By Akshat Agarwal, Shekhar Kapoor, Vani Tripathi Tikoo and Vivan Sharan*
Historically, storytelling traditions in India have relied on oral narrations. Be it epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata or family histories, these were always narrated by elders, with vivid descriptions that would fire young imaginations. Children were rarely ever shown pictures of Ravana’s giant sleeping brother Kumbhakaran. Instead, every listener conjured his own image in their minds.
However, the evolution of technology through the years juxtaposed this oral tradition with newer forms of storytelling. For instance, the mass production of books brought with it the need for standardisation — with thousands of copies of a story told exactly the same way. The imagination of the reader still played a vital part — while early readers of Harry Potter books imagined the boy wizard as bespectacled and with a scar, elements provided in the author’s description helped other readers visualise him differently. When the first Harry Potter film came out a few years after the book, there was no scope for imagining what Harry Potter looked like anymore — he was there for everyone to see, in colour and on a 70mm screen.
Today, advances in artificial intelligence (AI), gaming, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have ushered in another era of immersive storytelling, where the ‘listener’ or ‘viewer’ is an active participant in the story. Here, while elements of the story are given a definition similar to those on the movie screen, the narrative itself is impacted by the actions and choices of the recipient or consumer. In such mediums, the imagination of the recipient is not limited to imagining descriptions, but plays a vital role in the direction a story takes. In order to understand the changes in storytelling, it is important to understand the engines that drive this change.
AI allows machines to mimic human intelligence and learning, allowing them to perform complex cognitive tasks. The most prominent use is seen in the recommendation engines built into Over the Top (OTT) platforms. They collect data about a user’s preferences such as the series he/she has seen or how often they stream a particular song. Later, this information is used to recommend similar content from a platform’s catalogue to the user. This reduces the effort the user has to spend looking for new content suited to her tastes and, in turn, drives up content consumption. It also means that one individual’s experience of a platform will be entirely different from that of another. Additionally, AI can also be used to tweak other aspects of the entertainment experience.
|Identifying target audience||Can use metadata and cross-platform activity to identify users’ tastes and preferences. These can be combined with information about demographics, economic status, etc.||Survey-based understanding of the demographic group that watches programs in a specific language, genre, or at a particular time (e.g. children watch cartoons after school hours).|
|Consumer feedback||Can track video completion rates and cursor activity, collect user ratings on the quality of service, conduct experiments to strategise (e.g. A/B testing).||Tracking limited to TRPs, which are calculated using a limited sample of households and are available on a weekly basis.|
For instance, AI-based analytics have also created a thorough and detailed system of collecting viewer data. In contrast to the sampling done for television viewership data, OTT platforms collect granular data on every individual consumer. Such insights on behaviours, tastes and preferences, enables platforms to take informed business decisions. Similarly, data analytics are also useful for targeted advertising, showing users only those advertisements that are relevant or of interest to them. This, in turn, presents the possibility of ad-supported business models where users do not have to pay for content. Instead, content is monetised through targeted advertising revenues.
In the age of high-speed internet, the gaming industry is competing for a larger chunk of the total entertainment pie. Online games such as Fortnite have innovated with content and business models to become platforms themselves. Fortnite, a free-to-play game, has over 350 million players, who spent a total of 3.2 billion hours playing the game in April 2020 alone. While players do not have to pay to play, they can choose to buy bonus content such as costumes for their in-game avatar — the primary driver of revenue. This approach towards monetisation, along with constant innovations, has made Fortnite a formidable presence in the entertainment market. In a 2019 letter to its shareholders, Netflix identified Fortnite as a bigger rival to its operations than HBO. India has long been a tangential part of the gaming value chain, as a destination for outsourcing asset design. However, the development of mythology-inspired games like Raji: An Ancient Epic, by Pune-based Nodding Head Games, point to winds of change. As more Indian developers start making games for the global market, the visibility of Indian-developed games is likely to increase, and propel the industry’s future growth.
The gaming industry has also pioneered immersive storytelling through open world games. These are virtual playgrounds where listeners/viewers use their own imagination in combination with the scenes provided, to create their own story. For example, in Middle Earth: Shadow of War, the player is transported to the world of JRR Tolkein’s creation, and is given a character and certain abilities to play. As the game progresses, the player can choose the direction of play — deciding which adversary to go after, how to approach a particular adventure and what tools to use. Every player has an entirely customised experience playing the game, including unique relationships with the enemy characters. Borrowing the interactive element from video games, a number of platforms are looking at creating content, where the viewer has greater control on outcomes. In 2019, Netflix released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a film length episode of the popular anthology series, where viewers were prompted to make choices for the protagonist at various points in the story.
III. Virtual and Augmented Reality
Virtual Reality (VR) is the use of technology to create a simulated environment. Instead of viewing a screen, users are put inside these simulated environments and can interact with 3D worlds, via headsets and eyewear. Augmented Reality (AR), on the other hand, adds digitised elements to a live view; for instance, superimposing a digital model of a human brain in a classroom for students to interact with. Both of these can be used in conjunction with the above-mentioned technologies to expand the breadth of options for consumers. AR and VR are already commercially deployed, with products such as Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR and AR-based mobile game Pokemon Go being successful.
In the future, AR/VR solutions will likely be used to provide interactive alternatives to entertainment such as remotes or keyboards, enabling users to control their experience through gestures. These will also help companies create educational programmes that can make learning interactive, as well as creating immersive theatre experiences. The educational potential of these technologies is especially relevant for India, with a young population that has shown a willingness to adopt new technologies such as digital payments. Finally, AR/VR solutions can also be used to enhance visitors’ experiences at museums, art galleries and amusement parks. Much like the other technologies discussed in this piece, AR and VR serve envision a more active role for the viewer.
These technologies are changing the way stories are told, putting the individual consumer at the forefront. The storytelling of the future is likely to be interactive and will provide a bespoke experience to each individual. In order to hold its own against international competition, it is important to first imagine the landscape of the future. It is only right, therefore, that the first step to prepare India to become a global leader in creative industries is an exercise in imagination — picturing what entertainment will look like ten years from now, and thinking of what we need to do to excel at it.
In this respect, India possesses two unique advantages. First, it has a powerhouse of talent, capable of creating world-class content in several Indian and international languages. Second, India’s audiences have an affinity for non-linear narratives that are likely to become salient features of an evolving media and entertainment industry. These factors can help India become a contender for cultural dominance globally, at par with powerhouses such as South Korea, which has expanded both its economic prosperity and soft power through films, TV shows and pop music. However, for India’s media and entertainment sector to hold its own against international competition, it will require steady stewardship and a long-term vision that can nimbly move to capitalise on the transformations underway.
This is an edited excerpt from the report, Embracing Nonlinearity: The Future of India’s Entertainment Industry, authored by Shekhar Kapur, Vani Tripathi, et. al., published by the Esya Centre in December 2020.