Technology has reached the point where people can now explore very convincing Virtual Reality (VR) in real-time using ordinary home computers. This has spawned a new storytelling medium: VR fiction or virtual storytelling which is part of a wider family called interactive fiction.
You are home in your living room. You've selected the latest episode of your favorite new show. Smiling in anticipation, you make yourself comfortable to watch it with the remote control in hand. You could use a mouse and keyboard, or a joystick, but you prefer the remote because it is easy to use while relaxing in your armchair. Yesterday you watched this episode, but tonight you want to see it second time because you are curious about one of the characters in the story. You're going to direct the "camera" to follow this character instead of settling for one of the standard views. You can look at the scene from any position by pressing the up and down arrows to move the viewpoint forward and back, or the left and right arrows to turn the viewpoint left or right, just as if you were moving a mobile camera around inside the story. But of course there is no actual camera. The story is in a virtual world -- a moving, computer-generated, imaginary 3D world projected onto the video screen in your living room -- and you're controlling your viewpoint within it. Last time you watched this episode you felt lazy and just let one of the director's cameras show you the story. It was like the old days of vegeing out and watching a movie on video... except at one point in the story when you moved the "camera" over to a suspicious shape in the shadows. You have a feeling the writer put the shady character in there as a joke, knowing that many people couldn't resist the lure. Smiling, you settle back to enjoy yourself for the next 20 minutes.
At the moment VR fiction is viewed mostly on computer screen, but with the growing convergence of computers and television in the living room the scene above is not futuristic -- it is possible right now. New computers are now sold with remote controls for armchair viewing and the ability to display on the family TV, and the latest versions of Linux and Microsoft Windows integrate such capabilities.
What is VR fiction?
There are many kinds of VR fiction. They can be broadly characterised by four main attributes.
All these can be combined in various ways, each a spectrum of possibilities. A few very different examples might illustrate what I mean:
- Presentation form.
- Video files - The virtual world can be used as a film set. The action is played out there by either human actors 'wearing' avatars as in Red vs Blue, or else by preprogrammed animated characters (bots) like the intro to The Longest Journey. This is filmed and the audience watches a conventional video. Almost everybody has the ability to view video files on their computers, so although the files are generally extremely large and offer only a single viewpoint, they have a wide audience.
- Virtual worlds - More efficient is to view the stories from within a virtual world. Increasing numbers of 3d games use this technique for their intros. Many people make the mistake of thinking that a 3d virtual world is necessarily a larger file than a video of it. The opposite is generally true. An efficiently constructed 3d virtual world with scripted action can have a tiny filesize compared to an ordinary movie file. Even a heavily compressed video file can be around 3MB per minute of play. VR has little limitation on time or space. An infinite sized world that has no limit on running time can have the same filesize as a 1 minute video file.
- Passive - The audience can be like a ghost, able to wander freely about the scene, invisible and unheard.
- Active - Or they can affect the story and alter the outcome.
- Prewritten - The story is prewritten by the author. Whether the viewer is able to affect the story or not, what happens in the world is decided by the author beforehand. The viewer may be able to choose among various branches of a story, but all possible outcomes have already been visualised by the writer.
- Open - While the author sets up the world and certain operating guidelines, the viewer has freedom to alter it in unexpected ways. Even the world itself can evolve in unpredictable ways.
- Single thread - Stories can have a single narrative the way many films and books do.
- Multiple threads can cross and recross to weave a complex story. Many subplots can be happening simultaneously which can continue to reward viewers with new insights after several watchings. Different characters can be followed on subsequent viewings to give the audience a greater appreciation of human reactions. Multiple clues can be unfolded at the same time in different parts of a world to ensure that viewers must visit the story more than once in order to solve a mystery.
- Imagine a simple, prewritten story which is played out inside a virtual world where the viewer is able to wander at will and have some limited interaction with characters and objects, but is unable to alter the story which plays out exactly the same way on subsequent viewings. It would be like stepping inside a conventional movie.
- Or imagine a story written with several branching parts, like the old Choose Your Own Adventure paperback books. Each scenario might be acted out inside a virtual world beforehand and captured on video. When displayed, the viewer would be presented with decisions at certain points in the story, each of which would activate a different video clip to play out the next part, similar to Don Bluth's classic Dragon's Lair video game.
- Or one or more people may participate in the story by playing the characters, similar to some role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. The story consists of a set of guidelines, situations, and puzzles rather than a traditional plot. What story there is might be altered by the participants. This is how a number of computer game developers are gradually finding themselves producing a form of VR fiction.
- Or another extreme form could have no storyline at all. An initial situation is set up by the author, and the player(s) and AI bots take it from there. The world could even continue to change and evolve between visits like some of today's massive multiplayer online games do.
