VR storytelling wars begin, but will anyone be watching?

As predicted in my earth-shattering post, “6 Motion Design Industry Predictions for 2015,” augmented reality (AR) platforms like Magic Leap and Microsoft Hololens and virtual reality (VR) platforms like Oculus Rift will spur the creation of exciting new experiences this year.

But if no one can consume them, how much will they matter?

The recently launched Oculus Story Studio (see video above) and VR-focused production company VRSE.works are early evidence of the VR production trend heating up. Creators are scrambling to strap on their goggles while big-money capitalists get out their wallets.

This is definitely exciting stuff. I am ecstatic to be alive in a time when something resembling the Holodeck will actually be a reality — even if it is strapped awkwardly to my head. I’ve already spent a fair amount of time with VR tech, and I am definitely a believer.

But there are also some deep-seated challenges that no one (yet) seems to be addressing. They threaten to poison the burgeoning artistic enthusiasm around VR and — at worst — block widespread adoption.

Oculus Story Studio

Oculus Story Studio is Oculus’ in-house production studio with a mission that borders on altruistic.

As Supervising Technical Director Max Planck puts it in a blog post:

Being with Oculus, we are in a unique position: it is in our best interest to share our process as well as our end product. And so it is our mission to leave breadcrumbs behind as we progress through this forest, marking dead ends and sand traps, and saving our fellow explorers the time they could be using to help us all find new paths.

OSS debuted their first VR short, Lost, at this year’s Sundance festival (alongside several VR experiences from other filmmakers). Directed by former Pixar director Saschka Unseld (Blue Umbrella), Lost enjoyed rave reviews from tech and film journalists alike.

A poster for Oculus Story Studios first short, Lost, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

A poster for the first short from Oculus Story Studios, “Lost,” which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

The Verge’s Bryan Bishop sums up the experience:

I just watched Lost, the first short from Story Studio. That stand up and shout moment? It’s arrived.

With three other shorts in development, OSS’s dream team of artists and technicians signals that, creatively speaking, the tipping point for VR is within reach.

VRSE.works

Since directing the ground-breaking, browser-based music video experience for Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown in 2010, Chris Milk has steadily built a reputation as a juggernaut of technology-infused storytelling.

Channeling that momentum, Milk partnered with Smuggler co-founder Patrick Milling Smith to launched VRSE.works, a “production company that supports the world’s leading creative innovators in Virtual Reality spherical filmmaking.” Their roster of Creators is a hit parade of commercial directors already known for pushing the bounds of live action storytelling.

Notably, not a single VRSE.works Creator is known for animated work (although several are quite comfortable with VFX). And the word “interactive” doesn’t show up anywhere, leading me to believe they’ll be pushing passive, pre-rendered experiences in lieu of Oculus Story Studio’s real-time approach.

The big, ugly challenges ahead

Oculus Story Studio and VRSE.works are just two examples of a new wave of filmmakers swelling behind VR. While the creative promise of emerging platforms is undeniably exciting, it seems out of sync with the reality of VR’s adoption path.

Much has been made of the technical hurdles for VR headsets. Latency, resolution and head-tracking have been cited as major roadblocks. But those issues will be surmounted through continued engineering. (Some have already been all but eliminated.)

The really tough problems are the ones that involve getting VR systems onto everyone’s heads. Those are mostly business problems, not engineering or design problems.

So. Much. Hardware.

Dedicated VR systems require, at the very least, a set of goggles and a computer powerful enough to supply them with high-resolution, real-time graphics. Unless you’re a serious PC gamer, you probably don’t have a machine like that laying around.

Sound is incredibly important, so you’ll need headphones, too. Oculus has promised integrated headphones of some sort, likely transforming their goggles into something more akin to a helmet. Moving around and manipulating objects in VR will require a hand-held controller of some sort (which Oculus has hinted it’s working on). The latest publicly available Rift development kit also shipped with a web camera to track head movement.

Put all of that together, and you’re talking about a lot of gear. Oh, and if you want your family or friends to join you, you’ll need to double it.

Sony's Morpheus VR headset works with the Playstation 4

Sony’s Morpheus VR headset works with the Playstation 4

The player that’s best positioned right now to leap over this obstacle? Sony. Their Morpheus headset is designed to work with the PS4 gaming console, a platform already in millions of living rooms. If Microsoft can prove that Hololens works equally well with the Xbox One, we’ll have a real fight on our hands.

Meanwhile, Oculus will be left trying to build a partnership ecosystem from scratch.

Distribution? What distribution?

Several VR and immersive AR systems have been demoed or teased by Oculus, Sony, Microsoft and Magic Leap, but no ship dates have been announced. Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard are available now, but they’re arguably limited versions of the full-blown immersion promised by the other systems.

Game of Thrones 'Ascend the Wall' VR experience created by Framestore for SXSW

Game of Thrones ‘Ascend the Wall’ VR experience created by Framestore for SXSW

Unless you go to an event like Sundance or SXSW, it’s hard to even find a VR system to try for yourself. When you do, you’ll likely only see whatever content has been preloaded for that particular experience.

Despite filmmakers rushing headlong into VR, there are no mass market distribution channels for their experiences — nor do any appear to be on the horizon. Most of the attention so far has been on the technical and creative challenges of VR, which is understandable. Those are the sexy problems.

But without distribution solutions, VR entertainment will happen in isolated bubbles enjoyed by a privileged few. So the question must be asked: If a tree falls in a virtual forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?

A time for pioneers

You need pioneers to define the storytelling rules for any new medium. Pioneers, by definition, work in the wilderness, beyond the security of crowds and easy measures of success (or failure).

