VR’s dawning reality — storytelling matters

GUEST OPINION: Malcolm Burt, amusement academic/PhD candidate, Australia

The amusement industry trades in nostalgia. In the same way we pine for “the good old days,” we want things we see as “good” to stay the way they are.


This was a key finding of my master’s degree research project examining why roller coasters exist. My exploration attracted a fair amount of media attention (more at malcolmburt.com, if you care to look) and led me to undertake a similarly adventurous PhD in the area of cutting-edge attractions technology. The central question this time: What do thrill-seekers want from virtual reality (VR)?

I have collected data by interviewing VR consumers worldwide as they exited VR roller coasters, VR simulators, VR drop rides and VR arenas — among the most advanced examples of immersive entertainment. The responses I’ve gathered range from “I just think it’s flying around and stuff” and “I don’t know what was going on” to “It felt a little bit like Super Mario: jump and run.”

What consistently came through may have resonated just as well with the cave people: We want story

Parks, entertainment centers and vendors have an understandable tendency to promote VR’s flash while short-changing “narrative transportation” — a highly desirable state wherein participants lose track of the real world by being lost in a story. If VR enables enhanced escapism, a compelling narrative ensures the richer achievement of fully interactive and involved immersion.

Obviously, technical detail is critical for a successful VR experience (e.g., high resolution, spatial audio, free roaming in arena settings). But in my research, consumers more highly value VR when it is paired with solid storytelling. The challenge for innovators and operators is that most out-of-home VR experiences, in order to maintain profitable throughput, are necessarily short, which doesn’t easily allow for story development. Additionally, the wild forces at work on certain rides utilizing VR can overwhelm narrative delivery.

VR, of course, is evolving. To fulfill its potential and keep us returning as it plots its next sensory surprises, it needs to embrace — and find ways to accommodate — the age-old tradition of storytelling.