For me Virtual Reality has been one of the things my father and I have shared since he first introduced me to the developing technology nearly seven years ago. My dad is the owner of a small media company called Melcher Media, which for decades focused on publishing print media. Unfortunately, in 2008 when the recession hit a serious dent was put in the book market as American families tightened their belts. This shrink in market size spelt bad news for my dad’s business and made him face a decision between maintaining his traditional but shrinking business model consisting of print books or pivoting to explore other more profitable forms of narrative storytelling. He chose the latter and has gone beyond adding app construction, VR video production and digital media consulting services to his firm’s repertoire, by founding a conference called the Future of Storytelling Summit which explores the future of storytelling in the digital age. He founded the conference in 2012 and since then I have been very lucky to have experienced the event over and over from a unique perspective. Over the years I have worked with my dad in various ways to be helpful during the two-day event which can be extremely stressful for him. I have been a technology assistant helping attendees use various Virtual Reality experiences that are featured at his conference. Through attending and working at my father’s conference as well frequent discussions with him on the topic, I have developed a strong first-hand understanding of Virtual Realities’ dynamic and powerful storytelling abilities.
The first impactful example of VR storytelling that I encountered through the Future of Storytelling was an elaborate experience Birdly which allows the participant to simulate the flight of a bird throughout a virtual rendering of Manhattan. In Birdly a single user lies horizontally on their stomach with their arms attached to mechanical wings and a VR headset attached to their face. The user then can control flight by flapping their wings and adjusting their weight as they zoom around the recognizable cityscape of New York. What really struck me about the experience was how totally immersive it was. Digital media and video games for years have been able to simulate the user’s control over various subjects, however, Birdly truly allows you to become the bird. In depicting exactly what a bird would see, replicating the feelings of flapping a bird’s wings and even simulating the wind on a bird’s face with a fan placed in front of the user, Birdly achieves a level of immersion that I immediately realized could only be achieved with Virtual Reality.
A few months later, my father gave me a demo of a new VR experience, this one more profound than Birdly, which reshaped my ideas about the educational power of VR. The experience was called New Dimensions in Testimony and it featured an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor named Pinchas Gutter, who had been video-recorded answering every imaginable question about his horrific experience at the nazi’s Majdanek Extermination Camp. Gutter spent countless hours being recorded answering questions regarding everything from the nazi’s murder of his family to his greatest struggles of his imprisonment. The result is a VR experience which allows the user to have a virtual conversation with an actual holocaust survivor who is capable of answering thousands of questions about his experience. It is hard to overstate the importance of technology that can connect us to people who experienced the pain and suffering of catastrophic events such as the holocaust. In an age of fake news and growing difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction online, technology that is capable of virtually putting people in the same room with a holocaust survivor in order to show them the abject horror of the holocaust is capable of changing how we are able to remember history in the digital age. Virtual Reality has the power to allow us to interact with primary sources and connect with them on basic human emotional levels. Through this experience I realized the immense power of VR to gap the dividers of space and time and connect people to important stories that may otherwise be tragically lost.
Birdly and New Dimensions in Testimony are two examples that have stuck with me about the power of VR storytelling technology. Never before in human history could we simulate what it feels like to fly like a bird or have a virtual but interactive conversation with a holocaust survivor. This technology has the power of engaging us in stories that up until this point could only consumed through simple print. The immersive nature of VR technologies allows users to reach full multi-sensorial engagement with the experiences which makes immensely impactful.