As long as man has had the ability to communicate we have been telling stories. Technological improvements have shaped our ability to tell those stories, from the creation of the phonetic alphabet to the dawn of the motion picture era, those improvements – entirely new mediums in and of themselves, have shaped society through the messages they can tell. Oft mentioned on UploadVR, theorist Marshall McLuhan famously used the phrase “the medium is the message,” to describe how these new mediums shape the messages that are portrayed by them. This is most definitely proving to be the case in the world of virtual reality, as the medium is helping to shape the narratives within it. Being able to embody a character allows storytellers a whole new creative medium to explore, and a whole new strength of emotional response they can evoke – and perhaps no group is taking better advantage of this new narrative medium than Innerspace.
The team has been hard at work on a number of experiences, and what I have seen already is easily among the best-written and most engaging storytelling I have seen in VR. The Fifth Sleep may be the ultimate highlight of their impressive reel. Telling an incredibly engaging story, you are a scientist being sent into the mind of a coma patient to wake him up while testing a new nanorobot camera called “the Proteus.” The resemblance to the classic film, Fantastic Voyage, ends there. As you enter the mind of this patient, you find that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye, as the patient doesn’t wish to be woken up because he has found a sense of oneness in the universe of his mind. In the full version of the experience, which will run with real time decision making, you will be forced to make morality decisions along the way as you struggle to decide whether to pull the patient out of his own mind. Through the journey the patient promises to show you things you “will never forget.”
Without revealing too much, the story is a fantastic metaphor for virtual reality itself, and is mindnumbingly awesome. Entering into the patient’s mind you are entering a virtual world of his imagination, a place “more fantastic than you can imagine,” as he points out. The metaphor strikes at the heart of both what makes VR such an incredible medium, the power to fully immerse you in a world so amazing you never want to leave, while also highlighting the potential dark side of that same metaphor, that you may never want to leave. “With a hammer you can bang your head and bleed everywhere, you can use it to fight, but you can also create a house,” Balthazar muses about this dichotomy, “we want to create an experience where when you take off the headset, you go beyond the initial ‘wow’ reaction, we want you to think.”
And think you will, the story’s complex narrative is only the tip of the iceberg. Key to the experience’s final version, and to Innerspace’s vision for storytelling in VR is the element of real time decision making and a branching narrative structure that Balthazar likens to the Mass Effect series. “It’s something we are inspired by,” he says, “we want people to really feel responsible for what happens during the story and to the characters; we want you to have a presence in the story.” That is the exact thing that makes Innerspace’s vision so perfect for VR, the idea that you can become a participant observer in these narratives combined with the level of immersion brought on by the medium itself makes for an incredibly intriguing new methodology for telling stories. “In VR,” Balthazar says, “you have a natural inclination to want to influence the story, we want to give you that ability.” It’s that decision making ability that not only gives you a greater sense of presence but is also what really separates Innerspace from the rest of the pack. Other companies like Apelabs, for example, have stepped into narrative VR content that directs the flow of the story a little – but not to the ambitious level that Innerspace is hoping to achieve.
Currently, however, this decision-making mechanic is not included in the pre-rendered version of the story, created for the Gear VR. In an effort to make the experience work – with a high level of detail, on the Gear VR version, some tradeoffs were made like making it a pre-rendered experience, rather than real time. “You lose something,” says Balthazar, “but you gain something as well with the mobile version,” referring to the graphics. But InnnerspaceVR intends to release “several versions of The Fifth Sleep” with real time versions coming to the desktop platform. This won’t affect the experience too much though, as he says they want to make the differences “as small as possible.”
The Fifth Sleep isn’t the only magical experience from Innerspace, they also have The Cave which is also available on the Oculus 360 Video app on the Gear VR. The Cave takes you on a beautiful journey inspired by the history of the Chauvet Cave in France, which is the location of the earliest known cave paintings – one of the earliest, if not the earliest form of communication and storytelling. Realizing the metaphorical purpose behind The Fifth Sleep intrepid readers have likely already realized the metaphorical meaning behind exploring the first communication medium with the newest, and the result is truly fantastic. The journey takes you through this cave both before and after man inhabited it, as sounds and visual cues lead you around the environment. “Sound is very important to our stories,” Balthazar says and the attention to detail really shows, as droplets of water echo throughout the experience giving the cave a truly audible sense of depth. The Cave is much more of a straightforward experience when compared to The Fifth Sleep its linear narrative far more traditional, yet nonetheless effective. Regularly people for whom I have demoed it have all responded with a sense of empowered wonder, feeling they came out of the experience with more than they walked in with, which is the mark of a truly great piece of art.
Innerspace has a number of other projects in the works, including a project tentatively named DMZ which is a documentary about the Demilitarized Zone in Korea told through the eyes of someone who survived the cross. In addition to DMZ Innerspace is working on “several room scale experiences” for the Vive’s launch. Balthazar spoke to me about one of those projects, currently codenamed “Firebird.” Firebird is an experience that is “an homage to Fantasia,” with a “partially abstract” art style that is synchronized with the music. The idea behind the piece is to create a room scale experience about dance and ballet in VR, says Balthazar with the Vive “you will be able to dance with the ballerina.” The idea is to give you the experience of being with the dancer on stage, with beautiful abstract artistic devices around you, like particle effects. Having experienced the Vive multiple times myself the implications of this are huge, the ability to literally participate in a narrative with full rooms scale VR and pin point tracking accuracy is something that could truly change the way we think about ‘passive’ content like VR cinema.
Right now Innerspace’s project list is very full. DMZ will be released “soon,” as they have nearly completed the project, but it will be a bit longer before we see the fully realized version of The Fifth Sleep which will take place over a number of ten to fifteen minute long episodes starting “sometime by the end of the year or in early 2016.” In the meantime, the team is working heads down on its room scale experiences for the Vive, which they hope to have ready for launch.
So what is Innerspace? “It is the creator of space,” says Balthazar, “that tells you a story that is very relevant in VR and could not be made on another medium.” Relevancy and uniqueness, these are two of the main keys that Innerspace have found to help solve storytelling in VR. The experiences they have created so far are emotionally engaging, and visually stunning. They capture the essence of what makes this medium so great while refraining from any gimmicky tactics. The reason the team at Innerspace is so effective is because it is comprised of storytellers who are developing for VR, not developers telling stories for VR – it is a big difference. Through adding the element of presence and the ability to effect the narrative on a personal level, Innerspace has created engaging narratives that weave more depth and emotion into them than almost anything else out there, and that level of depth is what makes them so great.