtual reality experience aims tells a story, technical limitations of today's mobile approaches to VR can prevent the full range of storytelling tools, techniques and language to be used.

Certain mobile applications attempt to capture and share “experiences”, trying to convey an emotion, point of interest or story in a shared limited immersive virtual reality 'language' of a single 360 degree image. The viewer is not able to move beyond the enclosed frame afforded by the creator’s interaction with the location and the mobile apps limited usability, restricting the shared space being able to use other storytelling cues to interpret the immersive environment. This form of VR storytelling content can be acquired by the user from a handheld mobile device.

The framing of the virtual environment through these mobile apps provides a simple way for viewers to participate with virtual reality experiences, moving within a 360 degree image but not beyond it, restricting the stories possibilities.

Samsung Gear 360 and Gear VR headset

Single Shot Virtual Video Experience Stories

The language for visual story telling is expanded when the environment that viewers can interact with is constantly changing. Virtual reality captured video content can provide a first person point of view that seemingly brings the viewer along for the ride. Capturing of this kind of content is, for the most part, done by camera systems not found within a mobile device platform.

This single shot linear perspective does allow for the immersive interaction of "being there", but lacks in many of the qualities that immersive storytelling through this medium is capable of providing.

In the pursuit of cinematic storytelling, VR filmmakers need to embrace a language of creation that is concerned with a spatial kind of storytelling, rather than a temporal one as a way to portray genuine connection.

The process of storytelling through virtual world-building on a mobile device is still mostly uncharted territory. In no small part because the tools and standards for creating specifically with mobile VR in mind are not commonly available. Mobile technology as it is today cannot provide a turnkey solution for cinematic storytelling through virtual reality on its own. Capturing and distribution solutions do exist but to craft the story, the content has to be off loaded to traditional workstation for assembly of the events through editing.

Virtual Reality Storytelling, Working With A New Language

There are key terms ( immersion, presence, agency and empathy) are the foundations to the language of storytelling in a virtual reality environment. They provide the gateway of change from what cinematic story telling was traditionally with film to a new language through the medium of virtual reality.

VR storytellers must break free from the traditional constructs of a linear story which strives to to arrive at a certain location in the story as a certain measured time. hitting predetermined beats at predetermined times, always restricted to move the story forward: this happens, then this, then this, with an eyes front approach. Good immersive content can't be talked about in this way, deviating from the 'go forward' pattern, it instead of plotting moments on a timeline focuses on creating a world around this new language that allows the viewer to experience the story 'on their own' with every change in story.

Moving independently in the scene allows for the exploration and sharing of emotions, environments and senses in ways never before experienced.

Relying on agency, immersion, presence, and empathy in the construction of this new language allows the story to create a virtual space where everything that happens in between the intended arc of the story is part of the story too. Experience of the 'whole' of the story happens from within the story. The emotion evoked from this kind of virtual landscape and the characters in this world is the story, in complete contrast to the storytelling mediums of the past, It's not about watching a series of events, rather it's about intuitively responding to being present in the space of that story in which you coexist in.

Virtual reality storytellers, are charged with molding experience itself into story.

Educational Possibilities with Virtual Reality Storytelling

For students, the benefits of VR storytelling can enhance their learning possibilities as either a consumer or creator of this technology. As consumers, students can be given agency in the story by allowing them to choose how they interact with it, exploring elements of the 'whole' story, producing meaning from information they interact with, combining this with other information to form a story in their minds that may be entirely different from others who experience the exact same story. In this way, individuals can have different interpretations of the VR story.

VR video with NeoEye

As this digital technology becomes more accessible, students using VR for storytelling purposes will have the ability to create stories that introduce environments, emotions, and senses in ways never before experienced. These stories allow others to connect in a more collaborative, experiential way making way for new forms of learning .

VR creation tools on a mobile technology platform are on the cusp of providing the ecosystem for storytelling adoption. As stated previously, there aren't any turnkey solutions currently available for mobile production/post production VR creation but new products are being introduced constantly. As these tools are introduced to the marketplace as a viable means for students to tell their stories using the language of VR storytelling, the adaptation of agency, immersion, presence, and empathy provides a framework from which students can build on.


The biggest hurdle to storytelling in a VR landscape isn't the technology, The technology is coming, it's wrapping your head around a new mindset of mobile user as someone who is a creator of a builder of immersive worlds using virtual reality and the change of roles ascribed to the viewer from a passive participant to the role of viewer as storyteller. Decisions to invest, both time and money, into this form of storytelling will need to be made while considering if VR is just a gimmick, a passing phase or if the benefits it provides are worth the investment. With a proposed investment of $30 billion dollars into this technology by 2020, I think it can be safely said that virtual reality can be considered a serious technology for years to come.


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