My first experience with virtual reality sounded a bit less poetic:
“Ohh, whoa. It’s like you’re actually there. Ow, what the f— …this is weird. OK, I feel sick.”
Seeing the world through a virtual reality (VR) headset is a disarming experience. I’m not one to get sick easily. I don’t mind being upside down, I love rollercoasters, and I’ve got steadfast sea legs. I scoffed at the idea that virtual reality would tip me off balance. But it did, and it only took about 30 seconds. As I was pondering why and how this could have happened, it occurred to me that the answer had to do with the fact that virtual reality was actually changing how my brain was relating to the world around me. I was engaging in a sensory experience so immersive that it was starting to trick my brain about what is and isn’t real.
Instead of fitting the experience into an existing understanding of the world and adjusting a response accordingly—”It’s OK, you’re on a rollercoaster. It’s OK, you’re on a boat.”—my brain’s response to virtual reality was more like: “Hold on a sec. This is real. No, wait! This isn’t real. Which one is it??”
As devices like the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, etc. enter the market, we are starting to explore the possibilities for an entirely new medium for storytellers, and it is already having a big impact not only on how we understand and relate to content but even how we understand our own brains.
Neuroscientists Michael Tarr and William Warren don’t work with mice in their lab at Brown University, they work with humans, and virtual reality. Their intention?
“[Virtual reality] provides a unique immersive experience that facilitates new possibilities in behavioral research on vision and action…[it] allows both precise control over stimuli (the virtual world) and the experience of a realistic interactive environment.”
The researchers have already uncovered new insights into how our brains work in tandem with our external environments. It seems that when richer 3D environments are presented, we actually use different visual and cognitive capacities to navigate those environments. This suggests that there could be distinct aspects of our brain that we have yet to tap into with virtual reality content.
It’s the level of convincingness of the virtual reality environment that’s so promising in many real-world applications. We respond to VR in a realistic way, much as we do in the real world. The power of this new technology is particularly well demonstrated when applied to the treatment of psychological and mental health disorders. According to Tarr and Warren’s report, it’s been shown to help schizophrenic patients better deal with their hallucinations, and it’s helped people with phobias overcome their fears.
If virtual reality is so powerful in changing the way our brains work, its implications for the deep cognitive level on which content marketing strategies may be able to operate in future is significant.
As content creators, we love new tools. Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures of a new notebook and sometimes it’s the advanced potential of video editing software. But virtual reality technology isn’t just a new tool, it’s a new dimension of storytelling. Disney animator Glen Keane takes us into the world of animation and how the very act of animating has been opened up to a fundamentally different world with virtual reality:
“When I animate there’s a frustration that I have, wishing that the flatness of the paper would go away and that I could actually dive in. Today, all the rules have changed. [With virtual reality] I can step into the paper and now I’m drawing in it. Immersing myself in space is more like a dance. That doorway to the imagination is open a little wider. Making art in 3D space is an entirely new way of thinking for any artist. What does this mean for storytelling? I love the idea as an animator that you can be anything that you can imagine; the soul of any kind of a creative art form is freedom.” —Glen Keane
Keane describes the visceral experience of content creation with VR in a similar way to how psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes “flow.” Whether you’re a creator or a consumer, this notion of flow or feeling like you’re “in the moment” has important implications for brands. One study found that experiencing flow in an immersive video gaming environment not only led to better memory of brands but more positive attitudes toward those brands.
Researchers on the cognitive neuroscience project realiSM describe the fundamental difference between VR content and all other content mediums as the genuine feeling that we are present in that environment. That realism is what facilitates our brains rewiring in response to new experiences:
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