Virtual Reality and The Writer

Last weekend, I read an intriguing article by Simon Haupt in the Globe and Mail about the impending reality of virtual realityIn “Reality Check,” Haupt explores the downsides as well as the upsides of being able to put on a headset (“…really, just a pair of special goggles attached to a smartphone,” he says) and be immediately transported to somewhere where you’re not. I’ve considered the possibility of virtual reality before – who hasn’t? – but I’ve never before considered the impact it could have on my own life… the benefit it could have, to be specific.

Here’s the thing. As I have groused elsewhere, often, I have wanted my whole life to travel, but I have only now started to be able to do it. The list of places I want to visit has been growing over the years to the point where I am sure I will never get to all the destinations I want to reach before I am too old to get to them.

Now, I have an alternative! If I can travel to the places at the top of my list while I still can, I can spend the next decade virtually visiting the ones I didn’t reach. (Although I do have a caveat: the virtual reality [VR] experience needs to include smells, because smells are – to me – a very important part of travelling. They’ll have to add a smell recorder to the Google car, I guess. By the time my knees and stamina for actual travel have given out, they should have been able to iron out that wrinkle.)

[Virtual reality is] coming very soon to a home near you, with the potential to transform not just gaming, entertainment and social media but social justice advocacy, tourism, education, marketing, shopping, and dozens of other everyday experiences. – Simon Haupt

After I’d finished thinking about how I could travel to Johannesburg from an armchair using only a headset and my iPhone (think of the money I will save!), I started thinking about the effect widespread access to virtual reality might have on writers, specifically of fiction. Haupt mentions that a VR experience based on The Martian is already in the works, and at least one VR creator he interviewed for the piece predicts that simply placing viewers in VR situations will not satisfy consumers for long.

Haupt relates his conversation with James Milward, president of Secret Location, a Toronto marketing company that is already making award-winning VR content. “Soon, he says, we’ll need stories, or ‘something you’d demand in any other medium to make it meaningful. So I think that’s inevitable. We’re going to have to continue to push how we make things, and what we choose to make, in order to make it meaningful’.”

I cannot begin to fathom how difficult it would be to create a novel that translates easily to to a virtual reality format, and I’ve already decided that Rita Just Wants to Be Thin is not likely to appeal to most people who are consumers of VR. Who wants to actually go through the experience of trying unsuccessfully to stick to a diet? Maybe once or twice, but not the number of times it takes Rita to finally figure out how to live a life that is not associated with overeating. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid on the other hand? That might be fun.

What do you think? Can you imagine writing something that can be reproduced in virtual reality format, or is it going to take a whole different kind of creators to make appetizing “stories” for virtual reality consumption? Maybe it isn’t possible at all, and (as Haupt also suggests) perhaps this is just a fad that is blowing in the wind.

5 responses

  1. Mary,
    Both my age and my prejudices may be apparent, but I feel that the VR potential is somewhat over-hyped. Like color TV it will become popular, but like 3-D movies it may always be a niche entertainment. Here’s why. The Walkman and the i-pod revolutionized personal entertainment by making it accessible from anywhere [like the cellphone, in a way]. But VR is unlikely to become equally widely used; think of someone jogging along a street with goggles on and the impression he/she is in a meadow. Dangerous if the Virtual and the Actual become confused. Since the ‘reality’ part must be convincing, interactivity is essential – I cannot take part or immerse myself in an arctic adventure story if my muscles say I am sitting in my armchair and my skin says the temperature is 70 degrees. It would be like a drug-induced hallucination, but incomplete and therefore unsatisfying. And if the story is scripted, my actions must be limited; I could listen to conversations, but not take part in them. So, with all respect, I think story-telling will remain much as it always has been; the telling of stories by an author without dynamic interruptions or alternative paths chosen by the reader/listener/viewer.

    That said, another medium to convey stories from author to consumer will always be welcome, as were printed books, newspapers, radio, TV, film and podcasts. The media are necessary, but they are not the messages.

  2. There are tools now that provide virtual reality settings for people in certain professional disciplines, such as law enforcement and aviation. They’re used strictly for training purposes, which is obviously essential. But, of course, no degree of “virtual” will ever replace actual. It may help writers in some cases; particularly those who can’t travel to a certain place. It could also be utilized as an inducement. If you could experience X location in a virtual world, then you might be more inclined to visit the place for a real world experience. Again, that may help writers craft more believable tales.

    Ernest Hemingway, for example, wrote about life in France and Spain because he’d been there. I could read up on both places; conduct extensive research; perhaps even interview people who either are from those areas or had lived there for some time, and then write stories that take place in those same regions. Yes, they’d be plausible. But somehow, there’s nothing like actually being there that will inject an extra bolt of color into the story’s ambience.

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