Oculus recently hosted a small, private event in a spectacular mansion in Beverly Hills, where the company screened Henry, a short animated film made by Oculus Story Studio using Epic's Unreal Engine 4, exclusively for viewing on a VR headset (which is to say, the Oculus Rift VR headset).
The film was fine. Delightful, even. Youngsters will love the story and the Henry character. He is a hedgehog who loves to hug, which is problematic, as you can imagine. And if you can't, Henry's animators oblige in humorous fashion. The film takes place on Henry's birthday, where he proceeds to frolic with dancing animal balloons in celebration. Balloons and a prickly, hugging hedgehog are no match, so the party comes to a predictable, disappointing conclusion. In the finest tradition of furry creature animation, Henry has a heartwarming ending, but I won't be the one to spoil it for you.
A New Chapter In VR
But for us at Tom's Hardware, the story of Henry is really more a chapter in the early story of VR's future. Almost anyone who has tried a full VR demonstration becomes quite easily convinced that the technology is serious, and seriously capable of altering the landscape of -- well that's just it: Of what?
The VR focus so far has been mostly on gaming, where both immersion and interaction take on new and evolutionary meaning. That much is clear, and finally there are some exciting games emerging that we hope will be ready by the time the Oculus Rift ships. But outside of Square Enix, there aren't any major studios demonstrating VR games yet.
With Henry, which is the second film from Oculus Story Studio, the company is demonstrating VR's potential in cinematic story telling.
Oculus Story Studio is less than a year old. Its first short animated film was Lost, launched in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Oculus premiered Henry to a mixture of entertainment industry journalists and technology writers like me, but in high Hollywood fashion (or so I imagine), with the location of the event kept secret until the last moment for security purposes.
Although Oculus founder Palmer Luckey kicked things off, it was the Story Studio team's event, led by Saschka Unseld, the division's creative director. Unseld, like many of the Story Studio team, is steeped in Hollywood, not technology. This crew consists of animators and directors, some of whom come from Pixar, others from Dreamworks, and all with films like Brave and Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 to their credits.
In other words, Oculus isn't just dabbling here. You don't hire away Pixar and Dreamworks employees as a publicity stunt, even with Facebook dollars.
A New Story
Still, VR film making is nascent. Unseld talked about building a team from the ground up to experience working with the strengths and weaknesses of a medium like VR for the first time. Unseld sees VR as a chance to recapture the wonder of a memorable film character, but to do so by creating a sense of interaction with the character. Indeed, Henry looks right at you when he's elated and excited, as well as when he's sad. The team used music for Henry, but the characters didn't talk, save for the voice of the narrator (the voice of Elijah Wood).
Often, you're alone with Henry; at first, I felt it was odd that he was celebrating his birthday alone, but I did feel a little bit as if I were at the party with him, that he was celebrating it with me. Just a little.
And I think that's precisely the point. Unseld said that VR allows creators to remove the separation of the audience and the story, to remove the "fourth wall." I'm not sure that Henry completely succeeds in this endeavor, but it doesn't fail, either. I could see the possibility, including an easy way to transition Henry the VR movie into Henry the VR video game; and either way, I felt closer to the story, if not completely connected.
Even Unseld talked about Henry as a "glimpse of what the future holds," and I think that's the point, too.
Remaking The Movie-Going Experience
Although many of us watch movies at home, or on a tablet or computer with a headset plugged in, and many of us play games alone and immersed, movie going has always been a community activity, or a family event, or a date night. I experienced Henry alone, in a small room with a tracking sensor and a PC; just me and the Oculus Rift HMD.
It was entertaining, to be sure, but I wasn't really going to the movies. Years from now, maybe those words will seem silly. But for now, they represent a cultural and temporal barrier. The leap from solo immersive PC gaming to solo immersive VR gaming isn't a far one. An animated VR film is a leap beyond, and it could well be up to Oculus to help us have faith.
Many of the Hollywood journalists at the Henry premier were talking about the headset, whether it would be affordable when it finally shipped. When I pointed out to one of them that the PC to power it would probably cost three times as much, he was surprised. But at least those parts — the headset and the PC — exist, even if they will limit the available market at first.
The content is the question, and Oculus is doing everything in its power to foster the development of it, with its gaming studio (Worldwide Studios) and its Story Studio. By showing glimpses of possibilities, by being its own guinea pig (note to Oculus: feel free to make that a character; less prickly, just as cute), by taking the bumps and bruises, by employing some of Hollywood's brightest animators and directors, by throwing money at independent game developers, it is trying to jump start multiple content ecosystems.