Storytelling has been a buzzword in the marketing world since the origin of advertising.
From John Deere’s first edition of “The Furrow” published in 1895 to the story of childhood friends reunited through Google Search, storytelling has always been a vital component of some of the most effective marketing campaigns in history.
But what does the future of storytelling look like? How will technology change the way we tell stories?
The overnight success of Pokémon Go may provide some insight.
For starters, the line between fiction and reality will continue to blur, as will the borders separating producer and user; story and game; entertainment and advertising…
But before we dive into the trends that will shape the future of all communication fields, let’s first take a look at what makes storytelling – especially visual storytelling – such a timeless and indispensable tool.
Storytelling: A tool for creating meaning
Just imagine for a second that you lived in a world without stories. What would that look like?
More than just a world without Jon Snow or Holden Caulfield, it would be a place defined by the absence of meaning.
Something like an infinite number of isolated moments floating in space and time, with nothing to make sense of them or put them together in a logical sequence.
Sound horrifying? It is.
But here’s a real test to prove how fundamental storytelling is to our existence. Read the following three sentences:
He went to the store.
Sharon went hungry and wept.
Did you assume that “he” in the first sentence referred to Fred? Did you imagine that Fred died while at the store and that Sharon cried because Fred never came back?
This simple test from the book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story by Kendall Haven reveals that the human mind is built to make connections and find meaning through stories.
Since our daily lives play out mostly in the form of stories – complete with settings, characters and plots – it makes sense that our minds automatically process every new experience through mental story structures.
Because our minds demand meaning, we even go so far as to invent stories and connections between events so that they fit into our mental narrative of reality.
The Future of Storytelling
When you combine the timeless necessity of storytelling with the sheer power of visual content, you arrive at one of the most potent forces shaping the future of communication today: Visual storytelling.
Here are some of the trends I believe will shape the future of this field by blurring the lines between once-neatly-defined concepts.
1. Fact and fiction
While some of our favorite text-based stories relied solely on descriptive language to conjure up the right images in our minds and whisk us away to far-off lands, visual storytelling is taking this to its maximum expression by building fictional worlds we can see from all kinds of dynamic perspectives.
By transporting viewers to the middle of a scene as it’s unfolding, virtual reality is already on its way to creating experiences that will eventually involve all five senses.
Take, for example, the VR film Allumette (see video above). The first of its kind, this masterpiece by Penrose Studios takes visual storytelling to a whole new dimension.
Viewers can actually explore this tiny world, originally imagined by Hans Christian Andersen, by walking around this Venice-like city, following protagonists wherever they go and even poking their heads through windows and walls to view important plot developments.
Although fictional worlds that appeal to our senses of smell and taste have yet to be created, it’s only a matter of time before they appear on the scene.
This Kickstarter project, for example, promises to provide new smells and sensations through wind, heat, mist and vibrations.
But for now, we’re still seeing a lot of hybridization going on. In other words, real-world environments with superimposed fictional elements.
Besides the obvious example of the insanely popular Pokémon Go, there’s the virtual reality park The Void, where visitors can explore a virtual space with VR headsets and, at the same time, explore the real physical space that overlaps it.
But the blurring of fact and fiction won’t stop there.
Latitude’s study on the future of storytelling also predicts that, in line with audiences’ growing appetite for never-ending sagas, we will start to see real-time storyworlds that have 24-7 lives, just like us.
It doesn’t matter whether we tune in or not, we can receive news flashes from this alternate reality all throughout the day.
Imagine reading a tweet or Facebook message from Francis Underwood while in a meeting or in the middle of lunch?
2. Us and them
One of the primary aims of text-based storytelling has always been to allow to reader to see the world through the eyes of the protagonist by being privy to his/her thoughts, emotions, desires and experiences.
But visual storytelling formats will take this to a whole new level by allowing users to see and experience the world from another person’s point of view.
While some may dream of becoming 1960s adman Don Draper or a heroine like Sansa Stark, this type of storytelling has real-world implications too.
