Virtual Reality: Visual Storytelling’s Quantum Leap

Ramón Bretón, Chief Technology Officer, 3rd iJournal Article

This article originally appeared in the M&E Journal: Navigating the Next New, Spring 2016.

A Quantum Leap

Kevin Spacey VR quote

Hollywood is investing in the technology and ready to fill consumer demand for immersive experiences

By Ramón Bretón, Chief Technology Officer, 3rd i

Abstract: Innovations in visual storytelling technology, such as the transition from black-and-white film to color, have largely been centered on presenting a more detailed, life-like image to the viewer. Now that virtual reality has arrived, filmmakers have the opportunity to immerse the audience in the world they create, evoking deeper emotional connections not possible in traditional presentations. With devices like Google Cardboard democratizing the VR experience, and with the release of more technologically advanced headsets, consumer interest in virtual reality is quickly turning into consumer demand for high quality content, impacting content creators and content owners alike.


Since the days of the first magic lantern shows, the art of visual storytelling has evolved, becoming more lifelike with each step. At the dawn of the twentieth century, slide shows gave way to black-and-white moving pictures; later, synchronous sound augmented the audience’s connection to the screen. Color film, which provided a more accurate depiction of how humans view the world, eventually became standard. Technologies such as Cinerama and Cinemascope increased screen size and aspect ratio to fill the theatergoers’ field of view, while 3D exhibitions were born out of a desire to immerse the audience in the action.

Home entertainment has undergone a similar evolution, beginning with the phonograph, then radio, then black-and-white television, followed by color. Improvements in image quality, coupled with an increase in the average home screen size, have served the goal of presenting the most realistic images possible to the viewer. Comparing the 1950s home television to today’s Ultra HD High Dynamic Range panels reveals how much more immersive the home experience has become.

In terms of immersion, the most spectacular theatrical or home presentation pales in comparison to a virtual reality experience, which, by its nature, fully inserts the viewer into the world presented; the VR viewer is literally surrounded by the environment designed for them. There is nowhere to look that isn’t part of the illusion.

More and more storytellers are turning to this new technology to convey their narrative. At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, there were 30 VR experiences, including three full-length movies; this was up from nine VR experiences in 2015.

Presence and Empathy

The suspension of disbelief encouraged by a compelling theatrical work has its counterpart in the world of virtual reality: “presence.” However, instead of simply losing oneself in the story, well-executed virtual reality imbues the viewer with the sensation that they are not simply observing, but that they are actually a part of the virtual world. This presence comes fairly naturally when one is immersed in the technology, and VR filmmakers are taking full advantage of it.

In order to heighten presence, many VR experiences are told in the first person, in which the viewer is the main character. Unlike traditional theatrical and television narratives, in these pieces all actors are directed to engage the camera. In the recent narrative sci-fi short Defrost, by writer/director Randal Kleiser, the main character has just awoken from a cryogenic freeze and is confined to a wheelchair. The piece was filmed from the character’s point of view, using a mannequin in a wheelchair, with the VR camera replacing the dummy’s head. When the attention of the other characters is on the protagonist, in this case, the viewer, the sense of belonging to the story is uncanny.

An interesting byproduct of VR presence is an increased empathy for the characters. Strapping on the headset, or HMD (Head Mounted Display), and feeling immersed in the world because one can look in any direction makes the characters feel much closer to the viewer; closer in the physical sense, because of the illusion of being placed in the same environ as the characters, as opposed to watching the story unfold on a screen, but also closer in the emotional sense. The New York Times’ VR showpiece is The Displaced, a documentary detailing the experiences of three children whose homes are ravaged by war. The sense of connection with these children as their plight unfolds is profound. It is difficult not to be moved when one is placed within a war-torn classroom, daylight streaming in through the bombed-out ceiling, with the very child the classroom was meant to educate. It is an emotional experience unlike what would be possible if this were presented as a traditional documentary.

virtual reality glasses

Adoption and Monetization

This is not the first time virtual reality has been offered to the public. However, unlike in the past, the power to drive a VR experience now resides in the pockets of most media consumers: the smartphone. In 2015, consumer exposure to VR reached new heights largely due to smartphone-based viewers, when Samsung released its $99 Gear VR. Perhaps an even more significant event occurred last November, when The New York Times distributed the Google Cardboard viewer to each of its 1.3 million subscribers.

