Virtual Reality and Wagner

The scoopcamp is well known for its international keynote speakers. In this years’ edition, we are honored to announce Emmy Award winner Thomas Wallner, founder and owner of DEEP Inc.. nextMedia.Hamburg talked with him about crossmedia storytelling, Virtual Reality and – to some degree – Wagner.

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Illustration courtesy Édith Carron

Thomas, with your projects, you are telling stories across media. “Songs of Freedom” for example is a website, 4-part TV series, feature documentary and mobile interactive songbook application. How do you plan those stories and which plots are told on which medium?

There really is no ‘one size fits all’-approach to creating cross media stories. When you look at any given interactive project you have to look at the strength of your assets. On Songs of Freedom it was the music, the sheer power of the music performed by people who believed in and found a sense of transcendence in the music. There is story that interweaves their personal histories with the music but that was covered well by the TV series and the accompanying website expanded on these story strands. But we felt that taking the audience into the music and the locations in which it was being performed on would probably be the strongest approach and in the end it was. We used 360 video and VR because they could literally take you there, into that location in Cameroon or the recording studio in Ontario, or that Church in Nova Scotia, places filled with the music that was being made in them.

And the planning?

I’m very classical about it. I think again there is this misconception that the shape, power and thrust of stories changes with the medium. I’m not convinced of this. I think the story comes first and you have to find ways to express it in each medium. And that is when you realize that you encounter obstacles. The web is very informational in nature. It’s cold and stark to a degree and you will find it undermining the emotional truth and power of what you are trying to convey. VR is immersive and strong but we are wrangling with it to see how it can be used to tell a story. We are still figuring out. We can’t transpose regular film vocabulary to it. So again it gets in the way. I’ve always felt that if you are bringing interactivity to a story or a film it has to be better because you are doing it. If you can’t find a way to make it better through interactivity, leave it and make a classical non interactive media piece. Some things ARE better left that way and you have to have the guts to admit it rather than forcing a great idea or story into an interactive corset that it might not want to be in.

Which of the media you normally use is best if you want interaction with the user?

If you haven’t already guessed it, I’m big into VR and 360 video. I can’t say yet that it is the best medium yet in terms of interaction with users but it shows great promise. I’ll tell you what I mean. At the moment the interaction in cinematic VR is simply the direction of your gaze. I’m talking cinematic VR shot in the real world where you can’t interact with the medium yet, like you can with real time rendered CGI models. They offer you interactivity, the ability to alter and interact with the scenes around you, but they do not offer you a real photographic view on the world. So although cinematic VR offers us right now only the ability to immerse ourselves and gaze about, not to interact or manipulate the photographic representation of the world around us, I love that the interaction is so simple. You just need to look and be there. It’s totally interactive in that sense that you can direct your gaze and that integration does not discriminate in terms of gender, age or cultural background. All human know how to look around!

Right now, especially TV series are described as a fitting format to tell complex stories. Are “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad” just part of a hype or do you see a future in storytelling within a single medium?

Well if you are Wagner you are still searching for that Gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art that combines all known media in to one. I think this is an illusion. Each medium has its use, its time, its flavor, its mode of reception/consumption. That is what makes media so beautiful, and the fact that we mix it all up so freely these days is quite wonderful. VR is interesting in the sense that it can actually represent all previous media in it, while VR itself can only be conveyed in VR. Is it the solution Wagner was looking for? I can represent a regular film in VR on a virtual screen, or watch TV on a virtual TV set, but if you want to represent VR you have to experience it. All previous media can only describe it or evoke it metaphorically. It’s really a new medium. That’s very interesting. VR is not backwards compatible that way!

Let us take a look in the future. What will change the media most: Virtual Reality, new social networks or something we don’t have in mind yet?

VR is completely overhyped at the moment. It’s actually slightly embarrassing, but it will change our world. And at the risk of sounding like I drank the cool-aid: I think the original invention of VR in the nineties and earlier (it’s older than you think) and the current new wave of VR that is the outcome of maturing technologies is as significant as the emerging of the printing press. It will have a profound impact on our world. AR, though I have not explored it, is just as interesting perhaps even more interesting and the two will no doubt merge and co-exist without clearly defined boundaries. We are entering an era, where the virtual and real, dreams, desires and projections will all be mixed up in the way we look at the world in new ways and I have no doubt that we will as a result look at the world in new ways while using our traditional unchanging cognition that biology has endowed us with. We are in a weird, wonderful and scary way reshaping the world we look at and the process in which we look at it. VR is the ultimate attempt of humans to dominate nature and creation. We have to watch out that we do not get punished for our hubris. It’s a strange territory we are currently entering.

So is VR about escaping from the reality?

When I was in LA recently and in parts of the States, I could see why the US is especially obsessed with VR. Much of the urban landscape is so ugly, monotone, corporate and loveless that it almost pushes you to want to escape it, to turn your back on the real world and experience something of beauty, where you can call yourself the king of infinite space. The young inventor of the Oculus Rift Palmer Lucky was inspired by seeing the Matrix and wanting  to create a similar experience (minus the dark vision of humans as batteries serving machines with their body). So we have a case of life imitating art. I think we should be cautious but there is no doubt VR and AR will change media as we know it.