Will VR enable a perfect blending of games and movies, or usher in a whole new form of story-telling and content creation? We interviewed execs from Oculus and Epic to gain some insight.
Last month I wrote a story about the premier of a short animated VR film, Henry, produced by Oculus Story Studio, which is an internal content division of Oculus started by former Pixar and Dreamworks animators and producers. In that story, I gave some of my impressions of this VR “movie” experience, and wondered aloud whether we were heading toward a new creative outcome that was difficult for us mere mortals to predict or imagine, given years of ingrained notions about movie-going, story telling, and game playing.
The article sparked a delightfully erudite discussion among Tom’s Hardware community members who seemed to push each other to think about how VR story telling might veer off the beaten path.
Coincidentally, a couple new developments arose the following week around VR content; and simultaneously, I conducted some quick email interviews with Ray Davis, GM of Epic Unreal Engine (which was used in the making of Henry), and Edward Saatchi, producer of Oculus Story Studio. I want to call out (tease?) in particular a comment that Saatchi made in response to a question about whether immersion will remove some of the community nature of watching films on a big screen. I find his answer, which you can read further into this piece, eye-opening and further proof that VR film making will take us in a much different direction than 3D filmmaking has.
I will tick off some of the news around VR content in a bullet list below, and finish this up with a verbatim replay of my interviews. First, though, I wanted to cherry-pick a few of the more interesting insights from our readers, because I think this sets the stage well for the ensuing conversations:
Now onto a few of the tidbits I found of interest:
- A VR agency called Kaleidoscope announced that it was kicking off a traveling VR film festival from August 22 - October 14. It will visit 10 cities: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, LA, Denver, Montreal, Toronto, New York City and Austin. Kaleidoscope is newly formed, by Rene Pinnell and former Industrial Light & Magic technical director Michael Breymann. The LA event on September 23 seems to coincide with the annual Oculus Connect developer conference, which is also in LA.
- On the virtual eve of the expected release of the HTC-Valve project, Vive, Lionsgate announced it would launch a virtual reality game based on the film John Wick. The first person shooter is being developed by game developer and publisher Starbreeze, which will also be working with WEVR, which created theBlue: Encounter, a title that HTC used to introduce Vive, and Grab, another VR studio.
Before we begin the interviews, some readers may wonder why I've chosen to write about this on Tom's Hardware, and aside from the obvious VR tie-in (a platform upon which the next evolution of gaming has undoubtedly started to form, and one which demands some pretty serious hardware), one of the main things all of this points to, if you couldn't tell, is the potential convergence of game and film, albeit in a way that will have to play out over the next few years.
Interview: Epic Unreal Engine GM, Ray Davis
Tom's Hardware: Specifically what role does Epic play in Henry? When you say that it was built on the Unreal Engine, how much of it, what parts, and why?
Epic's Ray Davis: In the case of Henry, we've been fairly hands-off -- the team at Oculus has done all the hard work of creating the experience. We've always intended to make sure Unreal Engine 4 has all the ingredients and tools readily available so that anyone can pick it up and immediately make something without having to reach out to us for support. The team they've built at Oculus Story Studio has an incredible mix of talent and it's humbling to see what they've been able to create while using our technology as a foundation. That being said, we've always been close partners with Oculus and have worked hard to ensure that UE supports their latest hardware while also integrating their production feedback back into the engine for future development.
Tom's Hardware: Does Epic’s Unreal Engine always play a role in animation like this, and if so, can you give some other examples?
Epic's Ray Davis: It's true that in the past, UE was primarily known as a tool for games development, but these days it's really morphed into a tool for anyone looking to create real-time digital content. Virtual reality has been a huge driver of convergence across multiple industries, and we're seeing both game and film developers alike flock to the same toolsets to create these innovative new experiences. UE4 has all the tools and features to support high fidelity rendering for VR and all the other modern platforms, so in some respects it's not too surprising that we're seeing more and more teams outside of traditional games development adopt the technology.
Tom's Hardware: How different is an immersive VR experience from a development/gaming engine standpoint than a typical 3D game that you’d play on a PC? Where do those differences emerge, what sort of processing power is required to do all of the work?
Epic's Ray Davis: From a raw technical perspective there's not a huge difference in building digital content for a game versus building an immersive VR experience. Probably the biggest challenge to speak of is in regards to performance as there are steep requirements for building modern VR. Fortunately that's one area we focus on specifically with UE so that developers are able to squeeze as much content as possible into their experience.
Naively, almost every VR experience tackles the stereo rendering requirement of VR by using brute force and simply rendering the scene twice, but there's actually a tremendous amount of optimizations you can take advantage of to reduce that overhead and squeeze even more into your experience.
With UE, we're continuing to solve those hard engineering problems so that creatives can leverage while being almost entirely oblivious to them - they're just focusing on making their crazy idea become reality.
Tom's Hardware: Is this a different team involved? Were different aspects needed for UE4, or was it just using the standard engine?
Epic's Ray Davis: There are no special versions of UE4 to provide different sets of functionality so everything you need to make a VR short film like Henry is in the same engine everyone can download for free. It's critical to keep the fundamental tools and features tightly integrated under a single package, otherwise developers end up wasting their time trying to hunt down add-ons and other tools to help them build their experience.
This approach also means anything you build for any platform is immediately usable for any other project and platform, which in turns generates a ton of value for the UE development community. Building compelling content for VR is a tough challenge and we work hard to equip developers with every advantage we can!
Tom's Hardware: Why do you think Oculus chose Epic?
Epic's Ray Davis: To truly tell a compelling story, I believe there is a high requirement when it comes to the visual fidelity, and with UE that is one of the clear advantages to teams looking at using the technology. Also, with every creative endeavor you often need to work through many iterations to finally realize the vision and create a magical experience, and that's an area we've specifically focused on when it comes to Unreal Engine.
