Entertainment is being redefined, disrupting existing industries, along with consumer behaviour. There are outliers among our already creative industries that are pushing the limits on existing storytelling practices, harnessing deep consumer understanding and leveraging technology to close the gap on their ultimate vision for what story can become.
The future of entertainment is an ever-evolving story of its own. But that future, which will continue to emerge over the next decade, will likely be born of the themes shared here.
Innovation inspired by story
Paramount Pictures’ Futurist in Residence Ted Schilowitz focuses on the intersection of technology and humanity. He shares that storytellers should first think about what story they are trying to tell, and then define the tools and distribution methods to tell that story. “The groups and creative souls who focus on story mythology, the understanding of the human equation, as their main goal tend to embrace creative technology better than those who look at trying to use technology to create a story.”
Stories with multiple entry points and forms
“Contemporary artists have a multitude of entry points to a story and can cultivate multiple storyline possibilities simultaneously,” Phoebe Greenberg explains. Greenberg is the Founder and Director of the Phi Centre and the Phi Foundation—organizations dedicated to creating, presenting and educating audiences about innovative art.
She adds that these artists “think about different doorways to best convey an idea with the use of modern storytelling tools, whether in the worlds of virtual reality, immersive theatre and sound or more traditional cinema… or live events.”
The more entry points and forms a story can take on, the more audience segments it can engage in ways most meaningful to them.
Trend Hunter is an innovation accelerator that provides custom research, keynotes and events for companies. Their Senior Vice President of Research Services, Courtney Scharf, explains that events that offer additional entry points to an entertainment experience, such as the YouTube House Pop-Up, “speak to a desire for online interests to be translated into the real world, where consumers can connect with like-minded fans…. I was excited to see the Xfinity Reality Bar, which mimicked the sports bar experience for fans of reality TV.
If you look at Harry Potter, for instance, it’s pretty astonishing how many ways there are to get that fan experience aside from the theme parks. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen beer festivals, brunches and cafes catering to Harry Potter fans—pretty impressive for a franchise that had its last release more than eight years ago. There’s something very tribalistic about the way in which people obsess and bond over specific shows, movies or even podcasts these days, and I think we’ll continue to see growth in terms of the many ways people can engage with a specific franchise.”
“We are living through a loneliness epidemic right now that’s bound to get worse, and more than anything, people are craving meaningful connection”
Entertainment as a mechanism for meaningful social connection
“With every generation, media experiences go through a transformation,” Schilowitz explains. Gaps between generations are widening when it comes to how story is consumed, with “the amount of material people have access to, how they access it and how they build their social sphere around it.” Most adults who grew up decades ago are “still trying to grasp things on traditional screens,” while today’s kids are engaging with the story by watching streamers on Twitch or building in Minecraft.
Disruptive entertainment can help to bridge the gaps between generations by connecting them to a story through multiple formats and entry points to it. These can come to life both within and outside of the home.
Scharf highlights the growing need for entertainment that connects us: “We are living through a loneliness epidemic right now that’s bound to get worse, and more than anything, people are craving meaningful connection. It’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t impact an industry like entertainment, where people’s primary objective is to feel good.” She expects to see “more entertainment and leisure experiences specifically designed to help people feel less isolated.”
Carolyn Merriman is Executive Producer at Future of StoryTelling (FoST), a leading organization that explores and celebrates next-generation storytelling, with a firm belief that the future of storytelling is multiplatform. She emphasizes that audiences are “starting to emerge from [their] solitary digital caves a bit and return to the physical world, engaging with one another in real life, whether that’s in an immersive experience like the Museum of Ice Cream, Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return or through adding a digital layer to the real world, like in Pokémon Go.”
Consumer desire for more meaningful connection could also result in the evolution of entertainment platforms. Greenberg feels that “solitude and isolation without mentorship might result in reducing standards of excellence and quality. With the torrent of information available, the difficulty of navigating this landscape might become bewildering. Compared with peers in previous decades, we are less aligned, and to self-curate one’s consumption of culture is a challenge [in terms of] prioritizing effectively. Curation and contextualization in these arenas, I think, will continue to develop as the human experience faced with these technologies sparks communities to gather and exchange ideas.”
“Screens have essentially remained the same for the last hundred years”
The screenless screen
“Screens have essentially remained the same for the last hundred years,” Schilowitz explains. Their evolution comes down to different sizes of rectangles materializing in different venues and on different devices. But the “screenless screen” is coming, doing away with the countless iterations of the rectangle. This screen is one that we will put on, to be able to step into the entertainment. And there will be two dominant forms: mixed reality and virtual reality. Mixed reality, where the real word is augmented with digital overlays, “is the replacement for the screen behaviour dynamic.” Virtual reality replaces the consumer desire to “be in a dedicated entertainment environment for a period of time.”
Schilowitz adds that by 2030, “90% of my world will feel better on this wearable device that is so light, so comfortable, so high resolution, so smart, that I’m just wearing my computer environment. And my computer environment is my everything environment. It’s my entertainment environment. It’s my social environment. It’s my work environment.”
Consider that when a story unfolds in mixed reality, where, when and how it unfolds become even more important. The environmental and social contexts become unique elements of the entertainment experience, which is no longer confined to a dark theatre with no other sensory distractions.
“Gesture, voice and eye tracking are all much more human ways of interacting”
Instinctively intuitive interfaces
An entertainment experience is not only reliant on what audiences see. Intuitive interfaces are essential for consumers to navigate to, and engage with, stories.
