Earlier today Oculus announced Story Studio, its in-house production team dedicated to producing virtual reality movies. We’ve been seeing VR narrative experiences for years at this point, and while they’ve been getting more and more impressive, they’ve still been iterative steps forward. Despite how much we’ve all wanted to it to happen, nothing has stood up, raised its hands, and shouted “I’m the project that proves this crazy thing could actually work.”
I just watched Lost, the first short from Story Studio. That stand up and shout moment? It’s arrived.
I slipped the goggles over my head — the experience is built for the Oculus Crescent Bay prototype, so it’s lighter than previous versions and can track you as you stand up and move around. Lost starts with the Story Studio logo, and then the real fun begins. You start in a darkened space, and then a pinpoint of light appears: it’s a firefly, buzzing playfully up towards you. You soon realize you’re looking at a forest, and then the movie’s opening credits start as light strings swell in the background.
The sound and credits are key; my first thought was this actually feels like a movie! That was enough to get me excited, and then I started to hear the buzzing and chirping of the forest. That’s when I turned around and realized I was actually there.
Now, the sense of immersion isn’t new to Lost. Anybody that’s tried the Rift knows the feeling, but the use of credits and music played off my preconceived notions of what I was watching. My brain triggered off them, informing me it was a movie, and then that movie seemed to spill out across my entire field of view. The imagery, while not photorealistic, took advantage of being animated to overcome many of the resolution problems that can plague other VR demos.
The story itself is light and playful, director Saschka Unseld demonstrating the same whimsy and heart as in his Pixar short The Blue Umbrella. I heard a sound to my right, and when I looked over I realized there was a giant… thing… jerking to life. It was a severed robot hand, lost out here in the middle of the woods.
The hand slowly pulled itself into my main field of view — the movie does still suffer a bit from the staginess of some VR in that there’s clearly a cleared space ahead of you to direct your field of view — but I was so charmed by what was happening that I hardly noticed. The hand flexed its digits, poking around, clearly in search of someone. Its owner. A red sensor wagged like a dog’s tail, a Pixar-like touch that gave it a sense of adorable personality.
That’s when the image got slightly blurry. The Oculus unit had shifted slightly on my face. I was smiling too big.
A sharp light hit the trees high above me. Then a loud thud. And another. I crouched down, briefly wondering why the ground wasn’t vibrating. (Ballroom floors in Park City don’t usually vibrate; who knew?)
The hand’s red-sensor tail started wagging wildly, an excited dog happy its owner was home. And that’s when I saw the robot, its enormous shoulders cresting the treetops high above me. I tried to hide behind a fern. The hand may have been happy, but a lifetime of sci-fi has told me that giant robots are generally bad news.
Hand and owner were reunited as the robot stood tall above me. I still thought I could get away with this hiding thing, crouching on my knees in the digital flora. Then two big bright eyes caught my attention. The robot was crouching above, looking right at me. He had a strange mechanical smile on his face, more Iron Giant than Gort. That smiling problem started happening again — and then the credits rolled. I’ve never been so frustrated that I had to leave a VR experience.
After taking the Rift off it took me several moments to articulate how I felt. (“What’d you think?” a fellow journalist asked afterwards. My response: “Dude.”) The truth is the story in Lost is simple; it’s about a missing hand that finds its owner — but those same simple stories have been charming audiences for years before Pixar and Disney movies. We don’t need a two-hour Michael Bay epic to prove that narrative VR is worthy of being A Thing™. All that’s needed is a true story with a beginning, middle, and end; characters we can relate to; and a sense of immersion and interactivity.
Lost delivers that. I was there, within the story. The robot hand was cute and charming (and so was its owner). And while I (thankfully) felt the presence of a storyteller behind what I was seeing, the events were being tailored to me in real time. (The robot hand never pops up unless I look towards it, Unseld told me afterward, and the playful firefly was responding to my movements in real time, both encouraging me to look in certain directions and drawing me into the story as a companion.)
Oculus is being cautious with Lost, setting expectations quite low, and it’s very clear that these experiences are currently best done in short bursts; we’re far away from half-hour or movie-length virtual reality stories. But the truth is Lost is the most complete VR narrative that’s been created thus far. It’s a project that sweeps aside several concerns, provides an emotional experience for the viewer, and is able to be both familiar and totally new. But despite those accomplishments, Unseld told me he wasn’t quite happy with the finished product. The short isn’t immersive enough, he told me, and needs to do a better job of fully engaging audiences in three-dimensional space.
Oculus Story Studio hopes to release four more VR cinema experiences this year, so they’ll have plenty of time to improve. Those titles include Bullfighter, which takes place in the precise kind of arena that you’d expect, a comedy about a hedgehog with a balloon fascination called Henry, and Unseld’s next project Dear Angelica. With the entire point of the presentation at Sundance to entice new filmmakers to take what Oculus has done and create their own experiences, it looks like there could be quite a few VR cinema experiences for the Rift’s consumer version… whenever it arrives.