The Evolution Of Storytelling
Storytelling Through Cave Paintings
Humans have been attempting to create immersive experiences through storytelling since the beginning, starting with the cave paintings in Altamira…
Storytelling Through Theater
…and continuing with the playwrights of ancient Greek theater.
Storytelling Through The Written Word
The written word, be it through prose, poetry or song, in the hands of a skilled artist, offers its own immersive experience but one depended in equal part on the mind of the beholder to complete the imaginative experience.
Storytelling Through The Visual Arts
The visual arts, too, were a medium in which the viewer could lose themselves:
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Storytelling Through Photography
The arrival of photography offered a You Are There feeling. In 1862, photographer Matthew Brady shocked America by displaying his team’s photographs of battlefield corpses from the battle of Antietam. This exhibition marked the first time most people witnessed the carnage of war.
Storytelling Through Motion Pictures
Thirty some-odd years later motion was added to pictures. One of the first “moving pictures,” The Arrival of A Train, by French film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière, featured simply a pedestrian scene of a train arriving at a depot. It, nevertheless, left audiences awestruck and a bit unnerved with a train barreling towards them.
The Dawn Of Color
The black and white era of cinema ended dramatically in 1939 when Dorothy emerged from her tornado-tossed house into the Technicolor land of Oz, adding another element of realism with which to immerse audiences:
Immersive audio added to the cinematic experience with the introduction of surround sound technology in 1940 with the release of the Disney movie, Fantasia. According to Michael Miller’s The History Of Surround Sound post:
Walt “Disney thought it would be wonderful if, during the movie’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” segment, the musical sound of the bumblebee could be heard flying all around the audience, not just in front of them…Disney employed the proprietary Fantasound technology to create a surround sound field with left front, center front, right front, left rear, and right rear channels. The main soundtrack incorporated only the front three channels; the two rear channels were recorded on a separate reel of film, and ‘steered in’ separately when needed.”
The Illusion Of Depth
The 1950s ushered in the beginning of the use of 3D technologies in movies, with movies like House Of Wax, which combined 3D with Stereoscopic Sound:
In 1959, two films—Scent of Mystery and Behind The Great Wall—attempted to immerse audiences in the sense of smell with competing systems, Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama, for pumping aromas into theaters in synchronization with the movies.
The Illusion Of Motion
The first IMAX format film, Tiger Child, was demonstrated in 1970 and the first permanent IMAX theater was built in 1971. With its wrap-around screen, encompassing the audience’s visual field, the format was able to create illusion of motion, adding further realism to the movie experience.
Video games began to take hold in the 1970s with the first home version of Pong in 1975…
…and the release of the first multi-game home console, the Atari 2600, in 1977:
Arcade games took off throughout the 1980s, with perhaps none more popular than Donkey Kong, which employs storytelling in the service of game play. The active involvement of players in the telling of the story created an immersive experience never before available. In the game, Donkey Kong has captured the beautiful Lady, and you (as Mario) must save her:
The 1990s brought us virtual reality technology, the first technology to put the viewer at the center of the action. As this 1991 report from ABC News illustrates, the technology was clunky and primitive but nevertheless captivating.
I remember trying it out at the Mall of America during the mid-90s. With its line graphics, it felt like being inside the movie Tron (the first one), but it was definitely an immersive experience and you could see where the technology was going.
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Cutting Edge Immersive Storytelling
But it is in this decade that immersive storytelling technologies have begun to explode in both popularity, ease of use, and affordability.
The New 3D: Avatar
The most dramatic and high-profile example of the new age of immersive storytelling comes to us courtesy of director James Cameron and his amazing 3D movie, Avatar:
Persistent Virtual Worlds
When video gaming technology meets the Internet, all of a sudden you can have virtual worlds that are active and grow and change regardless of when you enter and exit. Two of the more prominent examples:
Linden Labs launched Second Life in 2003, a three-dimensional virtual world which anyone could join, claim “real estate” and build their own environments. Though it never quite lived up to its initial hype, it remains active, with as many as one million people regularly logging in, according to Business Insider.
World Of Warcraft
World Of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that was launched in 2004 by Blizzard Entertainment. Players pay a monthly subscription fee to inhabit this virtual world, of which there were 5.6 million subscribers as of Q2 of this year.
World Of Warcraft was the source of one of the first viral videos. The infamous Leeroy Jenkins video has earned 44.4 million views to date.
First Person Point Of View Videos
The small, and relatively affordable GoPro cameras have popularized the point-of-view video, allowing people to enjoy experiences vicariously they would never have been able to before, from the spectacular such as what it’s like to literally fly like an eagle…
…to the insane, such as what it’s like to free-fall to Earth from the edge of space:
360 degree photography is taking hold, with support from Google and soon, from Flickr as well.
360 Degree Photography
Three hundred sixty degree photography is essentially a panoramic photo in all directions–right, left, up and down–that allows the viewer to pan through the imagery at will.
