VR and Storytelling: Experience as Narrative


One of the biggest challenges facing VR and 360 video content creators is telling a story to an audience that has full control of where they’re looking. Now that we've produced upwards of twenty 360 video experiences, ranging from guerilla-style “capture everything we can” event shoots to more elaborate and scripted productions, it’s becoming clear that traditional methods of conveying narrative don’t translate. As the VR industry grows into itself we’re seeing lots of experimentation with this, which is a good thing, however no one has yet to establish any strong precedent beyond some do's and don’ts. I’m not here to change that. However, I would like to share some thoughts and observations regarding VR and storytelling.

Media Everywhere

It’s no news to anyone that we live in a media rich (read:saturated) world. With the democratization of camera and video editing technology and the massive reach of video sharing platforms like YouTube, there is literally endless content out there. This is fantastic in the sense that everyone has a voice and space in which to express it. It is a nightmare in the sense that sifting through this media mass now requires more time and discernment than ever before. The talented team over at Magnopus put it elegantly: “When we were kids the world was experience-rich, but information-poor. Today the world has become information-rich, but experience-poor.” Of course this is why we’ve seen huge interest and progress in curation services and machine learning to do the heavy lifting for us, yet even those can’t negate the fact that due to this veritable cacophony of constant and mostly average content - we are jaded.

Audiences are Desensitized

This jadedness is more than a byproduct of content overload. It’s a heady cocktail of exceedingly high production values in Hollywood postproduction and formulaic distillation of plot, scripts, flow, and delivery. Now I’m not here to argue that these ingredients are ruining film or that Hollywood is too risk adverse, etc. etc. I bring this up only to illustrate the reality of audiences being shown that anything is visually possible on screen. This combined with an optimal script as determined through market research results in us yawning at 40 minute CG fight scenes that would have sent any movie-goer 20 years ago into shock. And that’s normal. As humans we acclimate pretty quickly to new stimuli, which leaves VR creatives in a tricky spot. While many of us are coasting on the novelty and wow factory of the technology, it’s only a matter of rapidly depleting time before jadedness sets in.

Proximity = Passion

You’ll have to excuse the pseudo-psychology and generalizations, but in our experience the closer someone is to something the more they care about it. This applies both physically and metaphorically. While it’s no doubt fantastic to have powerful computers on our person at all times capable of showing us infinite content, the process of attenuating that experience through a screen makes us feel disconnected from it, ironically. This is the fundamental benefit of VR. When we wrap content all the way around someone, they are no longer simply watching something. They are experiencing it. That doesn’t put VR on some level above traditional media as all experiences aren’t inherently compelling - I’m looking at you, DMV. But it does give content creators a new paradigm to work with.

Experience as Narrative

This is where VR has to depart from traditional storytelling and forge its own path. When we take away the frame, we’re relinquishing most of our control to the audience. With this we gain the ability to craft environments and situations that are most effective enveloping the audience. For example, horror has been a goto in early VR because fear is primal and heavily connected with our surroundings. This has made for many entertaining nights scaring the bejesus out of our friends, but it’s relatively one-note. So as we move up that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and emotions are more abstracted from the environment, how do we communicate message on that level? The answer - we don’t know, but we’re working on it. To some extent though I believe it’s about letting the audience craft their own story as we provide the medium and tools.

Expecting more from Audiences

VR in its current form expects a lot from its audience. Not only does it require expensive equipment and sometimes physical space, it requires people to forgo their surroundings and submit themselves to whatever world we decide to wrap them in. Even the act of moving our heads around is more of an ask than traditional media. So for us it’s about not underestimating those people willing to adventure out with us. Audiences are smart - despite what can sometimes seem like overwhelming evidence to the contrary *cough* transformers *cough* so we’re focusing on enabling them to become a more active participant in the narrative. This doesn’t necessarily mean first person storytelling, or videogame-esque mechanics baked into every VR experience, but somewhere in the mix of all these tools is a powerful formula for effective VR storytelling that leave audiences with a greater sense of agency, proximity, and ultimately ownership of the experiences we’re creating.

My cofounder and I started Look On Media because we share a passion for experiences that fundamentally affect people. We believe VR has provided an exciting new medium to bring that passion to others, and we’re looking forward to exploring it with you.

If you have any thoughts on VR storytelling we'd love to here them!


ArtScape, Bitgen, and VR Panels, Oh My!

ArtScape, Bitgen, and VR Panels, Oh My!

Ok, so we’ve fallen into a questionable blogging habit of going radio silent for months and then blasting giant updates, which probably flies in the face of best internet practices. It’s a heady mix of being busy with exciting new projects, those projects not being ready to go public, and slight blog paralysis (blogalysis?) – which I promise I’m working on! Either way, let’s dive in to the news:

ArtScape 2016: Double Rainbow Edition

ArtScape happened, and with it came inspiring art, a veritable cornucopia of delectable local food, and surface of the sun heat levels. Look On Media was on-site and capturing all the fun in 360 video. Be on the lookout for that experience coming soon!

BitGen 2016: Robots Rocked My Socks Off

There’s few things more pleasurable in life than a room full of arcade machines, live videogame music, and what can only be described as a cavernous volume of Natty Boh. Brought to you by the fine folks at MAGFest, BitGen always delivers a memorable experience and Look On Media was there with bells on. Well, 360 cameras anyway. We’ll be booting up this experience soon so strap in!

