Those that have been reading VRFocus this week will have already seen plenty of exciting details about the Batman: The Animated Series virtual reality (VR) experience. Los Angeles-based cloud rendering company OTOY is developing the title as one of a number of VR projects right now, aiming to release it on the Gear VR smartphone-based head-mounted display (HMD) in April 2015. VRFocus recently spoke to CEO and founder Jules Urbach about the experience.
In the interview below, Urbach provides some of the first details on the Batman: The Animated Series VR experience. He also explains the process of making the piece using OTOY’s technology. There’s also talk of potentially bringing other DC superheroes to VR and even some extra words from Urbach on OTOY’s work in augmented reality (AR) and more. VRFocus will continue to follow the company closely, reporting back with any further updates from it.
VRFocus: Can you explain just what the Batman VR experience will offer when it’s launched?
Jules Urbach: It is based on a short story written by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the creators of Batman: The Animated Series, that brings fans back into the world of the TV show. It takes place primarily in the Batcave, which Executive Producer Sam Register felt was the right way to take the DC Animated Universe’s first steps into this brand new medium.
As a fan of the original series, and now having been exposed to Bruce Timm’s vision of Batman’s world after Justice League Unlimited, I couldn’t be more excited by what we have. It’s awesome to have the original voice actors reprise their classic roles, including Kevin Conroy as Batman, and…well, someone who swore they would never do a certain character again is indeed returning to that role. That’s all I can say for now.
There will be some other surprises we’re working on that I think fans will truly love. Some of this may hint at the the possibility of telling more stories set in the DC Animated Universe through VR. We’ll see.
VRFocus: How does VR itself add to the experience?
Jules Urbach: It enables what I label a ‘holographic video’ experience. We don’t yet have the holodeck to project holographic video into our eyes but VR gets us pretty close.
We did A/B testing of several animation shots for Warner Bros., making them look just like they did on the original TV show and then saw the exact same shots in VR. I don’t know if anyone else has done this yet, but it was a very important touchstone for all of us to understand the potential that lays ahead of us. I hope I am not overselling it, but I would say the difference between the two was like going from black and white to color, or silent films to talkies. It’s more visceral than just a visual improvement. In my mind, 4K, 8K, 3D, HDR, none of this really matters once you cross over successfully into true cinematic VR.
I will add this anecdote: the first time that Bruce Timm saw his own work on the Gear VR he was blown away. For me, that was the metric of success we were aiming for and that fans demand of us. We worked hard to get every idea and concept Bruce had fully realized for this project, while matching the style that defined his work through OctaneRender, OTOY’s software that renders holographic video and VR images.
People talk a lot about presence in VR and how it’s a magical feeling. I agree with that. Now imagine what happens if you extend this further, inside a fully-realized world of a TV show that your inner child loves. To me, that is a mind-blowing experience. You start to see how anything you have a tremendous nostalgia for can be realized in ways that your inner child never dared to imagine. I think comic book movies, the staple of today’s Hollywood blockbusters, will give way to purer representations in VR.
That said, we still want to support every device we can as we wait for VR to become pervasive. You’ll be able to watch this on Android TV or a tablet. None of those will match the experience you get with VR.
VRFocus: How will the title be controlled? Will players take control of a character and walk through the Batcave themselves?
Jules Urbach: You are given a first-person perspective as a character in Paul Dini’s story.
On the Gear VR, which is our launch platform, there is no position tracking, so the experience is mostly driven by the cinematic elements of the narrative. You can look around, but you don’t have the ability to walk around like you do in a video game with a joystick. Not all GearVRs come with a joystick. Tapping on the side of the HMD is the only way to support universal navigation.
When we release a PC version for VR devices, with room-scale position tracking, the experience will be very different. We can put volumetric light fields to full use. We’ll expand the navigable volume of the Batcave to allow you to walk around. Unfettered exploration of the space outside the story will likely be a behind-the-scenes extended feature.
VRFocus: You’ve recently announced that series writer Paul Dini is on board as is Kevin Conroy. Does this mean that the experience will have its own story for players to experience?
Jules Urbach: Yes. This is a cinematic VR experience first and foremost. Having Paul write a story that brings viewers back to this world, with Kevin as Batman, makes this experience special.
VRFocus: Will fans get to see any other characters from the show in-person?
Jules Urbach: I am not allowed to say.
VRFocus: Will the entire experience take place in the Batcave or will there be a chance to see some more of Gotham?
Jules Urbach: Yes, you will see some of Gotham in VR and it looks beautiful.
VRFocus: Screenshots from the title show a render of the scene from the classic opening sequence from the series. Will players be able to see the full opening in VR?
Jules Urbach: While this would indeed be amazing, that image was just a single frame test.
VRFocus: Could you possibly work on more VR experiences based on DC superheroes?
Jules Urbach: I hope so. Warner Bros. is obviously very interested in VR as a first mover in this space. I am grateful that they have given OTOY such an amazing opportunity. We have talked about where this could all go, but right now, OTOY is focused on getting this first project out the door.
VRFocus: When can we expect the release of the experience on Gear VR?
Jules Urbach: Our target date for finishing production for the Gear VR is the beginning of April, with a release later that month. Ultimately the timing is up to Warner Bros.
VRFocus: Is the title also coming to the Oculus Rift? And if so, will it see an updates.
Jules Ubrach: The experience will be very different on PC. The full holographic light field experience, being able to navigate around a space, will require position tracking and that will only be available on PC VR devices that are coming out. There will very likely be additional content of some sort for the PC version as well. The source files are designed to be used with a much greater range of movement, navigation and exploration that is made possible on PC VR devices.
Some additional thoughts from Jules:
Beyond PC and mobile VR, we are looking at AR and also light field displays. The source animations and scenes are 3D ‘holographic’ volumes that are hardware agnostic. We expect to be able to adapt them to play back on emerging devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens, Magic Leap, or Project Tango as they come to market.
This past week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, [Note: Interview took place 11/03/15] Oculus’ John Carmack gave a talk about VR and referenced OTOY’s work with light fields. We were deeply humbled and honored when he said the quality of our OctaneRender images are the best he’s ever seen in VR. Here’s the excerpt from his talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNAmAxT7-qs&t=3942
We’ve also shown the light field rendering technology in its current form to Warner Bros. CEO, Kevin Tsujihara. He was incredibly excited by it.