“At FoST we’re often talking about how unnatural many of our current interfaces are,” says Merriman. “We’re all hunched over computers and phones all too often. Gesture, voice and eye tracking are all much more human ways of interacting. Neural interfaces are the extreme version of this.… Neural interfaces are brain–computer interfaces that allow you to operate a computer with your mind—make something happen by simply thinking about it. The most exciting early applications are, of course, in the health industries, where they’re being used by people with paralysis to be able to communicate.”
Innovative entertainment experiences require no standard remotes or hand-held game controllers to navigate them. St. Noire is a mystery board game that uses Amazon Alexa’s voice platform to play. The VOID allows visitors to navigate a virtual world overlaid on top of a physical space, simply by walking around. Mechanical Souls offers audience members unique storylines based on their gaze within the VR experience.
“Technology and gaming introduce the audience to virtual interaction. Augmented reality, virtual reality, facial recognition and avatars offer a multitude of doorways into a story, influencing the point of view of the storyteller and audience with adaptable storylines,” explains Greenberg.
Technology can allow virtual characters to seemingly recognize audience members or their emotions and react to them in different ways, creating personalized and virtually real interactions. Storylines can be personalized based on who is watching. Merriman is excited about what AI can do to unlock personalized experience: “I think that, with the radical advances happening in AI, there’s no doubt that there will be really exciting opportunities for audiences to step inside stories and interact with characters in meaningful ways.”
Entertainment experiences are also experimenting with integrating live actors who can improvise to offer audience members a unique experience each time. The Phi Centre showcased DVgroup’s Horrifically Real Virtuality. Greenberg explains that it combines “live actors and virtual reality, traditional scenography as well as virtual sets and atmospheric entrances to the story before it begins.”
Another exciting example is the Star Wars-themed hotel that Disney will soon be opening. Upon check-in, guests will immediately become a part of an ongoing immersive theatre experience for the duration of their stay, with an experience that will be unique for each visitor.
Platforms for audiences to tell their own stories
Scharf is seeing “a general shift towards ascribing more meaning to the experiences we engage with. In some cases today, we see examples of entertainment that helps consumers tell their own stories, like in the case of those Instagram-friendly ‘museums’ that were so big last year… Most successful iterations of this…have been quite saccharine and very obvious about the way in which they’re designed to really only produce a great selfie for visitors. I think we’ll see a shift towards iterations that provide both a chance for photos and a worthwhile experience.”
“We’ll continue to see growth in participatory storytelling,” says Merriman, “whether that’s richer narratives in the gaming world or the growth of new platforms like TikTok that let audiences become content creators and distributors.”
“We will be inevitably forced to change as we enter the age of creative machine intelligence.”
Stories with minds of their own
Pietro Gagliano is a co-founder of Secret Location and the founder of Transitional Forms—a new studio-lab focused on creating the future of entertainment with AI.
Stepping beyond simply offering a personalized entertainment experience, his team is in production on a dynamic immersive experience called Agence, along with the NFB. Gagliano explains that, “with AI- powered characters, procedurally generated cinematics and a dynamic musical score, the film is unique with each and every viewing, and it in essence has a mind of its own.”
Transitional Forms is experimenting with machine intelligence in place of human directors, editors, cinematographers and more. Gagliano foresees that industries accustomed to linear formats “will be inevitably forced to change as we enter the age of creative machine intelligence.”
New moments for content consumption
Consider what other moments can be enhanced with new forms of entertainment. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been quoted as saying that “we actually compete with sleep.” In the future of entertainment, could there be a breakthrough way to give people the dreams of their dreams?
In the interim, what else can companies such as Peloton do to offer engaging entertainment experiences to their at-home fitness audiences? Vehicle manufacturers have added screens for their passengers, and now Elon Musk is adding Netflix and YouTube streaming to his Teslas.
Scharf is excited by what Holoride is developing for self-driving vehicles—“a VR experience specifically designed for passengers in self-driving vehicles. What’s cool about the concept is that they plan to incorporate the car’s real-time movements to make the experience feel more real.”
Circumventing the constant chase to catch-up
The companies that are winning in entertainment are those that employ dedicated talent to spend time learning about and experimenting with existing and emerging forms of entertainment and content development tools. This is exactly where Schilowitz and his team come in. As he explains, “if you don’t have the time to spend under the hood to learn these new things, you’re not going to be tuned up enough to take advantage of them.” Spending only a little time watching some TV, or some movies at screenings, or relying merely on reports, will not bring to light the possibilities or reveal which innovative thinking will make waves in the industry.
The most successful companies have developed an infrastructure for new forms of entertainment and its consumption. Apple, Google, Valve and Disney are leading examples. Disney, Schilowitz highlights, “knows how to enchant audiences…They have a legacy of time under the hood outside of the traditional ‘let’s go into the room and watch a screen.’” They understand all forms of entertainment and consumer behaviour around them, ranging from theme parks, to specific rides, to movies, TV shows, music, consumer products, streaming products and more. They have spent decades learning and experimenting with different iterations of story experiences.
We are no longer in the business of creating stories for audiences. We are in the business of customizing memorable moments and connections. And we will achieve this along with our audiences, using the technologies developed to bridge the gaps between the imaginations of the most creative storytellers and what is possible today.