Virtual reality (VR) is emerging as a new storytelling medium, so the Google News Lab, which says it “[collaborates] with journalists and entrepreneurs to help build the future of media," teamed with Google’s creative brand/agency think tank Zoo to conduct a six-month study about what makes VR a distinct storytelling medium and what this means for storytellers.
Google said the study used ethnography, which “uses in-field observations and interviews to understand a person’s relationship with an experienc," to conduct 36 interviews with “a diverse range of participants” and observed them as they interacted with their favorite VR experiences.
As a result, the study found VR differs from other storytelling mediums in three ways:
- VR conveys the sense that the viewer is living the story and not passively consuming it, which Google called “storyliving”;
- VR allows consumers to expand their perspectives on a story;
- VR can leave viewers with strong emotional experiences, but that sometimes comes at the expense of messaging.
According to Google, study participants like VR because it allows them to participate rather than simply be immersed in an experience.
“Some people love it because they want to feel a certain way, for example, being happy or sad or scared; and, for others, it enables the opportunity to embody an external entity like becoming a bird, a tree or simply someone living on the other side of the world,” wrote Erica Anderson, lead of the Google News Lab, in a blog post.
And while Google News Lab says its tips are for journalists specifically, they are arguably applicable to a range of storytellers, including brands and marketers:
1. VR is most effective when it’s focused on delivering an emotional experience.
As a result of this emotional connection, Google said journalists (or other storytellers) should approach how they structure and frame a story differently.
“Consider the emotional state you want the viewer to experience and find the moment within your story that can best deliver that,” Anderson said. “This often leads to the person seeking out more information about the subject they have just been immersed in, so it also makes sense to package some of that detail or backstory alongside the VR experience.”
2. Play with perspective and create opportunities for participation.
Google noted VR has the unique ability to produce a sensation of embodiment, which can be a powerful tool to expand perspective.
“Let users choose a perspective,” Anderson said. “Can you tell a story where the user can experience a story about a political crisis from a particular side of the conflict? Play the baseball game from the perspective of two teams? See outer space from the inside of an astronaut’s helmet?”
3. Consider the heightened vulnerability of subjects when telling a story in VR.
VR experiences leave viewers in a state of physical and emotional vulnerability as a person can feel surprised or shocked when entering the experience or re-integrating into real space.
Google advised journalists/storytellers to consider the ethics of making the viewer feel vulnerable when constructing a story about an emotionally sensitive topic.
“Journalists consider this when constructing stories in a traditional medium, but the vulnerability is more pronounced in VR, given its immersive nature,” Anderson said. “Signal to a viewer when they’re entering a story and when they’re exiting from it [similar to how movies begin with a title and end with the credits]. This is especially important at the end of a VR story since viewers typically piece together their understanding of the story after it’s over.”