Animated VR Shows Made Easy: The Campfire Union's Flipside Platform

Last year, I had the chance to sit down with Lesley Klassen from The Campfire Union to learn about the company’s first VR game, Lost Cities. During my visit to the studio, Klassen explained that The Campfire Union is a big proponent for social VR, which is why the developer chose a board game as its first release. The company is still interested in VR social interaction, but its current project, Flipside, isn’t a game. It’s a tool that lets you create animated shows in real time. The Campfire Union is taking the real-time VR capture concept from the game design industry and offering it to the animation industry to simplify the workflow and add an interactive element to cartoons.

The Campfire Union believes that Flipside could become the way to make animated shows in the future. With the Flipside software, you can put actors directly into the virtual world to act as the characters they portray. Flipside currently supports the Oculus Rift HMD with Touch controllers (it plans to embrace the Steam VR platform in the future.)

The Campfire Union isn’t the first developer to put actors into virtual reality. Cloudhead Games put together a real-time mocap/voice capture system to bring the characters in The Gallery: Call of the Starseed to life last year. The Flipside platform offers much more than real-time capture, though.

Not Meant For Amateurs

The Campfire Union said it is building Flipside for mid-level professional content creators. The company isn’t trying to compete with the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks, but it sees a big opportunity to cater to smaller production companies and professional YouTube creators.

We had a chance to stop by The Campfire Union offices to see the content creation side of Flipside in action, and John Luxford, the company’s co-founder and CTO, walked me through some of the software’s features. Flipside includes a director’s interface, which lets you set up the show like a professional production. There’s also a set selection menu, which lets you create a complex show with multiple environments. You could also set up a game show or news program that switches from host to host. The director’s interface includes eight camera angles that you can switch to at any moment, and a live preview window so you can see the changes in real-time.

The director’s interface lets you queue animated clips, such as intro videos or panning shots, and it gives you control of an audio mixer and other general settings so you can add flare to your creations. The director can also enable slideshow, Twitch chat, and teleprompter widgets for the actor in the headset.

Record For VR and 2D Playback

Flipside records videos in multiple formats simultaneously. The Campfire Union created a plugin for Open Broadcaster Software, which allows you to capture the 2D director’s preview. The integration also lets you live stream the captured video over Twitch, Facebook, or YouTube. It also captures a VR version of the recording on the Flipside servers, which allows the developer to offer VR playback for fans with VR headsets.

Audience Interaction

You can’t interact with the environment or host when you watch content on YouTube, but if you watch a Flipside show with a VR headset, you can be part of the show. The Flipside platform allows hosts to toss VR objects into the audience for viewers to catch and play around with. Luxford said that the virtual objects could be tchotchkes for your avatar, such as a shirt or hat. The example that he showed me was a pencil that the host tossed to me that I could catch and then draw with.

The transfer of objects between actors and audience members is interesting. The stage in Flipside is scaled down and appears toy-like in front of you. When a host tosses an object to the audience, it grows to human scale in the air.

Express Yourself Virtually

From an actor’s perspective, Flipside is easy to use and allows you to express a wide variety of emotions. The Campfire Union rigs the character models and maps them to your HMD and hand controllers so you can use your arms to communicate your message. The developer said it plans to implement a full body tracking solution, such as the one that HTC offers to developers with Vive Trackers, but for now, the Flipside platform doesn’t have a foot tracking solution. In the meantime, none of the character models in Flipside productions feature legs.

The Flipside character models make up for their lack of lower limbs with their robust facial expressions. Each character offers at least a half-dozen expressions to choose from, including surprise, disappointment, and anger. Actors can pull up any available expression with the Touch controller’s thumbstick.

Act From Anywhere

Flipside allows multiple actors to connect to the same experience and interact with each other in real time. Actors don’t have to be in the same room. They don’t even need to be in the same city. They can be anywhere else in the world and yet interact as if they were sitting right next to one another. That means low budget productions wouldn’t be limited to local talent, and higher budget productions wouldn’t have to worry about flying talent in from abroad.

Flipside Shows Available Now

The Campfire Union is already working with a handful of creators to make content with the Flipside platform, and the first two Flipside shows debut today.

One is an animated show from Canadian improv comedy group Bucko Comedy called Super Secret Science Island. The other is an animated political comedy show called Earth From Up Here, written and performed by comedian Jordan Cerminara. You can find recordings of both shows on the Flipside YouTube page.

The Campfire Union is seeking additional content creators who are interested in embracing Flipside’s new way of creating animated shows. It's interested in meeting with Hollywood studios about licensing well-known cartoon franchises, but it’s equally interested in hearing from established freelance creators. If you’re interested in creating a show with Flipside, sign up for early access to the platform at the Flipside website.

 Kevin Carbotte is a contributing writer for Tom's Hardware who primarily covers VR and AR hardware. He has been writing for us for more than four years.