SXSW 2015: Does transmedia still have a promising future?

Transmedia was once again eclipsed by virtual reality and its helmets at the 2015 edition of the South by Southwest™ Interactive Festival, as shown by three conferences with key industry players.

Once again this year, the South by Southwest™ Interactive Festival focused on the latest “VR” experiences—virtual reality launched with great fanfare last year with Félix & Paul’s Game of Thrones and Strangers. Since then, Oculus is no longer the only VR helmet in development and collaborative efforts have multiplied between industries—namely with the film industry—at an astonishing speed.

This once again raises the question of the total convergence promised by transmedia but only partially delivered on. And what if virtual reality managed to achieve what transmedia storytelling did not achieve, i.e., the ultimate merge of content and technology, of video gaming and cinema?

The “creative activist”

The first hint of this paradigm shift comes to us from the master class facilitated by Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead. From his beginnings as a black and white comic writer, Kirkman became in the space of only a few years the head of a television and gaming empire hardly weakened by Game of Thrones in geeks’ hearts.

Kirkman qualifies himself as a “creative activist,” as indicated by the title of the conference he gave in Austin. This quasi militant denomination can be explained by his intent to maintain control over his creation and provide the same power to the other writers of his company, Skybound (founded in 2010).

He nevertheless hesitates before employing the term “transmedia” even though it is probably the perfect term to describe the universe of The Walking Dead: “I hate the word transmedia as much everyone does.”

The tone is set but not in an acrimonious fashion. Kirkman points out that the objective he set for his zombie saga never involved transmedia. “It’s almost accidental transmedia. When I began The Walking Dead, I only wanted to do a very good comic.”

Nevertheless, the screenwriter raises an interesting point. Whereas his company, Skybound, produces comic books as well as web and TV series, video games as well as derived products and has just entered a partnership with Maker Studios, transmedia continues to imply—at least in the United States—a fundamentally commercial expression, as pointed out by Le Monde’s special envoys.

Transmedia production therefore seems to have become the norm for companies like Skybound, to such an extent that it has come to go without saying. The development and operation of intellectual property are now incorporated in the DNA of these multiplatform companies. Being so closely integrated at the heart of the company’s activities, the question of “making transmedia” is no longer a problem.

Transmedia vs. virtual reality

What explains such defiance with regards to a term that was so enthusiastically welcomed by the audiovisual world only a few years ago? The complexity of the notion—which to this day does not yet benefit from a simple and common definition recognized by all—is without a doubt in part responsible for this lassitude.

What transmedia promised was and remains immense, from content convergence to technology convergence as well as an active integration of the public who thereby becomes a “spect’actor.”

One of these promises that opens up significant potential for imaginary universes is that of immersion: thanks to alternate reality games (ARGs) and other online or in real life (IRL) gaming, it would become possible to have the spectator experience a story “as if he were there” in a porous effect between real life and the virtual world.

Today, this immersion sought by transmedia storytelling has been almost completely annihilated by the arrival of virtual reality. There is no need any more for a complex and expensive ARG when one simply needs to put on a helmet to be transported to another dimension.

From journalism to porno and from video gaming to cinema, all universes will be disrupted by the arrival of these helmets in households, something that transmedia has been promising since 2003…

To have the sensation of being at the top of the Westeros Wall, in the cockpit of the Interstellar spaceship or simply amongst a herd of wild horses in the middle of a Mongolian plain, virtual reality makes it simple for the user: simply put on a helmet and abandon yourself.

The required backdrop to create a truly immersive experience is somewhat more complex: scenes must be filmed over 360 degrees (Félix & Paul and the other producers developed their own recording system), whereas helmet manufacturers are still working on eliminating the blur and the dizziness experienced by the users of their products.

 But the basics are there: manipulation is simple and sensations are unique. Spectactors no longer need to resort to their favourite fiction hero’s Twitter account or blog; they now have the possibility of interacting face to face with their hero.

From transmedia to sensual media

Different conference, different tone. During “The Future of Storytelling: The Event”, transmedia is gone. In fact, the term was not mentioned a single time during the conference.

Aaron Koblin (digital artist for VRSE), Ari Kuschnir (producer for Missing Pieces), Charles Melcher (digital editor) and Levi Khansari (game designer) prefer to talk in terms of sensual media, thereby going countercurrent against certain multiplatform projects’ demonstrations of force. Here, the idea is to tell stories that call upon sensitivities and emotions by using technology not as technology per se but for the emotion it conjures up. These same thoughts were at play last year, as I mentioned in my report on SXSW 2014

Hence, slow media and sensual media are in. Nevertheless, since last year, virtual reality has gained ground and is being explored by Facebook and Hollywood alike. It’s indicative of a global interest that is gaining both the streets of Austin and specialized blogs.

This is unprecedented interest for a technology that is still far from going mainstream. Oculus, Morpheus and other helmets may be commercialized by the end of the year underway or the beginning of 2016.

Oriane Hurard
Oriane Hurard is a producer with Les Produits Frais as well as a festival programmer for new storytelling formats (transmedia, webseries, VR) and a new media and community management instructor.
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