Science Fiction VR Has Arrived

After Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca 2019- this year we are beginning to have glimpses into what it means to really tell and experience a story in virtual reality. As any new medium begins by reflecting characteristics of the former- such as radio to TV, or theater to TV, and now TV and video to immersive content, there’s a middle ground where we learn how to tell stories in a new format.

Virtual Reality for the first time allows us to put the audience on the stage, in the game, or in the world of the stories themselves. Eleven Eleven– an original science fiction immersive narrative by SYFY and NBCUniversal International Networks (NBCUIN), reflects each of these unique characteristics available to virtual reality, and more.

Written by multiple AWGIE award-winning writer Lucas Taylor, the island planet Kairos Linea where the story unfolds, is brought to life with complex characters, an intertwining plot and the nuances that one would usually expect to find only in a full-length book. With over 90 minutes of content to explore, Eleven Eleven is eye-opening to the future of immersive MMOG (massive multiplayer online games)- like experiences, where a common plot brings players together to pursue the story as drama unfolds.

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“One of our main goals with Eleven Eleven was to place users in an environment that they could discover on their own. We had to design the ability to explore this world, but we also had to make sure that it was worth exploring,” wrote Mehrad Noori, Director, Global Programming, NBCUniversal International Networks and Creator and Executive Producer of Eleven Eleven.

They carefully built out the environment with ancillary characters as well as objects and audio cues to give the user clues about the broader story. “Enter a room and you might find a radio that’s playing a pirate broadcast coming from somewhere else on the planet. Or walk around our villain’s quarters to examine her collection of art and artifacts that reveal stories about the nations of Kairos Linea. These Easter eggs help paint a comprehensive picture of the world we created and how its inhabitants arrived at this pivotal point in their history,” he wrote.

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Influenced by immersive theater, Eleven Eleven is a single player quest-like story where users control their experience by exploring the open world, and following each of the six main character’s actions as the countdown unfolds to the final 11 minutes and 11 seconds of the world’s end.

At the NBCUniversal International London HQ, Michael Salmon, NBCUI’s Head of Immersive Technology, and creator and producer on Eleven Eleven, demoed each of Eleven Eleven’s immersive characteristics. A quick tutorial brought me through Story Mode- where I could attach to a main character to automatically follow them as a passive viewer, Explore Mode- to actively and freely explore the world to follow secondary characters and search for clues to uncover the mystery of the world’s end, and finally, Goddess Mode.

In this final mode, the world shrunk away to become a 3D digital board game of sorts where the entire narrative unfolds in a ‘table top’ version of the story. By tilting my head to peer into different parts of the world and zooming in or out, I could see each of the characters- tagged if so chosen- move around the world in their separate but interconnected stories. These varying perspectives in Goddess Mode combined with the ability to freely explore was the first time I had the impression of being a part of the story as an empowered viewer.

Bandersnatch has been identified as a groundbreaking episode of interactive television, and in many ways, Eleven Eleven brings this format to the immersive medium. Although, while users don’t choose character’s actions, they must choose their own movements and will each have a unique perspective on the drama as they choose different pathways through the linear narrative.

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It’s as if all of Game of Thrones happened in one episode, and a viewer could attach to any one of the main characters, and come to the same final end game, but with a very different view on the events and causation leading up to the finale. That’s why Eleven Eleven allows users to also be a master of time, and fast-forward or rewind each second of the eleven minutes and eleven seconds to explore the world, find clues, and track down other characters and subplots.

Timing was also one of the biggest challenges the team faced in creating Eleven Eleven, as events unfold in real time. “Any change to one character’s story could have a knock-on effect on one or all of the others. It took many cycles of script writing and previsualization, finessing the timings of both each time, until we had a set of tightly woven stories with no downtime for any of the characters,” wrote Noori.

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Beyond these unique immersive storytelling techniques, the team behind Eleven Eleven also experimented with techniques to make the story a seamless experience from start to finish no matter the chosen route. With original music by Bleeding Fingers designed as a spatial score, a character’s individual soundtrack changes dynamically based on the users position- seamlessly mixing with an alternate character’s scores as a user navigates between stories.

“In a traditional TV show or film, every viewer sees the same frame, at the same time, every time and the composer creates a musical soundtrack to suit. With Eleven Eleven, since we have no idea where users will be looking at any given moment, it posed a unique challenge when composing the score. We decided to create a “Spatial Score” for each character that fluidly adjusts in volume based on a users’ proximity to that character,” wrote Noori.

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Marshall McLuhan wrote in his book The Medium is the Message that “science-fiction writing today presents situations that enable us to perceive the potential of new technologies.” The sci-fi piece Eleven Eleven has done well to demonstrate the future possibilities of VR, and to bring a new type of storytelling experience to VR and AR today. It’s an insight into open world MMOGs, complex gaming narratives in VR, the potential of multiplayer immersive and collaborative game play.

Ted Schilowitz, Futurist at Paramount Pictures, tweeted that Eleven Eleven is “one of those phenomenal glimpses into the future.”

Eleven Eleven launched on Steam today and is available on all of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Vive Pro, Playstation VR, Oculus Go, Samsung Gear VR, and the AR version can be launched on Apple iPhone 7S Plus and later versions and the Apple iPad Pro and later versions while still enjoying a 6DOF experience on these 2D devices, made possible with ARKit.

Eleven Eleven is a recognition of the need for cross-platform stories, and content that can flow seamlessly across our modern devices. Just as Netflix has made entertainment possible wherever and whenever, audiences will expect the same for immersive content. Eleven Eleven is a clever narrative that takes equal care of the plot, characters, world building, overall design, and you- the user.

By Anne McKinnon

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