InstaVR Interviews: Meet the VR Practitioners
InstaVR Interviews is a blog series where we turn the spotlight on our customers and industry experts. We find out why they create VR, how they use InstaVR, and what the future of VR will look like. To read more interviews, visit the InstaVR Interviews homepage.
John Bucher – Consultant, Strategist, Author
He is the author of six books including the best-selling Storytelling for Virtual Reality, named by BookAuthority as one of the best storytelling books of all time. John has worked with companies including HBO, DC Comics, The History Channel, A24 Films, The John Maxwell Leadership Foundation and served as a consultant and writer for numerous film, television, and Virtual Reality projects. Currently, he teaches writing and story courses as part of the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School in Los Angeles and at the LA Film Studies Center. He has spoken on 5 continents about using the power of story to reframe how products, individuals, organizations, cultures, and nations are viewed.
First serious experience with VR came via the Oculus DK1; John is driven by a passion for exploring how we can tell better stories in the medium that are impactful and emotional
Question: Can you describe how you first got interested in virtual reality?
Answer: I’ve spent the last decade working in story, particularly in film and television in Hollywood. Story has been my passion and what has driven all of my work. But I’ve always had great interest in the intersection of art and technology, and how we tell stories with technology.
I was interested in the first wave of VR that came through in the 1980s. It was intriguing to me. But I really began to take it seriously when I got my hands on the Oculus DK1 (Development Kit 1). I tried that, and thought, “Wow, this is going to change the game. I think VR is really going to gain some mass adoption this time.” I started to think immediately about how will we tell stories in this medium.
Every mass medium that has had success globally, thus far, has occurred after we’ve figured out how to tell stories with the medium. You look at film, which existed for decades before it became a mass media. That only happened once we learned to tell stories with it. The same with television. The same with radio. The same is true of the internet.
My mother bought a computer and learned to get on the internet once she saw she could live the experiences of the stories of her grandchildren on a daily basis. Narrative is what drove mass adoption of even the internet.
It’s a wonderful time to be excited about what we can do with VR. And we’re all excited about advances in resolution and the various ways we create agency in the audience through interactive experiences. All of this is wonderful, but my opinion is we won’t see mass adoption in VR until we learn to tell impactful, emotional stories in VR.
Immersive Storytelling branches out beyond just VR headsets
Question: You’ve done quite a bit of consulting work. Can you give us a brief overview of your work?
Answer: I have a story consultancy for traditional mediums – film, television, graphic novels – but we’ve done more work in the last year or two in immersive story telling.
So I’ve done work on a number of VR narrative experiences, on VR gaming experiences. But immersive storytelling does go beyond just VR. I’ve consulted on a couple escape rooms, I’ve consulted on theme parks, and I’ve even done some consulting with magicians. That all falls in the ecosystem of immersive storytelling.
I love virtual reality, I love AR, but I’m not getting too stuck on labels just yet. The technology changes – you can experience VR and AR without goggles, headsets, and phones. We’ll need new terms. But for me, everything falls under the umbrella of immersive storytelling.
VR requires its own cinematic language; storytellers in the medium need to be open to experimentation and failure
Question: Let’s jump into some practical advice. What mistakes do you see most often in VR experiences?
Answer: A lot of people are trying to apply the rules of other mediums to VR in the strictest sense. A lot of people saw VR as it became popular as just a combination of cinema and video games. They take the storytelling rules and language of each and combine them.
While there are many things you can take from those disciplines and apply them, we’re dealing with an entirely new medium that is going to require its own cinematic language. We’re still in the process of developing that language. That’s one reason we all share what we’re learning with each other, because no one person is going to figure this all out on their own.
I believe we really need to look at what we bring in from other disciplines, like immersive theater and film and television and online experiences. We can try those things and see what works, but we need a tight lens on what we let through.
The key thing right now with storytelling in VR is to be open to experimentation and failure. Nobody has it 100% figured out. If anybody tells you they’ve cracked the code on telling impactful stories in VR into a formula, they’re lying. No one has figured it out just yet, we’re all still learning.
