6 min read

Q&A: Ari Kuschnir, Predicting The Future Of Virtual Reality

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Ari Kuschnir is the Founder and Executive Producer of M ss ng P eces, a full-service, integrated production company that creates commercials and content for television, online, mobile, virtual reality, and live experiences. Since founding the company in 2005, Ari has been featured on the Creativity 50 and sits on the board of advisors for the Future of Storytelling, AICP Digital, and TED’s Ads Worth Spreading. He frequently speaks at conferences on the future of storytelling and virtual reality. Last year, M ss ng P eces made Creativity’s Production Company A-List.

Storyhunter: Why do you think 360° video and virtual reality are so compelling?

Ari Kuschnir: They’re a deeper way to immerse yourself in story and they help make the screen go away, which is what I think we’re really trying to do when we immerse people in a story. When you go to the theater, you’re hoping the edges of the screen just disappear and you’re in that world. So once you put on a VR headset and you don’t feel there’s a screen there because everywhere you look is the world, then, all of a sudden, you’ve crossed that hurdle. I feel that more with VR; 360° video to me is a gateway drug to VR. VR is the real deal. 360° video is how it scales while everyone gets a headset.

SH: So do you shoot in 360° yourself or are you focused more on the production side?

AK: I came from filmmaking, particularly post-production is what I was good at when I went to film school and got really interested in filmmaking and storytelling. I found my footing in editing. I think I was a really good editor and probably a good producer. I was very disenfranchised in the post-film school years with traditional production. I felt like it was antiquated and it just seemed like there was a new thing coming, a new generation, new tools, a new format. Something was forming and it had a lot to do with the internet. It wasn’t really until 2005 when YouTube, Vimeo, and the video iPod essentially all came out within months of each other that the big shift happened. It was very clear to me then that you could circumvent everything. You could make your own stuff, edit your own stuff, upload it, and millions of people could watch it. It called for new things being in new formats and new ways of doing things, not just in production, but also in the way people experience things on mobile devices.

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A view of the M ss ng P eces office

SH: Do you have any tips for Storyhunter freelancers about storytelling in VR?

AK: I encourage people to think of it as a new format in the way that online video felt like a new format when we first started. This is even more of a leap because it’s not even using the same kind of camera to tell the story. And with 360° storytelling comes really great challenges. It challenges the traditional storytelling techniques — like if you edit too fast between scenes, people get very disoriented. If you edit within a scene, which is normally how we advance the story, people get very disoriented. If you move the camera too much, people get sick; if you tilt the axis, people get sick. It really breaks with all the tropes that we rely on to tell a story.

I think for documentary, for journalism, it’s a really powerful tool. Maybe it’s the purest form of what journalism is about, which is objectively putting you in a different reality and showing you what’s happening in that part of the world, or highlighting a specific issue. VR does that better than anything because you can’t edit around it. You’re really seeing, getting a full spectrum feel and view for the story, which is what I think journalism is really striving for. For fiction and storytelling, that’s a different beast, it’s just not as strong because it’s harder to figure out.

SH: You were a judge for the 2016 AICP Awards, right?

AK: I was a judge on the VR side.

SH: What do you think the significance of AICP voting for a VR journalism piece is rather than voting for commercial productions?

AK: It’s important because it’s obvious to everyone that The Displaced was the seminal moment for VR — it got a million people to pay attention. It’s not just the content, I think The Displaced was a good piece, but I don’t think it was the best VR piece ever made. It was the combination of the content on their app, the delivery of the Cardboards through the New York Times traditional medium, passing the baton to a new medium. I don’t think Cardboard is a great way to view VR, but it’s a great entry level thing for a lot of people. And the responses were really powerful, so it’s obvious that was the most important VR event of the year. I think it was unanimous. No one else on the AICP jury that thought anyone else should take that award this year because it’s obviously the most important thing that happened with VR.

SH: Looking towards the future, how do you think 360° video and VR is going to impact both journalism and brand storytelling?

AK: Well, we’re two years in and I see an incredible amount of potential for brand storytelling. If you think about certain brands like travel brands, luxury brands, any kind of aspirational thing, they’re a really great way to put you into that world. We did one of the first VR commercials ever — the thing we did with Dos Equis and Havas, where you meet the most interesting man in the world. You’re the guest of honor at his party. That’s a really great example because that’s a character that had been cultivated for a decade, then you get to meet him, and it feels like you’re really there. I think experiences like that are really powerful for brands and I think 360° video is the way for everyone to experience it who doesn’t have a headset yet. Brands get to treat that as another piece of content on Facebook or YouTube. For them, making 360° video is the same strategy they’re applying to branded content.

For journalism, I think it’s going to have an even greater impact. I spoke on a panel with Jake Silverstein from the NYT and he made me realize that, if you think about the definition of journalism, it perfectly describes what VR does. It’s totally objective. With editing and pointing the camera at only one part of an image, you’re already creating a subjective perspective on reality. You don’t know what’s behind, you don’t know what motivated the edits, or sculpted reality. But with VR, you can get that pure, unfiltered, non-sculpted reality. For journalism, that’s huge.

SH: How much growth in VR do you think we’ll see in the next five to ten years? Do you think everyone’s going to be wearing a VR headset?

AK: I think it’s sort of like asking in 2007, when the iPhone came out, how much are people going to be doing this smartphone thing. Is everyone going to have a phone that’s like a mini computer? That has all these apps, all this cool stuff? And the answer was yes — there are two billion smartphones in the world, and they’ve really changed the world. The good news is that the thing that’s really going to take off is mobile VR, which Samsung is really leading the way on, but they’re all going to get in on it. They will just give you headset for free. At some point, they’re all going to say, “here’s this $50 piece of plastic with lenses and head tracking on it. Let’s just give it away for free and subsidize it at first. Because we want people to experience it that way.” We already have the device in our pocket, so the headset is all we need as Cardboard has shown. It’s a very simple contraption, so we’re kind of there already. The last estimate is twenty million headsets by 2018 and I think it’s going to scale really fast. It’s going to be big, but I think what’s going to be bigger is what’s going to happen with augmented reality.

SH: So you think that when VR becomes more normalized, that augmented reality will be the future?

AK: I think it’s parallel paths, but maybe VR ultimately becomes a subset of mixed reality or augmented reality. The thing that’s really going to change, if this mixed reality thing works as well as I think it will, is that we won’t work with screens anymore. The screens will disappear and it’ll just be, at first, basically what looks like glasses, and eventually get smaller and smaller until they can get it into a retina. But for now it will be a pair of glasses that you wear and that’s where the screens will exist — projected on your retina.

SH: That would be pretty cool.

AK: That’s not even a future thing that’s happening. Look at the Magic Leap demo, look at the HoloLens demo, Metavision, I played with all those and it’s real.