I’m Gonna Pass on That VR Thing

I’m Gonna Pass on That VR Thing

“Future’s made of virtual insanity now
Always seem to be govern’d by this love we have
For useless, twisting, our new technology
Oh, now there is no sound – for we all live underground”

Virtual Insanity, Jamiroquai

I spent the better part of last week binge watching House of Cards. Like any good story, I appreciated the point of view that the writers and director brought to the table to create an engaging narrative. The resulting show was compelling and immersive, but not interactive.

Much has been made about virtual reality (VR) and it’s future in immersive storytelling. Late last year, The New York Times unveiled its VR effort by sending every print subscriber a Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer. Nokia has their OZO camera, Nikon has their KeyMission 360, and even Industrial Light and Magic has a VR effort with their ILMxLAB spin-off.

I have been an early adopter of technology for most of my life. As a Star Wars/Star Trek kid, I’ve held the dogma that technology will be society’s savior. But I’m having second thoughts. And when it comes to VR, I have a few specific issues with its promise of immersive entertainment:

Motion sickness

For many people, this is a non-issue. But when I was eight and went on a carnival ride, I realized that my inner ear would not cooperate with anything other than terra firma. Looking into a pair of VR goggles gives me an almost immediate headache. Perhaps this will be rectified with high refresh rates and diopters (I wear glasses), but for the time being, the experience has been awful.

Point of View

In the still photo world, we already have a point of view problem online. Responsive web design has led to the display of images to fit the screen rather than to tell a story. Photos get cropped and information gets lost along with the photographer’s point of view.


Hero image for a New York Times piece in horizontal orientation.


Same piece in a vertical orientation.

In a VR world, you can spin around and move your head up and down. With the NYT app and no goggles, I can change the orientation of my phone and dramatically alter what I’m looking at. Which reminds me, what am I supposed to be looking at? Everything? It’s linear, but disorganized. This isn’t storytelling, this is a trip to the zoo.

The experience is slightly reminiscent of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book from the 80s. This children’s series allowed the reader to decide key actions of the protagonist, turning the book into more of a game. This was a novel experience for a child, but in the end, it’s a gimmick, and a terrible form of storytelling.

Immersive or Interactive (or both)?

There is a whole subculture of gaming popularized by the site Twitch where the audience watches someone play a video game online. The notion sounds completely insane, but it’s really no different that watching Anthony Bourdain eat live octopus in Asia. Watching a movie, tv show or video game is a passive form of entertainment – one that let’s you relax and unwind while living vicariously through the exploits of others. Even reading a book could be considered a passive form of entertainment, but immersive nevertheless.


I think I’m looking forward because here are the credits.

Turning my head changes the point of view.

Turning my head changes the point of view.

In its current form, VR nudges the viewer to interact. Spin around the scene like in this Bjork music video.

But does the ability to see 360 degrees enhance or detract? Does the novelty and gimmickry take away from the conveyance and consumption of a cohesive narrative?

I’m not a grumpy Luddite arguing for the good old days. The point of view of the storyteller matters. It always has, and it always will. You can certainly hybridize storytelling with interactivity (narrative-based video games are proof of that), but the appeal is finite.

These are early days for VR, and immersive entertainment will clearly evolve and attract a certain segment of viewer. But for the time being, I’m placing my Google Cardboard right next to my 3D glasses and firing up my Netflix instead.


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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Daniel Arnaldi at 7:30 am

    This is a similar situation to the whole cinemagraph thing (minus the adjustment to the brain needed for some people with VR).

    It’s an interesting thing to play with for a while but then when the novelty wears off people will still want to connect with content, not just be impressed with the technology. I shake my head at beautifully shot cinemagraphs where a piece of clothing is moving for no reason other than to draw attention to the fact that it’s a cinemagraph. It’s distracting and detracts from what makes the visuals worth looking at in the first place. It would be nice to see the these technologies being used to add to a story, I suspect that’s going to be a big ask, even 3D hasn’t managed it and that’s been going to decades.