2016 will see the release of three advanced computer-based VR headsets: Oculus Rift, the Sony PlayStation VR, and the HTC Vive. Market penetration of virtual reality HMDs will increase as technologies improve, costs decrease, and consumer awareness turns into demand. According to ABI Research, combined shipments of VR devices are expected to reach 43 million by 2020.

Smartphone-based VR, while fully immersive, is currently a largely passive experience, due to the present limitations of mobile technology. The increased processing power of computer-based VR, however, permits the viewer to move within and interact with the virtual world. Not only being present in a virtual environment, but to have agency within it – the freedom to move and/or affect one’s surroundings – greatly increases virtual reality’s already strong sense of presence. It is precisely this interactivity and increased connection to the virtual world that will help shift VR from a no-cost-to-the-consumer marketing tool to a paid-for, premium experience. One such example is The Martian VR Experience, where the purchase price is justified because the viewer is not just immersed in the alien setting of the film, but is also an active participant in astronaut Mark Watney’s survival and escape. In exchange for their money, the viewer is not only transported to another planet, but given something to do, to be part of the story and feel the emotional connection that comes with the success or failure of the mission.

Given the presence and agency of interactive VR, storytellers can weave a rich, multi-character fabric that can only be fully appreciated when the viewer watches the story unfold from the viewpoints of various characters dispersed throughout the virtual environment. Instead of the traditional convention of cross-cutting between scenes of simultaneous action or dialog, the viewer is tasked with exploring, to discover the narrative for themselves. Such an experience not only encourages repeat viewings, inviting the consumer to co-direct the story, but ultimately promises a more satisfying experience, as it engenders a deeper emotional resonance than is possible with a traditional linear presentation. A compelling experience such as this will have a direct monetary value to the consumer.

Also promising for monetization are interactive narratives tied to established IP. What Star Wars fan wouldn’t want to board the Millennium Falcon, first viewing the action unfold in the cockpit, then making their way to the gun well to witness a dogfight with a TIE fighter? How much would a Trekkie pay to be fully present on the bridge of the Enterprise, then choose to either beam down to an alien planet with the away team, or instead ride the turbolift to engineering to see what transpires there?

Industry Impact

The VR ecosystem – content creators, equipment manufacturers, software designers, and distribution platforms – has exploded in the past five years, with over 130 companies emerging, Venture Beat reported last October. In comparison, from 2005 to 2009, only 18 VR companies were founded, Venture Beat said. It’s not just start-ups, either. Many established content creators are devoting serious resources to virtual reality. Digital Domain, the effects studio behind the X-Men franchise and Iron Man 3, spent $17.3 million to acquire an 85 percent stake in Hong Kong’s Post Production Company Limited, expressly for VR production. By some estimates, there are currently over 200 companies serving the virtual reality industry, valued at a total of $13 billion dollars. Industry advisors Digi-Capital estimate that by 2020, VR will generate $30 billion annually, with VR films accounting for $6 billion of that total.

With the technology’s maturation, and the infrastructure in place and expanding, the question becomes, “What high quality content will be available?” Hollywood seems ready to fill the gap. Virtual reality experiences promoting theatrical releases are becoming the rule rather than the exception. This includes tentpole films such as Disney’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Jakku Spy and Sony Pictures’ The Walk, as well as smaller, more introspective films, such as The Weinstein Company’s Carol. Although these marketing pieces demonstrate Hollywood’s understanding of consumer desire for virtual reality, it is more telling to examine the studios’ heavy investments in VR. Leading the charge is Twentieth Century Fox’s Innovation Lab, where projects such as the ambitious The Martian VR Experience were born. The Walt Disney Company led the $66 million investment in Jaunt VR in September 2015. With any expenditure, Hollywood expects to see a return on its investment, and the industry is already turning towards more sophisticated, compelling narratives told in the virtual environment, to first create, and ultimately satisfy, consumer demand.

Virtual reality will not replace the cinematic experience, but joins film and television as a new outlet for visual storytelling. As is the case with all entertainment content, virtual reality pieces need to be written, planned, cast, shot, edited, post-produced, quality controlled, and distributed, opening up new opportunities in these industries. The singular experience that VR offers the consumer – to be fully immersed in a virtual world, offering a deeper emotional connection with a narrative experience – points toward continued and increasing demand for this emerging format.


Prior to his 14 years at 3rd i, a pioneering company in the field of quality assurance for the home entertainment industry, Ramón Bretón spent 10 years in the music business as an audio mastering engineer, giving him over twenty years of experience contributing to quality entertainment for consumers.

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