What's next for VR animation

Wareable chats to Reel FX's Director of Interactive Digital Dan Ferguson
What's next for VR animation
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You look down at your chest and arms and realise you are an animated character. A Mexican boy called Manolo to be specific. Your dreams have come true - you've made the leap from flesh and blood to computer generated animation.

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How? With an Oculus Rift DKII strapped to your face and Reel FX's The Book of Life VR experience, based on the studio's feature-length animation - produced by Guillermo del Toro - about an epic quest through three fantastical worlds.

"I don't want to just sit through music videos in VR," said Reel FX's director of Interactive Digital Dan Ferguson. "I want a sense of purpose. I want a story and I want to feel something about the people in front of me, the characters in the story."

That's why Reel FX is involved in all sorts of VR projects, from a live action Lip Sync Battle series for Samsung Gear VR, to two upcoming animation series experienced in 360 degrees. It's still early days but Reel FX is able to give us some clues as to what to expect.

"We're working on some more CG animated experiences, two of which will be internal IP from the studio," Ferguson told Wareable. "We hope to have those out this year. They will be more around narrative experiences that are not for marketing and advertising but are to tell great stories in this new medium. Much like we do on the theatrical side.

"One is focused on short form, probably five to ten minutes, around the eight minute mark. And then the other would be episodic. Both are full pieces that tell a larger story through short snippets."

At the experimental stage

The key at this stage is experimentation. Oculus, Vive, Gear VR or Cardboard? CG or live action? Does it have to be 360? (Yes, says Ferguson, to take advantage of the technology). Peripherals? Episodes?

Above all, though, Reel FX is looking to focus on two things: the quality of what it's producing and pushing the boundaries of what VR can do through storytelling and interactivity.

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"There's so much bad VR that has been released. It's hard to cut through the clutter," said Ferguson. "When you find the good stuff you know instantly. Embodying a character is a great way of bringing someone into a story that doesn't feel strange. I have full faith this platform will mature.

"Having more interactive story arcs that are seamless and very intuitive could be extremely exciting. Most of the games that have narrative elements to it are a lot of fun because I feel like I'm inside that story. Companies are creating this content that is really stretching VR and giving it a sense of purpose - it's probably the best stuff that I've seen lately."

Snackable and shareable

The Reel FX boss, who also worked on the Pacific Rim demo for the Samsung Gear VR and the trailer for the upcoming World War Toons VR game by Reload Studios, sees some changes ahead as the general public gets to grips with VR.

Developers and movie-makers will create both "snackable" episodes for Google Cardboard and Samsung's Gear VR and longer format movies and games for higher end headsets as people figure out how to do this properly.

That doesn't mean we will all be plugged in for hours with no contact with the outside world, though. Virtual reality can be a "shareable", communal experience. In the right setting with expensive headsets and the latest peripherals and VR gaming, movies and virtual tourism could even recreate old school arcades.

"I grew up going to arcades and playing video games as a kid," said Ferguson. "Believe me, I've thought about someone recreating the arcade experience again now with VR with stand up kiosks where you can experience it. You could go all over the world in VR or you can play games in VR and having all the peripherals there and gaming devices there. I'm sure that's coming.

"There is a scene in The Book of Life experience where you almost feel like you're on a rollercoaster. We were at the NAB conference in Las Vegas, a woman had the goggles on and she was screaming, she was on the wildest rollercoaster ride of her life. She came back the next day and brought ten friends. You have such a great time, you give it to your friends, they want to pass it along. It's very communal even if it's done individually."

One of those peripherals is the SubPac which Reel FX now uses in all its demos including the Jaeger Pilot piece for Gear VR. It's a haptic, tactile audio technology in a sort of backpack you strap to you. Ferguson namechecked SubPac straightaway when we asked what to look forward to in terms of tech, referring to it as "an exciting piece of technology" that "adds another layer" to the visual and aural VR experience.

VR peripherals are going to be big business and startup The Void which is building physical arenas to mirror virtual worlds is using haptic vests so that when a fictional character prods you in the chest, for instance, you will feel the action.

Reaching VR nirvana

Expensive set-ups and feature-length VR content takes time and money, Ferguson admits that while CG is "nirvana" for VR because it looks so good, there are costs associated with 360 degree animation. But he believes it won't just be AAA developers and Hollywood Studios taking the lead, the movement is already there.

"It's happening right now," he told Wareable. "Motion sickness is all about a good piece of hardware and quality content and how it was made. All this can be solved. Who is funding the content? Right now, it's still in its infancy. There's not a perfectly clear path to profitability for your investment but I think that's all going to clear up very soon."

As far as Reel FX is concerned, VR has very much arrived.

"When I was wearing the Crescent Bay and walking through a submarine, there was a pipe in front of me and I instinctively ducked when I came to it. I knew I'd finally found the HoloDeck I'd been looking for. Every six months everything changes so I can't wait to see what comes next."