Insights from VR World Congress: prioritise storytelling over individual skills

As I left the aspirationally named VR World Congress in Bristol, England (We just thought, “Let’s go crazy,” event founder Ben Trewhella told me of the 750-delegate event that started as a meetup), I found myself puzzling over a number of questions.
Whether VR is going to explode as a technology platform, extending way beyond its gaming origins, was not among them. The number of potential use cases — enabling surgeons to conduct operations in the ‘presence’ of thousands of students, or architectural walkthroughs of new building designs — left me in no doubt.
Equally, I have a firmer idea of timescales. While displays and platforms may have passed a threshold of acceptability, they are still evolving. The consensus was that we now have at least a year of lead time, during which hardware will improve, along three dimensions: latency, frame rate and pixel density, said Frank Vitz, Creative Director at Cryengine.
In the meantime, software and content providers are discovering how to make the most of it all. But what new skills and capabilities need to be learned? The answer is not so straightforward, it transpires, as many of them (3D graphics, animation, behavioural design, data integration) are already available.
Less straightforward is understanding how this palette of skills should be integrated. In mobile and web development for example, User Experience (UX) is a hot topic. Makes sense — the best apps are those which get things right by the user, offering potentially complex functionality and services in simple, accessible ways.
Virtual Reality adds extra dimensions (quite literally) to the notion of experience. Not only is the environment immersive but it is also non-linear. Whereas most web sites and indeed, mobile apps tend to operate on a tree-walk basis (where you drop down a menu level then go ‘back’ to the main menu when done), VR removes this constraint.
From a construction perspective, this changes the game. A mobile or web team might have a UX guy, an adjunct who can add a layer of gaily coloured iconography to an app, as UX is just one thing to get right. In VR however, the experience — VX if you will — is everything, and needs to sit at the centre of the project.
As a consequence, many of my discussions at #VRWC were less about individual skills, and more about how to build the right skills mix into tight, multidisciplinary teams that can make the most of what VR has to offer. “You can’t just put out any old content and hope it will do well,” said Ben Trewhella.
“Unless you are delivering an enhanced service, then what is the point?” concurred Rick Chapman, high tech sector specialist at Invest Bristol & Bath, who used the evolution of 3D techniques in film as an illustration. “The first 3D films used 3D as a gimmick. Avatar, whatever you think of its plot, was conceived and filmed for 3D.”
Delivering VR-first experiences is a real, and potentially new, skill. The idea that VR is about storytelling came up repeatedly: it appears that holding someone’s attention in an immersive environment is tantamount to telling a good story, and anecdotal evidence suggested that those working at the leading edge of VR are also the better storytellers.
This takes the conversation beyond base skills to how they should be harnessed. “Yes, you need the right mix of capabilities, but you also need empathy, you reed rapport, you need to understand charisma,” said Rick. “Consider — language is a capability, but with charisma and rapport you don’t need to be so reliant on verbal acuity.”
This is not simply a message for design agencies, gaming companies and animation studios. If VR is to become mainstream, larger companies keen to engage better with their customers, from retailers to manufacturers, need also to welcome VR into the core of their customer engagement strategies.
This means considering the impacts on the relationship between IT, marketing, sales and service and indeed, HR and recruitment. Getting the virtual experience right may become as much a symptom, of an organisation’s depth of understanding of its audiences and how they want to engage, as a cause of any resulting business value.