Multi-Story Storytelling in Virtual Reality

Multi-Story Storytelling in Virtual Reality

Research Proposal


Mass media communication has seen considerable evolution with the passage of time as emerging technologies constantly challenged and changed the existing paradigms of media consumption through the years. This has been especially accomplished through various technological milestones that the world has come to recognise and embrace which have resulted in the metamorphosis of the nature of storytelling through usage of any medium. “Mediated storytelling” story telling traces its humble beginnings to the cave dwelling humans who started by drawing on stone walls and then gradually learned and evolved to shift to using stone tablets, which in time, was followed by the use of papyrus. Relative to the brief history that mankind has enjoyed on the planet, it was not long before paper was discovered and humans learned to print, which led to the creation of the printing press. From these early steps towards the direction of more innovative methods of mediated storytelling, mankind invented photography which soon enough led to the creation of motion pictures. The aforementioned developments along with the creation of wireless media and the television can be perhaps considered the biggest milestones in the realm of mass media communications and the world of mediated storytelling. All these instruments of communication differed greatly from letters and telephones, whereas the telephone and similar technologies were focused on interpersonal conversation, the outlets such as the television and other mass media, starting from the very first cave painting were meant to serve one particular purpose among others – to pass on stories. Today the world, as result of the advancements of computerised media and advanced “multifunctional smartphones” paired with wearable media consumption devices has taken mankind from just consuming media on a screen as a simple audio-visual form of media to a form of media that has the capability to invade into a human being’s experience, thereby, helping one not only watch and hear, but also experience the story.

Conveyance of stories is perhaps one of the most important purposes for the existence of journalism and media. Furthermore, depending on the medium and the audience, the story possesses the freedom to take a variety of forms. The emergence of new technologies such Augmented reality and virtual reality has brought the potential to dramatically alter the nature of storytelling for the future as it changes the story of mediated storytelling into a participatory experience instead of it being an experience of being a passive listener or watcher.

Brief research question

This research proposal intends to assess the contribution these innovations such as the inclusion of virtual reality can make to the process of storytelling and how effectively can these technologies change the traditional methods of storytelling to improve upon them to serve the same function, that is, to convey stories and knowledge through the utilisation of their experiential nature. Furthermore, another question that is intended to be answered through this research is to evaluate the ideal way to integrate the elements of multisensory storytelling through the advancements of virtual reality technologies in order to develop an understand that may aid in the development of a storytelling tool that may ideally utilise these aforementioned advancements of mediated storytelling.

Significance of research

The passage of stories is an integral part of mankind’s history as the collective identity of humanity as a whole is only achieved through the stories that humans pass on to the next generations. From the very first cave paintings to the modern media fundamentally serves this one purpose, it informs mankind of who and where in time they are and where they have been. Every advancement made in this regard has been to make the story more memorable and make the story more real and vivid than it could be told before. The emergence of virtual reality technologies have provided an opportunity that can usher the conventional form of storytelling, that is through audio visual, into a new era where humans may move ahead from the passive consumption of audio visual media. This evolution of the nature of storytelling can be defined by the ability of humans to experience stories becoming parts of those stories, turning the process of passive consumption into a participatory process etching a deeper mark in the memory of the recipient of the story.

Virtual reality alone, however, does not provide the complete answer to the entire question. Provided that the systems that human beings utilise to perceive any multisensory stimuli are essentially conditioned to rely on the to perceive their sense of reality, it important for the story telling systems to incorporate all these senses (such as visual, auditory, olfactory among others) to create a truly immersive storytelling experience along with the usage of Virtual Reality. A considerable amount of mainstream Virtual Reality solutions find themselves limited to relying upon audio-visual technology to simulate immersion. However, without the engagement of all the senses that human beings use to perceive reality, that experience of “virtual reality” in its true sense is lacking and cannot completely provide the experiential experience of storytelling that is envisioned through utilisation of virtual reality as a modern tool of mediated storytelling. This research would explore how the engagement of the sense that a human being uses to perceive their immediate reality such as haptic and olfactory sensations can improve the immersiveness of storytelling through virtual reality and produce a multisensory storytelling experience.

Relevance of result

The evaluation within this research will be aimed at understanding the employability of the senses that human beings use to perceive reality into storytelling through virtual reality. The gaining of a comprehensive understanding of the correct utilisation of these senses will help in the creation of an ideal tool for multisensory storytelling which can truly change the nature of storytelling and make story telling a participatory process where humans may experience stories. Research has been conducted that indicates the increased sense of reality of a virtual reality experience using a wider range of human senses (Hülsmann et al. 2014).

State of the art

In order to develop an understanding of the necessity of multisensory storytelling, this paper first delves into the factors that make the evolution of storytelling necessary. In order to understand this necessity it is important to understand the significance of storytelling and stories for a culture and the human civilisation as a whole. Furthermore, it is also necessary to understand what actually makes stories so significant to human civilization.

