Constraints and possibilities

A lot of people I’ve been talking to have been asking variants on the same question: “Could you make a good narrative story in VR?” By “good”, they don’t mean award winning. They just mean passable — say, the level of a run-of-the-mill TV drama.

The issue is not one of quality. It’s more fundamental than that. Might it be the case that the very immersiveness that makes VR so compelling has other effects as well? Specifically, might it interfere with the distance needed to create fictional narrative?

To suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in a story, we need to be confident that it is not real. We might, for example, find it very difficult to focus on the tragedy of Macbeth if we thought that we ourselves could be murdered at any moment.

But the visceral quality of VR may interfere with this process. A primitive part of our brain might continue to remain alert, attuned to the possibility that somebody is actually sneaking up behind us.

Yet even if this is the case, it might not be bad for virtual reality. Maybe VR isn’t supposed to be some alternate form of movie. After all, film itself is not an alternate form of live theater. Rather, it is a separate medium, with constraints and possibilities all its own.

I am hopeful that VR, as it matures, will enable new ways of exploring and sharing the human condition that have never before been experienced. Yet I remain doubtful that it will do so by adopting the vocabulary and traditions of cinema.

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