- Or, my favorite, a story is set up by the author with many sub-plots and story threads, most of which cross, and some that appear to be completely separate to the main plot, but may actually flesh out other details of the story or characters. The viewer wanders about inside the story as a ghost, able to view the story from anywhere inside the virtual world, including different actors' viewpoints. There are also several (invisible) directors' cameras that the viewer can optionally use too. The story could be viewed many times because if different viewpoints were chosen each time it would reward the viewer with a richer, more nuanced understanding of the plot.
But VR fiction can be far, far more than any of those examples. Of the many possible traits VR fiction may display two are especially useful: interactivity has been shown to hold people's attention for long periods instead of the few minutes most web pages do, and multi-threaded storylines, encourage viewers to revisit the virtual world many times.
A virtual world need not obey the laws of physics. In VR you can do things and build structures impossible in the real world, with no physical limits on size.
An efficiently designed virtual world can be a surprisingly tiny file. An infinite world without a story can easily fit on a floppy disk. Many hours, perhaps days, of VR fiction could be stored on a CD.
Showing VR stories can be as simple as putting a web page up on the net. They can also be distributed on CD, DVD, or flash drive. VR fiction that allows multiple users to meet and interact is a little more complex, but still far easier than distributing film or broadcasting TV.
VR fiction has dramatically low production costs, whereas film and TV are terribly expensive.
- VR fiction uses sets, costumes, and locations constructed from pure data, instead of wood, metal, glass, and cloth. Data is not only cheaper to create in the first place, it costs almost nothing to securely store vast amounts for an indefinite duration, and if designed well in the first place it is not difficult to modify any number of times. Of course it also has the advantage that when you modify those sets or costumes you still get to keep the originals because data costs nothing to duplicate. A thousand uniforms cost as much to make as just one.
- Lighting consists of simple instructions, not vast arrays of fragile, costly, energy-hungry lamps.
- Cameras are invisible, weightless, and never break down -- they are simply recorded viewpoints. They don't need cranes for aerial shots, or tracks laid for dollying sequences, or steadycam to smoothly follow action over uneven terrain.
- The people working on a VR fiction story need not be transported to the same physical place -- they can collaborate from anywhere on the planet through the internet.
- The story is delivered as a small, immortal, data file rather than bulky, expensive, easily damaged film-stock.
- Unlike current computer rendered films (Shrek, Toy Story, Finding Nemo) which require slow, offline processing of images on expensive supercomputers over many months, VR fiction is recorded in real time on an ordinary desktop computer.
- If displayed inside VR then different people collaborating on a VR fiction project need only share tiny data files that can be easily sent over slow dialup lines. Contrast this with the awful problems studios are haveing with current computer rendered films, needing expensive, very high speed data connections to transfer hundreds of gigabytes of data per day.
- Worldwide distribution and advertising can cost nothing if handled properly.
Actors or animators (or both) can be used to make the characters move.
- Animators set up sequences of actions on the 3D models. This is similar to, but much simpler than what 3D animators do for films that use computer rendering.
- Actors make more realistic movements than animators, but cost less for VR fiction than for film or TV because they don't need to be glamorous; they just need to be good actors.
- They can do their own stunts without any danger to themselves.
- Actors don't need to be laboriously made up and can instantly have any body form imaginable, from a tiny, glowing, winged fairy Tinkerbell, to a giant, many-legged monster.
- A versatile actor can play several parts, similar to how radio actors, or voice talent in some cartoons have been known to.
How to make money from it
Unfortunately money is a fact of life and is required in order to survive in today's unbalanced society. Here is a quick overview of the ways that such a system could raise money.
I have spent many years working on internet-related projects and trying to understand what kind of economic model can fit that unique environment. I have come to the conclusion that trying to make a living by selling information-based products as commodities based on restricted access or scarcity is doomed to failure. Duplication is easy, costs little or nothing, and people have a natural desire to share with friends.
Success will be tied to harnessing these aspects, instead of wasting time, money and manpower fighting against them.
VR fiction would ideally be made available on the net for free and viewers encouraged to copy it and pass it on to friends. This brings great benefits in nearly eliminating the costs of distribution, delivering to a world-wide audience cheaply and efficiently. The audience become the distributors, and pleasure is their payment.
Donation - I think that this is by far the most promising way to earn money via VR fiction. It requires one to lose the greed-based all users must pay philosophy and adopt a statistical approach of understanding that if enough people like something then a large enough proportion will pay. This technique has been used very successfully with sites like http://livejournal.com. It also has the ethical advantage of providing things freely to those who can't afford to pay. Free users are not a loss to such a system though, as they become very effective promoters of the shows.
