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Why VR/360° video are a completely different medium than film/video

A lot of people seem to think of 360° video / video-based VR storytelling is just an extension of traditional film/video storytelling. I see a lot of bad 360° experiences that really take place mostly in one direction, or things that should be shot with traditional video but are 360° for the sake of novelty and it's honestly giving 360° a bad rep. Not to mention, I hear a lot of directors who have worked in traditional film/video whining about the lack of control you have in VR - how are you supposed to tell the audience where to look?

Well, I’m here to argue that you aren't supposed to tell the audience where to look. And that VR is as different from traditional film/video as film/video is from print media, so people need to stop thinking in the mindset of a filmmaker and start thinking in the mindset of a world-builder (something game designers are already accustomed to). I’m not saying VR storytelling has to be gamified, but VR storytelling is more than a frame - it’s a whole world that your audience is occupying and so you have to pay attention to all the details you’re putting into that world that tell your story. Just like how in real life things aren't only happening in one direction, you must make sure there are interesting or pertinent things happening in many parts of the world you're building.

The first reason not to be so scared of the audience not looking where you want them to and missing story elements is that the best stories in any medium reward repeat viewing/listening/reading already. You pick up things you didn’t pick up before. Just as when you go to a place for the second, third, fourth time, you notice things you didn’t notice before. How many hints did you pick up re-watching Fight Club? Or jokes had new meaning re-watching Arrested Development (only seasons 1-3 though, we’re going to pretend that Netflix abomination of a 4th season doesn’t exist).

In VR, just as in real life, there are cues to help you focus on what’s important. But you miss things. That’s inevitable. I was having a conversation with a friend at a restaurant the other day and I happened to notice a person go by the window in a crazy costume but my friend missed it because she wasn't facing the window. We’ve all missed things in life and in other forms of storytelling too because we were focused on something else, whether that something else is in the story or external. In fact, another advantage of VR is its immersive nature - if you’re blocking out the world with your HMD and headphones, you’re a lot less likely to get distracted by external stimuli like you might while watching TV or a movie.

This fear of lack of directorial ability also conveys a lack of trust in the viewer, which isn't fair. Viewers want to see what it is you want them to see, just as in life people usually want to focus on where the important things are happening. And yes, you should give them as many cues as possible to make that easy for them. But I've had people say "well, you can't stop them from just looking at the sky the whole time." And my first thought is, "but why would anyone do that?" That's not going to be a good experience for them. Viewers want to have the best experience, otherwise they're going to feel like they wasted their time. If someone does that, they're not going to have a very good experience and that's their loss but it's not a reason that VR as a medium is going to fail. 

The thing that makes me so excited about VR is that you can craft a story in such a way that they will experience it differently depending on where they look. And when you start to add interactivity on top of this, you can really keep the viewer engaged much more so than with many other mediums, and they can go back again and again and have many different experiences from the same piece. 

VR is a new and exciting medium and we've not even really started unlocking it's vast potential because there are still a lot of limitations to the early technology. It's early days and there aren't rules for this art form yet, which is exhilirating and scary at the same time. But I am just so sick of hearing filmmakers whining about "losing control" - it's a different medium that is experienced completely differently and if you want to participate then you need to adapt. Otherwise, just keep making films (no, VR isn't going to replace film, but perhaps that's a post for another day) and leave the VR to those of us who appreciate the challenges of the medium.

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