Virtual Reality Storytelling

A good storyteller draws his or her audience into the story, using details and imagery to activate the audience’s imagination and place them in the center of the narrative. But with virtual reality storytelling, the technology places the audience directly into the story, literally surrounding the them with an up-close, 3D, 360-degree view of the action.

Because of the emotional response virtual reality storytelling can create, major players in news media, entertainment, travel, and marketing are finding ways to use virtual reality storytelling to draw their audiences into their narratives.

The Power of Virtual Reality Storytelling

Virtual reality storytelling is being lauded for its ability to pull an audience in, both physically and emotionally. Virtual reality can bring an audience to places they wouldn’t otherwise see. ABC did this with “Inside Syria,” its virtual reality news story on archeologists working to save the country’s antiquities in the midst of war. The New York Times did it as well, using virtual reality to show audiences personal narratives up close with its virtual reality piece “The Displaced,” which followed three children fleeing their war-torn countries.

Because of that up-close, fully immersive experience, proponents of virtual reality storytelling say that it is the one medium that can truly create empathy in viewers and create a first-hand, rather than a second-hand, storytelling experience. The virtual reality story viewer isn’t told a narrative; they’re put directly into it to interact with the environment and the people within the story. With virtual reality storytelling, the story teller—whether a filmmaker, news reporter, or corporation—can connect with the audience in a way that wasn’t previously possible.

The Applications of Virtual Reality Storytelling

Brands, from news outlets to film studios, are using virtual reality storytelling to connect with their consumers. In retail, TOMS and The North Face are using virtual reality to show their brands in action. Known for giving one pair of shoes away for every pair of shoes purchased, TOMS created a virtual reality experience of one of its “giving trips,” allowing fans of the philanthropic brand to see the people on the receiving end of their purchases. The North Face’s most recent virtual release is a video that allows consumers to follow athlete Renan Ozturk as he treks through Nepal in North Face gear.

In the news media, ABC, PBS’s Frontline, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, and Gannett all released virtual reality news stories with promises to create more virtual reality news content. The New York Times garnered the most attention when it sent 1.1 million Google Cardboard headsets to print subscribers as it launched its own virtual reality app.

Fox created a virtual reality experience of its film “Wild,” as did Lionsgate for the last “Hunger Games” movie, and Disney of the latest “Star Wars” release. The Sundance Institute has created a six-month cinematic virtual reality residency program to allow filmmakers to explore the medium, and in San Francisco, about 300 people this year attended a virtual reality film festival.

The Future of Virtual Reality Storytelling

With major media companies investing heavily in virtual reality technology, it’s likely that virtual reality storytelling will become part of daily life. Disney recently led a $65 million investment in virtual reality content company Jaunt. Facebook made headlines with its purchase of virtual reality headset creator Oculus for $2 billion. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been a champion of virtual reality as the next major technology. And Facebook recently enabled 360-degree video, the little brother of virtual reality, on user timelines, and companies quickly began posting 360-degree ads.

As virtual reality headsets, cameras, and content become more commonplace and affordable, industry leaders are predicting that virtual reality storytelling will become more prevalent, with brands using it to connect to consumers and individuals posting virtual reality videos to social media sites.