I’m sat here with some tea and a copy of Francesco Marconi and Taylor Nakagawa’s The Age of Dynamic Storytelling, a report on the use of ‘immersive media’ in the field of journalism, academia, and other such areas.

I recommend downloading the paper, but what really hooked me in was the study on user engagement. And that’s when some conclusions get interesting, and we will get to that down the line.

And the paper goes well with an Earl Grey. Who knew.

Trends and topics

But first, the paper is fascinating. It covers the inception of their small unit, with their first collaboration with Matterport and ‘The Suite Life,’ to them convincing the AP that ‘dynamic storytelling’ should be an area which the organisation should investigate in the newsroom. From there, the report covers a number of bases from the latest trends (volumetric capture) to case studies.

The beginning acts like an introduction, setting the stones for immersive storytelling. Much of it is basic, the framework for what many immersive reality people would know, such as the shift from traditional to dynamic storytelling the role of putting a viewer in control.

What I found particularly interesting was its section on key challenges and concerns – and their thoughts mimic my own. A great story is a great story no matter the format, as they say, and just because the storytelling format is unique, doesn’t mean the technology replaces solid methods. I completely agree. VR is not a replacement, it is a complement to immersive storytelling, and the report correctly highlights the difference (even if some companies I can think of are not aware of it).

The report continues with a commentary on the industry, with a smattering of tips and tricks on the side – all very useful, all very interesting. But then the really interesting part comes – a scientific study on VR user engagement.

Immersive media and differing headsets

Teaming up with Multimer, twelve participants were hooked into motion-capture suits, EEG brainwave sensors, and heart-rate monitors to track their state through watching three 360 videos These experiences were ISIS in Iraq, cultural parade in New Orleans, the ivy trade in Thailand, and an underwater experience.

I will not go into the scientific methodology here – the report goes into full detail on how the process worked. But it’s finding are… intriguing.

The team found that ‘participants had the highest levels of open-mindedness — being attracted to a topic, but not alarmed — on the room-scale VR headset, while the cardboard elicited the highest level of stimulation, which is associated with individuals being more attentive than they are relaxed.’

What this basically means is that the cardboard headset stimulated users the most – which they attribute to the lower resolution and holding the device, meaning more brain activity was being used to process a lower-quality image. And yes, VR headsets were the most intense due to higher image quality and the ability to move around.

I’m unsure about these findings as it really depends on the software – surely the type of experiences they play really affects the user? Seeing an underwater experience will naturally relax the user more than the violence of ISIS, no matter the headset. Perhaps the methodology may have been improved if there were three types of experiences – relaxing, horror, and action – to see how they differed further. In this respect, software is king.

In any case, based on their experiments, they came away with some key takeaways – which I will not spoil here, but needless to say I agree with their conclusions and where the headsets should be directly, particularly on room-scale VR. Seriously, give them a click, they deserve it for their work. 

Concluding remarks

Overall, it was a great report which I found to be fascinating. Their scientific enquiry was really interesting, and gave solid foundations for where to focus VR, from empathetic adventures to violent documentaries. With an introduction that set the scene nicely, they then delved into the hard data of what works best, and while I raise questions on the software they use, their conclusions were sound.

As a final point, they say that ‘immersive media relies on building a culture of experimentation.’ This one sentence really struck a chord to me, in the same way that a well-written line in a book resonates with the reader. It is true – a collaborative spirit helps with creative expression, and VR is no different.

A great read from a great team. You can read the full report here.

Tom Ffiske
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