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In the circa-2016 peak of the XR hype cycle, the common sentiment was that it will “change everything.” But it turns out that’s not the case. The technology isn’t a silver bullet. It will transform some areas, provide incremental value in others and apply in zero ways to others.
So where will it work and not work? This is a theme that Silverdraft VP of VR Hardie Tankersley discusses with Jason McDowall on the latest two-episode arc of the AR Show (listen or subscribe below). With several years of hands-on VR experience, he’s the right guy to make this call.
That experience includes eight years at Apple (not with VR), as well as Fox Television, where he created its first mobile apps, an Emmy-winning VR experience for Sleepy Hollow and a VR series for Scream Queens. From all of this, he learned that storytelling in VR is really hard.
This brings a much-needed reality check to the blue-sky industry rhetoric of the past four years that VR is natural for storytelling. With credibility from lots of time in cinematic production (and VR), Tankersley disagrees with this notion. In fact, VR is antithetical to storytelling in lots of ways.
There’s no right way. We haven’t discovered it yet… I hate to say that, but they’re all bad… There’s been a bunch of experiments that are interesting in their own ways, but we don’t have anything that you could call a hit… And we’re just trying to deal with some fundamental human issues with storytelling and immersion… Storytelling, weirdly enough, is not an immersive medium in the sense that you’re not in the story. When you read a book, when you watch a movie, when you see a play — the history of storytelling since like Gilgamesh — you’re not in the story, right? And the problem with VR is you can’t make the immersion go away… There’s something human about being able to lose yourself in the story. And that’s just antithetical to the way VR works.
If we’re to get there, Tankersley believes it will be an acclimation process. More accurately, it will be a negotiation with audiences to push limits and see what resonates. This has been a slow and necessary process for decades of evolution in cinematic production. VR will be no different.
The language of cinema, which we’ve developed over 100 years of visual storytelling, conveys a lot of information in framing in lighting, where the camera is pointing, what it’s focused on, and the cuts… When you take all that away, you lose a lot of tools for creating drama [and] tension… We still haven’t discovered how to do [that] in VR… It’s not a platonic ideal that exists that we just have yet to discover: It’s something that gets negotiated with the audience and the creators over time. Since the Lumiere brothers… look at how it’s even evolved since the 60s, 70s, or 80s, the way that movies were cut, and the pace of storytelling of television is so radically different now than it was even 20 years ago… if you took Game of Thrones or the Sopranos or Breaking Bad back to the 70s, and tried to show it to people… it would be incomprehensible to them… So these are things that are negotiated in the culture between the creators and the audiences over time. And that’s what has to happen in VR.
Looking forward, there are a few bright spots Tankersley sees, like directing in VR as John Favreau did for the Lion King. Ironically that uses VR to advance a 2D end-product. But the fact that a 3D file exists somewhere means it’s natively VR and could output immersive content.
The Lion King is just a big 3D capture. That file exists…So in theory, you could go back today, drop yourself into the Lion King, and look around. All those assets exist, all that 3d geometry exists, all those worlds exist. So would that be a compelling entertainment experience? What would it take to create the Lion King VR? Now the technology is almost solved… It’s still hard but in theory, it’s there. So what do you do with it?
Speaking of 3D geometry, what about VR gaming? There too, Tankersley takes a devil’s advocate position. Things like teleportation are decent ways to solve locomotion challenges but they break immersion. Meanwhile, casual games could be promising in VR but also have drawbacks.
I want to see more of the exploratory kind of puzzly things. If you look at the stuff that succeeds on mobile, like casual gaming… Candy Crush… Monument Valley… creative indie things. I would love to see more of that kind of exploration in VR. But then you’ve got a problem in that the whole point of casual gaming is reaching people who are casual gamers. And to ask casual gamers to invest time and money to set up a good VR rig… it’s not it’s not there yet.
So if these entertainment use cases have so many issues, what is working in VR? Tankersley is supportive of VR entertainment. But like many of us, he’s more optimistic about — and working today with — enterprise VR use cases such as prototyping in high-value fields like auto design.
The things that work in VR today are things that you need to simulate in 3d that are expensive to build… where you can build a business case…We can build a physical prototype for $5 million. Or we can build a VR experience for $100,000 and do just as much. So particularly things like automotive design, manufacturing, engineering, architecture, construction… things where traditionally you have to build physical prototypes, things that are human scale and that are expensive to prototype… All of these things have real business cases in VR today. And we’re seeing a pretty compelling sort of flock to VR for those things.
Meanwhile, where does AR fit into all of this? Tankersley believes AR and VR are fundamentally different. But sticking with the theme of where things work and don’t work, he believes AR will have a valuable role as an ambient and persistent utility that appends the world with information.
AR [will] annotate the real world and give me information about what I’m looking at… The history of computing is about reducing barriers to access. So we had the mainframes of the 60s [then] the personal computer. That was a revolution. We could bring the power of computing to ordinary people… Then add the internet revolution, bringing access to all the world’s information… Now we have the mobile revolution, which brought computing power to yet another broader audience. The obvious next step is [reducing] the barrier to pulling out a screen and looking at it and poking at it. If the computer can render to your eyes at all times, there’s an amazing amount of stuff it can do. And that’s when you get this whole notion of ambient computing… the computer can start to get ahead of you. Instead of you having to ask for stuff, it already knows what you’re what you need. That’s really compelling and starts to change a lot of stuff.
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