October 13, 2016

Immersive Media Will be Propelled by Compelling Storytelling

by: Tim Sarnoff,

Deputy CEO, President,

Production Services


Many pundits have recently heralded 2016 as the year of virtual and augmented reality. Major announcements from established corporations and exciting startups have captured the imagination of consumers, technologists, artists…and investors.  The pace of progress in immersive media is accelerating as the market for new entertainment experiences begins to take form.

It is clearly a busy time for the immersive experience community. Alone, for instance, Technicolor and its brands -- MPC, The Mill, Mikros Image, and Mr. X – have already completed 13 VR projects in 2016, with an additional 29 VR projects in production.

But it is still very important to keep in mind how early we are in the immersive media lifecycle.

As we look at the headlines that are dominating the VR/AR scene today, most of the news still is focused on technologies that enable the creation and dissemination of content.   When we look at the history of disruption in media and entertainment, the focus on technology has always been a FIRST step in an innovative process that ultimately disrupts and alters our global culture. 

This is important to appreciate, because in the final analysis it is content that will transform entertainment over the decades to come. So the quicker we master the technological challenges of content creation, distribution, and consumption, the sooner we will get to the point where we can shift focus to ever-more compelling content that engages audiences on a scale that will create economic opportunity for the entire ecosystem.


Foundational Technologies

All fundamental transformations in communications, media, and entertainment have been triggered by innovations in the content creation and distribution process that have exponentially increased bandwidth.  In this context, bandwidth is the function of getting more content to more people...more quickly.

The move from engraving symbols and pictures on stone or clay to inking content on papyrus got more content...to more people...more quickly. But it also did something else. It offered a platform on which scribes and artists could iterate more quickly and cost-effectively to be more creative, allowing writers and artists to get to their final vision.

The shift from handwriting codexes, to cranking out books on the Gutenberg Press in the 15th century offered an even more dramatic example of a bandwidth upgrade, with the added bonus of laying the foundation for the Age of Reason.

On the networking front, we have come a long way since a messenger from the Battle of Marathon was tasked with running over 26 miles to deliver content. The marathon runners eventually evolved into The Pony Express and were ultimately disrupted by the emergence of the telegraph.  The telegraph was what tech folks today would call a wide-area network that fed into metropolitan-area networks owned by local newspapers.  Publishers, in effect, offered “last-mile service” to hundreds-of thousands of readers hungry for access to global information.

While news was important, I would argue that it was the periodic “entertainment content” offered by the likes of Mark Twain that created an emotional relationship between readers and this medium. 

Then came radio.

Fifteen years after the first wireless voice signal was demonstrated in 1900, the concept of sending out a message that was not meant for anyone in particular created the foundation for what is now known as broadcasting.  The first programs that were broadcast over this medium during this period were music, news, and sports – not unlike the types of programs currently made for VR and AR a hundred years later.


The Power of Storytelling

But I would argue that it was not until creative storytelling became part of the content mix, that radio became a culturally transformative and disruptive medium.

The impact of storytelling on radio was best demonstrated in 1928 by a comedy series – a radio sitcom -- called Amos n Andy. This show became the bedrock of “must listen radio” for the entire nation. These 15-minute shows were so compelling, that audiences organized their days around the scheduled broadcast. The popularity was so strong that it disrupted Broadway productions in New York City as well as plays around the country: people were staying home to listen to the show.

The phenomenon actually forced stage productions into an unbelievable accommodation. Producers introduced the concept of an “intermission” in the middle of the show during which a large radio was rolled into the auditorium so that the audience would not miss out on a single episode of Amos n Andy

So, while nothing could have happened in radio without the technical innovations around content creation, transmission, and consumption – it was the emergence of compelling storytelling that created a strong emotional connection between radio and consumers. It led to a hugely impactful ecosystem that transformed and disrupted the business of entertainment and our culture.

Which brings us to today.

Are we prepared to create and deliver the next truly transformative entertainment experience to the world?

I think we ARE ready. However, there are four critical success factors that will need to be in place if we are to create the kind of ecosystem that will give our artistic expression a platform that can be broadly appreciated and consumed by audiences around the world.

  • ONE: High Quality Native Content – The content we produce in Immersive Media will have to be head and shoulders above anything that anyone has ever seen before. I believe we have to figure out how to create a balance between something that at first will be seen as entirely foreign, while simultaneously connecting to visceral themes that have defined us as human beings.

    If we are going to deliver on the promise to expose audiences to a new category of entertainment, we will have to offer up unbelievably compelling -- and native -- creative content that cannot be experienced in any other medium.

    This offers an opportunity to challenge all preconceptions about what the process of narrative storytelling looks like. My own view is that the timeless themes, -- which have driven storytelling since the beginning of humanity -- will probably remain relevant. 

    Exploring our core emotions – fear, sadness, anger...happiness, love and excitement or adventure – are fascinating avenues to explore in immersive environments.  Similarly, I have a strong suspicion that there is plenty to mine around tensions between humanity and society, inter-generational conflicts, man versus nature, and the other great storylines of literature. 

