In Search of Better VR Content

A Senior Account Director for a Marketing and Advertising agency, with regard to my article on VR Storytelling: Agency Sans Apparent Logic (A.S.A.L.) asked: if the quality of the (VR) content was better, if that would have an impact on how people value the experience?

My TL;DR response to this, is: no. Why? Answer: people value a “thing” differently, just like they would with an experience, “real” or “virtual.”

My more considered response is as follows:

VR content, as of this post, is mostly made by “tech” people. Not all of them are also creatives, nor truly gifted story-tellers, which partly explains the dearth of “quality VR content.” Many VR content creators are pushing out projects of variable quality and formats, almost as a type of stunt. This is perhaps not too dissimilar of a period from when poorly made user-generated stereoscopic content, damaged that format.

Perhaps just as important: there is no fiscal incentivization for those on the Creative side, as of this post, to produce exponentially more expensive stereoscopic VR content, over monoscopic 16:9 video. Even the most successful YouTube star to-date, doesn't earn enough in a single year on that platform, for even a small VR studio, making high-quality, live-action/CGI stereoscopic content, to profitably operate.

A challenge to making better VR content, since it is an immersive medium (even when “passive”), is to be meaningful. For advertisers, it also means experiences need to be well-produced and on-brand.

As marketers and creatives, we have to ask: who is the audience, and what do they define as “quality content?” This is difficult, because VR, by its nature, is a singular experience, even if shared with others. It would still be difficult for audiences to articulate what they want, with the confusion caused by monoscopic over stereoscopic, mobile vs. open and/or brand HMD, live-action and/or synthetic (photo-real or not), etc.

What audiences value as “quality media,” whether in cinema, video games, web content, etc., with the exception of the evolution of the technical deliverable (HD, 4K, HDR, 2D/3D, etc.), hasn’t changed.

The definition for what determines “quality,” among any audience demographic, is just as wildly variable as ever. Some will place more emphasis on the quality of a story, while others will be more interested in the aural and visual fidelity, yet others will be more concerned about gameplay, music, VFX, etc.

Why should your audience care? Why should they love your product? Why would they share? If you know enough about them to understand how they would answer, then you’ve found your audience. The conundrum, is how marketers advertise to those masses, when the immersive experience is singular, even if shared or identical.

I love Big Data to help me make decisions as much as the next, but one must also be human, and not make the mistake that Data + Content = Quality Audience Personalization. The ephemeral creative attribute here requires intuition, this is typically based on experience at being a failure every bit as much as a success. It might also mean being, or having once been, a part of the target audience, but what if you never were?

How then, do we make “better content” so that an audience will “value the experience?” I think there are three key touch-points at the moment:

  1. First, to a cynical extent, "yes:" one initiative means pouring some serious money into making visuals with spatial audio for VR content, that are superlative to modern, stereoscopic, major motion pictures and/or AAA video-games. Is this essential for all titles? Of course not, but it will be for most that aim to compete.
  2. Secondly, for VR and AR, the point is simply a function of time. The higher-quality hardware that enables superior experiences, needs to come down in price, so they’re more affordable to most. Also, mobile devices must be adapted to enable better AR and VR experiences. Both of these will happen, and when they do, the install base becomes larger and more likely to be profitable.
  3. The final part is not so easy, but it is partly tied to functions of time and experience, relative to the evolution of cinema. The VR medium’s superstars are likely not going to hail from the “old-guard” of traditional cinematic storytelling, rather, they will arrive as the medium itself matures. These creators will be “native” to a time when synthetic worlds have simply always been. They will think and execute for the medium in ways that traditional filmmakers cannot understand, and/or are still fumbling around in the dark to discover.

A number of VR companies have also made a VR camera. Some gave high-powered Hollywood filmmakers the VR technicians they needed, plus a small budget, to try their hand at creating VR content. The results have not been great, and much of the content has not even been used. Why? The creatives were just not used to storytelling in that medium, any more than Vaudevillians were at being “silent” and/or “scaling down” their theatrical stylings, for the intimacy of a film camera.

The creative perception about VR content presently, is at best, the equivalent cinematic era surrounding The Jazz Singer. While that may be an apt analogous comparison for the current technical and creative development in VR, the medium won’t have a linear, century-plus-long graph for its evolution. Rather, VR’s progress will be a curve, an exponential rate of development.

Sooner or later, just as cinema went from black-and-white silent shorts in a 4:3 aspect ratio, to scratchy vinyl mono audio “talkie” reels, before bursting into glorious three-strip Technicolor, optical audio and wider dimensions, so will VR have its own steps, and the respective Creatives that launch us from one threshold to the next.

Consequently, many thresholds will be linked to the evolutionary part of the technical deliverable, but it will also be fundamentally tied to the way that we tell stories, play, and/or have experiences in that medium.

In my next post on this topic, I will provide a creative A.S.A.L. story example on how this would work, both creatively and technically; whether one is enjoying VR content “passively” (as with traditional cinema), or “actively,” with some kind of agency (game-engine, or pre-rendered).

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, thank you.