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Story or tech: which comes first for VR projects?

Updated: Mar 4

<iframe src="https://anchor.fm/alexmakesvr/embed/episodes/Ep-94-Story-or-Tech---Which-Comes-First-For-VR-Projects-er693f" height="102px" width="400px" frameborder="0" scrolling="no"></iframe>Hey friend, and welcome back to the Alex Makes VR podcast. In today's episode, I want to elaborate on a point that was brought up an event I was speaking at. Last week, when it went to the q&a, I was asked how much do you let tech influence your VR projects? For example, if hand tracking is the latest craze with headsets, do you, you know, find an idea that would suit hand tracking? I guess simplified? The question is, what comes first, the tech or the story? So that's what I want to dive into in today's episode, before I dive in, as always, if you've got a subject or a question, I would love to hear from you. It's crazy the kind of stories I've been getting over the last couple of weeks - an outpour of support and people that have literally started their own businesses, some people have quit their jobs and now have, you know, five figure clients off the back of the advice from this podcast. There is some amazing, amazing feedback and people are asking questions along the way, which I really love. So please, if you've got a question about your VR journey, or just something very specific to your project, please reach out to me, I would love to hear from you. It's @alexmakesvr on Instagram and Twitter and if you want to email me or sign up to the newsletter, you can do so by going over to alexmakesvr.com.


This is a full transcript of the podcast. Instead, you can listen and subscribe to new episodes below:

So I gave this talk last week for future screens, Northern Ireland, and I believe they're going to put it up on their website, so check that out Future Screens, check out their website and see if it's live. I'd highly recommend it just because half of the presentation was q&a and the questions were so thoughtful, they were just brilliant. So and if you are someone that is listening to the podcast off the back of seeing me talk about event, thank you again so much for joining. But one question that really stood out to me and I thought immediately I need to record a podcast episode about this was, someone asked how much do you let the tech lead your ideas? For example, if Oculus comes out with this mind blowing new hand control feature, aren't you tempted to incorporate that into your ideas? And I thought this is definitely a topic that I want to explore for the podcast because most people 99.9% of creatives will tell you, no it's all about the idea and you build the tech around. Or no, you have to stay true to the story and be authentic with your ideas, man, and all that kind of classic artist vision...which no shade, if you are one of those people that believes in that, absolutely, you are entitled to your opinion, my personal opinion is, of course, you are going to be influenced by the tech. Now of course, you can start with a really strong idea and then, like, for example, with my new project, Bad News, I started with the idea. And then off the back of a conversation with the developer about the advancements in voice interactivity, using your voice commands, to you know, to trigger certain events in a VR experience. I was like that is perfect, because what I like to preach and what I kind of talk about in terms of storytelling in XR is like literally letting someone step into the story. And what's better to let someone fully feel like they're part of a story than actually having to read aloud some part of the script? Because essentially, that's the superpower of VR, right? You are now an actor, you are now a character in the story. So it's not that I was led by the tech, it's not that I found out the voice interactive was the thing and I thought - oh, I need to come up with an idea specifically for that, but my piece Bad News could very well be done just as a passive VR, like 360 or 180 experience. It doesn't need the interactivity, but I feel like it adds this new dimension to it and I'm not ashamed to say that. I'm not ashamed to say that well, it doesn't need voicing interactivity but it also doesn't need to be passive. I'm totally flexible, and I will, I will, depending on my budget and resource. I will absolutely try and make the piece as best as possible now, with something like Bad News.


Yeah, hand tracking, for example, in the Oculus quest two is amazing but is that relevant to Bad News? No. So I guess this is where we get into that kind of like grey, blurry territory. I think if you're new to this space, and when and the tech is the thing that excites you, and you are really drawn to this idea of like, wow, like the idea of being able to walk around a space using that kind of room scale, inside out tracking that these new headsets use, if that excites you, because because you've never seen that before, and you want to take an idea and make it malleable so that it works for something like that. Phenomenal, do it. I don't see anything wrong with that. And anyone that tells you that there is something wrong with that is a douchebag, right. Because we're so early on in this medium, we're so early on that we can't rule anything out, we need to try lots of things, we need to try lots of creative ideas when it comes to the tech. And the tech needs lots of creative ideas to find its pitfalls to find what doesn't doesn't work and because there's not a lot of content in the scheme of things being made in virtual reality, actually, anything that you want to create, if you believe that you can make it fit, and not have it glaringly obvious that this is basically just a tech demo, then you should go for it, I don't think you should be discouraged. And there is a little bit too much of that in, in my opinion in the artist kind of sector of VR, where it's like they kind of scare monger people from from using tech and leading with tech, I think in this climate where the tech is rapidly advancing, where we're seeing, you know...if eye tracking becomes really accessible. Is there some amazing storyteller listening to this podcast that goes - oh, my god, eye tracking? Oh, God, I've got so many ideas that could work with that. Like, what if I did a story that was all dictated by where the person was looking? And it's like, you know, that certain things were triggering based on that I've got a really good idea for that. That was led with the tech, but does that mean that they shouldn't do it? No. Does that mean that unless you've got an idea that magically it that you magically think - oh, you know what would be amazing? I've had this idea for years and if only multi user, live action mode cap was a thing in VR and then you wait until the tech arrives or you spend all your budget and resource trying to make that happening, you are in debt, and it's painfully spent 1000s in your own time and in budget. And you know, eventually it becomes this thing where, actually, yes, that tech now does exist because you built it for the story. That's incredible. But that's a 1% story. I would much rather you spend your time and energy, focusing on creating pieces that you really love that you really believe in and if you get inspired by the tech to either integrate that into your story, or let that be the thing that inspires your story, then go for it. Don't let anyone tell you that that is wrong.


