When James Cameron released his blockbuster 3D fantasy Avatar in 2009, many of the people who loved it (I wasn't one of them) praised it as a feat of "immersive storytelling"--as if that were a particularly good thing. Suddenly, just watching a movie wasn't enough; the goal was to be inside it, to be a participant instead of a bystander. The suggestion was that the traditional mode of 2D moviemaking--not to mention other old-school storytelling tools, like live theater and books--was somehow exclusive and elitist, intended to shut us out rather than invite us in. Now technology, of the proto-VR sort Cameron used to make Avatar, could make us feel like invited guests rather than outliers, a sort of "Everyone gets a prize" mode of thinking applied to art and entertainment. I was thinking about this again after I watched a handful of short animated films released by Oculus Story Studio, an internal team created by Oculus to make its own specially tailored VR films.
For a few years now, virtual reality filmmakers have fought for recognition and acceptance among traditional directors and studios. Last night, Oculus' filmmaking arm, Story Studio, got a taste of the kind of validation they've been looking for: an Emmy for its animated VR experience Henry. The award, for Outstanding Original Interactive Program, isn't the first Emmy to be given to a VR project--that distinction goes to the Sleepy Hollow VR experience--but it is the first original VR short to be given such an honor. It is also, according to Story Studio creative director Saschka Unseld, "what every storyteller hopes for: to have the world validate the risks we were worried to take." Henry, released last year and directed by Pixar vet Ramiro Lopez Dau, tells the story of a lonely hedgehog who throws himself a birthday party.
The very first thing I saw in virtual reality was Wevr's theBlu demo, back in the early days of the HTC Vive headset. It's the thing a lot of people mention when they're asked about the most compelling VR experiences, and with good reason: the demo transports you to the helm of a sunken ship, the whole ocean above your head; it allows you to take in the beauty of the scene for a few minutes before, out of the depths, a vast blue whale slowly emerges, dwarfing you. I took the headset off and walked away across the busy floor of the game conference, but I could still feel the water around me. They joined the long queues. And that was the entire story that was told: there is a whale and it is beautiful.
Oculus VR will close its Emmy-winning cinematic-content division, Story Studio, to focus instead on funding others' storytelling projects. The Facebook-owned virtual reality company said in a blog post Thursday that shifting away from producing its own content will free up resources allowing it to explore "exciting but unsolved problems in [augmented reality] and [virtual reality] hardware and software." "We're still absolutely committed to growing the VR film and creative content ecosystem," Jason Rubin, Oculus' vice president of content, said in the post. The company said it committed $250 million last year to fund virtual reality content from various developers and would earmark $50 million of that money to support nongaming, experiential virtual reality content. Social media giant Facebook Inc. made a major bet on the future of virtual reality in 2014 when it bought the start-up for $400 million in cash and nearly $2 billion in stock.
Meeting a Monster is incredibly painful. Created using audio recordings and re-enactments, the virtual reality experience recounts the story of Angela King, a woman who spent eight years in the white power movement and is now trying to confront the person she was--and is. It would be hard to watch at any time, but now, just a few months after torch-wielding white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, the reality it presents is even more gut-wrenching. Gabriela Arp, who created Meeting a Monster, knows this. She started making her VR experience before images of torch-wielding white nationalists flooded the news, but it took on even more urgency in the wake of last August's Unite the Right rally.