On-Location Storytelling in VR
A good story tells itself, but it needs an accomplice.
Good storytellers use whatever they have as props — from colored paintings on cave walls to costumes to dance, or their own vocal embellishments. Many storytellers write books or advertising copy. A few do one-person shows, usually with some multimedia support.
What is Storytelling in VR?
Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s, ‘Clouds over Sidra’ (2015) is described as a virtual reality film, in which a traditional documentary-style was used to produce an immersive piece, allowing audiences to feel present in the life of a twelve-year old living in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.
Stephen Spielberg’s, ‘Ready, Player One’ (2018) is a story about VR. It is not VR storytelling.
John Legend Executive Produced Baobab Studio’s, ‘Crow: The Legend’ (2018), a fully immersive animated story.
These well-known productions and others have not only set the bar high, they have started to define what Storytelling in VR is: Something very much like Storytelling on Film as we have come to know it, with producers and directors and talent, plus an entire technical team, all of them with expensive equipment.
Does Storytelling in VR have to be produced by Studios? Does there have to be funding and investors?
I love telling stories and I mostly use media that’s around for free in Worlds that anyone can make.
Why can’t that be VR Storytelling?
I decided to call my events, ‘On-Location Storytelling’ and I held my first one on January 3, 2021. The location was Balcony House, Mesa Verde, an exhibit in the Museum of Archeology in VR available and accessible to anyone. I called it, Meditation on the Mesa and 44 people attended.
I told a story about gambling from the culture of the people who lived there a thousand years ago. It was probably an old story then. It was easy to imagine the action, because everything unfolded right where we were, in the cliff houses we were all sitting in and the desert we were gazing out onto.
A week later, I told about the Viking Crusade (1107–1110) from inside a crypt in Kapitelsberger, Norway, another Museum of Archeology in VR exhibit.
Crypts are where Relics were stored, sacred objects — and Relics are what these Norwegian adventurers brought back from the Holy Land. A splinter from the Cross could be hidden in a crypt like this one. I liked the way the Kapitelsberger Crypt held the audience, enclosed the 59 people who attended in an element of the story.
Using the Medium
Next I started making my own simple worlds instead of using the Museum’s.
By ’making,’ I mean telling someone else my fairly primitive ideas and letting them create just the right World.
By ‘someone,’ I mean a close VR friend who is chronically ill but takes one day to create an entire set in VR that would require dozens of laborers and technicians to construct for Stephen Spielberg.
Our first collaboration was The First Opium War (1839–1842), where she built an Opium factory like something right out of the Raj in Patna, northern India. We offered the event twice on January 31, 2021, for 94 people altogether.
Just like Jason Bourne can jump-cut all over the world — we could teleport our audiences from India right to a view above Hong Kong, looking down on Shamian Island where the opium traveled directly from its source. Inside a high resolution 360 degree photo (free from Google Street View), we could see the exact starting point.
Huge photos of the British bombardment that we set against the hills on the mainland made the initial salvos of War come alive. We are still waiting IRL for the last salvos.
The idea of Participatory VR Storytelling grew out of the baseball field she made to help me tell that American standard of popular poetry — Casey at the Bat.
She also built the Grandstands. The Concession area and the Hot Dog Cart. I thought I would just recite the poem, but next-level possibilities suggested themselves. We just had to notice them.
We realized we could ask people as they arrived to help us act out the story, while I’d recite it from up in the Pressbox. No need for a cast and rehearsals. People would just do what the story asks them to do.
Forty people showed up for this one, March 7, 2021. It was easy to find volunteers for Flynn and Jimmy Blake, who preceded Casey, plus the Pitcher, the Catcher and the Umpire. The people remaining in the stands became the People in the Stands — yelling ‘Kill the Ump’ on cue.
I started, “It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville Nine that day …”
Eventually, Flynn did “let drive a single and to the wonderment of all, Blake, whom all had sneered at, tore the cover off the ball.”
But Casey still struck out.
So we came together and we talked about that. Why a poem that glorifies surface presentation and ends in abject failure is an American standard . A third of the people there were not from the US. We were not able to fully identify Casey at the Bat’s enduring appeal, but it was fun trying.
Since then I have hosted VR discussions, led VR meditations, and helped with many VR on-boardings. I realize now my heart is in VR Storytelling, without a budget and without a studio.
There is no need to conform to any classic narrative and it is usually better not to. Every story isn’t The Hero’s Journey. I prefer a structure that features the story over the form.
March 20, 2022 was the Vernal Equinox, so we followed the Equator west to east, dropping in on Gabon and Kenya, Indonesia and tiny south Pacific atolls before finally reaching Ecuador — a country that takes the Equator seriously. That was the story.
I called it, ‘Equinox: An Equator Experience,’ and 62 people came along for the ride.
Google Street View is not just about streets. What is freely available from Google’s camera cars driving the streets of everywhere is astonishing. What has been added to the ‘Street View’ database is in some ways even more astonishing.
People have taken their 360 cameras or even their iPhones way off street and uploaded images to ‘Street View’. There is a great picture already out there for just about any place in the world you’d like to make into a World, to help tell the story.
The Wander VR app is built directly on Google Street View and allows small groups of people to travel together almost anywhere on earth. The AltspaceVR app allows 360 pics to be uploaded and turned into ‘skyboxes,’ like we’re all in ‘The Truman Show.’
I’m a prop too. Another one of the instruments through which the story is told. I can be a dominant instrument because I’m blessed with the gift of words, but Storytelling in VR works better when I am not.
When I act more like a Host than a solo performer, there’s more to the VR experience.
Sound can be imported in the Altspace VR app and used strategically as a song, to advance the story, or as ambient background to heighten the sense of place.
I used giant JPGs in Casey at the Bat to simulate an old-time baseball crowd. Our opium factory came alive with public domain lithographs from another era.
I love stories that aren’t very clear, where the point is not obvious if there even is one. I want people to feel the vague, to let the uncertainty just be present. I don’t think the Opium Wars were about ‘free trade,’ as the British claimed and I don’t think Casey at the Bat is just a cautionary tale about pride.
I expect the St. Kevin’s Day Story, scheduled for June 3, 2022, will keep people wondering about a spiritual pilgrimage site, with its own canonized Saint, who is also remembered as a homicidal maniac.
The man lived in an almost inaccessible cave during his formative young adult years. He was a recluse, an extreme ascetic. We should be able to feel the place and let the poetry and the Irish folk songs flow through us to bring out all the layers of St. Kevin.
He is a patron Saint of Dublin and June 3rd is his Festival Day.
I write about VR and other topics I have no standing to write about on Medium and Substack.
I have a black belt in learning and I’ve been meditating for so long you’d think I’d be enlightened but I’m not.