  2. Maximus Clarke at 3:08 am

    You’ve hit the nail on the head: the problem of VR is the lack of a distinctive point of view. Cinema as we know it is about artistic control of point of view, thru focal length, framing, camera movement, cuts, etc. Plopping the viewer into an environment and letting them look around at whatever they want isn’t the art of cinema. There may be artistry involved in creating a virtual world, but the entire visual language of film is missing.

    3D is another matter. Most of the traditional photographic and filmic vocabularies work just fine in the 3D medium, and there are additional techniques available to the stereographer that 2D image makers don’t really have access to. That doesn’t mean 3D is essential for every story or image — it’s not — but it can add to a viewing experience when used intelligently.

  3. Antonio Espino at 10:08 am

    I think the VR should be used for video gaming and not for photography purposes. I tried, or rather played with one, and I got a headache right away! Leave these VR things to the younger generation, I for one will “pass!”

  4. WTW at 11:18 am

    I have seen very sophisticated, professionally produced VR, not just the Google cardboard stuff, that might change your mind. There was a short VR scene shot on Red cameras taken from the movie “The Wild”, where Reese Witherspoon walks down a forest trail toward you, stops, takes off her backpack, and sits down on a rock next to you. She starts speaking with someone, and you hear a voice behind you; and when you spin around in your chair — it’s her mother (or her spirit): Laura Dern is standing there. They have a conversation, with you looking on, sitting or standing right next to them. At the end of their interaction, the mother’s image dissolves, Witherspoon puts on her backpack and walks off down the trail. Even with the low resolution of today’s goggles, it’s a “being there” experience, seemingly right next to those actresses, very different from anything I’ve seen before.

    BUT — in the movie, there is a red fox that Witherspoon’s character thinks may be watching over her, protecting her during her journey. And there is a CG fox that appears in the VR scene as well. Except that, if you aren’t looking the right direction at the right time, you don’t see it. And about half the people that watched the VR scene didn’t see the fox — i.e., they missed a major plot point of the movie! So yes, VR needs also to use sound or tactile stimuli to direct your attention to where it needs to be — rather than having characters repeatedly say “look at this”.

    There was also a demo at Sony of a VR experience taken from the movie “The Walk”, about the Frenchman tightrope walker who walked on a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. They had to digitally reconstruct the towers and the entire surrounding area of Manhattan for the movie. So they had all the digital assets to create a VR experience of what it was like to be on the top of those towers and to step off onto a single cable that stretched out into space 1700 feet in the air, while the city played out its daily life below you. They placed a cable on the floor, so that you had the feeling of actually stepping onto it, trying to maintain balance with it under your feet. And they tracked your position, to accurately reflect your PoV as you moved along the cable. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I can remember, to look down from the edge of that building and try to step off along that wire.

    VR still has lots of issues: display resolution/data rate limitations, response time/latency for tracking head movement, spatial tracking and movement in actual space vs VR space, depth-of-field issues (things are shot with a given distance “in focus”, and that focus depth doesn’t change as it normally would as you look around). And there are issues with most productions creating “cardboard cutout” characters or a rectilinear panorama projected in fake 3D space, rather than displaying 3D people and things in actual 4-pi (not just “360 degrees”) spherical 3D. And the cheap-and-quick-and-dirty stuff that is mostly being produced today can be really bad – nauseating in multiple senses of the word. Doing it well isn’t easy, and it isn’t inexpensive.

    But even with its limitations, today’s (well-done, well-produced, well-shot, well-rendered) VR isn’t just an “immersive” movie experience, but something very different from “going to the movies”.

    • JohnnyLA at 3:04 am

      Agree on all points.

      I have ex-co-workers who are now working for companies like Oclulus and Google VR and you haven’t seen anything yet.

      Just like with the beginning of Cinema, VR is still in the early phases of creating the language but when it starts to coalese after a number of years (or decaded depending) it’s going to be mind-blowing..and there will be no going back.

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