“The Great C” cited for powerful narrative
Question: Can you give an example of VR you’ve seen recently that was strong in story?
Answer: Something I saw recently that was very powerful was the first VR narrative experience based on a story by Philip K. Dick. It’s called The Great C.
I feel like it’s a powerful narrative experience. There’s still things about it that we can learn and improve on. And it is an experience that you’re just viewing, there isn’t a lot of agency within the experience. But I think it’s a step forward in how we experience the stories of Philip K. Dick.
Exposition can become boring in VR, so experimenting with powerful use of symbols and mythology is important
Question: What is some good experimentation in VR you’ve seen?
Answer: Experimentation, when you talk about crafting a story in VR, can be a number of things. It can be how we experiment with the structure of the story. It can be experimenting with how the user or participant is engaging with the world. There’s a number of different ways we can experiment within an experience.
One experience I recently consulted on was a video game with a narrative based on well-known intellectual property. The creators of the gaming VR story were really reliant on the rules established in the intellectual property people were already familiar with. Some of the rules of the world conflicted though with what makes good VR.
Some of the rules of the world had to be explained verbally through a lot of exposition, which could work on a television show. But heavy amounts of exposition in virtual reality can become boring very very quickly. We have to lean as hard as we can into the visual storytelling medium.
With this particular client, we figured out ways to communicate that information through the use of symbols and symbolism, as opposed to characters having to verbally tell things.
This is another thing I believe strongly in… experimentation isn’t going to only include future thinking methods, but also methods from the ancient past. I’m a big believer in incorporating mythology and symbolism, and things that have made stories powerful for thousands of years into new storytelling mediums.
Focus on character key in creating short, impactful VR experiences; having a goal for the character important for emotional fulfillment
Question: How does one go about creating a fulfilling VR experience, knowing the viewing time is going to be shorter?
Answer: You can’t keep a participant in a VR experience for the same length as they would watch a feature film or binge watch TV.
The real key to telling powerful and effective stories in a short amount of time is a focus on character. Deciding if a central character in a VR experience is one that the audience observes OR whether that character is the participant themselves. We have to understand how character works within the story.
To give you one brief example, characters in stories have external goals. These are things the character needs to accomplish within the story. Once we’ve seen the character accomplish this thing, the story is over.
One of the difficult things we’re seeing in VR is how does the viewer know when the experience or story is over?
Otherwise we just put people loose in these experiences and it becomes a sandbox. They experiment and play until they get tired, but I don’t think there’s a lot of emotional fulfillment in letting the audience or participant get tired and take the headset off. I think if you can walk people towards a goal, and then once they’ve accomplished that goal, give them permission to take the headset off… that’s much more fulfilling emotionally.
VR + Location Based Experiences are yielding strong results
Question: What is something brands can better due to leverage VR?
Answer: I spoke at Content Marketing World in Cleveland about how sometimes with immersive storytelling, one of the best things you can do — because you don’t have a lot of time in VR space — is combine VR with some other type of physical experience. Perhaps for a brand or company, the VR experience is part of a larger experience. It connects the consumer with the larger experience, but it’s not the sole narrative that’s being relied on. The experience becomes more engaging because their sensibilities have been tapped via a number of mediums and not just VR.
Combining VR with what we call LBEs – Location Based Experiences – is yielding a lot of success for brands.
Adding humor to VR can increase sharing and virality
Question: What’s something companies can do to garner more reach for their VR experiences?
Answer: We need people to become evangelists for good experiences they have in VR. That only happens via effective word of mouth when they’ve had some sort of emotional experience with a story.
It’s easier for us to hear that statement and think, “Oh, we need to make people cry.” But actually, laughter is an equally important emotional experience. People are more likely to share something with a friend that has made them laugh, than something that has touched them emotionally and perhaps moved them to tears. We love love love sharing things that make us laugh.
Companies and brands should lean into VR storytelling to make people laugh. To engage them with something humorous. People are much more likely to share something that has made them roll on the floor laughing.
Thank you to John Bucher for his time and insight! Visit his web site at https://tellingabetterstory.com
***all images on this page courtesy/copyright of John Bucher***