Do you remember those moments long ago when you sat glued in front of the television set, longing to jump through the screen and land inside your favorite TV shows? You wanted help the Smurfs beat Gargamel or travel to space with Ren and Stimpy or wander through Springfield with Bart and Lisa. Maybe you still have those moments today. Maybe you watch Game of Thrones and think about how you could join in the battle or imagine yourself exploring The Land of Ooo with Finn and Jake in Adventure Time.
Thanks to virtual reality, our TV fantasies are becoming a bit more attainable. In fact, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you might have tried the show’s VR experience. And if you’re obsessed with Adventure Time, you can step into Finn and Jake’s world with the new virtual reality game, Magic Man’s Head Games.
“A lot of the folks here on the crew basically fell in love with VR immediately, almost from day one, and said this would be genius for working with Adventure Time,” says Chris Waldron, vice president of Cartoon Network Digital. He adds that the show, which centers around adventures through lands that resemble video game levels, is ideal for experimenting with virtual reality. “The Land of Ooo in the show is pretty enormous and varied and idiosyncratic, and there’s lots of interesting nooks and crannies that you’ll want to go into and explore,” he says.
Decades after computer scientists first experimented with virtual reality, the medium is still emerging. While much of the VR-related hoopla has been confined to developer and press-related events, the experiences have been trickling into more general gatherings, like San Diego Comic-Con. Headsets are slowly making their way onto the consumer market. If, or when, virtual reality hardware becomes as commonplace as video game consoles, it will change the television landscape. The technology has the power to do that in several ways, and we’re already starting to see how this can happen thanks to some early adopters.
At the second annual Proto Awards, an event honoring achievements in VR development, nominated projects included a music video from Björk, an Adult Swim experience, Vice’s coverage of Millions March and a performance from Cirque du Soleil. No doubt, cutting edge artists and companies have embraced VR, and the experiments don’t end with these nominees.
“So much of big budget VR—and I mean that’s a hilarious oxymoron, because we’ve got to be spending more on it—but big budget VR is kind of adjunct marketing experiences for existing media properties,” says Adam Levin, CEO of The Virtual Reality Foundation and co-founder of the Proto Awards. From The Strain to The Hobbit, there are virtual reality experiences that allow fans to jump inside TV shows and films.
Right now, virtual reality presents fantastic marketing opportunities for media companies. They are immersive experiences that, unlike the massive activations that turn up at Comic-Con, require little space. The setting that fans enter exists inside the headset, powered by either a computer or a cell phone. “I think that VR offers a possibility that we’ve never seen before,” Waldron says, “so that you can engage with these worlds in ways that you couldn’t before.”
Virtual reality is an altogether different way of experiencing media. Inside the headset, you have a 360-degree view of the world. If you look straight ahead, as you would while staring at a television set or computer screen, you will miss something. A character might sneak up behind you if you don’t glance over your shoulder. A big reveal might only happen if you look down. “In other media, you can sort of look into the world and sort of peer in through a window, which is very powerful,” Waldron says. “Video games, television and movies, they’re very powerful media, but you’re still looking at this world through a window. With VR, you’re able to step into that world and that kind of changes the ballgame.”
While VR is providing bonus stories for fans, it has the potential to shape entertainment in other ways. For TV watchers, it could completely alter the experience.
One way in which VR can help reshape television is in fostering shared moments. Part of television’s allure is that it has been part of a mass culture that gets people talking. From office chats to dinner conversations, people like to discuss what happened on their favorite shows. With the advent of social media, TV talk has become unavoidable—to the point where spoiler warnings are useless—and constant. Still, there’s a sense of distance in these conversations. You and your pals might be watching the same show, but you’re in separate spaces while you do this. In virtual reality, people can create a space where they can watch the thing they’re discussing together, even if they are situated on opposite sides of the world. There are already programs, like Proto-nominee Convrge, that allow friends to gather in virtual reality and watch YouTube videos together. The key to pushing this idea further is to get streaming sites involved in these VR spaces, enabling people to binge through Narcos or Transparent together. And it appears that networks are looking to make this happen.
At the recent Oculus Connect event in Los Angeles, Netflix announced that it is bringing its programming to the VR realm, and it looks as though other companies intend to follow that lead. As CNN pointed out, though, Netflix’s programming will still appear in 2D, so viewers won’t be getting the same sort of immersive element that exists in VR-centric experiences. However, it is a start.
Levin of the Proto Awards envisions a future where VR helps organize the media we consume. “I think it will probably integrate into one kind of information stream,” he says, “and you might one day put on a very, very light, wireless head-mounted display of some sort— some sort of VR or AR headset—and have whatever information diet you choose to take in, in some sort of consolidated, gorgeous interface.”
Virtual reality has the power to do more than provide bonus material or better connect friends over favorite television series. It can change the shows we watch. To do that, though, will require a complete overhaul in how TV pros construct visual narratives.
This isn’t the sort of medium that will work with every kind of story. Sitcoms and dramas are perhaps better suited for voyeur experiences, rather than participatory ones. For genres like fantasy, adventure and science-fiction, virtual reality can take narratives to a completely different level. That’s likely the reason why video games have become such a big part of the virtual reality scene at the moment; the medium is perfect to support first-person perspectives. Applying the immersive nature of VR to the fly-on-the-wall nature of television, though, will be tricky. Writers will have to think about how to construct plots and develop characters that can support any potential viewer stepping into the protagonist’s role. That’s already being done in short-form experiences, but might be harder to carry out through a season’s worth of episodes, but it’s not too far-fetched to think that some clever writers will be up for this. “There is so much coming down the pipes in terms of narrative momentum in VR, just from the people I’m talking to, I think of course people are going to tell stories in this medium,” Levin says.
Moreover, TV teams will have to consider how to make the visual components interesting no matter where the viewer looks. This will be a potentially exciting challenge for directors, set designers and even actors. Levin mentions developments like Jump, a camera rig designed to make VR videos, as a step towards meeting these challenges. “I think it’s another place for incredibly creative artists and technicians to play,” he says. “I think there might be pan-media properties in the future that take advantage of everything, including VR. Of course, with that in mind, there will be some of them that spring forth from VR and populate other media.”
In the days when we were getting booted off dial-up, watching an entire episode of a TV show online in one sitting was a dream for the future. Now we we can do that on our phones. The impact of those technological advancements have been felt across the entertainment industry. Who would have thought that, one day, streaming services would produce their own programming and that those shows, like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent, would garner critical acclaim and award nods? Who would have thought that a video rental service and an online marketplace would rival the established networks in terms of quality TV? Just as Netflix and Amazon emerged as superstars in the world of online media, other companies—we might not even know their names yet—could do the same in virtual reality. Brace yourself because there might be bigger changes in store for the TV show as we know it.