One of the big lessons you learn working in VR is that you shouldn’t make assumptions. Whether you’re working for it artistically or designing for it, it really does end up confounding you.”
Eugene Chung is two things: He’s a creative type pioneering an entirely new way of telling stories, and he’s a Tech Startup Founder & CEO in Silicon Valley. Chung is the writer and director of Allumette, an animated Virtual Reality short that had its premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, and the head of Penrose Studios, a company focused on VR storytelling made up of former game developers, Pixar and DreamWorks employees, and others. He has been working in this space as long as anyone, having created the Oculus Story Studio years ago and creating some of the first VR “films.” But, of course, they’re not really “films” at all.
In recent years, VR (Virtual Reality) has become an umbrella under which a couple of very different technologies fall. On the one side is spherical video, the 360-degree experience you can get with, say, Google Cardboard or the Samsung Gear VR, where a number of different images are stitched together to give the impression of a single video that you are inside of. You look in any direction, and there is something to see. Spherical video is having its moment, as many big companies, including Nikon, Samsung, and LG, try their hand in the space (those who preordered the Galaxy S7 got a Gear VR for their troubles). Chung thinks that it’s cool technology and has seen a lot of spherical videos he has enjoyed, but that isn’t what he’s doing. He’s working with the other type of VR, the kind that sci-fi has excited us about for decades.
To experience Allumette, you put on a headset—in my case, an HTC Vive, though it’s not a Vive exclusive —and suddenly you’re surrounded by a miniature cloud city. Unlike a spherical video, you aren’t tethered to one spot. You can tilt your head, lean down and look up, stand on your tiptoes and look down; you can walk around in the space that the headset can track you approximately 15 x 15'. What’s it like?
In one word: Incredible.
In ten: One of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced, ever.
It’s difficult to overstate just how drastically this experience changed my perspective on the way stories can (and should) be told. And one of my first thoughts upon taking off the Vive was, “Old media is dead.”
Having some distance now, I no longer feel quite so strongly, but I still cannot shake just how special experiencing Allumette was.
And that isn’t to say that every bit of it was new. Of course, these new storytellers aren’t throwing out all the rules just because they have new tech. There are still common tricks that are used to make a story like this work, ones that are as familiar to theatre patrons as spherical video aficionados. When you have a whole world to look at, how do you get the audience to pay attention? “You have to guide the viewer,” said Chung in an interview after I saw Allumette, “and after some refinement, we generally get them to look where we want them to look, with some margins of error. We use sound cues, lighting cues, and movement cues. For example, Allumette is running across the bridge, so you’re going to watch her run across the bridge. You hear an Opera singer below you, and you’re going to look down there. There’s a big burning boat, and that is a big lighting/visual cue.”
He’s right. Each of these moments draws your attention, which is crucial. But a subtler part of this is getting over the initial “wow” factor of the whole thing. If you’ve ever watched someone put on a VR headset, you know that the first thing they do is look in all directions. In the first few minutes, everyone is awed by the apparent immersive qualities of it, and the story itself gets lost as a result. During that time, Allumette plays its opening credits, and the night sky fills up with windows that you look around and see. You can walk toward them. By the time the credits end, you’re content with the rules, and you don’t feel so compelled to constantly look around you.
“If you start the action right away,” Chung said, “it’s like, ‘Whoa whoa whoa!’ There’s too much being thrown at them, so when you first dived into Allumette’s world, she didn’t just come out right away. You were in darkness looking through the city at night, seeing all of the windows around you. That’s the acclimation period. And then the sound and visual cues tell you when she peeks her head out from under the bridge for the first time, and you know that something is happening here and the story is about to start.”
And that’s when the real magic begins. Once you’re in Allumette’s city in the clouds, you realize just how game-changing this technology is going to be.
To read Part 2 of this story, click here!