More than meets the oculus


A conversation about virtual reality’s creative potential.

by Noah Benezra, Copywriter, 15º

Oct 4

In ad agencies across the country, it seems like everyone’s talking about Virtual Reality. Industry professionals are saying that virtual technology will change our media landscape, ushering in a new age of digital content. Digitally immersive branded experiences are popping up all over, drawing huge crowds and plenty of media attention. With all of the hype, it’s easy to forget that VR is still in its infancy. It’s hard to know if this technology will find a mass audience or if it will peter out once the novelty wears off.

Nick Hubbard is a unique voice in the conversation about Virtual Reality. He’s spent the last few years experimenting with new media innovations at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. In his time at NYU, Nick has created VR experiences and extensively researched the current applications of this emerging technology. Nick’s aims are artistic, rather than commercial and his creative explorations have led to some interesting insights. In a discussion that’s been dominated by industry insiders, I was curious to hear Nick’s perspective on this hot subject.

So, how did you get into VR?

In recent work, I’ve become really curious about art that encourages participation. I’m drawn to VR because it has the potential to revolutionize audience engagement.

How does VR promote interaction?

Think about film, for example. Once you’ve made something it’s fixed. On the other hand, VR doesn’t have to be static. The experience can change and shift based on an audience’s behavior. This turns observers into participants.

I’ve used Google Cardboard to look at the surface of Mars, but this sounds different.

Yea, there’s a distinction made within the industry between 360 video and full Virtual Reality. With 360 video, you can look around, but that’s the only agency you have. Here’s an example: With 360 video you could be placed in a room that has a crystal ball in the center. You could use your Oculus Rift to look around the room and see all the details, but you won’t be able effect your environment. With VR, you could be placed in a room with a crystal ball in the center and you would be able to walk up to the crystal ball, pick it up and look inside. Maybe picking up the crystal ball would trigger the appearance of a fortuneteller and she’d ask if you’d like to know your future. It’s a complete shift in how we engage with media.

How does the interactivity of VR affect its focus on narrative?

Once you add interactivity, then users become co-authors of the story. VR creators are looking to models like video games, which allow players to experience different storylines based on the choices that a player makes.

Do you think too much audience control can lead to a boring or confusing experience?

Giving the audience choice doesn’t necessarily take away the role of a director. In VR, it’s possible to grant agency while still guiding their experience. People will naturally look for what’s interesting and follow it. The key is finding ways to focus an audience’s attention. In film, a director uses a camera to frame an audience’s view, but this doesn’t work in VR. There are actually a lot of techniques from theatre that work well in a virtual environment. Things like using lighting or sound to draw someone’s focus. By finding ways to manage action, it’s possible to give the audience a contained control over their experience.

Can storytelling help virtual reality move beyond spectacle and novelty?

This is an open question. My sense is that In order to move beyond novelty, someone needs to create a VR experience that feels like it could only happen in VR, and is based on a story that feels like it belongs in VR. There simply hasn’t been anything breakthrough yet — not strong enough to make people focus on the story and not the technology.

So, who’s going to make something breakthrough?

We still don’t know if VR will be used for choose your own adventure games, immersive film-like experiences, or something else entirely. Really, at this point it’s hard to know if this technology will catch on or not. I mean VR could end being this generation’s Nintendo power glove.

With that being said, I think the most interesting use of VR technology has come from journalism and documentary, like what the New York Times has been doing. They’re making pieces that mix documentary with immersive visuals to place you inside of someone else’s experience. It’s more like a 360 video than a true VR experience, but never the less, there’s something very compelling about the work.

Also, there’s company called The Void and they’re doing some pretty cool stuff. They’re turning empty warehouses into VR laser-tag arenas. Players can run through a warehouse with an oculus rift on their head. It suggests that VR could be a group experience, and a destination, rather than a thing you just sit in your apartment to experience.

So VR is like a cool toy that no one knows how to play with?

One of the challenges of VR is that there’s been rapid technological advancement without rapid creative advancement. Right now, the tools needed to create VR experiences are in the hands of people who can afford them. Largely, that means big film studios, ad agencies, video game companies etc. It’s way more common to see VR experiences that are built to serve a specific commercial end or as promotion for a film or television show (like Game of Thrones).

Doesn’t it take a pretty specialized set of skills to create VR experiences?

In order to create VR experiences you need some technical literacy or some technically savvy collaborators, for sure. There’s great technicians out there, but to take the technology forward we also need storytellers and environmental designers, people who live in the world of concept. Maybe the biggest hurdle is that, unlike a piece of theater, you need the tech to even sketch out your ideas. Developers are creating apps that will make it easier to create in the VR space, but that stuff’s years away at this point.

As a creative thinker, do you think there are obvious blind spots or opportunities that are being missed?

Well, there’s the potential to create a more fully embodied sensory experience. Smells, textures, and sounds could be explored with a lot more depth. Tactile experiences in VR happen, but they can be taken further, and integrated into the fundamentals of VR design.

Also, social VR is a bit of a dead zone right now. VR is largely a solo experience where one person puts on a headset and does their thing alone. There is a good argument to be made that in order for VR to thrive, it will have to find a way to allow us to experience content together.

Since this is for an advertising blog, I’d love to close with your thoughts about advertising and VR

The more sensory and embodied the experience is, the more frustrating advertising interruptions are. With most ads you can look away if they’re annoying. In a fully immersive virtual world ads could become inescapable. As a society we’ll have to figure out what advertising looks like if we are mediating the majority of our experience — but honestly we’re not that far from this anyway.