Episodic virtual reality content could transform consumer entertainment

The PhoenIX, an animated science-fiction virtual reality series developed by Warrior9.

What was television like before episodic narratives? The development of serialized content transformed traditional entertainment media and virtual reality (VR) startups are now hoping it will do the same for their market.

Warrior9 is a Singapore‐based video and VR production house developing what it calls the first animated science-fiction VR series. Called 'The PhoenIX,' the show is set in space and employs a range of technologies such as motion-capture, the process of incorporating human movement into a three-dimensional model, to document mankind's race for survival against an unknown enemy.

Unlike conventional animation, motion-capture experienced in VR injects a stronger dose of realism by making viewers feel like they are actually in 'The PhoenIX,' floating in space or caught in the middle of a frenetic dogfight.

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"The majority of VR non-gaming content currently comprises of short films and videos. There are few things to keep you coming back. We would watch something amazing in VR like [animated film] 'Allumette' from Penrose Studios and then go hunting for something else," chief creative director Abhi Kumar told CNBC, explaining why his team chose to focus on episodes, instead of one-off experiences.

Production of the first season—consisting of nine episodes—will wrap by end 2017 and in the meantime, a teaser will be released next month.

Warrior9 hopes to make the series available on as many headsets as possible, including the mobile-friendly Google Cardboard and higher-end devices like Razer's OSVR. As VR increasingly penetrates the mainstream consciousness, with more hardware available on the market, "the technology required to pull off such an ambitious project has finally gotten to the point where you no longer need a huge studio to create engaging visuals to go along with the story," noted Race Krehel, The PhoenIX's lead VR animator.

Innovative storytelling is set to be the next frontier for VR, with more investors throwing their support behind content players, not just hardware makers.

"I'm very optimistic about the opportunity that content developers (in all forms, from art to culture to entertainment) will have in the VR future," explained Mario Valle, ‎co-founder and managing partner at Altered Ventures, a VC fund specializing in VR and augmented reality (AR). Narratives will be one of the reasons why the VR industry will shine, he added.

Jaunt China, a joint venture of Silicon Valley-based Jaunt, is also focused on episodic material. Launched this year in partnership with Shanghai Media Group and China Media Capital, two of China's largest media companies, it already has several projects in the pipeline but is unable to disclose any details.

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"Episodic narratives did change the game for TV…. I suspect VR will take a similar form but we may not be there yet as the art of VR storytelling is still being defined, the technologies are still being developed and the platforms are still in infancy," explained James Fong, CEO of Jaunt China.

Because major streaming and television companies such as Netflix and HBO have yet to announce their entry into serialized VR content, early entrants are blessed with both advantages and challenges.

For Fong, running time and viewing habits are among the biggest obstacles.

Most VR content is around 10–15 minutes, which isn't much time to remind audiences of backstories, develop fresh plots and a riveting ending, he said. Meanwhile, the popular trend of binge watching is hard to do in VR as people tend to get uncomfortable with tethered head-mounted displays or mobile phones encased in Cardboard after 20–30 minutes, he continued.

But episodic stories are just the tip of the iceberg for the disruptive technology. Going forward, the element of interaction could take consumer experiences to a whole other level.

"The focus will be on more narrative VR content and incorporating some form of interactivity within the narrative itself. For example, one of the ideas that we're looking at is a 'choose your own adventure' story, where viewers can decide the outcome of key pivotal events in the storyline," said Warrior9's Kumar.

More intricate storylines are another possibility, according to Fong. "I believe audiences want to be amazed and mesmerized by master VR storytellers but this time, they want the storytellers to create the entire story for them to experience, enjoy and discover."

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