DC VR Panel: No Clever Subtitle Here, Just Excellence

The talented people at the WIFV and our friend/badass animator Rob Cloutier hosted an awesome VR panel in Washington DC last week. He invited us to speak on the perils and joys of VR video development as we were joined by the unreasonably good-looking VR rockstars Be the To and BaltiVirtual. It was an event to behold as we wowed/frightened/probably bored the crowd into a blissfully VR fueled info coma. Oh yes, it was exciting and these images prove it!

Well, there you have it – the Look On Media quarterly (sorry) update! Please accept our gargantuan gratitude and massive thanks to all the amazing people we’ve been working with in the past few months. You make our jobs truly awesome.


Look On Media Captures Power 52 at Light City Baltimore

As many of you might have noticed, a couple weeks ago Light City took over the inner harbor of Baltimore with an incredible showcase of local talent. As the artists were tasked with captivating our eyes and ears, there were a series of conferences featuring influential speakers tasked with captivating the thing behind our eyes and ears. Our minds. I'm talking about our minds.

We had the privilege of working with Power 52, a Baltimore-bred non-profit run by Rob Wallace and Ray Lewis (yep, that one) that facilitates the construction of solar farms in under served neighborhoods, and aside from being just generally incredible people they also delivered an impassioned panel. We're in the process now of creating a 360 video experience of the highlights that will premiere shortly. In the meantime, here are some pictures!

It was an honor working with such amazing people and we're definitely looking forward to doing some future projects!

Look On Takes On Solar Farms, MAGFest, Beerfest, and More

Few! In honor of the Oculus Rift launch today (congratulations to the fine folks at Oculus) I've decided to dust off the 'ol blog and provide a much needed update to the goings-on here at Look On Media. The past couple months have been busy so let's start with what's accessible right now:

Bithenergy's Nixon Farm Solar

Daniel Wallace, of Bithenergy, Pivotal, and Power 52 fame,  is an innovator and is changing the way people think about solar power. His massive project out at Nixon Farm was game changing for Maryland solar development, and as such he wanted to express that in the most powerful medium possible - VR. Enter Look On Media. Working closely with Daniel we were able to capture everything that makes Nixon Farm Solar so amazing and package it into an impacting 360 video and VR experience.

You can check out the YouTube 360 video version right here! Make sure to adjust those streaming settings to high so you get the best experience.


MAGFest 2016

Who thought it would be a good idea to give us 360 degree 4k cameras? You realize we are going to take those things EVERYWHERE, right? Turns out the diligent and expertly crafty people behind the Music and Games Festival, aka MAGFest, were excited by the idea. They were kind enough to allow us what was probably an annoying amount of access to capture the magic that is 20,000+ enthusiasts engaging in their passion. And magic it was.

Head on over to our YouTube page to view some of the 360 video highlights from MAGFest 2016.


Beerfest Chicago

We all know it, and this is a safe place to express it - the team at Broken Lizard, makers of cinematic gems such as Supertroopers and Beerfest, are mega-geniuses. Once we caught wind of their fundraising beer bash in Chicago, Look On cofounder Brian was on the spot, 360 camera in hand. What transpired can only be described as art in it's purest form.

We're working with Broken Lizard right now finalizing a Beerfest 360 Video experience so stay tuned for that. In the meantime here are some photos!

Look On Media Meets With Bithgroup Technologies and Bithenergy To Talk VR

We had the pleasure of meeting with Bithgroup Technologies and Bithenergy CEO Robert L. Wallace and walk him through one of our education demos. Mr. Wallace has been an influential part of Baltimore's economic growth for over 20 years, and through his education-focused company EntreTeach he is excited about the potential for VR learning modules.

My personal favorite moment happened after Mr. Wallace finished the demo as he asked VP of Operations Harry Holt to try it out. To do so Brian (co-founder here at Look On Media) told Mr. Wallace he must remove the headset for Harry to try, to which Mr. Wallace simply replied, "Do I have to?" That made me smile.

It was a pleasure meeting with these fine gentlemen and we're looking forward to the next one!

- Jon

Hello World! You like VR? Us too!

Oh hello there. Thank you for stopping by the Look On Media blog. Allow me to introduce myself and explain a little bit about what we're doing.

I'm Jon and along with my absurdly talented colleague Brian, we are the founders of Look On Media. Our goal is super simple - we want to make amazing and memorable experiences in virtual reality that teach people things. What things you ask? Anything!

Learning has gotten a lot more engaging since computers hit the scene, but even then it's been attenuated through the frame of a screen, which can be, oh how do we put it, boring. That's why things like science centers and museums are really cool when done properly - because it creates an experience that you participate in both physically and mentally. It's an event, and events are memorable and impacting. Now imagine if that museum morphed into a space ship and flung you across the galaxy while Patric Stuart personally narrated your fan fiction... - ok, I'm getting ahead of myself, but this is the crux of Look On Media - to create a powerful event out of every experience, and with VR that experience is only limited by our imaginations.

It's a really exciting time to be working with VR technology, and Brian and I couldn't be happier doing it. Everything we get a chance to work on and everyone we talk to ends up spawning another hundred ideas, which is going to make for some really fun and interesting projects that will ultimately engage audiences in all new ways. That's pretty cool.

If your head is already spinning with ideas, don't be shy! We'd love to hear them and if nothing else just pontificate about how awesome all this is. Get in touch via this site, our email, twitter, smoke signals, anything because we are all about it.

Until next time...

- Jon