Tension and Curiosity

While watching a 360 video, at any moment, the audience is choosing to look somewhere else, or keep looking where they are.

Let's talk about why the audience may choose to look somewhere new. There are a few reasons audiences may choose to look around.

  • To resolve tension
  • To find, follow, or track something moving
  • To orient (or reorient) themselves in an environment
  • They are curious about something outside of their frame
  • Because they are bored with what is in front of them, visually

Some of these, like tracking a POI or orienting themselves in an environment are self-explanatory, and don't to do with tension so much as the audience simply trying to follow the story.

Tension and Curiosity

Let's take a moment to define our terms. Both tension and curiosity are, in this context, referring to the same phenomenon for the viewer: unanswered questions. These questions are not necessarily 'spoken' or even formable in the audience's mind. In this case, questions that drive the viewer to answer them by moving their head, but we could be speaking about general narrative or storytelling devices as well.

For our purposes here both terms will be used very broadly, and the difference is for semantic clarity:

Tension is when the storyteller (the medium) provides an unanswered question. Curiosity is when the audience provides themselves with the question.

The difference is small and - hopefully, if we wish to create well-told, engaging content - often overlapping and inconsequential.

In practice, this roughly correlates to tension referring to devices stemming from plot, story, and character; and curiosity referring to more composition-driven or 360-scenic choices.

Chekov's Shiny Thing

Classic storytelling tells us that, if we introduce something of interest, that thing better show up later. This is often referred to as Chekov's gun, after playwright Chekov. If we begin to draw out a plot thread, that thread needs to get tied up.

The same principles of plot and narrative - the underlying human curiosity and desire to resolve tension - apply to the execution of 360 video.

The Need for a Dynamic Question

In a traditional story, audiences have no choices. Yet they still desire to resolve tension; to achieve narrative catharsis. This desire manifests itself as engagement and continued interest. This is still why a strong narrative core is important to immersive storytelling like 360 video. Without an interest to start with, one can't build up visual or scenic interest that causes audiences to look around the frame.

They must have narrative interest.

With a strong narrative impulse - or dynamic question, as it's often called - a story can continue to grow while remaining engaging. In non-narrative 360 video, there won't be a dynamic question, but there will still be a driving interest - be it the revelation of a news piece, the interest in an educational topic at hand, or the relationship between the audience and those present in the video.

Without a strong dynamic question, immersive media is still just fluff, polish, or 'tech demo'. Like any medium, first, we must know why this story matters, then figure out why it's being told in this medium.

External and Internal

They first must care on the narrative level. The "internal" level, the level of the story as it gets internalized and remembered before we can manipulate how they care on the "external" level, their actions and decisions and so forth.

The internal is the story, the external is the telling of the story and/or the medium.

Why look where?

So how does this external level work?

If a scenic element invites an audience to make a choice.

In 360 video, the same principle applies for the viewer looking around the frame. If the audience's curiosity get's engaged, then it better pay off.

If several characters in the frame look at a single point or around them, the audience will wonder what they are looking at.

This is most recognizable when it goes poorly. When this principle is used well, then audiences are unlikely to notice - they are staying inside of the world of the story ('internal') with their thoughts. But when something goes wrong, it brings the audience right out of the story into the world of the medium ('external').

I remember watching a 360 video, a nonfiction one, where the people kept looking at the strange camera and equipment, effectively looking not just at the camera, but through it, at it, analyzing it coldly or nervously glancing at it. It wasn't natural eye contact, like looking at a person, and the effect was unnerving. I had not choice but to think about the medium because the medium became the focus of the short piece - the gear the audience looked at (and I embodied).