Sense8 and the Future of VR


I recently watched Sense8 and have been trying absorb it. This Netflix original about blending consciousness was exciting, gorgeous, frustrating, and messy. It may also point to the future of entertainment.

What makes Sense8 unique is how it breaks out of the structure of the conventional action show. There are big fight scenes (really good ones) and chases. But the show gives equal time to set pieces where the characters listen to music or have sex. Its as if the Wachowskis and co-creator Joe Straczynski are saying, “Action is great. We love action. But what happens if we apply an action movie aesthetic to the quiet bits in life?”

There’s no way anything like Sense8 would fly on network television. Even HBO would have issues with this show,  which blends a bunch of genres, none of which are in the “gritty Masterpiece Theater” style epitomized by The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. Sense8 can only thrive on a channel that targets niche audiences and encourages them to spend an extended amount of time getting to know a diverse set of characters. In other words, Netflix.

Even on Netflix, Sense8’s success is far from assured. The show seems to have done well with its fans, but the critical response has been mixed and there’s no sign that it’s a viewing numbers juggernaut. It’s hard to tell what metrics Netflix uses to judge success, and Sense8 may be too niche, too hardcore.

I wouldn’t bet against Sense8 having a major impact on television, though. Both the Wachowskis and Straczynski have a history of seeing around the corner, doing work that sets a standard for later entertainment. The Matrix revolutionized the way Western action movies were filmed. Babylon 5 introduced the tightly serialized approach to television drama.

Sense8 uses the structure of its channel — short seasons, a release schedule that favors watching several episodes at once, no commercials to enforce traditional act breaks — and uses it to tell stories in a new way. And television is not the only form of entertainment that may be changing with the times.

 The VR Sense8tion

The gestalt opinion emerging from this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo seems to be that virtual reality has finally arrived. VR headsets and controls are now good enough for consumers to use, though they’re still more likely to be picked up by early adopters than the mass market.
It’s not just the technology that has improved, though. Game makers are learning how VR headsets are different from previous video games, and are starting to adapt their work to the technology.

As a veteran of military sims and other early VR efforts pointed out on a GiantBomb podcast, the human brain processes a VR environment in a different way than it processes a flat image. The pace of movement has to be slower so that the body’s balance systems can keep up and avoid disorientation.

It’s a design constraint that may push game makers away from action extravaganzas and towards VR’s strengths of exploring interesting environments and interacting with people at a distance. The hot games of the 2020s may look more like Myst or an episode of Sense8 than Call of Duty.

When you consider the enduring mainstream appeal that Myst had, that’s not a bad thing. If consumers get used to VR — and if an Oculus Rift makes it possible to play ping-pong with Grandpa on Facebook, they will — then the game market is poised to get much bigger. Think “Wii for everyone” big.

All it takes is for game designers and other game makers to take a hard look at what VR does well and what it should avoid. Like the Wachowskis and Joe Straczynski, we need to look around the corner a little and see where this new format takes us.

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