Virtual Reality and Picture Books and then some more thoughts on VR…
Ever since I first heard of the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality (VR) headset I’ve been following its development very closely. The idea of VR has been around since 1950s with the arcade-style theatre cabinet Sensorama, or depending on your definition of VR, as far back as 1838.
Unfortunately, to date, all attempts at commercialising VR have failed. The first affordable VR system was release by Nintendo in 1995. It was called the “Virtual Boy” but the technology requirements for VR, to deliver an exciting and immersive experience, just wasn’t ready. So unsurprisingly it flopped.
Fast forward to 2016 and we’re in the year where several well- established companies (HTC and Valve, Oculus Rift owned by Facebook, Samsung and Sony) are releasing the first affordable VR system for the home. Will VR flop again? Well, only time will tell but if you believe the many thousands of online reviews, 2016 will be the year when VR is finally ready for primetime.
A discussion that is ubiquitous in its absence is whether VR will affect how we consume books and in particular, picture books. Audio books could be setup like campfire stories. Storyteller VR has a very interesting concept which I really liked. You could have the author of your favourite book reading the story to you in an appropriate environment. Imagine J.K. Rowling reading from the Philosopher’s stone at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Cool huh? Equally, you could be sat next to say, Oliver Jeffers while he reads you one of his many charming books! Or, you could have a Virtual copy of a book, where you choose the environment you want to read it in (a forest, a desert, on top of a skyscraper in New York, you name it) with soundscapes and sound effects to enhance your reading experience.
I illustrate my books in Blender, a 3D software package, which means I create everything in a 3D space. VR would permit me to put the reader in this space, and with a bit of clever programming, allow them to walk around and explore my imaginary world. But then I wonder whether a static world and its statue-like inhabitants would work as a VR experience.
I have noticed that many authors turn their picture books into simple animations. Have a look at The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers here. This is something I would love to do with my books but having the option to turn it into a VR film would be amazing. The animation could be projected into a virtual cinema, in a traditional movie like experience, where the viewer will look at a huge screen while remaining seated. You could have things coming out of the screen towards you, like 3D cinema but in a much more immersive way. You could, for example, have one of the film’s character sit next to you while you watch the film. Or, as mentioned before, put the viewer in the middle of the action. This would present a whole range of new challenges, the main challenge being: how to keep the viewer’s eye on the action. I guess cues like, light, sound and action would direct the viewer’s attention to the story being told, much like the tricks employed by a theatre play. But this would be more like a movie and not a reading experience.
I do not know how this technology will affect the way in which we read picture books. But I do know that I’m incredibly excited about VR and I hope that this time around, it will be a success. A new medium brings so much opportunity and I’m hoping that one day I will be able to experiment with VR and introduce you to my stories in this virtual environment. Imagine that!
I don’t want to get carried away with this notion just yet. My own experience with VR has been extremely limited and the technology is at its infancy. But on the 30th January I will go and see David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive at the Natural History Museum in London. This is a VR – 360° video experience that takes you into deep underwater to explore Australia’s world famous reef system. It’s supposed to make you feel as if you’re being taken on a private guided tour sitting in a submersible beside Attenborough. The Virtual Reality headset used is the Samsung Gear VR. I’ve heard some pretty cool stuff about it, so I will finally find out whether VR lives up to the hype. I’ve looked for online reviews of the event and although reviews have been generally positive, very little mention has been given to the VR experience itself. No word about how immersive or the effectiveness in showing the film in this new medium, which is very odd, considering it’s one of the first VR events organised by NHM. Anyway, on 30th I will get to experience this and I can’t wait.