As Oculus VR’s Nate Mitchell puts it: “We’ve said from the beginning we’re big gamers, and we started Oculus to deliver consumer VR and revolutionize games. But it may well end up being that VR is more about film than games. We don’t know what the killer app is.”
This seemingly unassuming comment was taken from an interview just weeks ago at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Oculus VR has been videogame-focused with its push for the Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD), while third-parties have been taking the kit in other directions. The mention of film, then, rightly didn’t provoke much thought at the time. A few weeks later, and that comment has been revealed to be a precursor to something much more significant.
Last week saw Oculus VR make one of its most unexpected moves yet. The company revealed Oculus Story Studio, a new, small division of developers working to advance VR films. This was one of Oculus VR’s best kept secrets, so much so that it even had its first project, Lost, ready to debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in late January.
In typical Oculus VR fashion, the studio immediately tried to contain the announcement, stating that it was interested in forwarding VR films for others to benefit from. The concept had already been growing in popularity with the release of the likes of Zero Point from Condition One, but with a push from the VR specialists themselves it could really be the defining use of VR as Mitchell suggests.
There are a lot of exciting aspects of Oculus Story Studio, not least of which is the talent attached to it. Lost is directed by Saschka Unseld, a former Pixar animator that has become something of a spokesperson for the new studio since its reveal. Robert Stromberg, director of 2014’s Maleficant is also guest directing a project. These aren’t new filmmakers looking for a break but established names genuinely searching for exciting new ways to tell stories. Their work will hopefully go on to inspire those younger creators and help VR films live up to their potential.
But, as Oculus VR is eager to point out, there’s still much to learn. VR films will allows viewers to step into stories and make them a part of the action, but how will creators be able to make sure that viewers are even looking in the right directions? Wouldn’t it be all too easy to miss crucial story developments if the user is simply looking the wrong way? And how long can these films be? Will the industry ever be able to produce two-hour titles that can be viewed in one sitting without comfort issues?
It’s said that VR doesn’t necessarily fit all genres of videogames and the same may well be true of film. Action blockbusters with dwarfing set pieces could easily become even less coherent that they can manage of a standard screen. Do viewers to feel like they’re a part of romantic films, as if they’re invading on private moments between two characters?
Ultimately, it’s questions and issues like these that give meaning to Oculus Story Studio’s existence. Yes, the division has a number of projects that will no doubt be a joy to watch, but perhaps VR fans should be looking forward to how its work inspires the next wave of VR filmmaking. With names like Guillermo Del Toro already interested in the medium, VR films have a bright future ahead of them. Last week’s announcement made it just that little bit brighter.