Storytelling and mankind

Storytelling is something that is as old as mankind itself. As the first human spoke a word to another, the art of storytelling found its inception. The art of storytelling has imparted something quite unreal to mankind and that is, a collective memory of their own history. Human beings are considered to be born as blank slates and yet through the instrument of storytelling they have been able to retain their collective history as a species on this planet. As Langellier (2004) stated, “The performance of stories coalesce relationships across time and space and create shared experiences”. He means that stories allow humans to create relationships that transcend time and space to something or someone that existed perhaps a long time ago. It is how generations of knowledge have been passed down to the present to form what human beings know and embrace as their customs and cultures, these are the memories that the past has left for them. The stories told are stories listened to are a story of the nature of humanity and its journey through time and how it sustains itself and survives. In the work “Storytelling in Daily Life: Performing Narrative”, Langellier poses a question, “What systems of social relations – intrapersonal, interpersonal, public and cultural emerge in storytelling?”. An answer to the purpose storytelling serves can be perhaps found in Rankin’s (2006) words as he says, “It (storytelling) enables a social process that in turn enables cultural survival”.

This raises the factor of sustainability of culture. Hawkes (2001) states in work “Pillars” , “Culture is a basic need – it is the bedrock of society”. If the culture of a society is not able to sustain itself, the society will follow suit and disintegrate along with everything. Culture is a necessary pillar for the future survivability of any society (Hawkes, 2001). Rankin (2006) argues, in his work “Living Cultural”, “UNESCO defines culture as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (Rankin, 2006). Further, along similar lines Glassie (1995) states, “Tradition is the creation of the future out of the past. [It] is volitional [and] temporal” (Glassie, 1995). The non-maintenance of cultures and traditions severely weakens the “social and moral identity of any society” or culture, which is further accelerated by the weakening of the value systems that define the society. Mankind’s will to advance and survive has the potential to change the moral and cultural identity of an entire society, as stated by Berry (2008) in “Faustian Economics”, “In order to survive, we may become inhuman or monstrous. And so our cultural tradition is in large part the record of our continuing effort to understand ourselves as beings, specifically human: to say that, as humans, we must do certain things and we must not do certain things” (Berry, 2008).

All these works point towards the importance of cultural sustainability. And the factor that becomes the bedrock for sustainability of cultures throughout generations is the practice of storytelling. Storytelling has allowed human beings to pass on memories and legacies through generations and have contributed to sustaining cultures through. Stories allow human beings to sustain as cultural beings (Dyson and Haas, 2003). The knowledge of their cultural heritage continues the cycle of preservation of the culture as newer generations form connections to generations long passed away through the medium of stories. As Wade Davis states in Rankin’s (2006) “Living Cultural”, “A culture survives when it has enough confidence in its past and enough say in its future to maintain its spirit and essence through all the changes it will eventually undergo.” (Rankin, 2006). Therefore, perhaps the most important purpose of storytelling for any society is to sustain its culture such for the Maori to sustain their culture.

Maori and storytelling

Like many other native cultures, the traditions and cultures and traditions of the Maori culture were primarimarily passed on through generations as oral stories. This kind of storytelling depends essentially on listening, memorising and performing “poems, war chants, laments and prayers”. These oral forms of storytelling were also characterised by a certain spiritual element as it carried the beliefs of knowledge being passed on to them through gods and therefore, a lot of these oral forms of storytelling were associated with religious rituals. Through the medium of all these oral stories that consisted of several songs, chants and even prayers”, the Maori developed a mythology which served to become an image of the past and to sustain their culture through those stories as they were passed on through generations (Mark, 2017).

The methods of storytelling that were employed by the Maori people were devoid of direct stories with direct ideas. Instead, they relied on enhancing the stories through the employment of various kinds of elements of fantasy and spiritual imagery in order to pass on the elements of their history and culture. These oral productions form the collective memories of the Maori.

However, the problems and challenges that were faced by the Maori’s way of passing on their knowledge, that is, through oral productions was restricted by the necessity of them needing to be received and memorised by the next generation in order to preserve it. This results in a lot of complexity which complicates the process of storytelling and poses difficulties against the purpose behind telling the stories, that is, to preserve and sustain their cultural history, albeit with modifications and changes that surface as a result of it being passed through generations as oral productions that are meant to be memorised.

However, there exists a specific practice of the maori storytelling methods that should be appropriately conveyed through the integration of multi-sensory storytelling, that is, the non-linear sense of time within these stories. Maori storytellers prefered to bring the past into the present using their performances instead of taking the audience back to the past and perhaps that is what the object of the multi-sensory storytelling tool should be (Mark, 2017).