    One thing of which I feel even more certain, however:  We must reduce any sense of artificiality in the relationship between content and audience as we develop experiences for these new mediums.  We are already asking our audiences to meet us more than half way as they move from the largely passive processes of “watching” flat programs or movies, to being transported inside of an “experience” that surrounds them. 

    Once there, it will be critical to ensure people feel like they are really “there.”  My sense is that it will continue to be very challenging to maintain a “willing suspension of disbelief” in immersive media. An immersive environment should not be a compromised environment. The image must not be artificial…to compel people to stay engaged, the experiences must be exceptional.

    Achieving this will undoubtedly be connected to how quickly immersive content creation, distribution, and consumption technologies evolve.  But the storytelling – or experience design –will be even more important.

    My real point is that a new technological canvas has been created for artists.  Artists will have to develop a whole new palette and vocabulary for this new medium that connects with people who are open to new experiences – but who also already have strong relationships with the movies, games and other content that they love.

    We will have to up our game and give audiences a compelling reason to allocate mindshare and wallet-share to immersive experiences.

  • TWO: Social Immersive Experiences – One of the biggest myths I hear about VR, in particular, is that immersive experiences are -- by definition -- an isolating non-social experience.  Another observation about VR with which I disagree is that VR is not conducive to narrative story-telling.

    I reject both of these notions out of hand.  I do not believe that we should assume any artistic or technological limitations when it comes to engaging with audiences.

    Indeed, on the social front, I believe that the development of a strong social dimension to immersive experiences will be a critical factor in ensuring the creation of scale that will turn this emerging entertainment genre into a widely adopted and enjoyed medium. 

    If indeed we are transported inside an experience, we will want to participate actively with others (whether they are friends or part of the cast). There is something very off-putting about being in an environment where you are the only living creature -- and that is one of the primary differences between watching an event and being part of an event.

    It is likely many technologies will be developed to counteract the potential virtual loneliness that can occur when one separates from the real world. These will include everything from interrelated social networks to artificial intelligence.

  • THREE: Episodic Cadence – One of the debates in immersive media revolves around form factors:
    • What kind of experience do we want to deliver – narrative, interactive, passive, active…?
    • How much time are people willing to spend in immersive environments? 

    Personally, I would be careful about making commitments to any hard and fast rules because I know technologists and artists who are raring to break through any time horizon.  Over the short term...most of these issues will be resolved as technology evolves.

    What I do believe quite strongly, however, is that as a community of interest, we should be looking to create a critical mass of content that gives audiences a reason to come back to immersive experiences again and again. This will be a function of strong storytelling...and compelling characters. It is not enough to drive the ecosystem one story at a time. At some point, a form of episodic content delivery will be needed to allow the audience to form an on-going relationship with the characters over a period of time.

  • FOUR: Disruptive Innovation – If you believe that immersive media has the potential to be a truly disruptive development in how people experience entertainment, then there has to be something that it disrupts.

    Immersive experiences will have to challenge existing mediums with the prospect of losing mind- and wallet share...in the same way that radio forced stage producers to adapt in the first quarter of the 20th century.  Linking this back to an earlier point, I find it hard to see how this can happen without a strong social dimension.

    Now, what that means, and how it is executed is going to be fodder for fascinating conversations...conversations that I am looking forward to having with everyone represented in this room.

If we can address these four success factors effectively, I believe it will lead to an ecosystem that heralds a new era of entertainment that will unleash unprecedented creativity, and in turn, create a value-chain that will generate new economic opportunities for artists, technologists and the supporting cast of network service providers, equipment manufacturers and content producers.


The Technicolor Experience Center

These are among the principles that led to the creation of the Technicolor Experience Center (TEC) this summer being set up in Culver City. The center is led by Marcie Jastrow who is here and many of you know.

The TEC is dedicated to exploring how technologists and artists across the content creation, distribution and consumption value chain can work together to explore what works...dismiss what doesn’t. The mission is to develop the multi-disciplinary relationships that not only exist within Technicolor – but among all of our partners and customers in the entertainment industry.

We formed the TEC because we believe in the best path – not just the fastest or most cost-effective path – but the BEST path to creating a strong and viable audience for immersive experience. It will require us to triangulate talent, technology and commercial relationships.

Technicolor is already doing a tremendous amount of work on immersive media with partners from Hollywood to Madison Avenue and beyond to create content. But we also need to continue to find opportunities to collaborate so that we can address the challenges of getting immersive media through cable, telco and satellite networks to people’s homes in a way that makes sense for all involved -- all while maintaining the integrity of the artistic intent.

As we work toward a future that is disrupted and transformed by immersive media, it is my contention that we have to start developing a much better understanding of the interdependencies that lead to strong connections in the value-chain. I am convinced that it will take a strong ecosystem to fulfill the full promise of immersive media. 

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