Despite its popularity among creative technologists and marketers alike, attempting to tell a story through a virtual reality experience serves only to undermine the power of the medium, according to the co-founder of hyper-reality venture The Void.
Curtis Hickman, a former magician and designer of tricks for the likes of David Copperfield, created The Void experience alongside Ken Bretschneider and James Jensen. Their goal was to produce an experience that “took VR and pushed it as far as it would go” – creating the type of truly immersive VR that consumers envisaged when it first entered popular consciousness in the 1970s by combining the traditional headset with haptic feedback bodysuits and a tangible stage set.
Now established in the US, UK and UAE (invariably at shopping mall locations), The Void offers consumers the chance to literally walk into other universes. The set-up in London’s Westfield Stratford City features the locales and characters of Star Wars but unlike other gamified movie marketing activations, it doesn’t impose a storyline that participants must weave around.
The principle – to provide a truly liberated, non-linear experience to consumers – is key to The Void’s VR strategy.
“Storytelling implies one-way communication: I am telling a story and you are listening to it,” Hickman told The Drum. “If that’s what you want to do maybe don’t use an interactive medium to do it. Use a film, use a book, use a blog – tell a story in a medium designed for storytelling. If you’re doing it with VR, you have to recognise that no matter what, the person in the virtual world has decision and choice.”
It’s a philosophy that Hollywood studio execs, which have been the lifeblood of The Void’s content so far, have struggled to grasp. Hickman recalls conversations where producers have insisted a crucial, expositional moment appears before the eyes of players. The chief creative officer is left to retort: “Okay, but what if they’re not looking at the thing when that happens? Then what? What if their eyes are closed?”
Hickman believes a VR experience with a narrow story arc does nothing more than allow consumers to be passive observers to someone else’s agenda. “You can do that but you’re really missing out on the whole point,” he said.
Hickman and his colleagues advocate thinking of VR not as an extension of a TVC, but as a branded version of Dungeons & Dragons. “It’s a form of story where you have this dungeon master who is imparting a framework for a story and you have the players who are actively participating in the story,” he said. “Together, the group creates the story.
“It’s a simple, brilliant model for what we should be trying to accomplish in virtual reality.”
It’s a bold call to harms for both the VR industry and the marketers that fund it, and a new way to approach creative, interactive content. Yet for brands with smaller campaign budgets than Hollywood studios, it’s likely the linear storytelling route will remain the route most trodden until costs drop again – particularly when the experience in question needs to be cycled quickly through a crowd of passing shoppers, and a brand manager looms over the activation with a pencil hovering above ‘messaging’ on their ROI checklist.
And this kind of narrative can still be successful, too, according to John Henderson, creative director of creative tech studio Inition.
"Linear VR storytelling can immerse the viewer into a brand’s chosen space and give them an experience unachievable through traditional means," he said. "Not everyone has the budget to create non-linear or open world scenarios – but this doesn’t have to compromise the experience for the brand or the user."