To make the most of VR, look beyond storytelling

Rather than passively consuming static media, VR enables people to active agents, offering huge opportunities for content creators, says The Mill New York's executive creative director

I’ve stood large above grand vistas, spun the earth on my finger and flown over cities. I’ve crouched in jungles and walked on water. All of it, from superpowers to time travel, have been powered by next-generation virtual reality technology.

Every new experience tweaks my perspective on the category — and my memory. As we move down the path of immersive content creation, we stumble across new discoveries. The landscape ahead of us is riddled with them because we are blazing these trails together and there are no reports from the front to ready us for what lies ahead.

We rely on intuition, experimentation and luck to feel our way forward. We embrace surprises.

After reflecting on the nature of VR experiences, and while crafting my own, I’m fascinated by one surprise in particular. While recalling the most powerful moments I’ve had in VR, the fingers of my memory brush against an odd place. It’s not, "I remember viewing this," but rather, "I remember doing this" — full, rich episodic recalls that aren’t evoked when I reflect on traditional linear content.

I call this "phantom memory." Rather than passively consuming static media, I felt like I was an active agent in an unfolding story, so the experiential and emotional resonance of those memories remain so much more impactful and real — the Holy Grail for content creators, if ever there was one.

I’m fascinated with perception and memory. It informs all of my work; my favorite pieces are those that feel like shreds of flickering memory, like recalling a foggy dream. This is sharing a world, built to elicit powerful emotions pulled from a strange, dark place in our collective minds, larger than any one individual.

We seem to be wired to extend our self-perception in these strange directions. In 1998, two psychologists published a scientific paper describing the "rubber hand illusion," in which a subject’s hand is hidden and a rubber hand is positioned in its place. When both real and fake hands are stroked simultaneously, the subject begins to perceive the rubber hand as their own, even reacting when the rubber hand is threatened.

This is body transfer — a twist of proprioception (awareness of the position of one's body), that leads us to momentarily believe a lump of rubber could be our hand. It trumps our rational knowledge that we are not our avatars and so transports us outside of ourselves.

This effect is harder to achieve in an entirely virtual environment, but the possibilities and rewards are infinitely greater.

First, the experience needs to realize presence, that immersive state within VR in which we forget about the hardware and dive head first into being. Presence starts with technology, but can only be sustained by purpose-built high-end content, sensitive to the medium’s strengths and challenges.

As we prototype the future of film, we’re digging deeper to create a confluence of stimuli that builds powerful emotional connections with our audiences. By experimenting with story, technique and artistry, we are making virtual experiences that feel lived.

Connecting with audiences in this way is enormously exciting. As creators, all we ever seek is to create deeper and more visceral affiliations with our viewers. We want to induce wonder. If our work can create something as rich and true as an episodic memory, then we’ll have fulfilled VR’s potential not just as a platform for storytelling but as an extension to our realm of experience.

Rama Allen is executive creative director of The Mill NY.

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