Throughout my career as a programmer I always stuck with the mantra of "what can I do to enable the creatives on the team" knowing that anything I do to improve their productivity means that they'll be that much more empowered to build something truly innovative. UE takes this idea to heart with the emphasis on systems like Blueprints, which enables anyone to create an entire experience within the engine without writing a single line of code. This level of productivity is a huge win for any team, and I imagine this factored heavily into Oculus' decision to use UE4 for their project.
Tom's Hardware: Broader level, then, do you see VR as a more potent intersection point for gaming and movie/story creation than what we’ve traditionally seen? I know there have been attempts to bridge these worlds, but honestly those have not been terribly successful. Watching Henry I could see that being a series of short films/stories for kids, and then also turn into a VR game with that character.
Epic's Ray Davis: Modern VR is absolutely creating a convergence between movie/story creation and gaming for a myriad of reasons. From the film side I believe there is an eagerness to find new mediums to tell new stories while also looking for new types of stories that can only be told with a new platform such as VR. The games industry has always been hungry to adopt interesting new technology, and while it's not clear the VR is just about games, it is clear that there will be some fantastic new gaming experiences exclusive to VR.
The cross-over really comes down to the requirements of building VR, whether it's a game or something else, and I think this is a case where all the features and systems we've been building for games over the last decade really start to shine. Complex systems such as physical interactions, artificial intelligence, and advanced audio processing are all areas that have mostly been driven by games development over the last decade, but which are all integral to building a compelling VR experience.
Interview: Oculus Story Studio Producer, Edward Saatchi
Tom's Hardware: What is the progress so far of getting the big studios involved in creating content? What are their barriers, and what is Oculus doing to make the barriers lower?
Oculus' Edward Saatchi: With Story Studio, we’re looking at original new made-for-VR cinematic content that we hope inspires other to take the leap into this exciting new medium for storytelling. We’re already seeing major studios starting to get involved in the space and producing excellent content 360-degree content like Wild with Reese Witherspoon and the Jurassic World VR experience by Universal Pictures and Felix and Paul [Studios]. This is just the beginning.
Tom's Hardware: When does the content get longer? [Note: Henry is only about 15 minutes.]
Oculus' Edward Saatchi: Given how new the medium of VR is, we feel that we can learn more by creating more short pieces rather than investing in one large film, is the most effective way to learn as much as possible. Moreover, shorter content is less expensive to produce and overall less risky, especially when everyone’s still learning.
Tom's Hardware: When did Oculus create Studios? How many people? Where is that part of the company located? What are the company’s expectations of this division? How much has the company invested in this aspect?
Oculus' Edward Saatchi: Oculus Story Studio has been around for about a year. The team’s still relatively small - roughly 15 engineers, artists, designers, and storytellers - but with an incredible amount of talent and experience. Our mission is to inspire through the creation of VR films and to educate by sharing everything we learn with the community.
Tom's Hardware: I understand Unreal Engine was used for this. Why was UE 4 used?
Oculus' Edward Saatchi: We chose Unreal Engine 4 by Epic Games as the engine for both Lost and Henry. It’s an incredible toolset for real-time graphics and storytelling, and we’re working with Epic on building more cinematic tools on top of it. The real-time nature of the engine and film is key, as it allows us to walk around and explore Henry’s house, as well as enabling Henry to react to the audience and their movement.
Tom's Hardware: To run Henry are we talking the same level of hardware for the PC as will be required to run a video game on Oculus?
Oculus' Edward Saatchi: Yes, it is roughly equivalent to what’s required to run a high-quality video game on the Rift. You can learn more about the Rift’s recommended spec on the oculus.com.
Tom's Hardware: Going to the movies (and yes, I know plenty of us watch them alone on an airplane with headphones on or at home or on iPads) is a community and family event. The Oculus movie event kind of changes that. That’s a big cultural shift. What does Oculus studios think will become of the future of movies in light of the immersive aspect of this experience? Will it hurt the family/community nature of movie going?
Oculus' Edward Saatchi: We don’t think so; rather, film and storytelling can be more social than ever with virtual reality. At Tribeca, we debuted a new version of our first short film, Lost, in which two audience members could watch the film together at the same time. Each audience member was embodied as a firefly in the forest, and you can see the other audience member moving about the scene as well as where they’re looking. Sharing the experience with someone else is just as powerful as it is in real life, and when you imagine the story being able to interact with you, we expect VR films in the future to achieve some remarkable things.
Tom's Hardware: Does Oculus see this kind of content beyond animation? The VR movie experience with real characters?
Oculus' Edward Saatchi: We are excited by the opportunities of live action. Having real life actors looking right at you in a film adds a level of presence that traditional 2D and 3D films can’t offer without breaking 4th wall and in VR, there are no walls. We have experienced exciting experiments in live action already, and although there is a lack of positional tracking in live action, we think it presents powerful possibilities for the future of storytelling.
Tom's Hardware: It seems to me that there’s a much more real intersection of movies and games possible here. How is the movie/entertainment group working with the game creation group at Oculus, or aren’t they yet?
Oculus' Edward Saatchi: Oculus Story Studio is actively experimenting and researching how to tell a story using virtual reality. We, along with the entire VR community, are literally inventing the language of VR right now. And we are sharing our best practices with the community at large, including film, gaming, etc. Games convey a story to the user, whether very complex, or very simple, and with VR, we need to be able to use this emerging medium to its maximum potential. And its potential is vast. So we are sharing best practices, both successes and failures, that we hope will help developers in the story telling process as they continue developing games. We are inspired by the genre of narrative games, such as Gone Home, Stanley Parable and Dear Esther.
Fritz Nelson is the Editor-In-Chief of Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.