"You can’t look away, you’re fully immersed and vulnerable and that’s a powerful thing"
This belief has defined Koblin’s career from day one. His data-visualisation work has always been about creating experiences that move people. Virtual reality is simply another means to do this. Like in Clouds Over Sidra, powerful VR content has the potential to connect users to others and engage them in emotional experiences that may otherwise to be too far removed from their immediate environment.
“At the core of it I think most good storytelling still has many of the same components, so there are characters you empathise with, settings that feel real,” says Koblin. “The difference is that being a part of virtual reality is not an ephemeral experience between your imagination and the storyteller. It’s actually a much more visceral presence and experience when you’re a part of the environment. That means there are also greater opportunities and a plethora of challenges as well.”
Those challenges range from practicalities like high-resolution imagery and reducing latency, to more conceptual questions around what this medium means and how you express it. Like all new technologies before it, VR required an exploratory phase. Koblin himself admits the technology still hasn’t reached a consumer level; it’s just crossed the baseline threshold. But technology is only one part of the VR experience. Like Koblin says, one of the greatest challenges here is content. How do you tell a story in VR?
“Seeing all the consumer devices now having these capabilities crossing the threshold we feel like it’s the time to really start something and really experiment with not just what’s technically possible but what’s possible from a narrative perspective,” says Koblin. “How do you figure out the language of the medium? How can you come up with a pipeline, a toolset and a dialogue for around how this stuff should work? So that’s why we started Vrse.”
Vrse’s task is to help devise a language for VR, to get to grips with its features and understand what makes sense from a story perspective. As it stands, Koblin sees Vrse’s stories as metaphorical verses, short narrative perspectives that exist within a larger metaverse. “This idea is that Vrse is this short single element of this larger metaverse, if you will,” he explains. “This idea that you have to have one short narrative perspective and all these different viewpoints can exist together.”
The applications of VR are definitely not restricted to entertainment. Some of the most exciting potentials lie in medicine, where doctors can trail surgery in virtual environments, and psychology, where immersive therapy has already been successful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers. It could also prove invaluable for brands.
“I think the kind of connect you can make in virtual reality is potentially the kind of connection you remember for the rest of your life, it’s about experience, and presence, and being there,” explains Koblin. “I think it’s a massive opportunity. It will need to be done intelligently, tastefully and with respect for the user because you can’t look away, you’re fully immersed and vulnerable and that’s a powerful thing.”
With any technology that’s new to the market there’s the potential to set the bar high, and there’s also the potential to set it too low. Koblin and Vrse want to ensure it’s the former. The fact that VR’s format is so unknown is a challenge and an opportunity.
“I think part of what we see with HBO, Netflix and all these great creatives of the modern day is that they’ve abandoned a lot of the tropes that have evolved around formats. I think we have the opportunity to create these standards not around the machines and not around the industry but around the user and around what is actually a great experience.”