Now, let's talk about the extremes, right? Because like I've just mentioned, there are certain pieces that have been created historically in VR, that they were the ones that pioneered an evolution in the technology because they so badly wanted to do something specific that didn't even exist yet. Like for example, I remember years ago, probably about three years ago, maybe three or four years ago, actually maybe I was at Sheffield doc fest. And there was a piece there. And I'm it's the name of it is escaping me. And I so apologise to the creators. I can't remember what it's called. But it was made made by Grace Boyle and her company, the feelies. And it was basically a multi sensorial experience where you were kind of going through, I believe, the Amazon jungle and they had created these, like these certain

scents that were triggered, depending on where you were in the story and they had, you know, things like a heater and a fan and you were in like this enclosed environment so that you could really feel and smell all of these things that accompanied your VR experience, right? And when they did that, they were just using, like little vials that they would kind of use and they were using your actual physical kind of props and there was people there that had to facilitate that. But flash forward to now, you can actually buy cartridges that attach to your VR headset that release sense at a certain time. How mad is that? I don't know how much they influence the invention of that but I have to think that, you know, their idea, they just really, really wanted to use smell as one of the the kind of sensorial experiences. And as a result of that, we have seen massive strides in the invention of that actual technology. That's a 1% extreme example, of a creator that was like - no, I have this vision for this project and I'm going to run with it even though it doesn't exist. Then lo and behold, years later, now, it's come into existence. That's incredible. Okay, that's amazing. I'm not decrying the merit in that and if you're one of those people, if you're like a Willy Wonka style, artist that's just got this wacky, wacky, crazy idea doesn't exist yet, but you're gonna make it happen, It's going to be your life's work. Go for it. Hats off to you. I'm not one of those people. Absolutely not. Not got the patience for that, but you go for it.


Then on the other extreme, I remember being at an exhibition in LA a couple years ago... oh, god, what I wouldn't give to be in LA right now. I mean, to be fair, we're just coming out of the depths of the winter here in the UK, so even like a nice 10 degrees is feeling like summer here. But what I wouldn't give to be able to fly across the world and go experience some VR in a sweaty arena with a load of Californians. I was at this, this event, which was showcasing some brilliant pieces, including really credible creative pieces. like there was an original from Hulu, which was this interactive comedy where you got to smoke weed with Snoop Dogg and the piece by Lucas Rosato 'Where Thoughts Go', which was this beautiful piece that premiered at Tribeca at the time. So really credible pieces, and then you had pieces that essentially were demo, they didn't really have any story. They weren't well acted. They weren't very engaging, It was just more an exploration of - oh, okay, right. So what we've done is we've turned this controller into... like a gun so you can use this control. It's strapped to like a model gun and it's a story where you do XYZ and isn't it amazing that we're using the sensor on the controller attached to a prop to interact with the environment? And don't get me wrong, their tech was phenomenal, It was fantastic but I wasn't emotionally impacted and I will say if that wasn't the point of the peace, then fair dues, it depends on the context, right? Depends on what they were trying to achieve with that, but I got the sense that they were trying to make it quite impactful. They were trying to have this really Hollywood like action story going on and I was just lost because I was just kind of the tech was the thing that was driving it, the tech was the most interesting thing and also the tech was the thing that it wasn't intuitive, probably because it was so new. Because they were trying to kind of invent this new thing and the story was just lost because I was just so caught up with trying to work it all out. work out what I was supposed to do with this thing. And that's an example of where it's too tech heavy and the story is just so lacking. So you do have to get a balance. I'm not suggesting that everyone goes out and creates an idea purely to run on, you know, run a certain thing, but it would be completely unrealistic to say that at this point in time, when we all have limited budgets, limited resources, limited time, quite frankly. Often we're working with small crews, or even just like working on our own projects. all by ourselves. It would be totally unrealistic, to not start with the technology in mind.


This is something that I preach often on other episodes when I'm talking about creating a VR film, you have to start with your audience. If you go and look at any panel, any keynote, any kind of, you know, traditional television or film event, most commissioners at like a Netflix or Amazon, they will sell this idea of... oh, yeah, don't worry, you know, don't factor in the budget, don't factor in, you know, don't try and write for what we want. Just, write the idea and yes, of course there is merit in that, when your Netflix or when your Prime because they want to discover that 1%. They want the gems and create things that have been rejected elsewhere or would seem so, so out there and such high budget that no one else would take a gamble on it, maybe. But when it comes to VR, when it comes to being an indie creator, you have to be an entrepreneur, you have to have in mind how much you're willing to spend in not only money, but in your time, and what return you're going to get from that. So if you set out to make something, and then two years down the line, you realise no one's funding it. It's impossible the hardware that you originally were making it for, because you thought it was, you know, it can only work on the Magic Leap, you know, you're gonna be screwed, because who's got a Magic Leap to experience your piece? You know, who's what happens when a Gear VR stops functioning, etc, you've spent so long trying to make this piece because you weren't taking into consideration the tech, and you weren't taking into consideration where you wanted this thing to go and how it was going to show and what the realities of that was going to be, that maybe it just kind of destroys the project down the line.

