Oculus Story Studios’ Lost was an insight into the direction that the virtual reality (VR) powerhouse that is Oculus VR saw 360 degree motion-picture productions going in. It was a short taste of a new medium openly inspired by The Iron Giant, yet in it’s brevity it showed more understanding of the necessary audio and visual clues than any other 360 degree narrative yet seen. Henry, the second production from Oculus Story Studio, takes this mantle and runs with it.
A much more family friendly affair, Henry is set in the titular hedgehog’s house as opposed to a deserted space in some darkened woods. The experience begins with a narrator identifying the core issue in Henry’s life: he’s a hugger, but his friends don’t like being hugged by him as they often get wounded by his sharp spines. We’re told about numerous woodland creatures that have run and flown away from him, and today the loneliness Henry’s predicament has put him in comes home to roost. Today is Henry’s birthday, and nobody came to his party.
After an introduction to the character the short film begins proper; it’s not clear at this point whether or not this character model presentation will be included in the final version as the narration is the same as that which opens the feature. We’re shown portraits of Henry’s friends posted onto a black background, fleeing as they find his need for closeness a little too uncomfortable. As the scene fades in we’re shown a highly detailed and brightly lit woodland abode. The whole story will take place inside this singular locale with the viewer positioned next to the table between the front door and Henry’s kitchen. Of course, as this is a 360 degree experience, the viewer can look around in all directions and see the not-all-too-humble living conditions of Henry. The house has a number of rooms and is very well stocked with trinkets and furniture; Henry is not a hedgehog that seems to be light on material possessions.
Friends however, are another matter. Henry comes from the kitchen with half a strawberry topped with whipped cream upon a plate. He adds a candle, lights it and solemnly blows it out. He knows this is the best things are going to get, but it doesn’t stop him wishing for more; in fact, this is exactly what he does.
As the flame extinguishes something magic happens. The room dims and a blue stream of stars swirls the room, encapsulating some nearby balloon animals and bringing them to life. Henry is overjoyed. He has some new friends to enjoy his birthday with and they immediately spring into song and dance. However, one of the balloon animals gets a little too close and Henry goes in for a hug, popping it in the process.
This scares the other balloon animals who immediately try and put some space between Henry and themselves. He chases them throughout the house attempting to convince them that he means no harm, but it – perhaps inevitably – ends badly for him. After an unfortunate fall he decides all is lost and opens the door to allow the magical creatures to leave.
Of course, Oculus Story Studio make no bones about their inspiration for Henry. This is a family-orientated production inspired by Pixar movies – where many of the core team of Oculus Story Studio previously worked – and as such a happy ending is inevitable. The story, however, is only one part of the experience. For those already enamoured with VR, it’s the 360 degree direction that is perhaps of more importance.
Henry capitalises on the lessons learned from Lost, attaching much more subtle audio and visual cues. The experience plays out in real-time with no forced interaction. Those the cues are naturalistic, the viewer can increase the duration of the feature by simply ignoring them. A rustling in the kitchen is the first instance of Henry the viewer will be made aware of, but the action won’t continue until they choose to turn and look in that direction. A knock at the door makes you aware that Henry has a visitor, but he won’t let them in until the viewer casts their gaze in that direction. These simple cues prevent the viewer from missing any of the narrative structure, which is even more important when considering the dialogue is decidedly minimal.
Henry is a visually driven piece, with the viewer in the driving seat. It shows great promise for not only what Oculus Story Studio is to bring us but what the medium as a whole can bring. In just a few short months the production company has moved from Lost to an experience of more than twice the duration and with vastly more subtlety in it’s reliance on the viewer’s participation. Henry may not be everybody’s favourite film experience, but it’s destined to become a landmark piece of 360 degree motion-picture production.