But if pioneers don’t leave a trail or return to share their discoveries, they can easily be lost to time. Without their maps, Lewis and Clark would have just been a couple crazy dudes leading their troops into a fog of forgetfulness.

Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark

Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark

To stretch the analogy further: You can’t have a gold rush until you know there are mountains out there. Oculus Story Studio has the right idea: leave breadcrumbs. During this early phase of development, hoping to “strike it rich” is not only selfish, it’s delusional. There are no business models, no distribution channels and no assurances that VR will even catch on.

This is a time for pioneers, real adventurers who will earn their place in history not by hoarding their riches but by sharing them in hopes that they will multiply. If you are one of them, more power to you — and don’t forget to drop some breadcrumbs along the way.

 

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About the author

Justin Cone

/ justincone.com
Together with Carlos El Asmar, Justin co-founded Motionographer and F5. He currently lives in Austin, Texas with is wife, son and fluffball of a dog. Before taking on Motionographer full-time, Justin worked in various capacities at Psyop, NBC-Universal, Apple, Adobe and SCAD.

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  • Thanks for another intriguing post! Well it’s no news that everybody is pretty much scrambling towards interactive in all it’s incarnations.

    Out of the two entities mentioned in the article, my money is on Oculus. Although I doubt they’ll need it. A b$2 advantage seems more than unfair towards a bootstrap prodco in an increasingly competetive market.

    Still, it’s great for the Smuggler directors to get exposure in this area and hopefully branch out to greener, or at least newer pastures.

    As the article observes, most of them are not necessarily known for any interactive experience. Honestly it feels a bit as if Smuggler just tries to repackage it’s roster to get an early piece of VR pie.

    Remains to be seen which projects both of them release. Amazing the talent on both side is abundant.

    So what’s VR’a biggest hurdle? This: https://fbcdn-sphotos-h-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xpf1/v/t1.0-9/10513290_10153035672729291_9201779307051517287_n.jpg?oh=36f5366f3a20315b39562cd7ce6a372a&oe=55674E41&__gda__=1432986174_84db72c90570e99f33a3b8156cc82af7

    • “Honestly it feels a bit as if Smuggler just tries to repackage it’s roster to get an early piece of VR pie.”

      Yeah, it does feel a bit like that, doesn’t it? That was why I chose them to contrast with Oculus Story Studio. It seems they’re after very different goals.

  • Great article, Justin,

    I’d love to continue to see more content like this on the site. Inspiration can be found in a well-crafted opinion piece such as this just as powerfully as it can from watching great pieces of professional work.

    Keep up the good work.

    PS. Mate, that picture made me laugh out loud in the middle of a business dev. presentation at the most inappropriate time.
    Thank you for that.

    • Thank you so much, Juan!

    • Whole-heartedly agree with Juan. The industry discussion and perspective is really valuable to me and it’s not something I see in other places. This and your Motion Design predictions article got us talking a lot here in San Francisco.

  • Excellent article! I believe one of the very key aspects not only of public adoption of the media, but distribution is something that isn’t being talked about.

    It’s not just the release date for the public to buy the hardware, it’s getting the public to try it! Once someone tries it even once, in my experience, most people are sold. (my company GalactaVision has tested with over 500 people in campus’, nightclubs, and home environments.)

    Though they still may not be $300-$400 dollars for an HMD sold. Nor may they be in the position in which they have a $1000 plus computing system to push excellent experiences sold.

    Retail space for this is going to be tricky. We aim, and hope others will follow, to create excellent single play public space VR much like going to a movie theatre or arcade. There should be a base level of quality standard set much like THX, with experienced technicians on hand like projectionists.

    Not only is this a great way to sell this amazing medium, it may be the only way the mass public can afford to even experience the new platform that is emerging.

    It will also likely sell more systems than retail space is able to at launch.

    • “We aim, and hope others will follow, to create excellent single play public space VR much like going to a movie theatre or arcade.”

      That’s an interesting idea — and I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive with the idea that consumers will want lower-grade units at home, too. I’m reminded of the movie Strange Days, where people would visit high-end immersive VR rooms. (Well, that’s how I remember it, at least.)

      • Yes, I think that when people are able to experience a high end system in a public venue, it will only spur them saving to get a better system for home. Or at least justify the lower-end VR purchase they were debating, but didn’t know if they would like VR.

        For those that like it just enough to check out an experience or two a year, they won’t have to invest anything other than 5$-10$ and a few hours of their time a year. Like going to the movies.

        Does remind one of Strange Days doesn’t it? In my mind it’s 3d camera’s now documenting and sharing people’s life experiences… suppose we’ll have to go back and watch it!

  • Great articlem thanks Justin!

  • Janek Marcepan

    Folks, lets learn from the past, not so long ago past. First : 3D. After avatar, everyone was so excited. So was I. Now , when regular people buy new tv, they even do not ask about 3D. Next one : Google glasses, maybe not so close to the topic, but seems like the same story. Going to be forgotten soon, despite Googles efforts to make it better . And – you know – thers one thing in common. Nobody, except film/motion nerds etc, wants to put something on his nose to get some fancy expierience. Maybe once a year, once a month, but not everyday. Thats way all this vr dust will fall down within 2-4 years. Amen.

    • mariano

      Same opinion over here.

      I find it very tiring to sit through a movie with those 3D glasses on and those things are weightless compared to vr “helmets”. And the effect itself probably won’t be something you want to expose yourself for hours…

      I see breath taking potential for this tech with art projects, like that box thingy from gmunk. At this point in time if rather appears to me that mankind has gone past it’s climax in story telling capabilities and we are deviating to stuff left and right…

  • Everything start big and clunky, then gets smaller, lighter and more transparent.

    Clark Suprynowicz
    Artistic Director
    IAT Festival
    iatfest.com