PSFK speaks with author and digital culture guru Frank Rose on the highs and lows of storytelling tools like virtual reality
The CreateTech Conference, an annual gathering of creative technologists, developers, executives and innovators hosted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), will this year zero in on the theory of The Adjacent Possible—how our greatest “ah ha!” moments are actually borrowed from ideas that already exist, i.e., your big lightbulb moment is probably recycled from someone else’s (and that’s okay).
PSFK spoke with 2015 CreateTech Conference speaker Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion, WIRED correspondent and speaker on digital culture, on how the future of storytelling will largely be shaped not just by the shiny new tech toys of the now and near future, but also largely on how storytellers integrate them into narrative practices of the past.
Rose thinks that the digital gives storytellers a new range of tools to work with, but that the challenge is in figuring out the right way to use them. The panoply of tools confront storytellers with a kid-in-a-candy-store plight, letting enthusiasm override prudence. In the latest instance, virtual reality is proving a vastly popular new medium for storytellers, and while Rose believes it to be remarkable, he also believes that it should be used in service of the story, striking the right balance to create a really emotionally engaging and emotionally moving experience.
Simply put: the future of storytelling may be virtual reality, but the future of captivating storytelling won’t lean on it, it will wield it when it’s invaluable.
PSFK: After attending the Future of StoryTelling summit, what did you notice as the biggest technological driver of change in storytelling?
Frank Rose: I think it’s very complicated. There’s obviously a great deal of excitement around virtual reality. To a certain extent, it’s warranted. I’ve certainly experienced it. It’s completely remarkable.
At the same time, it’s obviously not there yet, and I don’t think it’s going to be there for a while. I think it’s going to be an experimental medium for some time, and I think it’s a very, very different direction from where most important digital media has taken us to date. Digital media in general has been increasingly social.
For the most part, although you can do multi-player games with VR, it’s hard to be social when your head is encased in a visor. I think the jury is very much out on VR.
The other thing about it is that it requires an entirely new grammar of storytelling from film or video, television, web video, any of those things we’ve gotten used to. We take for granted all of the techniques that started to be invented around the turn of the last century with the motion picture camera.
VR requires something entirely different. Many if not most of the techniques that work in film and video don’t work at all in virtual reality. I think people are going to especially have to reinvent how they tell stories with VR and I think that’s going to take a long time.
I think also, as with 3D, VR lends itself to gimmicks, which is not to say that VR is gimmicky itself. I do not at all mean that, but it lends itself to a gimmicky treatment. Just as 3D, in the hands of someone like James Cameron, it can be brilliant, because Cameron knows what 3D is for. It’s to draw you in. It’s to provide depth.
But most filmmakers can’t resist the temptation of having a sword come out of the screen at you. That’s a cheap thrill. It’s a very cheap thrill.
Do you really want to see what’s going on behind your head? Most of the time not. I think that directors with VR are going to have a hard enough time keeping people focused on what’s in front of them without offering them an entire 360 display.
I think that VR is an incredible tool, but it’s not synonymous with immersion. As with any other technology it’s only as immersive as the storyteller is skillful.
PSFK: I liked how you were speaking to the sociability of VR because I think that a lot of people, especially filmmakers, are tapping into it as a medium.
I’m curious. Do you think that it can become social through future innovations, or do you think it’s something that should be limited to a personal experience, in regards to consuming a story?
FR: I’m not sure. I think it would be a bit presumptuous of me to say nobody can or can’t do.
I do think it’s going to be very hard to make it a social experience, and maybe that’s OK because in the hands of the right director or the right storyteller, it is very powerful and very immersive. I also think there’s a bit of a tension between the state of immersion and social. It’s harder to be really immersed in a story when you’re, for example, tweeting about it.
All of these things, we’re still learning how to use these tools. We’re still figuring out new ways to use them. Every year, several new uses or applications that enable us or tempt us to use them in a new way come along. Meerkat and Periscope, for example. Some of these are going to stick around. Some of them are going to be long forgotten in a few years.
That’s what is really so exciting about this whole period – we really get to reinvent all the tools of storytelling. That’s quite remarkable. Again, I think it’s just going to take a little time for us to sort these things out, which shouldn’t be all that surprising. Every time a new medium comes along, it takes people at least 20 or 30 years to figure out what to do with it.
We think that because digital is happening so fast that it won’t take that long this time, but I think that’s actually wrong because, although the technology has sped up, our ability to process that, so to speak, hasn’t.
Also the technology is rocketing ahead. It’s not like we created a stable platform 25 years ago with the birth of the Web. It’s not like that at all, obviously.
Something like VR, although people were experimenting with it 25 years ago, it’s only now beginning to come into its own, and it remains to be seen how well people are going to be able to use it.
PSFK: Aside from VR, do you think there are any untapped technological innovations that would be huge for storytelling that maybe you wish you saw more people using and testing out?
FR: I think that augmented reality is really, really interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up ultimately being a much bigger thing than VR. There are a few people who are beginning to do some cool stuff with it now, and I think just the whole idea of combining the virtual and the real is a very, very powerful idea.
PSFK: What’s been your most powerful personal experience with immersive media?
FR: I think what is most powerful, again, if it’s done right is stuff that happens in the real world. Something like Sleep No More, which has been playing in New York now for four-and-a-half years. It’s sold out every night without any advertising. Secret Cinema, which has been very, very successful in London. Things like that.
I think that digital tools are completely fascinating and obviously very, very powerful, but I don’t think that anything really trumps physical reality.
I was in on a discussion last week at Advertising Week with some people from London who were involved in an Absolut Vodka campaign. They an experience that combined game and story and physical experience. It began as a casual mobile game, and then it morphed into a story, and then it morphed into a live performance.
I think it was a very effective marketing tool, but more than that, I think it was just a very powerful experience, and a powerful way to engage and immerse people and to tell a story.
PSFK: What are you hoping to get people to start thinking about in terms of digital immersion and the future of reality following your CreateTech panel? What do you hope your audience, if they had to have one takeaway from your talk, leaves thinking about?
FR: I think that the most important thing to remember is it’s not about the tools, ultimately. It’s about having a story that really matters, a story that’s going to engage people and picking the right tools for that story.
I totally understand the impulse, but I think that people are too easily distracted, storytellers included, by shiny objects. I don’t think the shiny object itself is going to create a powerful or convincing storytelling experience.
I think what it really requires is imagination, obviously, and a creative approach and discipline to do what you need to do in service of the story and not do what you don’t need to do in service of the story.
Any medium can be immersive. Books are as immersive now as they were 400 years ago, if the story is well-told. I don’t think that has changed.
I think that digital gives us an incredible new panoply of tools to work with, but I think the challenge of digital is to figure out the right way to use those tools in exciting new combinations, new ways of putting them together in service of the story that is really emotionally engaging, emotionally moving.
4A’s CreateTech Conference is an annual gathering of creative technologists, developers, executives, and innovators in advertising, media, and other digital industries. Tickets for CreateTech 2015 taking place on November 11 and November 12 in NYC are available now.