There are other more conventional avenues for income too:
Crowdfunding - This is really a variation of donation. People fund the production of a project through organisations such as Kickstarter, Indigogo, Pozible, or other crowdfunders because they want the project to happen. The creator(s) usually offer special "perks" for people in return for the amount given in backing the project. In the case of VR fiction characters could be modeled after those funders, their names are added to the credits, the are given special "easter eggs" within the finished work, the receive the product far in advance of other people, and if the finished work charges entry or subscription then those people get free entry.
Institutional funding - The creators of software may gift money to creators of works showcasing their software. An example is the Blender Institute which supports creators working with the free software Blender3D (the software I'm using).
Episode sales - Just as Netflix offers people the chance to buy views of movies or TV shows, video libraries let people pay to borrow DVDs, and comic book shops sell issues of comicbooks, those vendors may also sell episodes of VR fiction. Today many songs, movies, books and comicbooks are available online for direct sale to the public as electronic download. This would be natural and easy for distribution of VR fiction.
Advertisers - Sponsors who want their products advertised in the stories will pay for product exposure, just as they currently do in TV series and movies to have their song played in the background or to have one of the main characters seen to be drinking, wearing, or driving their product. NOTE: It is imperative that all advertising be ethical. I am convinced that unethical advertising must bear a lot of the blame for the drastic drop in advertising revenue for the web and hence was one of the major factors in the dot.com crash. A person only needs to click once on an advertisement that lies or deceives and they will never ever respond to one again. Trust is one of the most valuable properties. If lost it is extremely difficult to regain.
TV and film - Even though VR fiction is fundamentally different to film or TV, works of VR fiction can be easily recorded from a single viewpoint and screened on TV. The dramatically low cost of production would make such shows extremely attractive to TV networks. But not only would TV networks pay for shows, they would also serve to advertise the new medium. Even feature-length films could be made this way and filmed to be screened in conventional cinemas. "Making-of" TV specials would generate both publicity and funds too.
Merchandising - Merchandising is particularly viable if the stories are good enough to rate cult status. Nowadays real plastic models can be quickly, cheaply, and automatically produced from computer files. The figurines could be sold in toy outlets, video libraries, and Science Fiction specialty stores, used in promotional giveaways with breakfast cereals, etc. Other merchandising possibilities are coffee mugs, t-shirts, pens, caps, swap cards, and stickers.
Avatars - With the current popularity of 3D chat and game worlds there is a demand for special avatars. (Avatars are virtual bodies that people "wear" when visiting virtual worlds.) There could be a cooperative relationship between 3D chat/game worlds and VR fiction which could boost both. Note that 3D games currently earn more money than the entire film industry, and I believe VR fiction has the potential to be bigger than that.
Books and comics - Stories can be extended to paper formats such as comic books, and paperbacks of short stories and novels, and even the series scripts and documentary books on the making of the series.
Workshops and lectures - Workshopping and teaching people how to build for VR and how to write VR fiction would educate the next generation of recruits for the industry and promote it too. If the sessions were paid then they would also generate income.
Subscription - The online massive multiplayer game phenomenon has shown how powerful this is. Targeting only a tiny part of the population (young males) they have quickly grown to become a highly lucrative industry. VR fiction will appeal to a much wider audience (females as well as males, and people of all ages). I believe it is important to keep barriers as low as possible. The wider the appeal the more reliable the market. In uncertain economies it seems likely that relying on 5 million customers coming up with $4 each month is more reliable than 1 million paying $20.
VR fiction is just starting as a new medium. I fully expect it to overtake all other storytelling media in importance. This will happen whether we, here in Australia, are involved or not. To get an idea of its potential earning power consider this: At the moment computer games earn more money than the film industry despite the fact that computer games appeal almost exclusively to young males -- a fraction of the total population. VR fiction, on the other hand, would appeal to all agegroups and both sexes -- all those who currently enjoy films, videos, and TV shows. This is potentially a multi-billion dollar industry. Our talented and creative local writers, artists, musicians, and computer programmers could play a large part in that industry if it is handled correctly. Just on the Sunshine Coast alone it has been estimated that we have around 1,000 writers struggling for an income. Australia can't hope to compete with India or China for manufacturing or unskilled labor, but educated, creative minds are another thing entirely. Australia has for decades consistently "punched above its weight" in intellectual and creative ability. This is the natural resource we need to draw upon to secure our future. We have it in abundance. We just need to capitalise on it. In the early stages this project would employ a small team of about a dozen people, but that should quickly increase with no obvious limit.
Miriam English (2016)