Google Street View & Photo Spheres
Google’s currently supports 360 degree photography (which they call Photo Spheres) within its Street View feature of Google Maps. Here’s an example featuring The Pyramids of Giza:
Google’s Street View app allows you to use your camera’s phone to create your own 360 degree photos and publish them to Google Maps, which, of course, makes them embeddable elsewhere.
Google Earth has provided an immersive experience for years by combining Street View photography with its satellite imagery.
360 Degree Video
360 video is taking hold, as well, with support from Google and Facebook.
Google Spotlight Stories
Google has highlighted 360 video capabilities with its Google Spotlight Stories app, for which it commissioned professional directors to create immersive fictional shorts using 360 video. This playlist highlights Google Spotlight Stories in detail:
360 Videos On YouTube
Google has added support for 360 video on YouTube and has created a channel to specifically highlight those videos. In this example, you can pan around in the video by using your cursor to move the screen around. When viewing the video on mobile, you just use the gyroscope capabilities of your phone to move around in the video.
Google has entered the virtual reality (VR) market most prominently with a low-cost device called Google Cardboard, which is exactly that: Literally, a cardboard viewer for virtual reality experiences. You slide your phone into the device and view the VR experiences through the Cardboard app.
Here’s a report from The Verge on Google Cardboard:
New York Times Immersive Journalism
There are some prominent examples of immersive storytelling using this technology, the highest profile of which was the New York Times, which earlier this month distributed Google Cardboard to its Sunday print subscribers who could download the Times’ VR app to view virtual reality reporting on subjects such as children displaced from their homes by war:
In order to enable the creation of 360 video, Google has devised a system for recording 360 video called Google Jump, that uses an array of 16 cameras to capture footage coupled with software to stitch it together. Here’s c|net report on Google Jump.
Ricoh Theta S
Such an array featuring 16 GoPros is going to set you back $15,000, so it’s clearly not for everyone. If you’ve got a more modest budget, you can buy a Ricoh Theta S camera for $350 which will capture both 360 video and 360 photography. IDG.tv goes hands-on:
Facebook & Oculus Rift
When Facebook bought the VR development firm Oculus Rift last year for a mere $2 billion, I immediately imagined that your Facebook profile would eventually turn into a virtual environment to which you could invite friends over to share experiences. According to this Business Insider report, it kind of looks like that’s where they’re going with Oculus.
While Google appears to be trying to build broad consumer demand with its low-cost Cardboard VR Viewer, Facebook looks to be going after the high-end consumer with its relatively pricey Rift headset.
Facebook is expected to release the long-awaited Oculus Rift headset early next year with a price that is expected to be in the three hundred dollar range. To get an idea of just how powerful an experience virtual reality can be, check out the reaction of this 90 year-old woman trying out the Oculus Rift:
Facebook 360 Video
While we wait for a consumer version of the Oculus Rift, though, Facebook has rolled out support for 360 video on its platform, boasting 360 publishers such as GoPro, Discovery, Saturday Night Live, Vice, and…Star Wars:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Immersive 360 ExperienceSpeed across the Jakku desert from Star Wars: The Force Awakens with this immersive 360 experience created exclusively for Facebook.
Posted by Star Wars on Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Samsung Gear VR
Samsung provides a middle option with it’s $99 Gear VR headset, which comes with the huge caveat that it only works, of course, with Samsung phones.
The technology to overlay virtual information onto the real world perhaps gained widespread popular awareness with the release of the first of James Cameron’s Terminator movies in 1984.
Some attempts at augmented reality just weren’t ready for prime time, such as Google Glass. I tried Google Glass and, despite my initial excitement about the technology, found it to be socially awkward (I felt extremely self-conscious wearing it), and it just plain didn’t work very well.
Nevertheless, there are some amazing successes, perhaps most notably Word Lens, which allows you to point your phone at something written in a foreign language and see, instantaneously, the translation in your language. Google liked it so much, the company bought Word Lens and incorporated it into its Google Translate app:
Finally, Microsoft has been engaged in some serious augmented reality research and development and the result is the HoloLens technology. Microsoft may feel Google Glass discredited the idea of augmented reality, so they refer to the technology as holographs. Regardless, this is augmented reality technology:
The video game industry has been all about immersive storytelling all along. If their first attempts were primitive, the industry has come a long way since then and now provide extremely realistic virtual experiences through gameplay.
That, of course, is entirely the appeal: To immerse yourself in a story to the point that you are a participant.
The video game industry knows exactly what they’re selling, as two recent trailers demonstrate:
Star Wars Battlefront Trailer
The Star Wars Battlefront trailer features Anna Kendrick and other players transported to the Star Wars universe to do battle.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops III Trailer
The most recent Call of Duty trailer features Kevin as the star of the show.
As the technology for creating and telling immersive stories becomes more affordable and easier to use, the examples of quality immersive stories will increase accordingly and that will set expectations among consumers.
The immersive storytelling trend will only continue to strengthen and evolve.
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