Storytelling steps into the future with virtual reality


BYU student Austin Rodriguez shoots a bow and arrow in virtual reality using the HTC Vive. The Vive is one of a few new virtual reality systems to come out this year. (Natalie Stoker)

When Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe walked onto a stage at the Electronic Entertainment Expo a year ago he revealed a highly anticipated piece of technology.

“With this device, you’re going to finally be able to teleport to new worlds,” Iribe said, holding a piece of equipment similar to goggles in the air.

It was the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that places players in video game settings as though they were actually there.

The Oculus Rift began shipping to the public on March 28. Its largest competitor, the HTC Vive, was released in April. Oculus alone is anticipated to sell 3.6 million headsets in 2016, according to Statista.

Virtual reality’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to advances in computing power, according to BYU assistant professor of animation Seth Holladay.

“It’s not just trying to add a gimmick on top of something that’s already working,” Holladay said. “This is a different medium that has a lot of space to explore.”

Uncharted Territory

Exploration is front-and-center for BYU animation major and junior Austin Rodriguez, one of Holladay’s students. Virtual reality is still a relatively new medium, according to Rodriguez. He said there’s still a lot to explore and discover.

Rodriguez interacts with a virtual world using wireless controllers. Valve sent BYU’s animation program an HTC Vive headset so they could develop games and movies in VR. (Natalie Stoker)

“It feels like the cutting edge,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like when film first started; everyone was learning and everything was new. That’s how it feels right now.”

Rodriguez proposed implementing virtual reality into the animation program’s upcoming projects. They contacted Valve, a video game developer and distributor and inquired about the emerging platform. Valve responded by sending an HTC Vive.

Rodriguez doesn’t yet know how the animation program will utilize virtual reality in its projects. He’s currently looking at what’s been done thus far. He said he is mostly excited about the potential it has for storytelling.

“It’s all about immersion when it comes to story,” Rodriguez said.

Holladay explained that virtual reality could be used in education. He’s seen a student project that recreated Mormon’s cave from the Book of Mormon. He believes developers need to fully embrace the new technology in order for virtual reality to flourish.

“I hope it provides different opportunities in storytelling and in gaming; not just taking a game or a film and putting it in VR. I don’t think that’d be as successful as people who are developing particularly for the medium,” Holladay said.

The Next Level

A player explores The Void using its headgear and vest. The Void users explore virtual worlds using a headset, computerized vest and props. (The Void)

The Void, a company based in Lindon, Utah, is embracing the medium and has even developed what it calls hyper-reality.

“I like to explain it like we’re taking virtual reality to the next level,” said The Void public relations specialist Whitney Thomas. “The biggest difference with hyper-reality is that we’re using interactive effects.”

The Void users navigate a digital world that overlays a physical set while wearing headgear and a computerized vest at The Void. Participants physically walk forward, sideways and backward to explore the world rather than using controllers. When they reach a wall in the game, they also reach a wall in real life. Heat lamps and practical effects are used to simulate the environment around the player.

A puzzle game called “Curse of the Serpent’s Eye” places the user in an ancient temple. Users hold actual prop torches in their hands to explore the temple. The digital torch mimics the movement of the physical prop.

The Void’s first public attraction opens this July in New York City. The experience will give participants the opportunity to become ghostbusters, ahead of the July 15 release date for the new “Ghostbusters” reboot film.

A screenshot from The Void’s “Curse of the Serpent’s Eye”. Users experience hyper-reality by exploring an ancient temple with only a torch in hand. (The Void)

Chief Creative Officer and a co-founder of The Void Curtis Hickman said their goal is to take people to places they couldn’t go otherwise.

“We’re not just trying to replicate reality,” Hickman said. “We’re trying to go beyond that.”

The Future

Hickman believes virtual and hyper-reality will make an impact on storytelling in the future, but said he believes they aren’t the ultimate storytelling tools.

“I think other mediums can do a better job at conveying story,” Hickman said. “I still think books are one of the best ways to tell a story.”

Hickman believes VR technology will tell a different kind of story rather than replace what already exists. Hyper-reality will be a future version of storytelling — one where the story is shaped by the user.

“Virtual reality is really about you living a story; You become the storyteller,” Hickman said. “As far as people living a story and writing a story — having people become the creative force – I think hyper-reality can pretty much own that space.”

The future of the technology is rooted in its ability to uplift users, according to Hickman. He’s confident the technology will continue to take off so long as they devote themselves to creating positive experiences.

“It’s a powerful medium,” Hickman said. “Everything we do is intended to uplift and improve the people that go through it. If done right, that can change the world for the better and we’ll all be better off for it.”

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