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The Inevitable Future of Storytelling: Virtual and/or Augmented Reality

January 26, 2015

When you ask someone about storytelling, most people will make reference to books, film, or television. A few will talk about storytelling in games. Even fewer will mention storytelling in business. In reality, storytelling is all around us, weaving it’s way through our daily lives and making things interesting and relevant to humans around the globe. It’s such a fundamental element of the human existence that we rarely see it when it’s done well – we become a part of a good story, immersing ourselves into it, letting it drip over our consciousness.

We want to be immersed in good stories. We want to have a narrative woven through and around us. We want to feel connected to others through these stories. That’s why virtual and augmented reality are the future of storytelling. These fledgling technologies, once they’ve come to their fruition, will change the way we experience storytelling, and eventually the way we experience the world.

To me, the question isn’t if virtual or augmented reality will take over, but when. And in what format? Who will lead the (invariably long and arduous) march to taking over how we interact with the world and these new storytelling experiences?

Currently there are two front-runners in this space, Oculus and Magic Leap, and I want to talk a bit about each and what makes them different.

Oculus

The Oculus Rift was the first foray from company, and was funded on Kickstarter back in September 2012, smashing their initial goal of $250,000 and bringing in nearly $2.5 million of backer funding. The Rift was arguably the piece of tech that re-ignited the public’s interest in virtual reality, creating a lot of buzz for a virtual reality headset that was targeted mostly at games.

Since the Rift, Oculus has moved on to even more impressive hardware. The next generation development kit 2, or DK2, improved a lot of the initial problems with the Rift, including improved resolution, optics, refresh rate, and possibly most importantly, latency. It has a pretty precise positional tracker that lets developers use the user’s head position in games and experiences.

And now there’s the Gear VR, in which Oculus has teamed up with Samsung to let you put your Galaxy phone into the headset and use it as the screen. This setup is interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are that you’re no longer tethered by a cord, and that pretty much anyone these days has a smart-phone, so you can imagine the possibilities here.

Oculus has recently unveiled their new “Crescent Bay” prototype, which promises to reduce the nausea that many users experience using the previous generation headsets. Eliminating this motion sickness is really the final frontier before a device like this could really take off in the consumer market, and not just be a toy for gaming nerds.

I recently had the opportunity to use the “Crescent Bay” prototype, and I can attest that it has much more “presence” and a whole lot less motion-sickness than previous models. Strapping this headset on really can transport you to a different place, and immerse you in a virtual environment. The possibilities are endless.

Oculus also recognizes this, and are clearly very keen to make sure that there are developers out there working on a wide range of applications and “experiences” using their hardware. And they’re putting their money where their mouth is by starting the Story Studio at Oculus, which is currently a small group of directors, story artists, 3d artists, and technical directors, who are creating cinematic experiences for use in virtual reality on Oculus hardware.

Of course, this is extremely exciting. The same way that audiences of the first “moving pictures” were taken completely aback and amazed by these new moving images on a screen, the first users of virtual reality cinema are constantly amazed by how completely immersed they are in the world and the story. Oculus is well on their way to being a forerunner in the inevitable change in how we consume entertainment (and possibly education).

Magic Leap

Magic Leap is a bit of a dark horse (or rainbow unicorn, depending on your vantage point). So far, they have revealed very little of what they are working on, preferring to keep their tech under wraps and presumably at some point in the relatively near future release something that will inspire awe and wonder. They’re all about creating magic, and I suppose a key element to magic is actually secrecy, so it makes sense.

So, what is Magic Leap up to? Well, there are plenty of signs that they’re onto something big – not the least of which is that Google just lead a $542 million Series B funding round, placing a huge bet on the Magic Leap team. The company is helmed by CEO Rony Abovitz, who, despite his seemingly corporate background, having built and sold Mako Surgical to Stryker for $1.65 billion back in 2013, is possibly a bit of an eccentric. And that may be an understatement.

Other than giving a TED talk that more closely resembled a performance art piece than a typical presentation, it seems Abovitz and his team are attempting to create an entirely new kind of experience. Rather than a large, all-encompassing headset such as the ones currently made by Oculus, there are hints that the device being made by Magic Leap is a much smaller and lighter wearable – something that will give the user the chance to experience virtual imagery placed on-top of the existing world; augmented reality combined with virtual reality. Think of it as closer to something like Google Glass than Oculus Rift.

But how would this work? Magic Leap have revealed very little about what might actually be happening on the technical side, however Abovitz has referred to his stealth product as “dynamic digitized light field technology.” Most of the rumors seem to point towards some kind of retina projection, but the company is keeping this under wraps until the consumer product is launched, which Abovitz says should happen “relatively soon.”

Assuming this product is able to do half of what it’s rumored to be able to do, this could be an incredibly exciting new technology and could open up doors into storytelling in completely new ways. Imagine being able to interact with both virtual and real-world elements simultaneously and seamlessly. The way we experience cinema, games, advertising, education, and the entire world around us could change overnight.

The future is incredibly bright for these front-runners in the VR/AR game. Which device or company will prevail and pave the road to a new type of storytelling used worldwide is still up in the air, but I’ve seen the future, and it’s definitely going to be seen through some kind of wearable tech. I’m excited to see this space unfold, and to be witnessing (and maybe even contributing) to this new eye-opening field.

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