Consider, for example, the VR project A Walk Through Dementia. It allows viewers to walk a mile in the shoes of someone living with dementia.
Or take a look at The Guardian’s virtual experience of solitary confinement 6×9 (see video above).
Both of these out-of-body, immersive experiences are designed to increase empathy for those who are living a very different reality from you and me.
3. Game and Story
Blackout, for example, is a VR experience (set to be released at the end of this year) that is part documentary and part video game.
Using an Oculus Rift headset or Google Cardboard, players can explore strangers’ streams of consciousness, based on actual interviews, as they walk through a stalled New York City subway car.
They can selectively listen to certain passengers’ thoughts or stick with one person and eventually be transported into their memories.
Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel is another part-VR documentary, part-gamer narrative by the BBC that allows users to relive a part of history (in this case, the Irish 1916 Easter Rising) through a remarkably vivid and realistic depiction of the event.
Meanwhile, the New York Times is not far behind with its own award-winning VR documentary on the lives of children displaced by war and persecution.
The objective of all of these is not only to enable users to empathize with others, but to provide audiences with deeply immersive experiences that will forever change the way they look at life and reality.
4. Work and play
Beyond providing enjoyment through immersion and interactivity, this type of visual storytelling is designed to have a positive, tangible impact on the user and the real world.
Consider, for example, the augmented reality drama game Conspiracy For Good.
Part social movement, part interactive story, this game challenged participants to bring down an evil global security firm and, in the process, perform good deeds such as donating toys to a children’s organization and building libraries in Africa.
What about a game that encourages you to stay healthy?
There’s also an app for that. It’s called Zombies, Run!, and it makes running fun by allowing users to participate in a series of missions to save a fictional town from the zombie apocalypse.
Both of these cases exemplify the way interactive storytelling is blurring the lines between work and play, duties and distractions, shoulds and wants.
5. Producer and user
As the masses are empowered, it is becoming harder to distinguish between author and reader, producer and user, director and audience.
The growing appetite for control and interactivity has given rise to films which will allow audiences to the determine the final outcome of the story.
Late Shift, the first fully realized interactive movie, is now available for Apple iOS devices, and it’s everything audiences have been waiting for.
This game-movie hybrid allows you to become the protagonist of the story by giving you the power to choose whether to help a tourist with directions or ignore him and jump on the next train; to trust the police or listen to a woman you just met.
More experiences like these are already on the way.
For example, Steven Spielberg’s most recent project for HBO, Mosaic, will be an experimental movie linked to an app that will allow viewers to pick their adventure and decide certain elements of the story.
6. Entertainment and advertising
The latter, for example, set up a 4D tourism booth, complete with Oculus Rifts, wind jets and heaters to give users a realistic teleportation experience to London and Hawaii.
Meanwhile, Mercedes created this 360-degree video featuring its upcoming 2017 SUV to take viewers on an adventure through the snowy mountains of Colorado.
And Toms Shoes, always the trailblazing storyteller, set up a VR chair in its flagship store to transport customers to remote villages where its products are given away to impoverished children (see video above).
Latitude also predicts that in the future advertising will become even more seamlessly integrated with our favorite interactive stories.
If users like a character’s new pair of shoes, for example, all they’ll have to do is click on them to get more details and purchase them.
Visual storytelling without limits
While it’s clear that the future of storytelling will lead to a greater convergence of formats and the rise of transmedia narratives, what’s not so clear is how far the limits of storytelling can be pushed.
As we strive to become the authors of our own stories, let’s not be surprised if one day we have to pinch ourselves to find out whether we’re living in a dream or the real thing.
Guest Author: Nayomi Chibana is a journalist and writer for Visme’s Visual Learning Center. She has an M.A. in Journalism and Media from the University of Hamburg in Germany and was an editor of a leading Latin American political investigative magazine for several years. She is particularly passionate about researching trends in transmedia storytelling.