I've touched on an interesting thing that I just want to elaborate on, which is timescales and timeframes. When people kind of come to me and they say - I've been working on this VR project for three years...in my head, I'm thinking well, I really hope that you kind of kept up with the changes in the industry and you have adjusted, because if you're making a piece that you thought of three years ago, so much has changed and we know so much more about this medium now, although we're still very early on, we still know a lot more about this industry and that potentially you could be lagging, right? Because three years in VR world is like 10 to 20 years in, in the normal kind of TV and films fair in terms of advancements in, in the language of the experience in the advancements in the tech. So I would recommend, don't be too precious. Especially if you're early on in your career, just make make make.

Okay, try and keep things as small as possible, until you have the kind of profile that you could go after investment and when I say you're the kind of profile, I'm talking a very, very 1% of people, okay, I'm talking even eat like, even something like how I'm positioned in the industry, even I can't go to an investor and get 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of pounds. The BFI money that I've got for my most recent project is a lovely sum of money, but it's absolutely nowhere near what something like a spheres, or a gloomy eyes, or a crow, the legend, or the line, any of these massive kind of, you know, massive is relative, obviously, but massive in the VR industry kind of pieces have been backed by or received investment from. So really keep that in mind to summarise, don't be afraid of letting the tech lead your ideas, just make sure it doesn't become an all out tech demo, make sure that you are inspired by the tag rather than creating a story around the tag. The story does still have to be central but don't be afraid to be inspired and kind of incorporate new tag, don't be afraid of the assholes that will be just doing hand tracking because hand tracking is popular. Like oh, Sod off, Karen.


So there you go. If you get anyone like that coming to you, you can just send them to me, send them to my podcast and I'll set them straight. But Likewise, if you've got an idea that you really believe in, you're really passionate about and the kind of you You aren't led by the tag. Don't let that be something that stops you. Don't just let your passion fly. Just don't take forever on it. Please, please, please don't wait around thinking that you're sitting on a goldmine and just spending all your time trying to get people to invest trying to get people to give you money or their time. Just make it because I promise you that piece like when I it's funny because when I do talks, I still obviously talk about Keyed Alike, my first project but at this point that project is five years old. It's five, we filmed it in December 2016. I would be embarrassed if I thought that was the best work, I've done, since then, you know and so, so much has happened since then I know so much more about the medium and I love that piece for what it was, and in the context of when it was showing, but man, oh man, I've got so much bigger dreams and the bigger visions, and bigger ideas now because I know a lot more about what works, what doesn't what audiences want, where we are in terms of the ecosystem, and you can be the same.


So get out there, make your projects, if you're new to this space, just start trying things, get inspired, use the different tag, use the different features, see what comes to you, I remember when the hand tracking first came out and I did actually get inspired and write a really, really short, really short piece, which was basically just this kind of one to one experience with someone playing rock paper, scissors. And it was I won't go into too much detail. But it was basically like this lofty kind of metaphor for Rock Paper, Scissors only having an a certain amount of outcomes and isn't that funny because that's like life and, and basically, it was a giant metaphor just using rock paper scissors, but you the audience had to use the hand tracking to actually play rock, paper, scissors and depending on what you did, say for example, you do rock they the character did scissors that would tell a different bit of the script to if you did paper, and they did scissors. So it was kind of like a lofty metaphor for life that was tied in to the task of hand tracking and interactive narrative, which I've not made because I don't have the computing skills to make that. So that's an idea of an example that was inspired by the tech but I will probably never get around to making that piece. Even though I feel like it could be really brilliant because that's not in my area of expertise and if I were to spend all of my time trying to get funding and trying to find people that would be willing to help me make that it would probably take so so much longer, I would much rather stick to something that I know if all was lost. If the BFI money like for some reason fell through, If everything, if everyone that was currently on board for the project decided to pull out, I know I could make that piece by myself because I have those skills, I have those resources.


So be practical, but don't be afraid to dream and and let your imagination run wild when it comes to the tech. So this episode was basically just a massive paradox really wasn't it? So have fun digesting that. If you like this episode, it would mean the world to me if you shared it if you just take a screenshot of the of the episode and share on your social media or if there was a particular quote that stood out to you put it on social media and tag me I absolutely love to see what people are taking away from these episodes because podcasts are a little bit of an echo chamber especially one that you deliver as a monologue by yourself in your living room pacing around. Let's check the step count, 6000 steps. Not bad, not bad. Okay, I'm gonna leave you there guys, but I look forward to speaking to some of you on the interwebs and have a great day wherever you are in the world.

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