Among virtual reality enthusiasts, the term, ‘presence’ is in common parlance. In essence, ‘presence’ is achieved when your brain, at its lowest level, believes that the stimuli it receives are real. In contrast to today’s media where you have to suspend your disbelief in order to immerse yourself, when you achieve presence in VR you have to remind yourself not to believe. This notion of presence has long been the holy grail of the VR community and has been materialized into physical reality by Oculus VR.
Last March, the acquisition of Oculus by Facebook for $2 billion was met with much criticism. Most skeptics doubted the technology and believed the connection between social and VR was tenuous, far-off at best. They credited it to Facebook being opportunistic with its overvalued stock and another example of an overinflated Silicon Valley acquisition. In the past year, many skeptics have been turned into believers as Oculus Rift headset have turned up at demos and trade shows everywhere. Ironically, the ‘presence’ afforded by Oculus VR was enough to trick the brains of skeptics into believing in VR.
Now that Oculus has gained a following in its mission it is wholeheartedly tackling the first frontier: gaming and movies. Gamers have longed for a VR experience and developers are eager to provide it. However, game and movie storytellers must craft their experiences differently in this new, incredibly experiential medium. To that end, Oculus has put together a team of film and game developers to explore immersive cinema in an initiative called, Oculus Story Studio. What they’re working on is really quite interesting and the short films they are developing (e.g. Lost, a journey through a moonlit forest inhabited by an unexpected creature; Bullfighter, being present in a bullfighting arena) show how necessary it is to fully explore this new medium before dropping someone into a mortar attack in Mosul. Although Oculus Story Studio is taking this slow and prudent approach, Vice News is already eager to dive into the deep end in immersive journalism using VR:
A major part of journalism is painting people a picture of what it was like to actually be there. With this, the audience actually feels like they are there.
Vice’s special brand of immersive news has always been appealing to me. Americans have an especially hard time empathizing with global events as life here in the States is much less of a life-or-death struggle. Experiencing what it’s like to be in Aleppo or Donetsk would certainly help one understand gravity and empathize with people and crises. I think this is an incredibly powerful application of VR; a platform that allows viewers to empathize and in turn, be influenced. In a world our brains are tricked into clicking on cheaply-gratifying listicles, my hope is that VR will be used to trick our brains into believing in something worthwhile.