Multisensory storytelling in Virtual Reality

“Stories are crucial to our sense of well-being, to identity, to memory, and to our future. There is a power to stories that can often be experienced as one listens sometimes even more so when one is telling them but it is hard to put into words just what that power is and how it operates. There is skill in storytelling. Underneath that skill is the inherent magic and wisdom of the story itself and of its crafting over generations of telling and being heard. This power is not to be underestimated, especially by those of us in the age of electronic information, computers and technical expertise, or else we will lose something irreplaceable” (McKenna, 2005). Storytelling is perhaps one of the most powerful tools in the history of mankind as it forms the very history of mankind and as mankind has advanced in the fields of communication media, the power of storytelling in its newer forms has only become greater. Methods of storytelling have evolved with the evolution of mankind.

On the topic of the evolution of the methods of storytelling, Phil Johnston (2014) elaborates, “around 50,000 years ago we were painting on cave walls, and about 9,000 years ago we started experimenting with symbolic writing leading to the Age of Writing roughly 5,000 years ago. When Gutenberg created the movable type printing press 575 years ago, he helped shift the world to the Age of Print. Next was the Industrial Age, about 250 years ago, which introduced various communications technologies such as photography, Morse code, the typewriter, television, and the telephone. About 50 years ago we shifted to the Information Age with the advent of the internet, email, and mobile phone technologies.”

However, the information age might not have reached the pinnacle of storytelling as story telling is more than just consumption of information, as Annette Simmons writes in the book “The Story Factor”, “people don’t want information. They want faith, faith in you, your goals, your success in the story you tell. It is faith that moves mountains, not facts. Facts do not give birth to faith. Faith needs a story to sustain it, a meaningful story that inspires”. Therefore, the ideal story is meant to invoke faith to involve the audience into the story.

The rationale for Virtual Reality as a medium of storytelling such as motion pictures can be understood through the words of Trotsky as written by Taylor (2008) in the book “The Politics of Soviet Cinema”, “The cinema satisfies the demands of emotions in a very direct, visual, picturesque and vital way, requiring nothing from the audience; it does not even require them to be literate.” This is why experiential forms of storytelling such as Virtual Reality can prove to be an even superior outlet for letting people experience stories vicariously through Virtual Reality.

The factor that sets apart storytelling methods involving Virtual Reality are the sense of immersion. Carter (2015) aptly states, “Experiential media envelop the user within a story”. This is the fundamental principle of immersion in experiential media. The user’s field of view is surrounded by a spherical image and video that extends to 360-degrees and is accompanied by sound and visual effects that enhance the user’s sense of immersion. Research conducted at the “Pennsylvania State University’s Media effects Research Laboratory” demonstrated that “immersive stories, especially experienced from the point of view of a single protagonist, are especially likely to generate for the user a sense of presence at the site depicted in the narrative and for her or him to experiences heightened empathy with the protagonist” (Sundar, Kand and Oprean, 2017). These findings were further confirmed by the findings of another research study conducted at the “Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University” (Archer and Finger, 2018). However, there are flaws that remain in the “360-degree VR format” that poses obstacles to complete immersion. One of such flaws is the “six degrees of freedom”, which is essentially the freedom of an object to move within a three dimensional space. Among these six degrees, three are focused on “rotational motions” and three are meant for “translational motions”. In order to create the sense of true immersion that can actually mimic reality, the Virtual Reality experience needs to have all the six degrees of orientation tracking (XinReality, 2018). Furthermore, another factor required to mimic reality within a Virtual Reality experience is the engagement of all sensory abilities of human beings which are essentially the “five human senses”. “Lifelike sights and sound are common, and tactile or haptic experience is increasingly available, even expected, and can facilitate user memory and emotions” (Kappers et al. 2010). Furthermore, it is possible to create haptic experiences with virtual as well as real objects through the usage of a variety of devices connected to the internet. “The Internet of things (IoT) already includes an estimated 50 billion objects worldwide ranging in form from multispectral sensors to drone and robots; IoT can serve an almost limitless resource for the generation of data-driven, multi-sensory experiential content” (Pepper, 2015)

Problem Statement

Research Questions

  • How immersive technologies can enhance experiences to understand language, culture and knowledge?
  • How to integrate multi sensory input to enhance storytelling experiences?
  • How to develop a great Storytelling tool?

Objective and justification

Storytelling has always been an essential part of the history of mankind and it is essential to the sustainability of any culture and it also serves as the medium of passing down collective memories of the human species. The methods of storytelling have evolved through the various advancement made throughout the history of mankind and mediated storytelling. The current era offers the option of storytelling through experiential means which provide the possibility of increasing the impact of the practice of storytelling greatly and become an even more powerful source of sustenance of cultures through not only transmitting stories but experiences.

Research Approach

Development methodology

In order to follow a methodology that can easily adapt to any change in requirements through the course of the development of the storytelling tool, a method from the Agile family will be used which will also allow the project to minimise costs of development. Among the Agile family, the suitable method of development considering the short period of time that this project is intended to be developed in, the SCRUM method should be used. The development group would be self-organised and management would be collaborative. However, a “scrum master” will be required to be appointed to ensure the maintenance of guidelines.