The media we use to tell stories has evolved considerably in the millennia since our ancestors swapped their first campfire tales. Regardless of the form stories take, the storyteller always has the same goal: to transport an audience — get people to stop thinking about the here and now and focus on the world of the story.
Despite all advances in storytelling media, there has only been one surefire way to achieve that goal: Tell a really, really good story.
Not anymore. Immersive media — virtual reality, augmented reality, participant-integrated theater and other kinds of whole-sensory engaging experiences — have begun allowing storytellers to transport their audiences, even without a great story. In fact, using immersive media, they no longer need a story at all.
“Immersive media” is a broad term that may conjure different mental pictures for different people — a headset worn by gamers for some, an interactive theater experience like Sleep No More for others. Regardless of how people experience immersive media, through a headset or in a physical space, the goal is the same: totally engage the senses, with no peripheral reminders of the outside world.
To understand what we mean, imagine sitting on your sofa. You close your eyes and put on a VR headset. You open your eyes to a forest. The image doesn’t sit on a screen halfway across the room, with the family cat and yesterday’s newspaper in your field of vision. Instead, it completely and totally surrounds you. You can sit, stand, lay down, roll around — the scene doesn’t go away. Turn left, and you’ll discover a trickling creek. Turn right, there’s a deer. What’s more, when the deer notices you, it darts off into the distance.
Not all immersive media is this good, of course — though both the technology and staged experiences available today are better than they’ve ever been. But quality isn’t really the point.
Immersive media has been “the next big thing” for a very long time.
What’s important about immersive media is how it helps us understand the basic human desire to lose ourselves. While it has always been clear that humans like stories that help us do this, only recently have scientists really understood the neurological mechanisms that explain why.
These are precisely the mechanisms evaluated by new research on media impact, a relatively new interdisciplinary field that, in its most robust form, combines neuroscience, cognitive psychology and media scholarship. And studies in this field are starting to yield intriguing insights.
For instance, we’ve long known that stories engage us mentally. But the mechanisms explaining how and why are only recently being uncovered. One mechanism at work is the way stories activate the sensation of action — even while physically at rest. For instance, researchers at Yale University used fMRI scans to examine brain activity during story reading. The study, published in Neuropsychologia in 2010, showed that while reading fiction with action words, test subjects’ brain activity that corresponded with action lit up.
Conversely, the brain scans of a second group of subjects given fiction without action words showed little or no such activity. In other words, just reading stories describing action was enough to activate a sense of movement within the subjects, despite that they themselves were sitting down.
Another reason people want to get lost in stories is because doing so makes us feel good. In a 2012 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, a group of neuroscientists from Germany and Switzerland teamed up to examine whether readers’ enjoyment of stories was tied to valence — whether the content was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.
Using fMRI scans, the researchers discovered that subjects were immersed even by unpleasant stories, including narratives about crimes, disasters, accidents or, as the report describes, “content comparable to the content of daily news stories” (in fact, there was evidence that subjects found such stories even more compelling than pleasant ones).
Readers like stories when they feel engaged by them.
While one could infer something about Schadenfreude here, the researchers’ explanation was much less cynical: Readers like stories when they feel engaged by them. Whether the story is pleasant, neutral or unpleasant matter doesn’t really matter. Readers simply enjoy the feeling of being engaged by a story.
Just because immersive media can engage this kind of intense attention, even without a story, doesn’t mean storytellers should give up. Without some sort of narrative, even a fascinating immersive landscape might get boring pretty fast.
The real promise for immersive media is in combining the two — telling great stories in the intense, sensory engagement of a total story world. And there’s a vanguard of storytellers — filmmakers, theater producers, game designers and writers — already hard at work doing just that.
External evidence suggests they’re wise to do so: Traditional media, according to polls, is starting to lose its audience. According to Nielsen’s The Total Audience Report: Q1 2015, television watching by 18-24 year olds — a group who historically has been seen as a sort of weathervane for entertainment consumption — dropped 17 percent in the first quarter of 2015.
This follows a three-year downward trend: Since 2011, TV watching by 18-24 year olds plunged by 32 percent — almost one-third. And this reflects not only their move away from traditional viewing platforms, such as actual TV screens, but across all platforms — including streaming content via smartphone and gaming devices.
To be sure, the youth demographic hardly represents the entire story-consuming population. And the media industry has been heralding the arrival of immersive media for a very long time, only to see very little actually materialize.
This time, immersive media might be ready for its moment.
“Virtual reality” was first introduced in 1934 in the science fiction tale Pygmalion’s Spectacles, followed decades later by Morton Heilig’s mechanical theater experience the Sensorama in 1962. The first VR headset was released to the public all the way back in 1991, by Sega. In short, immersive media has been “the next big thing” for a very long time.
But there are signs that, this time, immersive media might be ready for its moment. The tech industry is investing heavily in immersion devices — and in amounts that suggest they’re expecting far more than a niche-market audience.
Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire VR-headset industry leader Oculus in early 2014. Google paid half a billion dollars for “cinematic reality” maker Magic Leap a few months later, following an undisclosed amount of investments in its augmented-reality device Google Glass and its low-cost VR viewer Google Cardboard. With a planned rollout for Oculus VR headsets in early 2016, immersive media will become an option not only for gamers and technophiles, but for anyone looking to easily, quickly and even storylessly, get lost in a story world.
We will always need great stories. We will always want to be transported outside of our day-to-day experience. And the ways we’ve done this up to now — swapping tales over drinks, tuning into a favorite radio show on the drive home, bringing a friend to a film that we know will make us cry — won’t be replaced by immersive media.
But immersive media, combined with great stories, offers promise for experiences unlike anything we’ve seen before. And through studying how both traditional and new forms of media work, we stand to learn more about ourselves, as individuals and societies, than ever before.