August 21, 2023

AR and VR in Immersive Storytelling

By Sarah Amy Leung

Throughout history, humans have expanded the ways they continue to tell stories. Whether orally, textually, or visually, stories carry humans’ desire to communicate meaning with others. Here at Virtual Film School, our four-week VR/AR Storytelling and Production course offers students a chance to craft new stories using immersive technology. Immersive technology or extended reality (XR) combines the physical and digital worlds to create unique experiences for users; virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are two forms of immersive technology increasingly used in storytelling.

Within the last decade, AR and especially VR have become more accessible to a broader audience, generating more interest and opportunities to use them for storytelling. Though many people associate VR and AR with video games, the scope of these technologies expand much further. Allow Virtual Film School to give you a glimpse into what VR and AR can create.

Explaining VR and AR

Virtual reality (VR) creates digital environments that users interact with. VR places users in environments using equipment that monitors their movements. A headset, also called a heads-up display (HUD), tracks head movements as users play. Two elements help create the VR experience: a gyroscope, a device used to sense orientation, for stability during play and a stereoscopic effect, which makes 2D images appear 3D, made by barriers between each eye. These barriers use a split feed to generate a more realistic impression. 

The cost of headsets varies depending on the platform: while users can experience VR for under $100 CAD, higher quality headsets cost hundreds of dollars; more advanced ones  require over a thousand. The  price rises if users want to include controllers or other add-ons to make the experience more immersive. Mobile VR, which revolves around smartphones,  is cheaper compared to stationary VR, which usually includes add-ons but delivers a stronger experience than its mobile counterpart.

Augmented reality (AR) differs from virtual reality: instead of creating new worlds to explore, AR enhances the physical world around its users. Though AR headsets and glasses such as Google Glass utilize this technology, most people will interact with AR through their smartphones. The platform will analyze the physical environment around it and add data through text or graphics to convey more information. Think about a time you might have used Google Translate while visiting a foreign country — if you ever used its camera feature, which translates the text directly onto the images displayed on screen, you’ve interacted with augmented reality.

AR offers greater accessibility than VR due to its greater integration in peoples’ lives and cheaper price point. Though AR glasses can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars, most people only need to invest in a smartphone. Since this involves a device people already use in their daily life, AR provides an easier access point for both consumers and creators.  

The VR/AR Market in Canada

According to a 2020 study by the ICTC, Toronto is Canada’s “largest immersive tech ecosystem,” with BC, Quebec, and Alberta following. Canada houses more than 350 immersive technology companies, and 81 per cent of these companies specialize in fields outside of entertainment. These include:

  • National defence and first response sectors
  • Medical and pharmaceutical sectors
  • Manufacturing and heavy machinery sectors
  • Energy, mining, and other parts of the natural resources sector
  • Real estate sector

This report also valued Canada’s immersive technology industry at approximately $0.6 billion CAD in 2018, and they projected a rise to $8 billion CAD by 2022. However, the pandemic occurring between those years remains a large variable for future projections. The occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic made personal connections a priority. Due to VR and AR’s ability to connect people virtually, the pandemic boosted engagement between consumers and products. XRToday’s “XR Market Guide 2022” says that XR helped companies combat the impacts of the pandemic, which created a “virtual space race” that expanded the reach, potential, and application of these technologies.

As many studies on the Canadian immersive technology industry were conducted prior to the pandemic, the true growth of this industry in a post-pandemic world is not yet known. However, North America remains a leader in this sector: in 2021, its revenue accounted for 35 per cent of the $28.5 billion USD made by the global immersive technology industry that year. Anyone looking to get into this industry will find a lot of potential in North America.

VR and AR in Storytelling

The ways audiences interact with storytelling within VR and AR differ from many other methods. VR allows audiences to insert themselves into the product. They can switch from observing to directly interacting with the story. Many VR video games feature the player influencing the actions using their real motions. Even unconventional video games, like IKEA’s VR Pancake Kitchen, have players be the main character, rather than control a character unlike themselves. Whether it’s slaying dragons or making pancakes in an IKEA kitchen, VR players actively participate in the games from their perspective.

VR can also be used to direct, shoot, and manage other tasks involved in making TV shows or films. In fact, the first feature length documentary shot entirely within VR released last year: HBO MAX’s 2022 documentary We Met in Virtual Reality explores social relationships within the online game VRChat during the COVID-19 lockdown. The film’s director, Joe Hunting, shot the film using a camera called VRCLens. Though the film takes place in a virtual world, the stories and people within are very human. This serves as an example where no additional VR equipment is needed from the consumers’ perspectives, and it manages to portray the human experience effectively like other documentaries.

AR, on the other hand, enhances consumers’ experiences by adding additional information or graphics to deepen the understanding of a story. In 2022, Disney released its short film “Remembering” simultaneously alongside a companion iOS app that interacts with the movie. Using the app, viewers can bring the environments of the movie to their own living rooms. While people can watch the movie without the app, it gives people an extra way to experience it. The world expands in front of their very eyes. 

Storytelling within VR/AR is not restricted to entertainment-based industries either; as stated before, many VR/AR companies utilize the technology in other areas. The Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden, Manitoba partnered with Winnipeg-based VR/AR companies ZenFri Inc. and Bit Space Development in 2017 to create an app for their museum. They released  Fossil Discovery Adventure,which allowed museumgoers to gain more knowledge about the exhibits: users can 3D images of dinosaurs’ skeletons, play games related to the fossils, and the app even works on merchandise sold within the museum. 

Experience VR/AR Storytelling in Your Own Hands

VR and AR offer far more storytelling potential waiting to be explored. Though once inaccessible to the public, these technologies have advanced and became more widespread than ever before. With larger explorative ventures into VR/AR, people can tell stories involving their audience to a greater depth. What you see is just the beginning, and you could contribute to this growing field.

Ready to turn your ideas into reality? Virtual Film School’s VR/AR Storytelling and Production course offers hands-on experience in extended reality. Let our school help you discover and craft your own stories in this fascinating, evolving medium. A wider world of learning and interaction awaits you in our virtual class! Before the course starts, feel free to check out more industry overviews, tips, and advice on the Virtual Film School blog.

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