Virtual Reality technology (VR) has fascinating effects on storytelling.
The VR viewer wears special goggles and occupies a space within a virtual holodeck, which is created by two diagonally opposing little boxes shooting lasers out at right angles. The viewer can move within this virtual space, which might be the stage for a story. The goggles will show the viewer whatever program is loaded, Matrix-like. The 360° view is created quite conventionally, by filming a location in all directions, the camera at the centre, pointing outwards and panning all the way round.
So far, so good. It gets more interesting when such virtual locations are populated.
For VR, actors are filmed not with one or two cameras from a couple of angles, but with 40 or more cameras from all angles, the cameras all pointing inwards with the actor at the centre. The resulting 40 or more images are stitched together. The VR goggle wearer can therefore walk around the actors and see them from the front, from behind, from any angle. The actor was never at the location, but is superimposed into the virtual space (this already happens in conventional film with green screen technology).
What you get is the viewer as a ghost, moving about the story stage and around the characters at will. The effect is like intimate theatre.
So theatre folk might actually find VR easier to handle. Film directors of stories told in VR can’t use the same techniques they use in film. For VR, the conventions of storytelling have to be learnt afresh, the language of the medium has to be found – just as editing had to evolve for film. When the viewer is immersed in a virtual reality, in the illusion of populated space, the film convention of cutting from one scene or image to the next has a jarring effect. Therefore one of the great tools of film editing – juxtaposition – cannot be employed so easily. Having said that, maybe it is just a matter of getting used to the technology, and soon VR viewers will be as little irritated by editing as we all are by edited films.
Today in VR, the viewer is as yet hardly able to interact with the characters, but it is just a matter of time until technology will make this possible too. The possibility for the recipient to influence or change the story, that is to say to choose which storyline to follow, is a technique the games industry is familiar with. This kind of “branching” is a more drastic change to storytelling than VR is per se. Storytelling in the classical sense, from campfire tales to 3D cinema, involves the recipient taking in and experiencing a story as told by a teller. The teller evokes a designed sequence of emotions in the audience. When the recipient becomes the author of her own tale, making the recipient feel the emotional effect of a story journey becomes much more complex than it already is.
So initially, we must assume that authors writing stories for VR will have to think like theatre dramatists, as well as a little like they are writing a one-shot movie. Furthermore, authors and directors will have to create effects in the action that will direct the viewer’s gaze to where the relevant action is taking place, for instance with acoustic or lighting effects. If the viewer is busy investigating an actor’s bald patch, that viewer might miss the vital clue happening elsewhere in the virtual holostage.