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Step into the story

By James Milward 22-09-2016

Just over two years ago, we received a developer kit from one of the dozens of Kickstarter and crowd-funding campaigns we support. The fundraiser was for something called Oculus Rift, a student-built virtual reality headset. It was quickly acquired by Facebook and has subsequently become synonymous with VR. The moment we put on that headset, we were propelled down a new path toward the creation of powerfully immersive virtual experiences.

Since the advent of Oculus Rift, my company, Secret Location, has completed 14 VR projects across a variety of genres and platforms, with another five currently in production. In 2015, we were honoured to win the first Primetime Emmy awarded to a VR project, for our work with Fox’s Sleepy Hollow.

VR is at a tipping point. 2016 could be the year that it bursts into the public consciousness in a huge way, or endures a slow burn as the platform matures. Regardless, over the next couple of years, VR will explode with lower costs of entry and a range of content formats including narrative, gaming, journalism, sports, utilities and more. The quality of that content is what will ultimately determine when VR penetrates the mainstream.

But what is the audience looking for when it enters into a VR experience? Decades of science fiction mean new users are approaching VR with a range of expectations regarding the levels of photo-realism, interactivity and perspectives. As content producers, our role is to build on these expectations while pushing the boundaries of what the platform represents. If we get it right, we can offer experiences that are both accessible and powerful in surprising new ways.

Halcyon is available online and via Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR

Halcyon is available online and via Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR

An interesting quality of VR is the head-mounted displays (HMDs) currently required, which demand 100% of the user’s focus. Once a user commits to a VR experience, the platform absorbs their undivided attention. This is a level of focus that we haven’t seen for a long time, putting a premium on experiences that deserve that level of commitment.

But what does that mean for other forms of media? It’s our opinion that VR will expand and enable other forms of media to add reach and broaden engagement. TV and VR are able to not only co-exist but build off each other in incredible ways. Imagine watching Game of Thrones and at the end of the episode stepping into the virtual world of Winterfell, where you can explore Castle Black, engaging in new narrative branches or even participating as a character. The technology already exists and it’s getting better every day.

We are creating opportunities to let viewers interact with and affect stories in meaningful ways. This is limited only by the ability of the developer and producer to conceive enough media and narrative threads to create a true sense of agency in a virtual world. This has been the dream of convergent websites and apps for a long time, though none has been able to achieve the level of presence inherent to VR.

With hardware like HTC Vive, Sony Playstation VR and the commercial release of Oculus Rift all arriving in market this year, users will soon be able to take steps within VR, pick up and move objects and experience a ‘physical’ presence in the virtual world.

So why would a company like Facebook acquire Oculus Rift? The answer may lie in ‘social VR,’ which will offer the ability to share virtual space with a friend halfway around the world in real time. Social VR will fundamentally change the way we collaborate and interact within a story in ways we can only theorise about at this point. In the very near future this will lead to narrative formats driven completely by VR, which can be shared and engaged with socially.

With so much activity on the near horizon, we are working quickly to understand audience behaviour and expectations, and developing new storytelling conventions in this exciting new space. This is the thinking driving a hybrid linear and VR series called Halcyon we’ve produced for Syfy, which launches today.

Fundamentally, the challenge in the short term is consumer adoption and monetisation, which leads to the trillion-dollar question: What is the right balance of cost, innovation, and monetisation, and how do we – as creators, producers, broadcasters and studios – create a sustainable ecosystem while we wait for the audience to grow?

The bottom line is that VR needs its break-out hit, an exceptional experience that bursts into the mainstream consciousness and further enfranchises investment bodies, traditional studios and broadcasters into the conversation. This could be a ‘new format show,’ or something completely different that no one recognises from a previous media type.

Ultimately, VR will succeed or fail based on the quality of its content, the audience’s ability and willingness to adapt and the extent to which the audiences see value in a platform that can take them places they’ve never been before.

Halcyon debuts online and via Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR on September 22 and on Syfy channel on September 26.

James Milward is among the speakers at C21’s FutureMedia conference in London on November 30. For details click here. To read an in-depth profile of Secret Location see the C21Pro 2016 VR Report.

today's correspondent

James Milward President

James Milward is the founder of the Emmy -winning interactive agency Secret Location. An entrepreneur as well as a producer, James has developed and built several original concepts into successful IP and venture-funded businesses, including the mobile music discovery application, and FanViewr, a Facebook distribution platform for TV properties.

James worked extensively in TV commercial production and documentary film prior to defecting to the dark arts of interactive. He also serves on the digital advisory board of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, Strategy Magazine’s AToMiC Summit, The Playback Summit and nextMEDIA.